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NPS History E-Library
 
 

Civil War Series

The Battle of Stones River

   

TO MURFREESBORO

The clear skies and warm breezes that for two weeks had lifted the spirits of both armies ended on December 26. The morning opened ominously. Chill gusts swirled through the camp around Nashville. Low-hanging black clouds promised a winter storm. Union soldiers awoke to see a thick curtain of mist draw across their line of march; by the time they doused their breakfast fires, a driving rain had set in, accompanied by a harsh wind that blew steadily from the west.

At his camp five miles south of Nashville, McCook received the order to advance at 4:30 A.M. Ninety minutes later his lead division under Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis filed onto the Edmundson Pike.


(click on image for a PDF version)
UNION ARMY ADVANCES ON MURFREESBORO
On December 26, 1862, General William Rosecrans ordered his army to march out of Nashville. Three wings under Generals McCook, Thomas, and Crittenden slogged over muddy roads to meet the Confederates commanded by General Braxton Bragg. By nightfall December 30, both armies were poised outside Murfreesboro. Each planned to attack the following morning.

From the start, Rosecrans's Achilles heel—his cavalry—was threatening to disrupt his plans. While the infantry slogged forward, Stanley's reserve cavalry was still breaking camp in the rear, thus forcing Davis to use his own small mounted escort, Company K of the Fifteenth Illinois Cavalry, to screen his movement. They did their job well, uncovering an outpost belonging to Wharton's cavalry brigade five miles northwest of Nolensville. The Illinoisans chased the Rebels to the outskirts of town, where they discovered the remainder of Wharton's troopers dismounted in line of battle.

COLONEL JOHN A. WHARTON (LC)

MAJOR GENERAL ALEXANDER MCCOOK AND STAFF. (USAMHI)

Davis arrived with the infantry as the rain subsided and deployed his muddied soldiers into line. But Wharton's orders were simply to impede the Federal advance by forcing them to deploy repeatedly, and so, his mission accomplished, he retired through Nolensville before Davis could send forward his division. Wharton chose as his second delaying position Knob Gap, a rocky defile that commanded the road to Triune. Under the cover of a two-gun barrage, Davis deployed again. This time he caught the Rebels napping. As Davis's men crested the surrounding hills, Wharton's troopers fled to Triune, less two guns lost to the charging Federals. It was now nearly dark, and Davis ordered his exhausted men to make camp by the roadside.

McCook's other divisions had a less eventful day. Brigadier General Philip Sheridan's column, with Richard Johnson's division trailing, encountered only light resistance from scattered cavalry outposts. They bivouacked outside Nolensville shortly after Davis seized Knob Gap.

To the west, Thomas's advance had gone unopposed. Like McCook, he was ill-served by the cavalry, which failed to break camp on time, and he advanced without a screen. His objective for the day was Owen's Store, just south of Brentwood on the Nolensville Pike. Negley, in the lead, reached it easily. When he caught the sound of gunfire rolling westward from Davis's fight, he pressed on without orders to Nolensville. Arriving to find the fighting over, Negley bivouacked his division alongside those of Sheridan and Johnson. Major General Lovell Rousseau's division, unable to follow Negley because the country lane to Nolensville had deteriorated to "the consistency of cream," went into camp as planned at Owen's Store.

LIEUTENANT GENERAL JOSEPH WHEELER (USAMHI)

On the left, the cavalry gave a better account of itself. They screened Crittenden's infantry and surprised an outpost of Wheeler's troopers 11 miles out on the Murfreesboro Pike. The incident astonished Wheeler: it was the first inkling he had of a Federal advance, and the enemy was only two miles from his La Vergne headquarters. Wheeler hurriedly brought up his brigade and formed a dismounted line of battle along Hurricane Creek, a narrow stream that crossed the pike northwest of La Vergne. The Yankee cavalry deployed on the opposite bank to await the arrival of Crittenden's lead division under Brigadier General John Palmer.

Palmer came up at twilight. Anxious to strike a blow before nightfall, he threw the first regiments to arrive over the creek. Outnumbered and demoralized, Wheeler's cavalrymen remounted and fell back into La Vergne. Palmer called a halt on the east bank, his division just 16 miles from Murfreesboro.


It was now dark. From Hurricane Creek to Franklin, weary, muddied bluecoats gathered around campfires, cooked supper, then struck out in search of a dry spot on which to sleep, no easy matter as rain began to fall again at midnight.

