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Civil War Trust

New Year's Hell

The Battle of Stones River
by Robert Thompson

Breckinridge's Charge

I have previously examined both those Civil War battles considered pivotal by historians as well as those of lesser importance, those fought on the margins of the war. However, there is yet another category of Civil War battle that bears some exploration. That category would include those battles that involved large armies in key theaters of the war, but that, for the most part, are not generally well known. These are engagements that have faded from memory because, while they were important at the time, they have been overshadowed by the “greater” events of the war. And, while Civil War historians know about these battles, the average American would not recognize their names if you mentioned them.

Of these battles, and the one I believe most noteworthy, occurred along the banks of Stone’s River, just outside Murfreesboro, Tennessee during the New Year’s holiday of 1862-1863. Fought during miserable weather that saw bitterly cold rain and sleet, the three-day battle would involve more than 80,000 soldiers and inflict staggering casualties, with over 23,500 men killed, wounded, or missing. The fighting would, at times, be some of the most brutal and ferocious of the war, and, as always, there be incredible bravery and cruelty, as well as great leadership and leadership that was almost criminally inept.

As 1862 approached its end, both sides had seen success and failure. In the Eastern Theater, Confederate forces had been under the leadership of Robert E. Lee since June and, while the Maryland Campaign had ended unsuccessfully in September, he had driven George McClellan from the doors of Richmond back to Washington, smashed John Pope’s Army of Virginia at Second Manassas, and inflicted a massive defeat on the Army of the Potomac at Fredericksburg in early December. However, the West was a different story.

The Battle of Shiloh
The 1862 battles of Shiloh and Perryville exacted a fearsome toll on the Western soldiers and hardened those who remained. (Library of Congress)

On the far side of the Appalachians, Confederate forces had not fared well at all. The Union Army of the Tennessee, under Ulysses S. Grant’s command, had followed his victories at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in February with a stunning victory at Shiloh in April. Since then, they had moved deep into Mississippi to take both Corinth and Memphis, and entered the winter trying to find a way to neutralize Vicksburg. Given the loss of New Orleans to Admiral Farragut in April, the capture of Vicksburg would mean Federal control of the entire Mississippi River.

At the same time, the other Federal army in the theater had also seen success. The Army of the Ohio, led by General Don Carlos Buell, had joined with Grant at Shiloh and then gone on to fight General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee to a bloody draw at Perryville, Kentucky in October. However, the aftermath of that battle saw controversy on both sides. Buell was harshly criticized by President Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck for not pursuing and destroying Bragg after the battle, and Bragg was attacked by his own staff for surrendering the field at Perryville to Buell.

Buell defended his actions after Perryville, but to no avail. Lincoln and Halleck saw that, while Kentucky and western Tennessee were now essentially in Union hands, central and eastern Tennessee remained solidly in Confederate control. In their minds, had Buell pursued, engaged, and defeated Bragg, all of Tennessee would easily fall to Federal forces. On October 24, Halleck ordered General William Rosecrans to take command of Buell’s army, which was renamed the Army of the Cumberland. Halleck’s orders to Rosecrans were very specific as to what was expected of him and his new command:

"The great objects to be kept in view in your operations in the field are: First, to drive the enemy from Kentucky and Middle Tennessee; second, to take and hold East Tennessee, cutting the line of railroad at Chattanooga, Cleveland, or Athens, so as to destroy the connection of the valley of Virginia with Georgia and the other Southern States. It is hoped that by prompt and rapid movements a considerable part of this may be accomplished before the roads become impassable from the winter rains…You will fully appreciate the importance of moving light and rapidly, and also the necessity of procuring as many of your supplies as possible in the country passed over…Every effort should be made to ascertain Bragg's movements by pressing him closely…I need not urge upon you the necessity of giving active employment to your forces. Neither the country nor the Government will much longer put up with the inactivity of some of our armies and generals."

At this point in the war, while Rosecrans had served ably in Western Theater, he was something of an unknown. He had been in command of troops that captured Corinth earlier in the year, but his lack of aggression did not produce much confidence in his abilities. Rosecrans was also something of an oddity in the Regular Army in that he had converted to Roman Catholicism while a cadet at West Point and had seen no service in the Mexican War. This automatically made him someone to be considered both suspect and odd by the norms of the army at that time. “Old Rosy,” as he was known to his men, was 43 years old, and an imposing figure at six-feet tall. He was a hard drinker and was as quick to anger as he was to forgive. He was a careful planner and strategist who preferred the Jominian philosophy of defeating an enemy via maneuver as opposed to confrontations designed to destroy the opposing army. However, in battle, he became excited and emotional, preferring a direct, on-the scene leadership style.

