This battle must be won.
Ambrose Burnside had certainly blundered in the East as 1862 drew toward a close. In fact, he was not quite done blundering. Having sat warily across from Lee at Falmouth for a month after the Battle of Fredericksburg, he thought he might try again to do him some harm. This time he would march upriver, cross to the south bank, get in Lee’s rear along his line of communication and supply, and force a battle. On January 19, he got his men in motion upstream in a hard, relentless, icy rain. What followed was three days of men, horses, and mules floundering vainly in a vast, bottomless mire of cold Virginia mud. One reporter thought Burnside’s army struggling in the mud looked like “the elemental wrecks of another Deluge.” On the south bank Rebels covering the Rappahannock fords could not help but enjoy the Yankees’ suffering. One posted a sign: “This Way to Richmond,” with an arrow pointing the wrong way. Going on was hopeless. Burnside’s men–sick, wet, bone-weary, and deeply demoralized–slogged back the way they came. The Mud March was over, and so was Burnside’s tenure as commander of the Army of the Potomac.
With its eastern army out of the war for the winter, the Union would have to look westward for success. Indeed, Henry Halleck had been urging William Rosecrans to get the Army of the Cumberland in motion for some time now. Rosecrans was in Nashville and Halleck wanted very much for him to go to Chattanooga, Chattanooga being the gate to Atlanta and Atlanta the Gate City of the South itself. (Lincoln himself wanted Chattanooga because he could have no peace until Unionist east Tennessee was firmly back in the fold.) Barring the line to Chattanooga was Braxton Bragg’s army, not quite 40,000 men, in and around Murfreesboro, thirty miles southeast of Nashville. Halleck wired Rosecrans regularly to advance, even threatened to remove him if he didn’t; Rosecrans responded with equal regularity that, threat or no threat, he would advance when he was thoroughly prepared.
William Starke Rosecrans was not unwilling to fight. Indeed he had fought well throughout the conflict thus far, first in western Virginia, then at Iuka and Corinth, the latter being a fierce two-day fight that had been hand-to-hand at times. No rear-guard general, Rosecrans was conspicuous and ubiquitous at the front, and his men liked him. A forty-two-year-old West Point engineer, he had a long red blade of a Roman nose and hazel eyes that burned with restless energy. He was richly and dexterously profane, but never, he argued, blasphemous. (He was a devout Roman Catholic who carried a crucifix on his watch-chain.) Although a hard drinker, he was an inventive, analytical, and able commander.
His problem now was to drive the Confederates out of the road to Chattanooga. His army listed more than 80,000, but nearly half that number were committed to garrison and guard duty in and around Nashville. John Hunt Morgan and “that devil” Forrest were rampaging around in west Tennessee and Kentucky well in his rear, but he couldn’t afford to have them come rampaging down on him. The Cumberland army was organized into three wings: T. L. Crittenden the Left Wing, redoubtable George Thomas the Center, and Alexander McCook the Right Wing. When it came time to move, it would be with 44,000 fighting men, veterans of the Battle of Perryville back in October.
On the day after Christmas 1862, Rosecrans sent his three columns toward their rendezvous with Bragg on the banks of Stones River. By December 30, after some scuffling with Rebel cavalry, they were all in a line running roughly north-south opposite Bragg on the west bank just north of Murfreesboro: McCook on the right, Thomas in the center, and Crittenden on the left with his left on the river.
Bragg had the Army of Tennessee–slightly more than 37,000 men–in line with their backs to the river. This was not as vulnerable a position as it might at first appear. The drought that had begun that summer and stretched into fall meant that the river could be forded nearly anywhere. Braxton Bragg was a tall, spare forty-four-year-old West Pointer with a grizzled beard and a single bushy eyebrow. He was ill-tempered and in ill health. He suffered migraine headaches, and, it was said, he had the sickest stomach in the Confederacy. Chronically flatulent, he was not a pleasant man to be around. Just then, he was quite probably the most despised man in the Confederacy. The Southern press excoriated him for the bloody mess he had made to no useful end at Perryville. Officers and men alike loathed him for what they believed to be his utter lack of leadership as well his life-long habit of blaming every evil thing that had ever befallen him on subordinates. One of his troopers, Sam Watkins of Tennessee, admitted that not “a single soldier in the whole army ever loved or respected him.” In fact, Bragg had but one friend in all the world, and that was probably the only piece of luck he would ever have. He had had one shining day as a soldier, back at the Battle of Buena Vista in Mexico in 1847, when he had ridden to the rescue of a hard-pressed Mississippi regiment commanded by then-Colonel Jefferson Davis. Davis, who, it was said, never forgot a friend nor forgave a foe, continued to sustain him, but he was the only one who did. To this man, then, fell the task of keeping Chattanooga in the Confederacy.
