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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Battle of Stones River



The object of Bragg's obsession has come down to posterity as the Round Forest. A singularly unimpressive bit of timber, at its highest it lay only three feet above the fields of cotton and winter wheat that encircled it. From the southeast the charred remains of the Cowan farm, resting on an elevation between the lines, dominated it completely.

Cruft's brigade of Palmer's division lay to the right of it, Wagner's brigade to the left, and that of William Hazen—an intense, talented professional soldier—crouched behind crude breastworks in the timber itself.

The first challenge to the Round Forest salient came from Brigadier General James Chalmers's 2,000 Mississippians at 9:00 A.M. The wreckage of the Cowan farm doomed their attack, as the brigade split in two while negotiating the rubble. Chalmers's left regiments ran up against Cruft. The Rebels fell in windrows. The ground in front of the 31st Indiana was so heavily blanketed with bodies that it was labeled the "Mississippi Half-Acre." His right regiments halted and cowered in a small dip in the ground 200 yards from Hazen's line.

At 10:00 A.M. Brigadier General Daniel Donelson led the last uncommitted Confederate brigade on the west side of Stones River into action. Donelson's Tennesseans met scores of stragglers from Chalmers's brigades hiding among the out-buildings of the Cowan farm, squarely in their path. The Mississippians were too frightened to step aside, so the brigade split to keep its alignment—the 16th Tennessee and part of the 51st Tennessee drifted north toward the Round Forest, while the 38th, 8th, and the rest of the 51st Tennessee drove west toward Cruft.


Donelson's right regiments were destroyed before the Round Forest. The sudden appearance of Stewart to the right and rear of Cruft, however, helped Donelson's left regiments carry their front. The withdrawal of Cruft, although a setback, posed no real danger to the army. Behind Cruft were several commands still intact—Parsons's Battery remained in its first position on a rise near the intersection of McFadden's Lane and the turnpike; Grose lay nearby with four regiments; behind Grose, Shepherd had rallied his Regulars; still farther to the rear stood Hascall's fresh brigade.

Rosecrans and Thomas responded to Cruft's withdrawal by sending the Regulars back into the cedars to impede Stewart and Donelson and afford Grose time to retire to a new position along the turnpike, perpendicular to Hazen. The Regulars were doomed; extending only a quarter mile, their front was easily outflanked by the more numerous Confederates. Four hundred Regulars fell before they were recalled, but their losses were not in vain. In twenty minutes of bitter fighting they decimated Stewart's brigade so completely that Stewart was forced to halt at the edge of the cedars, and Maney and Anderson followed his lead. Only Donelson's 8th and 38th Tennessee dared to confront the Federals on open ground. There, near the Round Forest, they were quickly and hopelessly overwhelmed.

A little after 12:00, the Tennesseans broke contact. They had come within a few yards of the Nashville Turnpike but lacked the numbers to take it.

An uncertain silence settled over the field. Rosecrans rode away to supervise the final repulse of Cleburne, and Hascall found himself the only general officer near the Round Forest. Well did he understand its importance—"The position ... must be held to the last man," he reported. "The line they were trying to hold was that part of our original line of battle lying immediately to the right of the railroad. This portion of our original line, about two regimental fronts, together with two fronts to the left, held by Colonel Wagner's brigade, was all of our original line of battle but what our troops had been driven from; and if they succeeded in carrying this they would have turned our left, and a total rout of our forces could not then have been avoided." Well aware that the lull represented only a respite between attacks, Hascall moved swiftly to bolster the Round Forest line.


At the headquarters of the Army of Tennessee, indecision prevailed. During the critical late morning hours, while Hardee threw the exhausted divisions of Cleburne and McCown against the Nashville Turnpike and Leonidas Polk delivered his piecemeal blows against the Round Forest, Breckinridge's division lay idle on the east side of the river.

The blame was not solely Bragg's. Breckinridge had been bedeviled by chimera all morning long, convinced that a heavy Federal force was moving beyond his front. He begged Bragg for reinforcements until Pegram's cavalry rode forward and demonstrated his front to be clear.

But precious hours had slipped by, and it was 1:00 P.M. before Bragg summarily ordered Breckinridge across. The brigades of Dan Adams and John Jackson, being nearer the river, forded first. A short time later, Breckinridge led Palmer and Preston toward the crossing site.

Adams reported to Polk at 2:00 P.M. Polk was reluctant to commit the brigade, but Bragg had repeated his desire to take the Round Forest. Adams's Louisianans never stood a chance. Hascall had collected four batteries near the forest, and they opened on the butternuts as they stumbled over bodies and discarded equipment; at the same time, Wagner charged Adams's right. His flank turned, Adams prudently pulled his men out of range, less 426 dead and wounded.

As quickly as Adams cleared the field, Jackson's brigade stepped forward. The ease with which the Federals repulsed this fourth attack was ridiculous; the accompanying slaughter sickening, the more so for its pointlessness.

Tragically, the slaughter was not over. As quickly as Adams cleared the field, Jackson's brigade stepped forward. The ease with which the Federals repulsed this fourth attack was ridiculous; the accompanying slaughter sickening, the more so for its pointlessness.

And still more killing lay ahead. As darkness settled over the dreary, winter landscape, Palmer and Preston marched out onto the blood-soaked cotton field pounded flat by Chalmers, Donelson, Adams, and Jackson.

Palmer's and Preston's assault was repulsed so handily that some Federals wondered whether it really represented a serious effort. Although they repelled this final attempt to carry the Round Forest easily, the Federals had suffered. Cobb's Kentucky battery had torn large gaps in the Federal lines with well-directed fire from atop Wayne's Hill. In fact, one of Cobb's rounds almost robbed the Army of the Cumberland of its commander. While riding toward the Round Forest, Rosecrans felt a solid shot whoosh past; it spared the general but decapitated his close friend in the army, chief of staff Julius Garesche. Rosecrans, his overcoat spattered with Garesche's brain, winced a moment, then regained his composure enough to turn to Phil Sheridan and mutter something to the effect that good men must die in battle.

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