Stones River Theater

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Duration:
9 minutes, 12 seconds

This 9-minute film captures the human drama that played out during the Battle of Stones River resulting in one of the most important Union victories of the Civil War.

 

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Transcript

In fact, that night on December 30 if you all had watched the movie or read any of the books about the Battle of Stones River, of course, you have the unique situation "The Battle of the Bands" where from soldiers' letters up and down this line, we know that anybody who had a military band around 10 o'clock or so-- they start just before tattoo, which is lights out. They start playing the evening music to try to bolster the men's spirits.

Apparently there was this cacophony of "Battle Cry of Freedom" and "Yankee Doodle" from all the bands over here and "Dixie" and "Bonnie Blue Flag" over there. And according to some soldiers, it didn't matter-- they weren't just fighting each other, trying to outdo each other. They were trying to outdo their own guys. It must have been a joyful noise.

But then somewhere, and we don't know exactly where, one of the bands struck up "Home, Sweet Home". And before you knew it, every single band up and up and down the three mile long line starts playing the tune. Soldiers start to sing the refrain.

And then it all kind of dies out together just as the bugles are blowing time for everybody to try to get some sleep, in conditions not very much different from what we're experiencing right now-- cold, muddy, wet. And every one of those soldiers now, you could have heard a pin drop out. Because they are thinking about home sweet home, and they know darn well a lot of them are never going to see it again.

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Duration:
1 minute, 31 seconds

Hear the story of one of the most poignant moments of the Stones River Campaign.

Video filmed and edited by VIP Mike Browning.

 

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For Rosecrans, that will mean sending about a third of his men across the Stones River about a mile and a half to our north in McFadden's Ford. The bulk of Crittenden's left wing is slated to cross the river at dawn. Then get into their battle lines on the east bank of the Stones River, then move along the banks of the Stones River and eastward towards Murfreesboro. And so Bragg will find him, essentially, firmly fixed inside of a vise.

Not only that, but his army will have the swollen Stones River between him and Murfreesboro as well, with only a few points that he can cross his army in order to get back to Murfreesboro and towards the Shelbyville Pike to retreat. So in point of fact, Rosecrans comes up with a pretty sexy battle plan. Because the only problem for Rosecrans's plan is it will take time to develop.

He's got to wait for daylight to cross the river at the ford. You don't want to be doing that at dark, especially when it's running about waist to chest deep. Then once the men get across and get their clothes back on-- they'll actually will cross the river that morning, stripping down to their underwear, and then put their uniforms back on. Oh, that must have been lovely. But at least then you'll have dry clothing on top.

Then they're going to have to get them into line of battle, and then the attack will progress. So best case scenario, 7:00, 7:30 AM is when the Union is looking for the bullets to start flying there north or east of the Stones River. He will tell his corps commander down on the right wing, Alexander McDowell McCook, a member of the fighting McCooks, but perhaps not the fightingest of the fighting McCooks.

In fact, he's known to most of his underlings as officers and men affectionately as "Old Chucklehead". So you can kind of see where this story is going. He tells McCook, Rosecrans does, that I need you to make preparations to hold your lines for about four hours. If the enemy attacks you, I want you to hold them there, or give ground very slowly so that those boys have time to cross the river, sweep down the east bank, get into Murfreesboro. Once Bragg realizes he got a third of my army up his tailpipe, the pressure will probably ease off. And then I'll give you further orders as what I want you to do after that. So that's the plan for the Union Army.

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Duration:
2 minutes, 29 seconds

Ranger Jim Lewis describes the Union plan at the Battle of Stones River.

 

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The Confederate plan is actually elegantly simple. General John Wharton's cavalry has informed Bragg and the evening of the 30th that, in fact, already the Confederate lines extend well out beyond the right flank of the Union lines down there, McCook's right wing. But they go well past Gresham Lane, that intersection of Gresham Lane and the Franklin Pike.

