Our park historian at Antietam often speaks of the “thousand mile front” of the Civil War in 1862. It is a point well stated. There is more to the War than simply a few miles of opposing forces here and there (especially in the East). But along that front were three major Union prongs: Burnside and the Army of the Potomac in Virginia, Grant in Mississippi, and William S. Rosecrans in Tennessee. We have written much this month upon the failure at Fredericksburg; and Grant (more specifically William T. Sherman’s expeditionary force of 32,000) was unsuccessful in Mississippi at the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou (the opening event of the Vicksburg Campaign – just 150 years ago this past week, 12/26 to 12/29).
The one success for the Union would be the Battle of Stone’s River – also known as “Murfreesboro,” so named after the nearby town in Tennessee – begun on this date of December 31, 150 years ago. Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland marched southeast out of Nashville on the 26th toward Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee, meeting him ultimately on the shores of the Stones River.
The battle opened at dawn on the 31st with a savagely successful attack by Bragg’s men upon the Union’s right flank. Preventing a total disaster was Philip Sheridan who organized a defense in a thicket of trees known hence as “the slaughter pen.”
Errant reports were that Rosecrans was retreating on the 1st of January. But the following day (the 2nd) would actually see reinforcements soon joining the reformed Union lines. That afternoon, General John Breckinridge’s division was ordered by Bragg to secure a hill in the rear of the Union position – with a view toward using it as an artillery base. The movement would need to be accomplished across open grounds in the face of cannon fire, and Breckenridge protested the command. Nonetheless it was ordered, and the fears of Breckenridge were realized in the destruction of his forces. Bragg was thereby obliged to retreat from the field.
- Confederate officers protested bitterly about their distaste for Bragg, desiring his removal … all of which yielded deleterious effects upon the army into the summer.
- Control of Middle Tennessee was lost to the Confederates for the duration of the War.
- The strategic Union victory was one bright spot in an otherwise dismal winter for the Northern cause.
- Stones River produced the highest percentage of casualties on both sides of all the major battles of the Civil War. For the Union, losses totaled about 13,000 of the 41,400 engaged; and for the Confederates about 12,000 of 35,000 engaged.