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Civil War Series

The Battle of Stones River

   

THE BATTLE OF STONES RIVER

General Braxton Bragg was a troubled man. In fewer than six months as commander of the Army of the Mississippi, he had lost a major campaign and earned the enmity of many of his principal lieutenants and troops. As fall gave way to winter in 1862, a chill both real and psychological settled over the Confederate heartland.

Bragg had taken command in June, when many believed the nadir of Southern fortunes in the western theater already had been reached. General Pierre G. T. Beauregard had abandoned Corinth, Mississippi, a vital railroad junction town, and with it the northern portion of the state. His withdrawal also opened the way to a Federal advance on Chattanooga, gateway to the Deep South.

BRIGADIER GENERAL BRAXTON BRAGG (LC)

At that moment, Bragg stepped in to take charge of the army, lying dormant at Tupelo. He faced three challenges: reopen the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, which pumped supplies to the Atlantic seaboard; protect Chattanooga; and recapture at least a portion of Tennessee. As the defense of Chattanooga was most urgent, Bragg transferred his army there, countering an advance against it by Major General Don Carlos Buell's Federal Army of the Ohio. Having secured Chattanooga, Bragg, in a rare state of exuberance, met with Major General Edmund Kirby Smith, commander of the Department of East Tennessee, on July 31 to fashion a plan to push northward into Kentucky. A successful thrust into that state, Bragg believed, not only would relieve pressure on the Deep South, but would return much of Tennessee to the Confederacy.

On August 14, Kirby Smith struck out for Lexington, Kentucky, which he captured with ease, and, as agreed upon, remained there to await Bragg's entry into the state. Bragg left Chattanooga two weeks later. Like Kirby Smith, he initially outgeneraled his opposition. General Buell, incorrectly supposing Bragg's objective to be Nashville, lost valuable time trying to protect the Tennessee capital. Meanwhile, on September 17, Bragg captured Munfordville, Kentucky, effectively interposing his army between Buell and Louisville.

A spirit of elation infused the Army of the Mississippi: many believed the campaign all but won. Munfordville lay astride Buell's only practical route to Louisville and was easily defensible. Everyone in Bragg's army expected a battle—and with it a decisive victory. But for reasons that remain unclear, Bragg chose not to fight. He ordered a withdrawal northeastward to Bardstown, opening the road to Louisville. Buell was surprised, Kirby Smith "astonished and disappointed," and Bragg's generals furious.

BATTLE OF MUNFORDVILLE AS SKETCHED BY HENRY LOVIE. (COURTESY OF MIRIAM AND IRA D. WALLACH PRINT COLLECTION, NY PUBLIC LIBRARY)

LIEUTENANT GENERAL NATHAN BEDFORD FORREST (LC)

While Federal prospects brightened, Bragg grew morose. As the Army of the Mississippi fell back on Bardstown to await the inevitable Union advance, the campaign lost its purpose and direction. While Buell prepared to move on Bardstown, Bragg left his army to confer with Kirby Smith at Lexington.

Buell struck while Bragg was away, coming up against portions of the Rebel army at Perryville on October 7. Bragg returned in time to direct the next day's fight, which ended with his army having driven the Federals back more than a mile.

But Bragg had enough. A dyspeptic martinet plagued by numerous ailments who could plan well but lacked both the confidence of his subordinates and the energy needed for sustained efforts, he was unwilling to sacrifice his army in what he believed was a bankrupt campaign and so fell back to organize a retreat from Kentucky.

Bragg really had been looking over his shoulder for some time. In late September he had sent Nathan Bedford Forrest to secure the Middle Tennessee town of Murfreesboro and the surrounding country from the depreciations of Union foragers. And on October 14, just two days after choosing to abandon Kentucky, Bragg ordered Major General John C. Breckinridge's division there as well.

With these dispositions, Bragg decided to occupy Middle Tennessee. Although he never explained them, Bragg's reasons for choosing this course of action are apparent. As the initial objective of the Kentucky campaign was simply to restore to Confederate control a portion of Tennessee, Bragg could argue that, by securing its central counties, his campaign had succeeded. As to the choice of Murfreesboro in particular, lying as it did astride the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad, it was the key to the rich Stones River Valley and, in Bragg's mind, to the equally fertile Duck and Elk river valleys. Bragg's change of base was facilitated by Buell's unwillingness to risk another battle. Content simply to see Bragg go, he allowed his prey to descend the Cumberland Gap into East Tennessee unmolested.

