By the last days of December 1862, the Civil War was more than halfway through its second year, and certainly its course had turned against the Confederacy. The fall of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, the loss of New Orleans, the occupation of Nashville, the capture of Island #10, the capture of Memphis, the Federal triumph at the battle of Shiloh, the Union takeover of the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, the strategic defeat at Antietam, and the failure of the Kentucky campaign provided indisputable evidence that the war was going badly for the South. Despite the many losses, missed opportunities, and disappointments, though, the Confederates still exhibited a fighting spirit. Determined yet to overcome, they stood on the eve of another great battle as the end of December drew nigh.
The Union’s Army of the Cumberland, some forty-four thousand strong and commanded by Major General William S. Rosecrans, was drawn up about thirty miles southeast of Nashville. Positioned along the banks of the west fork of Stones River near the small town of Murfreesboro, it faced Braxton Bragg’s thirty-eight-thousand-man Army of Tennessee. Each commander planned to strike his enemy’s right flank early on the morning of December 31. Both armies rested astride the Nashville Turnpike and the railroad from Nashville.
On the night before the bloodletting began, just as soldiers of both armies prepared for what promised to be a restless night, one of the most unusual events of the war took place. In the stillness of the cold winter night, the military bands of both armies began to play their favorite pieces. For a time, the music-making assumed the characteristics of a North-South contest, as “The Bonnie Blue Flag” competed with “Hail Columbia.” After a while, one of the bands started playing “Home Sweet Home,” and, one after another, various bands, Union and Confederate, joined in, until all the bands in both armies were playing “Home Sweet Home.” It was a strange prelude to one of the bloodiest battles of the war.
Early on the morning of December 31, a cold, wet, and miserable dawn, the Confederate Corps of Lieutenant General William J. Hardee struck first. Streaming out of the clumps of black cedars in the dim morning light, they stunned Major General Alexander M. McCook’s troops, who were still at breakfast. The full force of the assault on the Federal right wing fell on the brigades of Brigadier General Edward N. Kirk and Brigadier General August Willich. At the moment of the Confederate charge, Kirk’s men were up and under arms, but some of the artillery horses had been unhitched and taken to water. The resulting confusion was compounded when Kirk suffered a mortal wound. Willich’s men were cooking and eating breakfast, their arms stacked. Willich himself, returning from a visit with another general, rode right into the Confederates and was captured. Ironically, Rosecrans enhanced the effectiveness of the Confederate attack by deceiving the Confederate commander into thinking the Federal right flank was stronger than it was. The Union commander ordered campfires built hundreds of yards beyond McCook’s right. The deception fooled Bragg, who ordered his attacking columns to move more widely to the Yankee flank. When they struck, the Confederates attacked at a better angle, and only Brigadier General Philip H. Sheridan of McCook’s corps made a fighting retreat with his division.
Hardee’s corps, supported by Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk’s corps, spearheaded the Southern effort and forced the Federals to retreat some two and one-half miles to the Nashville Turnpike and railroad. Once he realized the magnitude of the Confederate assault, Rosecrans called off his planned offensive and worked to build a defensive line along the turnpike to protect his line of supply and reinforcement from Nashville. By noon, the Federal corps of Major General George H. Thomas held the key sector, where the Union line bent back to the west, just south of the turnpike and railroad.
Bragg ordered Major General John C. Breckinridge’s division, the largest in the army, to abandon its position east of Stones River and reinforce the effort west of the river. If Bragg could break the Federal resistance and cut them off from their Nashville base, it seemed likely he would achieve a great victory.
The fiercest fighting of the afternoon came at the angle of the Union line in a dense four-acre thicket of cedars known locally as the Round Forest and afterward dubbed “Hell’s Half-Acre” by soldiers who struggled there. Thomas’s men held the critical ground that covered both the turnpike and the railroad, and the Confederates lost another opportunity for triumph.
Both armies spent New Year’s Day reorganizing and preparing to renew the battle. The Federals sent troops across Stones River and occupied a ridge from which enfilading fire could threaten the Southern position. On January 2, Bragg ordered Breckinridge to recross the river and drive the Union forces from the high ground. Breckinridge protested the impossibility of the mission but obeyed the order. Late in the afternoon, Breckinridge attacked and drove the Federals from the hill. As the Confederates pursued the enemy toward the river, however, they were met by massed Union artillery fire from a commanding position on the opposite side of the stream. The Southerners suffered heavy casualties and fell back, while the Union troops recrossed the river and once more occupied the high ground. General Rosecrans held his position the next day, and that night Bragg decided to retreat, withdrawing along the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad for some thirty miles to Tullahoma.
Total casualties for both sides reached an estimated 24,645. No other Tennessee battle quite equaled that figure for casualties, although a few hundred more men died at Shiloh than at Stones River. The Confederate retreat left the Union forces in possession of the battlefield, and General Rosecrans claimed Stones River as a Federal triumph, a claim quickly accepted in Washington, D.C.
Peter Cozzens, No Better Place to Die: The Battle of Stones River (1990); James L. McDonough, Stones River: Bloody Winter in Tennessee (1980)