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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Battle of Stones River



The second day of January dawned gray, cloudy, and cold, as peculiarly dreary as the day before had been. And Federals remained, their lines compact and well entrenched. Bragg at last accepted that only a determined assault could dislodge Rosecrans. Learning that Sam Beatty had occupied high ground on the east bank, he concluded to launch his assault there. Possession of the hill held by Beatty was critical, he wrote: "It commanded the entire field of battle. From this point, either the enemy's or our line could he enfiladed." The Yankees, then, must be driven from the east bank. And regardless of what Bragg thought of Breckinridge, his was the only division available for the task.

At noon, Bragg summoned Breckinridge. Beneath a sweeping sycamore at the river's edge, the two generals conferred. Major W. D. Pickett of Hardee's staff, who was present, said that "General Bragg had already determined to make the attack, as he at once commenced explaining the order of attack." Breckinridge listened, and as he listened his anger grew. After Bragg finished, the Kentuckian picked up a stick and sketched his objections in the dirt. Drawing the boomerang-shaped rise north of McFadden's Ford and west of the ground held by Fyffe's Federal brigade, as well as the lower elevation he was to carry, Breckinridge pointed out that the disparity in altitude meant that, in falling back, the Federals would occupy a position that dominated his division's objective. Bragg was unmoved. He fixed the hour of the assault at 4:00 P.M., one hour before dark. As it was already 2:30, Bragg suggested that Breckinridge return to his command at once.

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At 4 P.M. on January 2, 1863, Breckinridge, as ordered by Bragg, launched an attack on the Union left. After pushing the bluecoats from the high ground, the Confederates were devastated by 58 cannon assembled by Union chief of artillery Captain John Mendenhall. The grayclads lost 1,800 men killed, wounded, or captured in an hour. The battle was over; Rosecrans claimed victory and the Confederates retreated south to the Duck River.

Breckinridge rode off in disgust. He paused to confide in William Preston his doubts: "General Preston, this attack is made against my judgment, and by the special order of General Bragg. If it should result in disaster, and I be among the slain, I want you to . . . tell the people that I believed this attack to be very unwise, and tried to prevent it."

In fairness to Bragg, Major Pickett recalled nothing "invidious or critical" in his instructions to Breckinridge. Pickett agreed with Bragg that Breckinridge's division was the least cut up and thus best able to make an attack and that an assault launched near sunset, if successful, would preclude a Federal counterattack.

Breckinridge's staff officers crisscrossed the lines carrying orders—everywhere were the unmistakable signs of "a general waking up." Before long, Brigadier General Roger Hanson's Kentucky Brigade—known as the "Orphans"—was filing off Wayne's Hill to join the rest of the division.


Sam Beatty and his brigade commanders watched this flurry of activity closely. The Ohioan suspected trouble long before any Confederate action suggested it, and during the morning he requested that Grose's brigade be sent over to reinforce his left. Palmer complied, and Grose deployed his command behind Fyffe. Beatty also brought the 3rd Wisconsin Artillery across the river, and they unlimbered in front of Price's brigade.

Reports came in from his front line during the morning that confirmed Beatty's suspicions. Price notified him that he had counted fifteen regiments and an undetermined number of cannon passing across his front; a few minutes later, Confederate skirmishers opened fire on Price and Fyffe. At 1:00 P.M., Confederate artillery joined in with a barrage that continued intermittently for two hours.

Crittenden kept Rosecrans apprised of these ominous developments, and Rosecrans moved at once to shore up the left. He pulled Negley's division from the far right and placed it in reserve behind McFadden's Ford. Morton's Pioneers formed on Negley's left a short time later. Artillery followed. By 3:00 P.M., there were four brigades—those of Miller, Stanley, Morton, and Cruft—and eighteen cannon within supporting distance of Beatty.

Breckinridge's infantry, meanwhile, was still struggling into line. What began as an annoying drizzle by noon had turned into a numbing, driving sleet that slapped and blinded the soldiers as they tried to dress ranks and even alignment. It was 3:00 before Colonel Randall Gibson, successor to the wounded Dan Adams, had his brigade up and ready behind the Kentucky Brigade of Roger Hanson. William Preston was not even notified of the impending attack until 2:30; as his command was then on the west bank, it is unlikely that he was in position much before the signal gun sounded. When Preston did fall in behind Brigadier General Gideon Pillow's brigade, he was troubled by the spacing between the two waves. Three hundred yards customarily separated regiment- or brigade-sized lines, or waves, in an attack. This spacing ensured that the trailing line would be safe from enemy bullets that might sail over the first line, yet near enough to provide effective support. But Preston had been instructed to follow Pillow at a distance of just 150 yards.


The minutes passed slowly. "The short time seemed long as with strained nerves," remembered a survivor. Ed Porter Thompson of the Kentucky Brigade contemplated the ground over which he would be charging: "[It] was an uncleared space, covered, for the most part, with sassafras and other brushwood, and with briars, and a little ahead was another open flat of ground, descending from the bushes, for some distance, then ascending to the line upon which the enemy lay. The general character of the ground along the whole division was undulating and broken by thickets, forest trees and patches of briars."

A little after 3:00, skirmishers threw down the fences to their front. A few minutes before 4:00, the men of the Kentucky Brigade descried the fleshy form of General Hanson galloping toward them. Hanson rode from regiment to regiment, and in a stentorian voice that everyone could hear yelled out, "The order is to load, fix bayonets and march through the brushwood. Then charge at the double quick to within a hundred yards of the enemy, deliver fire, and go at him with the bayonet." At precisely 4:00 P.M., a single cannon boomed, and "the line seemed to leap forward."