And Bragg has shifted gears. He had gone into this campaign thinking in terms of a defensive battle. But by the evening of the 30th, he's decided he's going to go on the offensive as well. Orders are very simple-- when the sun comes up, attack. Come up, hit the enemy's line, wrap around behind him. While you're doing that, you'll start to crush that line and ring it up.

We all know that soldiers fight shoulder to shoulder, two ranks deep like you guys are standing here. Anybody out here can be hit by every musket. Anybody over here, you're on your own now, pal. And your decision will probably be then run. And then you go and then you go, and it's like tipping a line of dominoes. The whole line will start to roll up.

Once they make contact, McCown, with Cleburne in support, will swing like a door behind. The units to the north will begin attacking and join that door as it gets ever bigger and bigger and bigger until it slams shut across the Nashville Pike-- back up where we were at the visitor center-- cutting the Union Army off from its base in Nashville and pinning them to the north up against the big bend in the Stones River where, again, it's running up near flood stage. And they'll essentially be trapped.

So it's a pretty excellent plan too. We're right sitting smack dab in front of Negley's division of Thomas's center wing. To our north is Palmer's division, and then Woods division, and then Van Cleve's division of the left wing. To our south starting at the road, the Wilkinson Pike which we're heading to, which you can just see at that gate down there, is Sheridan's division, Jefferson C. Davis's division, and Richard Johnson's division to the south with a slight curl down at the bottom at the end of Johnson's division, lines running essentially parallel.

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Duration:
2 minutes, 11 seconds

Ranger Jim Lewis lays out the Confederate plan of attack at the Battle of Stones River.

Video filmed and edited by VIP Mike Browning.

 

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Transcript

How the Confederates decimated the Union right at the beginning of the battle on December 31, 1862. And after a two or three hour delaying action by Sheridan and Negley, they found themselves in these woods and attempting to cross this field the afternoon the entire afternoon, in fact. When they found themselves coming out of these woods, what they found was several thousand Union infantry men and upwards of 35 cannons placed along this rise, almost precisely where we're standing right now.

General Rosekrans realized what was happening to his army on the right wing. He does a few things. First and foremost, he will order Sheridan and Negley to hold their positions at all costs. He also starts throwing men from what was going to be his initial assault on his left line, he started throwing them to the south to create a new line.

Among the units that were forced over into this area after crossing the Stones River was the 9th Kentucky, and a man named Marcus Woodcock. And here is his remembrance of that moment.

"Everything seemed to be falling back-- whole regiments of troops, apparently hopelessly demoralized, stragglers by the hundreds, staff officers and orderlies, batteries, caissons, artillery wagons, ambulances, and even the very smoke seemed to be seized with but panic and were rolling in hopeless confusion to the rear. They were rapidly nearing us. The order to front and fire, all in one command, ran to the lines. And we immediately turned and poured a volley upon the advancing army."

Fire.

[GUNS FIRING]

Fire.

[GUNS FIRING]

Fire.

[GUN FIRING]

Fire.

[GUNS FIRING]

With thousands of muskets pointed in their direction, General Rains will be killed almost immediately after ordering his troops to take the field, shot off his horse. General Maney will arrive at the scene a little bit behind him and notice what's going on and order his men to stand fast. The regulars had done their job in halting the Confederate advance just long enough to establish this line.

Eben Hannaford of the 6th Ohio infantry and the rest of the men were equally determined to hold the line. Eben says, "there was no time for fear. Every eye strained forward on that line of dingy gray with its banner broad, barred, and faded flaunting defiantly in the center, wavering, reeling, checked completely as the full weight of our fire poured into their ranks."

Fire.

[GUNS FIRING]

Over the next 24 hours, the Union Army will dig in to this position and fortify this as earthworks continue across this field. The Confederates do not attempt to cross this field again, instead on January 2nd, try coming in through the back door using Breckinridge's division. That attempt also fails. And this ends up being one of the more important victories for the Union Army, establishing them here in Middle, Tennessee and removing the breadbasket that was Middle Tennessee for the Confederacy and establishing a clear route from here all the way to Savannah, Georgia and beyond.