On the night of December 30th, with the lines so close that each could hear the other’s bands, both commanders made last-minute preparations for the attacks each intended to launch in the morning. Rosecrans ordered Crittenden’s men on the left to attack from the north, then wheel to the right, driving the Confederates before him toward Murfreesboro. Thomas would advance in the center and cut off retreating Rebels. All McCook had to do was hold the right. If he were attacked, he was to fall back slowly, refusing his right. If not, he was to advance himself, “not vigorously but warmly.” In an attempt to persuade Bragg to shift strength away from the point of attack on the Federal left, he had McCook’s men build a long line of campfires well to the right of their actual position. At this time Bragg had William Hardee’s corps opposite Crittenden on the Federal left and Bishop Polk’s corps opposite Thomas in the center. Now concerned about what the Federals were up to on their right, he first wisely called up John McCown’s reserve division, and they filed in on Polk’s left. Then he called to Hardee on his right. He was to leave one division–John C. Breckinridge’s–where it was, across the river covering his far right. With the other–Pat Cleburne’s–Hardee was to come himself in support of McCown. In the morning both divisions would go smashing down on McCook, wheel to the right, driving the Yankees north toward the river. Both Rosecrans and Bragg had drawn up the very same plan: hold with the right, strike with the left, and roll the enemy up left to right (a mirror image of the plan Beauregard and McDowell shared at First Bull Run). If both attacks got off together, the battle might rage around in a circle. Whoever was beaten to the punch, could be in a good deal of trouble in the morning. That night, however, the men who would decide this business sounded distinctly unwarlike. Just before taps, both sides were singing–nearly 80,000 voices together–a sentimental favorite, “Home Sweet Home.”
On the last morning of 1862, in the twilight before sunrise, Alexander McCook’s 16,000 men were fixing breakfast in preparation for the day of battle. Their orders were to advance and hold the Confederate left as soon as they had their chow. But the Confederate left was already on its way to them: first, McCown’s skirmishers, then his long, heavy double line of battle came crashing through the cedar scrub with a Rebel yell. A Tennessee trooper in a front-rank brigade remembered that they “swooped down on those Yankees like a whirl-a-gust of woodpeckers in a hail storm.” The shock fell first on McCook’s right-most division–R. W. Johnson’s–and broke it up almost immediately. In the first half-hour of the fight half its men were killed, wounded, captured, or running. (McCook’s, it seems, was a hard-luck corps: in their very first fight they’d been holding the Federal left back at Perryville when two of Polk’s divisions had routed them.) In the Federal center Jefferson C. Davis’ division struggled to hold, but with Pat Cleburne’s division coming up neatly in support of McCown’s assault wave, they, too, were driven back toward their own left and rear–just as Bragg’s battle plan called for. (Davis, by the way, was infamous for the murder of a brother officer in the lobby of a Louisville hotel back in September. With a borrowed pistol he had coolly shot to death William Nelson, a major-general.) With McCook’s right and center wrecked and in flight, the pressure fell now on Sheridan’s division on his left.