Despite the telltale activity of his skirmishers an hour earlier, Breckinridge's attack, launched with so little daylight remaining, surprised most Federals. Given the hour, "we now supposed that the attack which we had all day expected would be postponed until daylight the next day," confessed a Union colonel.

Hanson's Kentuckians were the first to close with the enemy. Aside from a turgid pond that forced a temporary change in alignment, the brigade encountered no serious obstacles during the first 900 yards of its advance; not even the hail of shot and shell had disrupted its "perfect line of battle." Only 100 yards separated the Kentuckians from Price's first line, which remained oddly silent. But the Federals simply were waiting for targets too close to miss. At 90 yards they opened fire, and the Rebel line shivered. But the Kentuckians kept coming, and Price's front line collapsed. Retreating troops from the front-line regiments threw those of the second line into confusion, and within minutes the entire brigade was in retreat toward Stones River.

The Kentuckians carried the hill coveted by Bragg, but at the cost of their commander's life. Only minutes earlier, Breckinridge had watched his Kentuckians disappear over a rise and into a meadow. Breckinridge followed the brigade across the briar-laced field. He and his staff were near the abandoned first line of Federal breastworks when they spotted Hanson, lying against a fence. A shell fragment had gashed his leg and sliced open the femoral artery. Breckinridge tried vainly to stop the bleeding, and his staff summoned an ambulance. Major Pickett never forgot the scene: "It was a sight indelibly impressed on my memory—the dying hero, his distinguished friend and commander kneeling by his side holding back the lifeblood. . . . All this under the fiercest fire of artillery than can be conceived."


Gideon Pillow's brigade, meanwhile, was fighting well. After a few minutes of vicious, close combat, Pillow's Tennesseans routed Fyffe's brigade. Despite this initial success, however, the Confederate attack was beginning to unravel. A temporary pause by Pillow's left regiments went unnoticed by the trailing units of Preston's brigade, until all were badly intermingled. Further to the left, Colonel Gibson was having similar problems. Gibson had left the front momentarily to redirect the 13th and 20th Louisiana, which were on a collision course with the river. In his absence, the rest of the brigade became entangled with the regiments of Hanson's brigade ahead of it.

The confusion became general. As Stones River meanders toward McFadden's Ford it curls westward, then loops abruptly to the north. At that point a nearby belt of timber and parallel high ground channelized units approaching from the southeast; consequently, the brigades of Hanson, now led by Colonel R. P. Trabue, and Pillow intermingled badly as they neared the river. "The peculiar nature of the ground and the direction of the river and the eagerness of the troops caused the lines of General Pillow's brigade and this brigade to lap on the crest of the hill," explained Trabue. An enlisted member of the Kentucky Brigade was more direct—"In the madness of pursuit all order and discipline were forgotten."

In the gathering gloom, Breckinridge's men fixed their gaze on flashes of cannon fire from across the river and pushed on. There was little on the east bank to stop them. In spite of Beatty's best efforts at rallying them, his troops swarmed past toward the river.

It was 4:45 P.M. The sun had set and the sleet continued to slap at the soldiers. In the gathering gloom, Breckinridge's men fixed their gaze on flashes of cannon fire from across the river and pushed on. There was little on the east bank to stop them. In spite of Beatty's best efforts at rallying them, his troops swarmed past toward the river.

Just as he had been two days earlier, Rosecrans was in the thick of the fight now, scraping together idle units with which to bolster his flagging left. The general was in only slightly firmer control of his emotion than he had been on December 31. "Old Rosy came galloping down the pike where we lay, the sweat pouring down his face, and sent for Colonel Carlin," Colonel Hans Heg of the 15th Wisconsin wrote his wife afterward. Heg quotes Rosecrans's impassioned command to Carlin: "I beg you for the sake of the country and for my own sake to go at them with all your might. Go at them with a whoop and a yell!"

While Rosecrans begged Carlin to save the country and his career, Captain John Mendenhall, Crittenden's artillery chief, was methodically concentrating all available guns to check Breckinridge. His efforts were decisive. By the time the Rebels had crested the hill near McFadden's Ford that was their objective, Mendenhall had assembled 45 cannon, enough to blow the butternuts back to their line of departure. Although Mendenhall gathered the guns at Crittenden's request, his success most certainly exceeded the general's expectations. He deployed the guns perfectly, arraying them hub to hub on a slope at least ten feet higher than the highest point on the east bank of the river, so that their crews would have unobstructed fields of fire.


Breckinridge's Confederates crested the hill above the ford, and Mendenhall's guns roared their greeting. The destruction was terrific. Wrote a Kentuckian: "The very earth trembled as with an exploding mine, and a mass of iron hail was hurled upon them. The artillery bellowed forth such thunder that the men were stunned and could not distinguish sounds. There were falling timbers, crashing arms, and whirring of missiles in every direction, the bursting of the dreadful shell, the groans of the wounded, the shouts of the officers, mingled in one horrid din that beggars description."

The Confederate collapse was abrupt and complete. Suddenness surprised the Federals. The Rebels "cannot be said to have been checked in their advance—from a rapid advance they broke at once into a rapid retreat," averred Crittenden. Federal brigades poised on the west bank splashed across the river in pursuit. They chased the Confederates back to the very woods from which they had formed for the attack only forty minutes before, halting only because nightfall made it too dangerous to go on.

The disaster devastated Breckinridge. He raged "like a wounded lion," and the sight of his beloved Kentuckians reduced him to tears. Nearly one-third of those engaged had fallen. Riding among the survivors, Breckinridge cried again and again, "My poor Orphans! My poor Orphans."

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