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Civil War Series

The Battle of Stones River

   

A HARD-EARNED VICTORY

Although Bragg was not yet ready to admit it, the battle was over. Losses had been horrific. The Federals had lost 1,636 killed, 7,397 wounded, and suffered 3,673 prisoners taken—a total of 12,706 or 29% of those engaged. Bragg had lost 1,236 killed, 7,766 wounded, and 868 captured—a total of 9,870 or 26% of his army.

Not until 10:00 A.M. on the morning of January 3 did Bragg decide to withdraw. While not beaten tactically, he despaired of remaining before an enemy that he mistakenly believed had been reinforced. And, he feared, the rain that had been falling for twenty-four hours threatened to turn Stones River into the sort of torrent Hardee had feared would cut the army in two, subjecting it to defeat in detail.

The Confederate retreat, begun at 10:00 P.M., was a nightmare of suffering. It rained mercilessly, the thermometer hovered near freezing, and rations grew short. Compounding the misery of the soldiers was the lack of a clearly defined destination. Bragg initially directed a concentration along the Duck River, near Shelbyville. But on January 5, just as the army made camp outside of town, he shifted the line of defense to the Elk River. When a reconnaissance revealed a lack of adequate crossing sites, Bragg returned to the Duck River as the objective of the withdrawal. Polk would occupy Shelbyville, and Hardee would make camp south of the river at Tullahoma. Colonel George Brent of the army staff was shaken by Bragg's irresolution. While he praised Bragg's desire to hold as much of Tennessee as possible, he wished the general had settled on the Duck River line before leaving Murfreesboro. "The movement so far to the rear has had a bad effect on the troops and the public mind," he admitted. "Spirits bad. Matters look gloomy."

FEDERAL TROOPS ATTACK A CONFEDERATE BATTERY AND CAPTURE THEIR BATTLE FLAG. ILLUSTRATION BY HENRY LOVIE. (COURTESY NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY)

Spirits were bad indeed. Most of Bragg's lieutenants, believing as he did that Rosecrans had been reinforced, approved of the retreat. But the common soldier, knowing only that he had fought well and had beaten Billy Yank more often than not, was confused and angry. "I can't see for my life why Bragg left Murfreesboro after whipping them so badly," one private wrote his family from Tullahoma. "There is no doubt but that the Yankees were badly whipped. General Bragg has lost the confidence of the army and many think that there was no reason for the retreat from Murfreesboro," another confided to his wife.

The Army of the Cumberland indeed had been hurt badly, so badly that Rosecrans never seriously contemplated a pursuit. Not until January 5 did he occupy the town, and the ensuing days were spent burying the dead and attending to the wounded. Although Rosecrans had fallen considerably short of a decisive victory, at least he had avoided defeat at a time when the Union scarcely could have borne another setback.

December had been nothing short of disastrous for the Lincoln administration. Earlier that month two major Union offensives, launched in concert, had ended in disaster. At Fredericksburg, in northern Virginia, another Federal commander went down before Robert E. Lee when Major General Ambrose Burnside lost over twelve thousand men in a series of brutal and fruitless assaults. And in Mississippi, major generals U. S. Grant and William T. Sherman floundered in the bayous and backcountry above Vicksburg as what was to have been a two-pronged thrust against the Mississippi River citadel degenerated into a comedy of errors. Confederate cavalry under Earl Van Dorn descended on the huge Federal supply depot at Holly Springs, destroying everything in sight and forcing Grant to abort an already bankrupt offensive.

THE ARMY OF THE CUMBERLAND MARCHES INTO MURFREESBORO AFTER THE BATTLE. DRAWING BY HORACE ROWDON. (COURTESY OF THE WEST POINT MUSEUM, US MILITARY ACADEMY, WEST POINT, NY)

UNION HOSPITAL CAMPS WERE ERECTED AROUND MURFREESBORO AFTER THE BATTLE. (SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION)

The repeated humbling of Union arms that culminated in the defeats of December 1862 deepened Northern war weariness, particularly in the Old Northwest, home to most of the soldiers of the Army of the Cumberland. Republican governors Oliver Morton of Indiana and Richard Yates of Illinois feared open insurrection in their states when their legislatures convened after the new year.

Then news of Rosecrans's victory, won largely by troops from the Northwest, exploded in the headlines of the Union press. "Rosecrans Wins a Complete Victory; the Enemy in Full Retreat," trumpeted the Chicago Tribune as the first reports came in from the field. The overstated claims of the Tribune and other pro-administration dailies were effective. Pro-war mass meetings were held throughout the Northwest surpassing antiwar gatherings in militancy. Public sentiment shifted from antiwar Democrats. The General Assembly of Ohio offered a vote of thanks to Rosecrans for his "glorious victory." The General Assembly of Indiana passed a similar resolution.

