Tour Stop 2 - The Slaughter Pen

Rock outcroppings in a wooded area. Skinny cedar trees grow up between the cracks in the rock.
During the battle, these limestone outcroppings provided natural cover for Union soldiers. They also helped to give the Slaughter Pen it's morbid name.


Union soldiers fiercely defended their position here. Confederates launched attack after failed attack, causing heavy losses to both sides. Bodies piled up in the rocks, and blood soaked the ground. The Union retreated, but the delay gave their army time to form a new line along the Nashville Pike.


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My name is Emily Brandon, and I'm an SCA intern at Stones River National Battlefield. And today, we're at tour stop two. And we're going to go over the events that happened here-- during the battle of Stones River.

On the morning of December 31, 1862, General William J. Hardee sent 10,000 men from McCown's and Cleburne's divisions, storming through and around the unprepared Union right flank. The men of Richard Johnson's division were so terrified they immediately retreated. As more men began to retreat, it created even more fear and chaos throughout the Union right wing.

The Confederate line began to wrap around the Union line, breaking up Johnson's division and then rolling around the positions of General Jefferson C. Davis's division. When the fight came to General Philip Sheridan and his men, they stopped the advance because they were ready to fight by 4:00 AM. Sheridan bent back his lines grudgingly as the Rebels began to push them all the way back to this spot, north of the Wilkinson Pike. Sheridan's lines and those of General James Negley formed a v-shaped salient here.

General William S. Rosecrans, realizing his initial attack plan was failing, began to change his focus from defending the vital Nashville Pike. And he began to reform the line. But he needed time to be able to do so. So he sent word to Generals Sheridan and Negley to hold their positions here to give him that time. These woods and limestone outcroppings provided shelter and protection to those worn out soldiers of Sheridan's and Negley's brigades.

For two hours, General Sheridan and General Negley held their position, fighting off attacks from three different sides. Eventually, Sheridan's men, exhausted from fighting for several hours and low on ammunition, retreat leaving Negley and his men nearly surrounded. While this area was a great source of cover, it quickly turned into a death trap as the men tried to retreat through the rocks and trees.

There was so much blood that when the soldiers of Chicago saw the area after the fighting, they nicknamed it the "Slaughter Pen", as it reminded them of the slaughter houses back home. While the terrible losses they suffered by Sheridan and Negley's men here surely had them thinking that all hope was lost, the seeds of ultimate Union victory were sown by their sacrifices. Five Union brigades had stalled nearly half of the Confederate Army for two hours. This gave Rosecrans the time he needed to set his troops for a final decisive stand along the Nashville Pike.

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2 minutes, 36 seconds

Student Conservation Association intern Emily Brandon tells the story of the bloody delaying action that turned the tide of battle.

A snake rail fence borders a field of tall grasses with a tree line in the distance.

NPS Photo

The Battle of Stones River began at 6 AM on December 31, 1862. The Confederate divisions of Generals McCown and Cleburne smashed into the right flank of the Union lines near the intersection of Gresham Lane and the Franklin Pike. The Union right crumbled and were soon sent flying north and west in disarray.

Further down the Union line, Gen. Philip Sheridan had his men up and ready to fight by 4 AM. As the Confederates descended upon their position, they stopped and beat back attacks to their front. However, they soon had to contend with the threats to their right and rear as the Union line continued to fall back. Sheridan's division bent backwards as they struggled to keep the enemy in front of them. In the process, two of Sheridan's brigade commanders, Gen. Joshua Sill and Col. George Roberts, were killed. Some of Sheridan's regiments lost more than half their men before they moved north of the Wilkinson Pike to the cover of the dense cedar forest.

A black Civil War cannon sites in a field of blooming purple clover in front of a tree


While Sheridan's division slowly bent back to the Wilkinson Pike, Gen. James Negley's men stood their ground. They beat back several Confederate attacks from the east.

Private J.E. Robuck of the 29th Mississippi Infantry described the fighting here:

Our regiment was on a large field in which corn had grown, but the stalks had been cut. The Yankees had planted a battery in the cedar grove across the field, and the... regiments were ordered to charge and take the battery. When we started across the field I thought those were the deepest middles between corn rows that I had ever seen... They were among the trees, while were in an open field, so they were just mowing us down like weeds. We were ordered to fall down … to escape their bullets, shells and cannon balls. I changed my opinion about the middles – they appeared to be entirely too shallow.

A cannon sits in a field of tall, brown grass. Behind the cannon to the right is a tree line showing fall colors.

NPS Photo

By 10 AM, the Confederates had pushed Sheridan and Negley into a "V' formation. Sheridan's lines faced south, while Negley's division still fired to the east. This dangerous position risked seeing both divisions cut off from the rest of the army as the Confederates attacked from all sides.

Yet, they had no choice! Orders had arrived from Gen. Rosecrans informing both generals that they must hold to buy time for the rest of their army to regroup along the Nashville Pike.

Living historians portraying Union soldiers fire muskets from behind large rock outcroppings.
Union soldiers hid behind the rocks and fired at the attacking Confederates.


Upon receiving their orders to stand fast, Gen. Negley's men sought safety among the limestone outcroppings and trees behind them. It worked for a time. The Union forces here stalled nearly half the Confederate army for two hours. At noon, Sheridan's lines finally broke. This allowed Confederate soldiers to begin to surround Negley's men from the rear. The boys in blue found their rocky shelter had now become a death trap.

Learn more about the fighting in the Slaughter Pen by watching this video from our friends at the American Battlefield Trust.
A Wayside Panel Showing Union soldiers with text in the foreground

Sheridan Saves the Day

Read the wayside exhibit about Sheridan's troops holding their position.

A Union officer shouts over crouched Union soldiers with text in foreground

Boys You Must Get Out of Here

Read the wayside exhibit about the Union soldiers in The Slaughter Pen.


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Last updated: July 23, 2022

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