With morale flagging as the Civil War dragged into its second year, Abraham Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck sought to unleash a strategic combination that would produce a decision in the bloody struggle. They sought to take advantage of their material superiority over the South, launching a three-pronged coordinated offensive that would overwhelm the Confederacy's ability to shift reinforcements along its interior lines. As Gen. Ambrose Burnside advanced in Virginia and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant advanced in Mississippi, the responsibility for Tennessee, the strategic central position, fell to Gen. William S. Rosecrans. On December 26, Rosecrans's army left Nashville and marched on Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg's position at Murfreesboro.
The two armies met on a battlefield on the banks of Stones River on the evening of December 30. Both generals formed plans of attack for the next morning while their soldiers uneasily slept on their muskets--in some places the opposing lines were less than four hundred yards apart. On December 31, Bragg's dawn assault struck home before the Union army could form for its own attack. After six hours of savage fighting the Confederates bent the Union line nearly in half, but Gen. Phil Sheridan organized a determined defense in a cedar thicket now known as the "Slaughter Pen" and prevented disaster. Braxton Bragg, seeking to dislodge Sheridan and splinter the line once and for all, spent the afternoon directing a series of assaults on a salient that had formed in the Round Forest, or "Hell's Half-Acre." The Southerners went in piecemeal and were unable to carry woods.
Having inflicted severe damage on the Union army, Bragg spent the day of January 1 waiting for Rosecrans to retreat. When January 2 dawned with Rosecrans still in position, Bragg realized that his own situation was becoming untenable. The Federals had managed to reform into a strong defensive line and they would soon be receiving heavy reinforcements. That afternoon, Bragg ordered Gen. John Breckinridge's division to seize a hill that could function as a deadly artillery platform in the Union rear. Breckinridge objected on the grounds that his men would be advancing across an open field under cannon fire towards a numerically superior foe, but Bragg overruled him. Breckinridge's division was shattered in the determined charge. With no cards left to play, Bragg ordered a retreat.
The Battle of Stones River was a strategic Union victory. The grand offensive had failed to the east (The Battle of Fredericksburg) and west (The Battle of Chickasaw Bayou), but Rosecrans's success in Middle Tennessee reassured the weary Northern public. Braxton Bragg's army spent months paralyzed by an officers' revolt that sought to remove Bragg from command as punishment for his failure at Stones River. When Rosecrans launched his next attack in the summer of 1863, he took the bickering Confederates by surprise and forced them into Georgia. The Battle of Stones River secured Union control of Middle Tennessee for the remainder of the war.