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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Battle of Stones River



A heavy mist rolled over the battlefield. Above, a waxing moon drifted in and out of the clouds; below, the ground, churned to paste by thousands of feet, began to freeze as the temperature plummeted. The "dismal groans and cries of the wounded and dying," punctuated by the rumbling of ambulances, replaced the crash of musketry and the roar of artillery. At midnight, Rosecrans and his lieutenants gathered to ponder the fate of the army. Twenty-four hours earlier, confident of success, Rosecrans had summoned his generals only to issue orders to them; now, his plan of battle foiled before it could be launched and his army nearly annihilated, Rosecrans was open to suggestions. Eyewitness accounts of the gathering vary: Rosecrans's own version finds Thomas and Crittenden deferring to his judgment and McCook advising retreat; Crittenden, on the other hand, recalled that there was some talk of retreat, although he was uncertain who started it.


Regardless of who said what, the opinions of his lieutenants were insufficient to sway Rosecrans one way or the other, and he decided to inspect the ground to the army's rear personally before making a decision. Asking his generals to await his return, Rosecrans and McCook rode off toward Overall Creek. Along the creek, torches flickered and danced. "They have got entirely in our rear and are forming a line of battle by torchlight," Rosecrans surmised. McCook agreed, and the two returned to headquarters. Rosecrans ended the council, telling his generals to rejoin their commands and prepare to "fight or die."

Gallant words, but Rosecrans had erred. The torches he had seen were not those of enemy guides; rather, they were firebrands carried by Federal cavalrymen to ignite the campfires of infantrymen who, numbed almost senseless by the bitter cold, chose to flaunt Rosecrans's standing order prohibiting fires.


There was no talk of retreat at the headquarters of the Army of Tennessee. Bragg was satisfied with the army's performance and confident that the New Year would find him in sole possession of the battlefield. Although daybreak on January 1 found the Federals still out in front in force, Bragg remained certain of Rosecrans's eventual withdrawal.

While Bragg's army lay on its arms, Rosecrans strengthened his lines. At 3:00 A.M. of the New Year, he directed Crittenden to occupy the high ground above Mcfadden's Ford on the east bank. At dawn, Sam Beatty (in command of the division after a painful wound forced Van Cleve to leave the battle) moved to execute the order. As the day passed and the Federals entrenched, the feeling grew in the Army of Tennessee that victory was slowly slipping from its grasp. Wrote a Kentuckian: "This gloomy New Year's day went by with the Confederate troops inactive; and even before its noon the golden opportunity had passed away from General Bragg. . . . As the Federal army had nothing to lose but everything to gain by waiting, it waited—but meanwhile it worked. The Confederate army waited, and hoped."

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