LEONIDAS POLK (USAMHI)

MAJOR GENERAL DON CARLOS BUELL (USAMHI)

But Bragg was hardly out of trouble. While the army recuperated at Knoxville, he boarded a train for Richmond, Virginia, on October 31 to win presidential approval for his planned move into Middle Tennessee and to clear himself of blame for the Kentucky fiasco.

That he would succeed on the latter count was by no means certain. His two principal subordinates, corps commanders William J. Hardee and Leonidas Polk, were urging President Jefferson Davis to dismiss him: only a change of commanders, they argued, could save the army and salvage Confederate fortunes in the West. Kirby Smith added his voice to the call for Bragg's removal, as did influential members of the Confederate Congress and the always vitriolic Southern press.

But Davis chose both to sustain his old friend and to approve his request to occupy Middle Tennessee. Polk and Kirby Smith both came to Richmond after Bragg to press their demand, but Davis gently rebuffed them. Davis neither replaced Bragg nor transferred Polk and Hardee, leaving the army to enter Middle Tennessee with a high command torn by dissension.

The Kentucky campaign elicited little enthusiasm in the North. Although the state had been saved for the Union, many Northerners considered the campaign a defeat, suggesting—with logic that would have pleased Bragg—that the Confederacy, by regaining control of Northern Alabama and Middle Tennessee, had ended with more than it had begun. The press labeled Bragg's retreat from Kentucky an escape and laid the blame on Buell.

MAJOR GENERAL WILLIAM STARKE ROSECRANS (LC)

He was an easy mark. Unpopular with his troops, Buell had also lost the confidence of President Lincoln, who was angry that Bragg had been allowed to withdraw. On October 24, he relieved Buell, naming in his place Major General William Starke Rosecrans.

Rosecrans joined the army at Bowling Green on October 30. The same general order that brought Rosecrans to the army also changed its name. The Army of the Ohio was now the Fourteenth Army Corps, composed of a left wing, right wing, and center. (On January 9—a week after Stones River—the army was designated the Army of the Cumberland, the name it would carry until the war's end.)

Although happy to be rid of Buell, the army was unsure what to make of its eccentric new commander. A West Point graduate who had left the service in 1853 to direct a Cincinnati coal company, Rosecrans brought to the army many qualities of genius. He was erudite, animated, and seemingly indefatigable. But he could also be indiscreet, intolerant, and mercurial, with an impulsiveness that suggested instability under pressure and a tendency to issue too many orders during combat.

Whatever his shortcomings, the army needed a commander with Rosecrans's energy in the weeks following Perryville. The Kentucky campaign had shattered morale, and Union communication and supply lines were in a shambles. Marauding Rebel cavalry had ruined the railroad between Louisville and Nashville, upon which the Federals depended both for supplies from Louisville and communications with Nashville. More threateningly, the presence of enemy troops on the outskirts of Nashville gave rise to fears that the city itself might fall.

NASHVILLE LOOMS IN THE DISTANCE BEYOND THE CUMBERLAND RIVER. (HARPER'S WEEKLY)

Rosecrans quickly met the perceived —though illusory—danger, advancing the army to Nashville during the first two weeks of November. Once settled into the Tennessee capital, he turned his attention to the army's internal problems. He dismissed incompetent officers by the score, looked to his soldiers' welfare, and secured the appointment of the talented Brigadier General David Stanley to command his inept and badly equipped cavalry. As morale improved, Rosecrans concentrated on reorganizing the army. He structured its three wings so as to approximate corps: The right and left wings each contained three divisions of infantry and nine batteries of artillery; the center contained five divisions and fourteen batteries. The right wing mustered 15,832 present in early December, the left wing 14,308 and the center 29,337.

That the center was the largest command in the army and that Major General George Thomas led it was no accident. Perhaps the most able defensive general the war produced, the native Virginian enjoyed the affection of his men and the deep respect of Rosecrans, who leaned heavily on him for advice.