So, despite Halleck’s clear desire to see Rosecrans get the army moving against Bragg, the new commander of the Army of the Cumberland remained at headquarters in Nashville. In Rosecrans’ mind, the army needed to be reorganized after its battle at Perryville and resupplied before moving forward. The resulting lethargy lasted from late October into early December, which incensed Halleck. He sent Rosecrans a tersely worded dispatch and Rosecrans responded just as emphatically.

Henry Halleck
Henry "Old Brains" Halleck (Library of Congress)

WAR DEPARTMENT, Washington, December 4, 1862.

Major-General ROSECRANS, Nashville, Tenn.:

The President is very impatient at your long stay in Nashville. The favorable season for your campaign will soon be over. You give Bragg time to supply himself by plundering the very country your army should cave occupied. From all information received here, it is believed that he is carrying large quantities of stores into Alabama, and preparing to fall back partly on Chattanooga and partly on Columbus, Miss. Twice have I been asked to designate some one else to command your army. If you remain one more week at Nashville, I cannot prevent your removal. As I wrote you when you took the command, the Government demands action, and if you cannot respond to that demand some one else will be tried.

H. W. HALLECK, General-in-Chief

William Rosecrans
William "Old Rosy" Rosecrans (Library of Congress)

NASHVILLE, TENN., December 4, 1862--10.45 p.m.

Maj. Gen. H. W. HALLECK, General-in-Chief:

Your dispatch received. I reply in few but earnest words. I have lost no time. Everything I have done was necessary, absolutely so; and has been done as rapidly as possible. Any attempt to advance sooner would have increased our difficulty both in front and rear. In front, because of greater obstacles, enemies in greater force, and fighting with better chances of escaping pursuit, if overthrown in battle. In rear, because of insufficiency and uncertainty of supplies, both of subsistence and ammunition, and no security of any kind to fall back upon in case of disaster. We should most probably have had a flying enemy to pursue, with a command daily fritted away by the large detachments required to guard forage and provision trains, and after all have been obliged to halt somewhere, to await the indispensable supplies, for which we have been waiting. Many of our soldiers are to this day barefoot, without blankets, without tents, without good arms, and cavalry without horses. Our true objective now is the enemy's force, for if they come near, we save wear, tear, risk, and strength; subject them to what we escape, and gain all the chances to be expected from a rise in the river. If the Government which ordered me here confides in my judgment, it may rely on my continuing to do what I have been trying to--that is, my whole duty. If my superiors have lost confidence in me, they had better at once put some one in my place and let the future test the propriety of the change. I have but one word to add, which is, that I need no other stimulus to make me do my duty than the knowledge of what it is. To threats of removal or the like I must be permitted to say that I am insensible.

W. S. ROSECRANS, Major-General

On the Confederate side, the command situation for Braxton Bragg was different and, in many ways, far worse than that facing Rosecrans. Rosecrans, despite having to deal with pressures from Washington, had managed to keep a cohesive command organization. Bragg and his subordinate commanders, on the other hand, had managed to create a command atmosphere that can best be described as a “snake pit.” First of all, Bragg was not a likeable man. The famous Southern diarist, Mary Chesnut, recorded that Bragg possessed a unique “winning way of earning everyone’s detestation.” He was ill-tempered, stubborn, intractable, overly sensitive to criticism, and more than a little paranoid. However, in Bragg’s case, the paranoia was legitimate as he was roundly despised by all his army’s commanders. The only man who seemed to like him and see any military abilities in him was President Jefferson Davis. Davis had known Bragg since the war in Mexico and the two men shared a mutual trust and admiration. Unfortunately, that is probably because they shared such similar personalities.

Davis viewed the public outcry over Bragg’s withdrawal from Perryville as a personal attack. He believed that the only reason Bragg was being so harshly criticized in the Southern press and Confederate congress was because of his association with Davis. Therefore, as he often tended to do, the Confederate president saw this as yet another example of his numerous enemies, both real and perceived, trying to gain political leverage. As a result, he defended Bragg vigorously in public. However, privately, Davis had deep concerns about Bragg.