The blow did not come from McCown and Cleburne, however. By this time Polk in the Confederate center had advanced in support, sending Benjamin Cheatham’s and J. M. Withers’ divisions forward–again, just as Bragg had directed. Sheridan, though, was accustomed to driving, not being driven, and he settled in to make a fight of it. He found good ground to do so–a thick tangle of cedar growing up among great slabs of rocks and boulders. Withers’ men made three determined assaults but were repulsed. Cheatham’s men then came up to shoot it out with Sheridan. When Cleburne, too, came up and wheeled in on the Federal right flank, the Confederate pressure was punishing. The Yankees, their ammunition nearly exhausted, withdrew from the thicket in good order, though forced to abandon eight guns for lack of horses. They fell back on the Nashville Turnpike and reformed. Soon after, Sheridan was joined by one of Thomas’ divisions–J. S. Negley’s–which had been dislodged from the center by Polk’s attack. It was ten o’clock in the morning. Bragg had thus far done exactly as he intended: he’d struck the Federal right hard, wheeled to his own right, and driven the Yankees toward the river. Their casualties were high, and they had surrendered nearly thirty guns and three thousand prisoners. McCook’s men were three miles from the place where they had boiled their coffee before sunrise. They faced roughly south now, at right angles to their original position and at right angles to the rest of Rosecrans’ army.
While his right wing was collapsing, Rosecrans was with Crittenden on the far left seeing to the attack he intended there. Horatio Van Cleve’s division was already over Stones River preparing to pitch into Breckinridge on the east bank. Two more were not far behind ready to join in the drive. Rosecrans could hear the rumble of fighting on McCook’s front but could not from that distance gauge the intensity of the struggle, nor know that Sheridan was fighting for the life of his army in that cedar thicket. As far as he knew, McCook was doing just what he’d been told–advancing warmly but not vigorously on the Rebel left. His first hard news came from a courier from McCook reporting his desperate situation and calling for reinforcements. Even then, he thought his plan was “working right.” The same courier galloped back with this order: “Tell General McCook to contest every inch of ground. If he holds them we will swing into Murfreesboro with our left and cut them off.” At length, Rosecrans learned that McCook had not yielded inches but three long miles. Now, suddenly and completely alive to the possibility of disaster, Old Rosy paled visibly but acted immediately and intelligently. The two divisions of Crittenden still west of the river–John Palmer’s and Thomas Wood’s–were to go at once to the collapsing right. Van Cleve was to recross the river, leave a brigade to resist a sudden thrust from Breckinridge, and hurry to the right as well. Galloping off, Wood called behind him to Rosecrans: “Goodbye, General. We’ll all meet at the hatter’s, as one coon said to the other when the dogs were after them.” Old Rosy was not amused. “This battle must be won,” he said. “This battle must be won.” Then he, too, galloped toward the roar of battle along the Nashville Turnpike.
This day at Stones River would show that William Rosecrans was made of stern stuff. As he rode toward the fight, a cannonball tore the head off of his chief of staff riding at his side, splattering Rosecrans with his blood. On he galloped without pause, appearing to one witness “as firm as iron and as fixed as fate.” What he found when he reached Sheridan was an unholy mess. Units had got all mixed up. Fragments of Johnson’s and Davis’ wrecked divisions were wandering everywhere and McCook was trying to rally them. Crittenden was getting his men up, but some were going to the right and some left, and he was in danger of losing control of them. Such a line as Rosecrans could be said to hold was the wreckage of McCook on the right, George Thomas’s two divisions still solid in the center, and Crittenden trying to get organized on the left. Worse yet for the Yankees, Crittenden’s line bent back sharply toward his left rear, and Thomas’ bent back sharply toward his right rear, creating a vulnerable salient in the center where the lines met. For Rosecrans, it was well that George Thomas was on hand to defend this critical angle, for it would be hard to find a steadier soul under fire.
On the other side, Braxton Bragg, who had had things pretty much his own way thus far, saw the angle, too. Believing it to be the key to the battle now, he determined to break it. Within the angle was a stand of cedar on a slight rise of ground known as Round Forest. Behind it, on a scrubby hill, Rosecrans posted fifty guns. The fight for this position would give Round Forest a new name: Hell’s Half-Acre. Sometime before noon Bragg made his first thrust. One of Withers’ Mississippi brigades went forward across open ground and into furious musketry and the roar of fifty cannon wheel to wheel. They had to cross a cotton field on their way, and many snatched cotton from the unharvested bolls to stuff in their ears against the roar. It was a valiant effort but doomed. One in three never got back. About noon one of Cheatham’s Tennessee brigades tried again, and they were mauled even more severely. The 8th Tennessee, for example, left three of every four of its number on the field. Bragg was beginning to use up his army.