Sadly, Rosecrans's remaining wing commanders left much to be desired. Major General Alexander McCook, who led the right wing, already had proven incompetent, although much had been expected of the arrogant former West Point instructor. Fellow blowhard Major General Thomas Crittenden, a Kentuckian with potent political connections but little military sense, commanded the left wing. Having inherited the two, Rosecrans was reluctant to relieve them.

ROSECRANS AND STAFF (USAMHI)

Lincoln appreciated Rosecrans's efforts in rejuvenating the Army of the Cumberland but demanded more. As November drew to a close, the administration began to pressure Rosecrans to advance before winter forced an end to active campaigning. Their reasons were sound. The fortunes of the Union, at least on the diplomatic front, were at their nadir. Failure to conquer substantial amounts of Confederate territory, or at least recapture lost ground, raised the specter of foreign intervention on behalf of the South, particularly by Britain.

So now, in November, Washington prepared for a concerted drive by all the major Union field armies. In Mississippi, Ulysses S. Grant made ready an overland march against Jackson, supported by a demonstration against Grenada by Major

General Samuel Curtis from eastern Arkansas. Grant hoped the capture of Jackson would ensure the fall of Vicksburg. In Virginia, Major General Ambrose Burnside moved the Army of the Potomac toward Fredericksburg, placing General Robert E. Lee's communications with Richmond in jeopardy. Lee hoped to receive reinforcements from the West. They were not forthcoming, but the Lincoln administration recognized the danger of a Southern interdepartmental troop transfer, although they assumed Bragg would move into Mississippi against Grant, rather than into western Virginia to relieve pressure on Lee. In any event, it seemed imperative that Rosecrans keep him occupied.

MAJOR GENERAL JOHN C. BRECKENRIDGE (LC)

Unbeknownst to the authorities in Washington, Bragg had no objective beyond the occupation of Middle Tennessee, which he completed on November 26. Nor, as winter approached, was he concerned about a Federal offensive. Instead, he turned his attention to reorganizing his depleted forces. He consolidated the Army of the Mississippi and Kirby Smith's Army of Kentucky into the Army of Tennessee, the name it was to carry for the rest of the war. Three corps of infantry were created, led by Polk, Hardee, and Kirby Smith.

Polk's corps contained three divisions. Major General Benjamin Franklin Cheatham, a hard drinker and a hard fighter who was immensely popular with his troops, most of whom were fellow Tennesseans, commanded the first. Major General Jones Withers, a West Point graduate turned lawyer, led the second. Major General John C. Breckinridge commanded the third division. The most influential division commander in the army, the Kentuckian had been vice-president in the ill-starred Buchanan administration. He and Bragg bad fallen out over Bragg's unwarranted conviction that Breckinridge was somehow responsible for the failure of the Kentucky campaign, even though he had been on duty in Mississippi with his division when it began and had tried to join Bragg's army in time to take part in it.

MAJOR GENERAL JOHN P. MCCOWN (LC)

Lieutenant General William J. Hardee commanded Bragg's second corps. An able lieutenant, Hardee was a professional soldier who had made a name for himself before the war as author of the two-volume Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics that came to be known simply as Hardee's Tactics after being endorsed by the War Department.

Hardee profited from the services of two able division commanders. Patrick Cleburne, an Irishman who had served in the British army before immigrating to Arkansas, took command of the first in early December. A born leader, he was held in high regard by both Hardee and Bragg. Brigadier General Patton Anderson of Florida, one of Bragg's few allies in the army, commanded the second division.

The remaining corps of the Army of Tennessee was composed of two divisions that Kirby Smith had furnished Bragg led by Carter Stevenson and John McCown, whom Bragg considered a misfit unworthy of command.

The cavalry also was reshuffled. Brigadier General Joseph Wheeler, a twenty-five-year-old favorite of Bragg, was appointed chief of cavalry, although there was little in his record to date, save loyalty to Bragg, to merit such a promotion.