Those concerns were not the product of what the press and his political opponents said, but, rather, were derived from the complaints of Bragg’s own subordinate commanders. And the word “complaints” is a mild description for what Bragg’s generals were saying. Generals Leonidas Polk, a former Episcopal bishop from Louisiana, and also a close Davis associate, led the charge against Bragg and was supported by his fellow commanders, Generals William Hardee and Kirby Smith. General Henry Heth would write that he and Kirby Smith believed “General Bragg had lost his mind.” Another officer wrote that, while he thought Bragg to be of sound mind, he would agree with anyone who saw the general as “utterly incompetent.”

In late October, as Bragg’s subordinates plotted in an effort to affect a coup against their commander, Davis called Bragg to Richmond. While Bragg was aware of the complaints against him and deeply angered by his commanders’ apparent acts of insubordination, he approached Davis contritely and modestly in their meeting. Bragg pointed out to the president that, while he, indeed, retreated before Buell’s army at Perryville and lost Kentucky in the process, he had inflicted 25,000 casualties on the enemy and, most importantly, kept his army intact. Further, Bragg went on to say, with the Confederate defeats in Mississippi, his army was now the only one in the West still capable of resisting Union advances.

Then, Bragg offered Davis a new plan and one designed not just to resist a Federal attack, but to take the offensive against Rosecrans. He proposed to move his army forward up the line of the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad to establish a new base at Murfreesboro, some 30 miles southeast of Nashville. From there, he would attack Rosecrans, drive his army from Nashville, recapture the state capital, and move to threaten Grant’s rear in western Tennessee.

This kind of offensive mindset was exactly the sort Davis appreciated and Bragg knew it. The president heartily approved of Bragg’s plan and sent him back to his army carrying Davis’ unqualified support. Davis then called Generals Polk and Hardee to Richmond in an attempt to swage their anger towards Bragg. He listened politely to their arguments for removing Bragg, then elevated them both to the rank of lieutenant general, and, thus duly bribed by promotion, convinced them to return to Bragg’s army to carry out the new offensive against Rosecrans.

Braxton Bragg
Gen. Braxton Bragg (Library of Congress)

Meanwhile, Bragg was back in Tennessee implementing the first stage of his plan by ordering his other key commander, General John Breckinridge, to move his 6,000 man force to Murfreesboro and establish command there. This Breckinridge accomplished on October 28, but he worried that, once Rosecrans figured out how small his force was, the Union general would move to crush him. Luckily for Breckinridge, Rosecrans was too busy reorganizing and resupplying his army. While he noted Breckinridge’s move to Murfreesboro, he did nothing to counter it.

However, as the weeks passed, Bragg still faced numerous challenges in executing his planned offensive. First, his supplies were short and foraging in late fall proved difficult. His men would need both food and good clothing if they were to campaign during the coming winter. Then, in early December, his ally, President Davis, complicated matters further by insisting General Joe Johnston transfer 9,000 men from Bragg’s army to that of General Pemberton at Vicksburg. Johnston, who was now in command of the entire Western Theater, had never gotten along with Davis and he bitterly opposed the transfer of troops from Bragg’s army, which was now all encamped at Murfreesboro. Davis decided to visit Bragg and the army, arriving December 10. He inspected the army and despite his discussions with Bragg, he renewed his order that the 9,000 men move to Vicksburg. As a result, Brag was left with only 40,000 men to undertake a winter offensive against Rosecrans’ 80,000 in and around Nashville.

As Bragg struggled to manage his army at Murfreesboro, Rosecrans prepared a plan of his own. Despite his sincere and bombastic opposition to Halleck’s orders to move against Bragg, Rosecrans got the message. As soon as he received more supplies, he fully intended to move against Bragg, and that was accomplished by mid-December. As Christmas arrived, Rosecrans felt the moment had, indeed, come. Not only was his army well supplied, intelligence told him that Bragg was forced to send troops to Vicksburg. In addition, he learned that John Hunt Morgan and Bedford Forrest’s cavalry had also been detached from Bragg's army. Finally, all indications pointed to Bragg simply settling down for the winter at Murfreesboro.