The four Confederate divisions on the field were just about fought out now, but there was still Breckinridge’s division across the river, five brigades that had done no fighting thus far. Breckinridge’s assignment had been to hold the Federal left while Cleburne and McCown struck the right, but of course by now Crittenden was long gone, committed to the fight along the turnpike. At one o’clock Bragg ordered Breckinridge to leave one brigade to cover the right and to hurry across the river with the remaining four. The first two arrived about two o’clock, formed up, and went smartly forward into the open and destruction. Even as they slaughtered them, the Yankees could not help but admire their spine. One thought it was “the most daring, courageous, and best-executed attack… made on our line between pike and river,” but it failed like the two before it. There was to be just one last bloodletting this day. At four o’clock Breckinridge’s last two brigades came up. Bragg’s fourth attack rushed forward, was severely punished, and rolled back. As darkness drew on, Hell’s Half-Acre fell silent–except of course for the cries of the wounded.
The last day of 1862 was the last of this life for many. Bragg’s losses numbered 9,000 killed, wounded, and missing men. Rosecrans counted 12,000 casualties. As far as Bragg was concerned, he had won the day and wired the news to Richmond: “The enemy has yielded his strong position and is falling back. We occupy whole field and shall follow him… God has granted us a happy New Year.” The problem for Bragg was that Rosecrans had not quite made up his mind to surrender the field and fall back at all. In council of war that night, Rosecrans did in fact consider a retreat. George Thomas, asleep in his chair, awoke when he heard the word “retreat.” “This army doesn’t retreat,” he said and went back to sleep. Actually, Rosecrans didn’t believe he could retreat if he wanted to. That night his own men had given him the scare of his life. Although he had strictly ordered that no fires be kindled, his cavalry pickets covering his right and rear surrendered to the cold and human nature. Rosecrans could see burning brands moving from place to place off in the darkness. These lights, he believed, were not his pickets, but Bragg’s infantry forming up in his rear by torchlight. There was no choice now but hold his line and fight it out tomorrow. Bragg, too, was considering signs in the darkness. He could hear the rumbling of wagons up the road leading north. These, he believed, were moving in preparation for Rosecran’s retreat the next day, a prospect Bragg devoutly wished to see fulfilled. In fact, they were wagons carrying Federal wounded to the military hospitals in Nashville.
New Year’s Day 1863 dawned cold and clear, and in the first light both commanders now saw the actual shape of things. Rosecrans had withdrawn from Round Forest to straighten his line, but he was pretty much where he had been when the fighting ended the night before. Polk and Hardee were in line opposite. Having fought to this standoff, neither commander knew quite what to do next. Bragg thought that one more shove might persuade Rosecrans to retreat as he ought to. Accordingly, he sent Polk’s men forward into Round Forest, the position that four assaults had failed to seize yesterday. When they came out of the cedar on the other side, they found the Yankees as immovable as the day before. Rosecrans sent Van Cleve’s division back across Stones River. Now led by Colonel Samuel Beatty (Van Cleve had gone down with a wound), they set up on a little hill on the east bank. Men in blue and gray spent the rest of the day burying their dead, tending their wounded and coping with the cold and hunger. This was one field where the Yankees were hungrier than their foes. Before the battle, Joe Wheeler’s troopers had galloped a big loop around the Federal army, swooped down on a wagon train, and rode off with their rations.
The following morning, January 2, Bragg rode out to examine the Yankee lines with a view to going back on the offensive. Van Cleve’s division on that little east-bank hill concerned him. It would be impossible to send Polk forward if Federal guns could put enfilade fire down on his flank. To push the Yankees off that hill, he called on John C. Breckinridge whose brigades had made the final two attacks on Round Forest two days ago. Breckinridge was a hale and handsome Kentuckian, just forty-two years old. He had been vice president of the United States under James Buchanan and had represented Southern Democrats in the fateful presidential race of 1860. He was a shrewd politician and a capable commander, and he was convinced that this attack was a mistake. To Bragg, he explained that he would have to attack high ground over a long, naked plain. Further, if Yankees on the east bank could enfilade an advance by Polk, then Yankees on the west bank could enfilade his as well. Finally, two Yankee brigades had reinforced the position that morning. They were sound enough arguments, but Bragg would have none of them: “I have given the order to attack… and expect it to be obeyed.”