Bragg believed that the move into Middle Tennessee and reorganization of the army was having a salutary effect. President Davis was skeptical: too many reports of continued unrest within the officer corps were reaching his office. Affairs outside of Tennessee disturbed him as well. Cooperation in the West was at a minimum, coordinated action nonexistent. While Bragg advanced into Middle Tennessee, Lieutenant General John Pemberton was in peril of losing much of Mississippi, including Vicksburg, to Grant's offensive. Pemberton turned to Bragg (who as departmental commander was, on paper at least, his commander) for reinforcements, but Bragg offered only words: he suggested that his own move into Middle Tennessee might relieve pressure on Pemberton, to the extent that it created a diversion in Grant's rear. Everyone concerned but Bragg was upset. Bragg and Pemberton squabbled until November 24, when Davis intervened to unite the commands of Pemberton in Mississippi and Bragg in Tennessee under General Joseph Johnston.

Johnston's responsibilities were as enormous as his resources were limited. Davis expected him to coordinate the efforts of Bragg and Pemberton so as to maintain control of the Mississippi River Valley. As Tennessee was of secondary importance to Davis, he assumed that Johnston would take from the Army of Tennessee such troops as might be needed to save Vicksburg. But this Johnston declined to do, fearing that Rosecrans would avail himself of the weakening of Bragg's army to march unimpeded against Lee's flank in Virginia or to reinforce Grant; in either case, he argued, Tennessee would be lost.

GENERAL JOSEPH E. JOHNSTON (LC)

Johnston's arguments convinced Davis only that it was time for a presidential trip to the West. He arrived at Murfreesboro on December 12. Conversations with Bragg's lieutenants convinced him that Rosecrans's intentions were purely defensive and that a winter campaign was unlikely. With his doubts about the wisdom of a Mississippi River—first strategy allayed, he ordered the reinforcement of Pemberton with Carter Stevenson's seventy-five-hundred-man division and a brigade from Henry Heth's division.

Stevenson's detachment prompted another reorganization of the army. Kirby Smith's command, now reduced to McCown's division, was abolished. McCown was attached to Hardee's corps, and Kirby Smith returned to East Tennessee. As Breckinridge's division had been transferred to Hardee's corps several days earlier, Anderson's division was disbanded and its regiments divided between the two corps. But the detachment of Stevenson did more than necessitate a reshuffling. It seriously weakened the army, depriving it of one-sixth of its infantry—infantry that would be sorely missed at Stones River.

In positioning his forces to cover the primary avenues leading to Murfreesboro from Nashville, Bragg had scattered the Army of Tennessee across a fifty-mile front, making rapid concentration problematical. But this vulnerability did not trouble him or his generals, who with the onset of winter became even more certain that Rosecrans would make camp at Nashville until spring. Bragg was so sure of this that he sent Nathan Bedford Forrest with two thousand cavalrymen into western Tennessee to harass Grant and John Hunt Morgan with a similar force to strike deep into Kentucky and wreck havoc on the Louisville and Nashville Railroad.

BRAGG'S MURFREESBORO HOME. (LOSSING'S CIVIL WAR IN AMERICA)

Sharing Bragg's conviction, his soldiers raised winter quarters around Murfreesboro, the seat of Rutherford County. They found the town a charming place in which to pass an idle winter. Thus far, it had escaped the ravages of war. Murfreesboro's fine brick residences, clean white fences, and oak- and elm-shaded streets were a pleasing contrast to the destruction that already had visited many Southern towns. The staunchly Confederate townspeople opened their homes to the troops, and kitchen hearths turned out bread and cakes for the army.

As Christmas approached, Murfreesboro hosted a number of gatherings that reinvigorated its languishing social life. Unusually clear skies and mild temperatures helped to promote the festive spirit that pervaded the normally strife-ridden Army of Tennessee. By Christmas eve the skies had become overcast, but the temperature still hovered above normal. That night, officers of the First and Second Louisiana entertained the single women of Murfreesboro with a lavish ball at the courthouse. "It was a magnificent affair," remembered a member of Bragg's escort. Four large "Bs" of cedar and evergreen—signifying Bragg, Beauregard, Buckner, and Breckinridge—adorned the walls. While their officers danced and drank, the men in ranks passed the holiday simply, but not necessarily more quietly. Gambling and cock fights were common, and liquor flowed freely in the camps as well.