[ALL CHEER]

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Duration:
4 minutes, 6 seconds

Ranger Jeremy Childs and a contingent of Union infantry tell the story of the decisive fighting along the Nashville Pike during the afternoon of December 31, 1862.

Video filmed and edited by VIP Mike Browning.

 

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You can see the cars passing down the Wilkinson pike there. And beyond that, as I said, would be Sheridan's division of the right wing. Beyond that would be Jefferson C. Davis's division. And beyond that would be Richard Johnson's division, which would be the far right extent of the Union line.

Now Sheridan and Jefferson C. Davis-- and I keep saying the "C" because we don't want to confuse him with the president of the Confederacy. When they receive the smattering of orders coming out of headquarters and understand that their job will be to hold the line, will make preparations and send out orders to their subcommanders, their brigade commanders, and regimental commanders to make preparations to have the men up, breakfasted, loaded, and in line of battle by 4:00 AM, two hours before daylight.

Further down on the right wing, though, as I said, Alexander McDowell McCook once he hears the orders to make preparations to hold for those four hours, he promptly goes to bed. He issues, really, no positive orders to his division commanders. It's up to Sheridan and Davis basically to come up with this action on their own.

His right most commander, Richard Johnson, is perhaps the most wrong man for the job at the wrong time. The men are forbidden to have campfires, less they give away their position. But here's an interesting story. Rosecrans forbids his entire army to build fires so makes the night even go more cold and miserable.

But then he has his cavalry light fires beyond the right end of his line to burn through the night to try to convince Bragg that he has more men than he really does. Now what kind of idiot actually looks at three miles long of dark, then sees maybe a mile of burning fires and think, oh, that must be the enemy down there? I'll tell you who, Bragg, or actually his commanders down there.

But as McCown and Cleburne are putting themselves into position to make sure that they are beyond the enemy line, guess what they're using as their markers. The fires. And so they are way beyond the right flank of the Union. Rosecrans snookered himself on this one, boy, because now the Confederates are even in a better position than they had been when Wharton had reported that they were just a little bit beyond. Now they're way out there.

The men go to sleep. It's a fitful one at best. And then when dawn begins to approach and the sky begins to turn that kind of gray that it does as the sun is beginning to come up, then permission is granted for the men to build fires. Union soldiers start to make them, get out their salt pork, start to put the cups on with a little coffee. And that's going to be it.

As that dawn is approaching P.R. Jones of the 10th Texas Cavalry and the boys of Ector's Texas Brigade in McCown's division will receive their whiskey ration. About half of the men will take it. The other half won't, which means the half that took it gets double. And they will get themselves in line of battle, preparing to move forward quickly and quietly as possible to get in or around the end of that line and smash into it.

Sergeant Major Lyman S. Whitney of the 34th Illinois Infantry right down at the corner where that little turn is made to kind of refuse a bit of the line will go to one of the fires and grab himself a cup of hot coffee. And then as it is his duty as the highest ranking non-commisssioned officer in the regiment, he goes out to check the skirmishers-- the men that have been thrown out ahead of the line spread out about five, 10 paces from each other with very simple orders, if the enemy starts approaching, shoot at them, that way we know they're coming.

And he starts walking up there to check the pickets. And then before long, he's nearly run over by one of the guys from the picket line running back saying, they're coming, they're coming. But he hasn't heard a shot fired. And he actually looks and sees a lot of the fellows are running back, and they're not doing what they're supposed to do.

Well, he's a little suspicious about that. He goes in and walks up to the top over a little hump in the ground. And he looks out, drops his coffee cup, because there are 11,000 men in gray and butternut advancing quietly, not firing, but at the run heading in his direction. And he turns around and goes running back to the men who are not standing at their arms or ready to fire, but are still warming their hands over the fires and drinking that grateful cup of hot coffee.