Breckinridge rode off to get his five brigades in motion across the river, as convinced as ever that they were about to carry out a deadly folly. He gave one of his brigadiers this instruction: if he were killed, “do justice to my memory and tell the people that I believed this attack to be very unwise and tried to prevent it.” On the west bank, Crittenden could clearly see Confederates forming up to the south on a little ridge opposite Beatty. It would take them a while to get out of column and into line of battle. In the meantime he would put his artillery chief, Captain John Mendenhall, to work supporting Beatty across the river. On a bend of the river stood a scrubby hill almost directly opposite Beatty’s hill on the far bank. By four o’clock that afternoon, Mendenhall had fifty-eight guns on it. At the same time Breckinridge’s five brigades–4,500 men–stepped out into the open and headed for Beatty’s hill. They came under artillery and rifle fire from the hill quickly enough but came on spiritedly. When they reached the hill, they paused to give back some fire of their own. Then, with a volley and a yell, they charged for the crest. Beatty’s men had seen enough. Before the Kentuckians got there, they were gone, running for the rear. However, at the very moment of wild triumph, came disaster. For with the bluecoats gone, Mendenhall could let loose with his fifty-eight guns. The hill, now at least briefly Breckinridge’s, exploded. A hundred rounds a minute fell before the Rebels quite knew what hit them. They made an effort to swing to their left, face the river, and confront the guns, but the fire was too heavy. There was nothing to be done but swing left once more and run for the ridge that had been their jumping-off point a little more than an hour previously. Rebels were in flight south and Yankees north, and, one Federal across the way observed, it “was difficult to say [who] was running away the more rapidly.” It was a spectacle that might have been comic if it hadn’t been so bloody. The attack that Breckinridge believed “very unwise” cost his division 1,700 casualties, a third of those who started from the ridge. In the last light of day Beatty’s men, reinforced by a second division from across the river, returned to take possession of their hill once more.
The next morning a sullen rain fell on both armies. Neither Bragg nor Rosecrans was eager to try the offensive again with their sadly mauled armies. Neither was inclined to retreat from what both regarded as the field of victory. In Bragg’s camp, however, the counsel was decidedly in favor of withdrawal. Cheatham, Withers, and Polk finally persuaded Bragg that resuming the fight would mean disaster. “Common prudence and the safety of my army,” he later wrote, compelled him to withdraw under cover of darkness on January 3. He eventually established a new line along the Duck River near Tullahoma, 35 miles southeast of Murfreesboro, and went into camp. Rosecrans allowed Bragg to withdraw without so much as firing a shot. It may be that coming a hair’s breadth from disaster that first day had shocked his offensive spirit. He was content to go into camp at Murfreesboro where the Army of the Cumberland would sit for several months. In truth, both armies urgently needed a long rest and refit. Put simply, of the 80,000 men engaged at Stones River, 25,000 were killed, wounded, or captured. Bragg reported 1,300 killed, 8,000 wounded, and 2500 captured; Rosecrans 1,700 killed, 7,800 wounded, and 3,700 captured. This butcher’s bill was worse than that of Antietam, where twice as many men had struggled.
What had been purchased at such cost? Bragg regarded the battle as a victory and the Southern press was content to regard it likewise. Bragg’s men, at any rate, were satisfied that they had had the better of the fighting. They were not satisfied that they had gained much from it, though. As at Perryville, they had fought a bloody, bitter contest and gained success only to retreat from what they had been told was a victory. Certainly, they, officers and men alike, held Bragg in greater contempt than ever. The Northern press and public, perhaps desperate after a string of defeats, greeted Rosecrans’ battle as a great and glorious victory. Lincoln, still smarting from Burnside’s disaster at Fredericksburg two weeks earlier, wired Rosecrans: “God bless you, and all with you. I can never forget, whilst I remember anything,” he later wrote, “that you gave us a hard-earned victory.” A more balanced view, however, holds that the Army of the Cumberland and the Army of Tennessee had an awful collision on the banks of Stones River and when the bloodletting was over, each was pretty much where it started. Stalemated, both armies went into camp for the winter. After Stones River one wise Rebel wrote home: “I see no prospects of peace for a long time. The Yankees can’t whip us and we can never whip them.”