At Nashville, where the candles burned deep into the night at departmental headquarters, the Yuletide bore a more somber aspect. After weeks of threats from Washington, Rosecrans had agreed to move. He correctly deduced that Bragg, not expecting an offensive before spring, had gone into winter quarters around Murfreesboro after sending much of his cavalry away. As Rosecrans later explained, "In the absence of these forces, and with adequate supplies in Nashville, the moment was judged opportune for an advance."

MORGAN'S WEDDING BY JOHN PAUL STRAIN. THIS PAINTING ILLUSTRATES ONE OF THE MANY SOCIAL EVENTS IN MURFREESBORO AROUND THE HOLIDAYS. (COURTESY OF NEWMARK PUBLISHING, LOUISVILLE, KY)

The moment was not only opportune, it was imperative. Burnside had been repulsed at Fredericksburg, and William T. Sherman, floundering about in Chickasaw Bayou above Vicksburg, was about to meet a like fate. With one army routed and the progress of the other checked, the administration focused all its dwindling hopes for a victory before the new year on the Army of the Cumberland.

With so much riding on his offensive, Rosecrans needed sound tactics and good intelligence. His scouts and spies failed him the latter, and he formed his plans on the incorrect assumption that Bragg would organize his defense around Stewart's Creek, a narrow, steep-banked stream that flowed under both the macadamized Murfreesboro Pike (Nashville Turnpike) and the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad before joining Stones River 15 miles northwest of Murfreesboro.

Rosecrans presented his gathered lieutenants with the plan that he and Thomas had fashioned. The army was to move at first light along three routes toward three separate objectives, that of the right wing being most distant. McCook would march along the Nolensville Pike to Triune, 28 miles away, where Rosecrans erroneously placed the majority of Hardee's corps. Meanwhile, Thomas would march within supporting distance of McCook's right along the Franklin and Wilson pikes, threatening Hardee's left as he moved, then turn east onto the Old Liberty road and march to Nolensville, 13 miles north of Triune. Rosecrans assigned Crittenden the direct route to Murfreesboro, instructing him to move along the Murfreesboro Pike as far as La Vergne. Stanley divided his cavalry into three columns to screen the infantry: Colonel John Kennett was to precede Crittenden along the Murfreesboro Pike; Colonel Lewis Zahm's troopers were to ride ahead of Thomas, dislodge a battalion of Rebel cavalry at Franklin, and then move parallel to and protect the right flank of McCook; Stanley would retain command of his two-regiment reserve and screen the movement of the right wing along the Nolensville Pike.

BRAGG'S MURFREESBORO HEADQUARTERS. (LOSSING'S CIVIL WAR AMERICA)

Rosecrans had originally scheduled the movement for December 24, only to postpone it for a lack of forage. However, one unit did move that day. Brigadier General James Negley's division from the center advanced eight miles to Brentwood, secured it, then pushed unopposed another three miles down the Wilson and Franklin pikes before bivouacking.

This activity did not go unnoticed at Murfreesboro. By Christmas night it was evident that some sort of Federal movement was imminent. Satisfied with his dispositions, Bragg took no action, and nightfall found the army aligned as it had been since the first week of December. Polk's corps and three brigades of Breckinridge's division rested in winter quarters around Murfreesboro. At his headquarters near Eagleville, Hardee had with him the division of Pat Cleburne and Brigadier General Dan Adams's brigade on detached service from Breckinridge's division. Brigadier General S. A. N. Wood's small brigade remained at Triune, providing infantry support to the cavalry operating in the area. Brigadier General George Maney's Tennessee brigade had been detached from Polk's corps for similar duty along Stewart's Creek, as was Colonel J. Q. Loomis's brigade near Las Casas. The cavalry was spread across the entire army front; all approaches were screened to within ten miles of Nashville. On the left, Brigadier General John Wharton had picket lines extended southwest across the Old Liberty road from Nolensville to Franklin. To his right, Wheeler's brigade, bivouacked along Stewart's Creek astride the Murfreesboro Pike, covered the direct approaches to Murfreesboro. John Pegram patrolled the army's right flank northwest of town, screening the approaches from Lebanon.

As Christmas drew to a close, patrols from the three Southern cavalry brigades sat quietly among the dark cedar glades along the road leading from Nashville, alert to any indication of movement. They would not have long to wait.

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