None were more grateful for the defeat of Bragg than the beleaguered president himself. "God bless you, and all with you," Lincoln wrote Rosecrans. "Please tender to all, and accept for yourself, the nation's gratitude for your and their skill, endurance, and dauntless courage." Time and later reserves did not diminish Lincoln's gratitude. Eight months later, on the verge of Rosecrans's thrashing at Chickamauga, the president wrote him of his continued belief in the importance of Stones River to the Union cause: "I can never forget, whilst I remember anything, that about the end of last year and the beginning of this, you gave us a hard-earned victory, which, had there been a defeat instead, the nation could scarcely have lived over."


THE HAZEN BRIGADE MONUMENT
by Daniel A. Brown

Visit almost any historic site and somewhere there will be a monument or marker. The desire to memorialize persons or events in stone is taken as a matter of course by most Americans. Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than the battlefields of the Civil War.

It can be reasonably stated that in the post-Civil War period, the desire of veterans to first memorialize and then preserve their deeds did much to promote public acceptance of historic preservation in America. The battlefields of Gettysburg and Chickamauga-Chattanooga formed the nucleus of the military sites first administered by the War Department and later by the National Park Service. The effort of veterans' groups to preserve and mark the battlefields is usually viewed as a post-war phenomenon. At Stones River National Battlefield, however, a unique and extremely significant monument was constructed to memorialize the deeds of one brigade. The uniqueness of this moment is that it was constructed within six months of the battle while the issue of the war was still in doubt.

While the question of whether or not the Hazen Brigade Monument is the oldest Civil War monument may be debatable, the facts surrounding its creation make it a significant landmark in American cultural and historic preservation history.

The limited victory of the Federals at Stones River was far more pivotal than most modern historians have recognized. Admittedly, the strategic gains were minimal; the political consequences were enormous.

Northern fortunes had undergone serious reverses in the late summer of 1862. The Confederates had mounted multiple offensives along a thousand-mile front. Although they were beaten back, the fact that they had occurred undermined public confidence in President Abraham Lincoln's administration. As a result, the autumn elections were unfavorable to the president and his war policy.

The setback at the ballot box was followed by disaster on the battlefield. Major General Ambrose E. Burnsides's ineptitude slaughtered the cream of the Army of the Potomac on the field of Fredericksburg. Being the president's choice to lead that army, General Burnsides's defeat was viewed as Lincoln's fault.

The success at Stones River could not have come at a more critical time. Lincoln and his supporters were quick to grasp and exploit the psychological impact of the battle and were perhaps guilty of overexaggeration.

HAZEN BRIGADE MONUMENT AND CEMETERY. (NPS)

In the camp of the 19th Brigade, Colonel William B. Hazen wrote out his report. That the four regiments under his command had distinguished themselves on December 31, 1862, was undisputed. They had occupied and held the critical portion of the line between the Nashville Pike and the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad. It was there that the Union line swung hack like a door on a hinge. They had held this "hinge" against four desperate Confederate assaults.

By all accounts Colonel Hazen was a strict disciplinarian and a stern drill master. His regiment and the brigade to which he was appointed to command in January 1862 were widely known for their excellence of drill and steadiness of discipline. Colonel Hazen's pursuit of excellence brought him credit as well as criticism. His attention to detail, however, had paid off on December 31. The brigade had held and held well. Even at the end of his career Hazen proudly stated, "The best service rendered by my command in the war was at the battle of Stones River."

On February 14, 1863, General Rosecrans published General Order #19, proposing the creation of a "Roll of Honor" to "establish a method of pointing out to this army and the nation those officers and soldiers of this command who shall distinguish themselves by bravery in battle, by courage, enterprise, and soldierly conduct." This roll was to be kept from company to brigade level and compiled at each division's headquarters. Additionally, a list of general, field, and staff officers "who win especial distinction by noble and heroic conduct" was to be maintained.

The army, from commander on down, was obsessed with handing out accolades and recognizing brave deeds. This was not confined to personal awards within the command. The success of battle engendered equipment and supplies, as well as honors and promotions. For the general morale and well-being of the army, the various methods used for recognition of the soldier were desirable. General Rosecrans was astute in his actions, for an army that believes in itself fights that much better. The idea for the Hazen Brigade Monument grew on this soil. The brigade apparently felt that the critical position they held deserved more tangible recognition than that meted out to the army as a whole.