It was now dark. From Hurricane Creek to Franklin, weary, muddied bluecoats gathered around campfires, cooked supper, then struck out in search of a dry spot on which to sleep, no easy matter as rain began to fall again at midnight—a fine, chilling drizzle that continued until dawn. Rosecrans and his staff, meanwhile, made ready for the next day. Orders were transmitted to Thomas, directing him to move Negley to Stewartsboro and Rousseau to Nolensville. Crittenden was instructed to advance on Stewart's Creek; should the enemy retire toward Murfreesboro, McCook and Thomas would join him there. Rosecrans directed McCook to march on Triune and press Hardee, whom McCook incorrectly assumed was there with his whole corps.

Hampered by poor intelligence, Bragg passed an exasperating night. His cavalry had failed to develop fully the nature of the Federal advance during the day, and it was well after dark before Wheeler deduced from prisoners' statements that the Federal army was engaged in a general forward movement and 9:30 P.M. before this information reached army headquarters.

The swiftness of the Federal advance surprised and troubled Bragg. Crittenden, outside La Vergne, was eight miles nearer than Hardee, 24 miles away via the Salem Pike. Despite the need for action, Bragg was reluctant to order a concentration at Murfreesboro until the Federal objective had been ascertained. Fairly sure, however, that the principal threat lay west of Stones River, he directed McCown to march at once to Murfreesboro. As the success of a concentration at Murfreesboro, should it be necessary, would depend largely on the cavalry's ability to conduct an effective delay, Bragg pointedly asked his chief of cavalry how long he could hold the enemy on the roads. Four days, replied Wheeler. His fears calmed, Bragg wired Hardee to be ready to abandon Eagleville and march to Murfreesboro at a moment's notice.

LIEUTENANT GENERAL WILLIAM J. HARDEE (USAMHI)

MAJOR GENERAL GEORGE H. THOMAS

Hardee too had been anxious for information and to get it had sent a staff officer out on a personal reconnaissance toward Nolensville after dark. The officer confirmed that the Federals were there in force, and Hardee wired the news to Bragg. His telegram convinced Bragg that the time had come to gather the army at Murfreesboro. Shortly before dawn, movement orders were issued, and Bragg awaited the arrival of his scattered units.

Saturday, December 27, was a miserable day. Another winter storm rolled in with cooler temperatures and more rain, preceded by a dense blanket of morning fog that hampered the Federal advance and allowed the Rebels to slip away toward Murfreesboro largely unmolested. Observing the sky that morning, Rosecrans remarked "Not much progress today, I fear."

He was right. It was 4:00 P.M. before McCook got his lead elements across Nelson's Creek, a mile and a half north of Triune, just in time to exchange a few volleys with departing Confederate cavalrymen. McCook chose not to pursue. Night was coming on and the temperature falling; a fine sheet of ice had begun to form on the muddy pike, making the footing hazardous for the already exhausted Federals. Johnson camped a mile south of Triune, Sheridan in town, and Davis a mile to the north.

Thomas's divisions, meanwhile, had passed a frustrating day slogging over what to many must have seemed the worst roads in Tennessee. It took Negley nearly the entire afternoon to cover the five miles between Nolensville and Stewartsboro, and his men reached the latter town only in time to bivouac for the night on Crittenden's right rear. Rousseau had an even harder march; with cannon and limbers mired up to the hubs, his division did not enter Nolensville until nightfall.

CONFEDERATE CAVALRYMEN ATTACK A UNION SUPPLY TRAIN. PAINTING BY WILLIAM TRAVIS. (COURTESY OF SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION)

On the Murfreesboro Pike, at least, the weather proved more cooperative. Although a drenching rain fell throughout the day, the fog lifted early, allowing Crittenden to start shortly before noon. His objective was to take intact the bridge over Stewart's Creek. The mission fell to Brigadier General Thomas Wood's division, which covered the five miles from Lavergne to the creek so quickly that Wheeler's pickets on the north bank barely had time to make their escape. They set the bridge ablaze, but the dampening rain and quick action of Wood's infantrymen, who braved a hail of bullets to toss burning logs and debris into the water, saved the structure.

Wheeler's cavalry, having been hurled into precipitate retreat all along the line, regrouped at nightfall south of Stewart's Creek with George Maney's infantry brigade, a mere ten miles from Murfreesboro.