I don't really have to tell you what happens next, do I? It is a rout The Confederates sweep like a tidal wave over the top of Johnson's division.

Within minutes, thousands of men are either dead, wounded, or running for their lives as they just pound right through. In fact, Jones, as he's going through some of the remnants of the Yankee camp fires, actually notices one poor soul lying dead, sitting there next to the fire still clutching his coffee cup, which by the way, if we ever put that quote on a coffee cup, it would sell like hotcakes. I swear it would.

Another Union soldier talked about how him and his buddies go running up to their stacks of arms, they pull them off, ram in the first round, put the cap on, get ready to resist the enemy tide, only to realize that there are already 250 yards behind enemy lines. The Confederates have already passed them. And now they got to work and picked their way back to whatever is left of their regiment heading back up towards the road you see out here behind me, the Wilkinson Pike.

It is a complete and utter rout. One Union soldier in the 15th Ohio said, shortly after his unit was bashed and beaten, he turned around and ran with nothing in his head but to run for the rest of the day. The life of Johnson's division and their grit has literally been completely and utterly wiped out.

And the Confederates are now streaming in behind, pushing them, and getting in behind Jefferson C. Davis's division. So right there about even 7, 7:30 in the morning, this is looking like it is going to be a complete and war-changing Confederate victory. Because they can push these guys like we said and get them trapped away from Nashville and buckled into that bend in the Stones River, that could be the end of the Army of the Cumberland.

Imagine them not being part of the rest of this story. That would change the Civil War, wouldn't it?

But within that success lie the seeds of the beginning of unraveling of Bragg's plans. Because Johnson's boys instead of being good boys and running up kind of behind the rest of their compadres, they break off and start heading to the north and west. And what do you think McCown's boys do as they see those Yankees running for their lives?

They chase them like wolves at their rabbits, not bending in around behind the line, but heading off this way. As they do that, they were hooked up with General Benjamin Franklin Cheathem's division to their north. As they start to head that way, a gap begins to form.

Patrick Cleburne back here in support, he's supposed to be running behind McCown. And as McCown keeps swinging that door and pushing up, eventually his men are going to run out of ammunition and run out of energy. And his men would pass through those lines and keep the screws turning, keep that attack going, the momentum flying.

Because again, we said this has to happen very quickly. You have to drive these guys and give them no chance to reset somewhere behind, because you are literally driving them into themselves and helping them essentially build a defensive position if you don't take them out very quickly. But now he can't do that because Cleburne is too good a soldier. And he realizes as that gap grows, the Yankees could pour right back through and shatter the Confederate ranks.

And so he moves his men up into the side and fills the gap. By 8:30 in the morning, the Confederate reserve force has been committed. And they're still a long, long, way from home. Now they'll still be beat back Jefferson Davis's division. They'll bend Sheridan's division back until it looks just like this picture here.

And the fighting begins on the late morning of December 31, 1862 in this area known as the "Slaughter Pen" that will really begin to slow down the Confederate tide. But it was that morning of December 31, when Confederate hopes for a war changing victory were at their height-- they had crushed division, brigade after brigade after brigade of the Union Army, seemed to have their plan working just as Bragg wrote it down on paper.

But bit by bit, step by step, minute by minute as Union resistance began to increase and their own ability to coordinate and communicate and keep on task began to fall apart and, in fact, in the seeds of that seeming victory that was in the making, already the tide of the battle was beginning to turn to ultimately make this one of the most important Union victories of the war.

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Duration:
9 minutes, 59 seconds

Listen to the story of the opening hours of the Battle of Stones River and discover how a promising start for the Confederates also held the seeds of defeat.

Video filmed and edited by VIP Mike Browning.

 
 
Confederate cavalrymen riding in line

Forrest's Murfreesboro Raid

Check out the segment from 15:32 to 22:35 for the story of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest's July 13, 1862 capture of Murfreesboro and see clips of cavalry and infantry demonstrations.

Last updated: November 9, 2018

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