With whom or how the idea of a brigade monument originated is not known. But since the construction was accomplished by men specifically detailed for the task, the idea must have been widely discussed. In all events, the process had to he officially sanctioned, at least to the brigade level. Colonel Isaac C. B. Suman, 9th Indiana Volunteers, stated that he had discussed the monument with Hazen at the time it was built. Further, he noted, Hazen suggested that the shaft be surmounted by a bronze figure of an infantryman "in recognition of the heroism of the rank and file of his brigade."

Whatever the circumstances surrounding its origin, the Hazen Brigade Monument was built in the summer of 1863. The construction was accomplished by a detail of men drawn from the regiments of the brigade.

The major work on the monument was accomplished from July to November 1863. The final work, including a dry stone wall, was finished by the enlisted men. This is supported by the observation of a member of the 115th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. He gives confirmation that the construction was finished before the end of the year. Thus far his description is the earliest one of the monument.

On December 31, 1863, Private John B. Smith, Company A, 115th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, was on a routine patrol toward Murfreesboro along the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad line. Stopping at the monument site, he took the dimensions "from the workmen engaged in putting up the stone fence around the graves and monument." He also noted that there were 45 soldiers buried in the lot.



FORTRESS ROSECRANS
by Gilbert J. Backlund

The citizens of Murfreesboro never dreamt "they would ever hear the roar of cannon, the rattle of musketry, the groans of the dying." So wrote John Spence, founder of the Red Cedar Bucket Factory in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and an opponent of secession at the start of the war. The bloody Union victory at Stones River in 1863 brought destruction and death to Murfreesboro. But the North gained a much-needed boost to morale. General William Rosecrans planned to press the Confederates south to Chattanooga, gain control of the vital rail link, and drive a Union wedge through Tennessee.

The Union army was far from its supply base at Louisville. General Rosecrans's troops constructed a depot, along with a fort to defend it, at Murfreesboro to distribute arms, food, and equipment. From January to June 1863, the soldiers labored to complete the 200-acre earthen fort. It was named Fortress Rosecrans.

Military occupation drastically altered life in Murfreesboro. Houses were torn down and the lumber hauled off to construct buildings for the army. John Spence wrote that "the streets were crouded [sic] at all times with wagons and soldiers, giving the place much the appearance of a wagon yard. Soldiers camping thick in and round town." The officers particularly loved milk, "making use of citizens cows."

When the Federals set off on the Tullahoma campaign, Spence noted that Rosecrans was "scarcely leaving forces sufficient to man the forts." The new recruits and convalescents who stayed behind reportedly had orders to shell the town and burn it in the event of a Confederate raid.

One gun at the fort was trained on the courthouse. This elegant landmark was constructed shortly before the Civil War. During the war it served as barracks and a prison. Half the roof was blown off by the wind, windows and doors were broken, and plaster crumbled from the ceiling. The courthouse, now restored, still stands at the center of the downtown square.

Confederate cavalry threatened Murfreesboro and Fortress Rosecrans in October 1863. Deterred by the fort's strength, the horsemen turned south of town, burned a bridge, and tore up railroad track before moving toward Shelbyville.

In late 1864, the Confederates hoped to recapture Tennessee and move into Kentucky. After a desperate fight at Franklin in November, in which six Confederate generals died, the Southern army followed the Federals' retreat north toward Nashville. Meanwhile, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest rode southeast toward Murfreesboro to destroy the railroad and blockhouses and to disrupt the supply depot. The Union forces retreated to the fort.

The next day, December 7, 1864, Union General Robert H. Milroy with two brigades faced the Confederates on the field about a mile from the fort. After spirited fighting, the Confederates retreated and Milroy's troops retired to the fortress. The Battle of the Cedars, as it is called, was considered a Union victory. Fortress Rosecrans remained unscathed.

The weakened Confederate army was crushed at Nashville. With their hopes for recapturing Tennessee dashed, the army fled to Mississippi.

Five months later, the war was over and John Spence's sympathies had changed: "The prospect was gloomy to those returning from war." Fortress Rosecrans was no longer needed. During its two years' existence, the fort had deteriorated despite the garrison's efforts to maintain the works. The rains of winter and heat of summer conspired to wear away the sod covering the earthworks. In April 1866, the Union army abandoned Fortress Rosecrans.

Since then, most of the earthworks have been lost as Murfreesboro has grown past the fort. Only 3,000 feet of an original 14,000 feet of earthworks remain. In 1993, the city transferred remnants to the National Park Service. Two lunettes which serve as independent forts and an exterior wall called a curtain wall were included. Of the four interior redoubts within Fortress Rosecrans, only Redoubt Brannan remains.


Back cover: A. E. Mathews illustration of General Rosecrans directing battle against a Confederate charge. (Courtesy of Tennessee State Library and Archives)
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