Wheeler's mediocre performance fed the anxiety at army headquarters. Wiring Joe Johnston that night, Bragg could only say that Rosecrans was advancing in strength and that all available troops should be sped to the Army of Tennessee to oppose him. With his subordinates, however, Bragg displayed more confidence. In a letter to Cheatham and Withers, he expressed his belief that Rosecrans's objective was Murfreesboro. In truth, Bragg could ill afford to harbor doubts, having committed his army to a defense along Stones River. As the sun set on December 27, all Confederate units except those detailed to delay the Federal advance were at Murfreesboro, awaiting orders. They came at 9:00 P.M., in a memorandum that began as follows: "The line of battle will be in front of Murfreesborough [sic]; half of the army, left wing, in front of Stone's River; right wing in rear of the river. Polk's corps will form left wing; Hardee's corps, right wing. . . . McCown's division to form reserve, opposite center." Polk and Hardee were to form "two lines from 800 to 1,000 yards apart, according to the ground," and the cavalry was "to fall back gradually before enemy, reporting by couriers every hour. When near our lines, Wheeler will move to the right and Wharton to the left, to cover and protect our flanks . . . Pegram to fall to the rear . . . as a reserve."

Criticism of Bragg's line of defense came almost immediately. Hardee, in particular, considered the ground peculiarly unsuited to the defense: "The open fields beyond town are fringed with dense cedar brakes, offering excellent shelter for approaching infantry, and are almost impervious to artillery. The country on every side is entirely open, and . . . accessible to the enemy." Moreover, Stones River could be crossed anywhere, he argued—at the usual fords, the water was no more than ankle deep. The greatest danger, however, lay not in the then low level of the river—which already was rising with the recent rains—but rather in how quickly it might swell to an "impassable torrent" during a violent storm. If that occurred, Hardee warned, Bragg's two wings would be isolated from each other on opposite sides of the river.

STONES RIVER (NPS)

Hardee's assertions were well-founded. Bragg did not know the ground his army was committed to defend. For instance, 600 yards beyond Breckinridge's assigned position on the east bank of Stones River lay a commanding prominence called Wayne's Hill. From it artillery batteries could enfilade Polk's right on the west bank. Its importance to the Confederate defense should have been obvious, yet Bragg made no provision for its occupation.

Bragg's troops marched out to their designated positions on Sunday morning, December 28. Their movements were unchallenged, thanks to Rosecrans's characteristic reluctance to conduct military operations on the Sabbath. In deciding that December 28 was to be a day of rest, Rosecrans was moved by both operational and theological considerations—as the army was exhausted from two days' marching and skirmishing, he deemed it wiser to do battle later with a well-rested force than to press forward with a blown one.

But the past two days had not developed the situation sufficiently for Rosecrans to feel confident of Bragg's intentions. The display of force along Stewart's Creek on the one hand suggested that Bragg might choose to make a stand along the south bank and contest the Federal advance on Murfreesboro; on the other hand, it would be to Bragg's advantage to defend nearer Shelbyville, thought Rosecrans, thereby drawing the Union army farther from its base at Nashville and rendering its supply lines vulnerable to attack.

ROSECRANS AND MEMBERS OF HIS STAFF ATTEND MASS IN THEIR STONES RIVER HEADQUARTERS. (FROM ANNALS OF THE ARMY OF THE CUMBERLAND

The first step to unraveling Bragg's plans was to find out where Hardee had gone the day before. If he had retired to Shelbyville, it could be assumed that Bragg was abandoning Murfreesboro to draw out Rosecrans; if he had marched to Murfreesboro, the Confederate line of battle might be expected to lie somewhere between that town and Stewart's Creek.

Rosecrans assigned the task to McCook, who in turn sent out Captain Horace Fisher of his staff with August Willich's brigade to trace the route of Hardee's withdrawal. By noon, Fisher had surmised from captured stragglers that Hardee's destination was Murfreesboro.

Rosecrans prepared for battle along Stewart's Creek. He inspected Crittenden's lines that afternoon, then issued orders to bring the army together. Thomas was to send Rousseau from Nolensville to Stewart's Creek by nightfall and McCook was to advance on Murfreesboro by way of the Franklin road on Monday morning. As darkness fell, Crittenden's infantrymen lay down to rest on their arms, fully expecting that the morning would dawn red with bloodshed.

BRIDGE'S BATTERY OF THE ILLINOIS LIGHT ARTILLERY PHOTOGRAPHED IN CAMP NEAR MURFREESBORO. (COURTESY OF THE WESTERN RESERVE HISTORICAL SOCIETY, CLEVELAND, OHIO)
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