On Christmas Day, Rosecrans called a staff conference to present the plan he and General George Thomas had developed. The Army of the Cumberland would advance toward Murfreesboro in three parallel columns, with General Crittenden going straight down the Nashville Turnpike to Murfreesboro, while Generals McCook and Thomas advanced on his right. They would engage Bragg’s army, which Rosecrans mistakenly believed to be scattered around Murfreesboro, and do so with only 44,000 men. Rosecrans had elected to leave the remainder of the army behind, garrisoning Nashville and guarding the railroad. As a result, he had unintentionally evened the odds more in Bragg’s favor. As the meeting concluded, a little Christmas cheer was passed around the room in the form of brandy toddies. The mood became lighter, but soon, Rosecrans pounded his fist on the table in an emotional outburst and told his commanders, ‘We move tomorrow, gentlemen! We shall skirmish, probably as soon as we pass the outposts. Press them hard! Drive them out of their nests! Make them fight or run! Fight them! Fight them! Fight I say!”

As Rosecrans was announcing his advance, Bragg’s camp was enjoying the holidays in high style. Oblivious to any possible threat, the officers attended Christmas balls and parties. The liquor flowed and the officers danced the nights away, while their men huddled for warmth in camp, lonely and far from home. The officers’ merriment did not go unnoticed. The Confederate memoirist, Sam Watkins, who was a private in Bragg’s army, would later write that, during the Christmas holidays of 1862, “John Barleycorn was our general-in-chief…our generals, and colonels, and captains had kissed John a little too often.” However, on the morning of December 26, as the Army of the Cumberland moved south, an incident occurred which added to the continuing discord among Bragg’s commanders and the men of his army as well.

Without doubt, the ablest of Bragg’s commanders was John Breckinridge. Breckinridge, who had been James Buchanan’s vice president, was a man of great integrity who had demonstrated considerable military ability, despite the fact that his only experience was as a volunteer officer during the Mexican War. He was brave and resilient, and a solid leader whose men adored him. As a native Kentuckian, he and his men were considered an essential part of Bragg’s fall campaign into Kentucky, and Bragg hoped that thousands of fellow Kentuckians would flock to their banner. However, that hope did not materialize and Bragg was very bitter about it. As a result, he had no use for Breckinridge or anyone from Kentucky, as he wrote to his wife, “Why should I stay with my handful of brave Southern men to fight for cowards who skulked about in the dark to say to us, ‘we are with you. Only whip these fellows out of our country and let us see you can protect us, and we will join you.’”

Bragg made no secret of his contempt for Breckinridge and, especially, his Kentucky brigade, who, because their state was in Union hands, had come to be called the “Orphan Brigade.” Sadly, he seems to have decided to demonstrate it in a most cruel and vindictive manner. On December 20, Bragg convened a court martial to hear the case regarding charges of desertion leveled against Private Asa Lewis of the 6th Kentucky Infantry Regiment. Lewis case was fairly typical. His 12-month enlistment was over and, as he had chosen not to reenlist, he did not believe that a new policy requiring him to serve for either three years or the war’s duration applied to him. Further, with his father’s recent death, he was the sole means of support for his mother and three younger siblings. He requested a furlough, which was denied, and decided to simply leave. Unfortunately for Lewis, he had done this once before and received a reprimand—for a second desertion, he received a death sentence. Breckinridge and his officers pleaded the boy’s case to Bragg, arguing that carrying out the sentence would be tantamount to murder. However, given Bragg’s feelings for Kentucky and his inflexible nature, he was unmoved by their pleas for mercy. He was determined to make an example of young Private Lewis.

John Breckinridge
Gen. John Breckinridge had been stunned by Kentucky's reluctance to flock to his banner during the Confederate invasion in the fall of 1862. (Library of Congress)

At 11:00 a.m. on the day after Christmas, Bragg had Asa Lewis marched in front of the Orphan Brigade as a cold, heavy rain fell. The brigade was placed in a hollow, open-ended square around him and a firing squad assembled in his front. Pale and clearly distraught, Breckinridge approached the boy and the two quietly whispered to one another for a few minutes. The general then remounted his horse and joined the rest of the brigade. At precisely noon, the firing squad executed the sentence, piercing Lewis’ body with 11 bullets. As the young private fell dead, Breckinridge pitched forward in his saddle, overcome by emotion and deathly ill. His staff quickly grabbed him and saved him from falling off his mount. Both the Orphan Brigade and their general marched away from the scene filled with a deep, bitter hatred for Braxton Bragg.

Luckily for Bragg, General Joe Wheeler and his cavalry remained with the army, and soon brought news of Rosecrans’ advance. Bragg moved to prepare to meet the Union threat, however, the three-columns Rosecrans employed confused him, and he was uncertain where the main Federal attack would fall. Therefore, he dispersed his army across all the approaches to Murfreesboro from Nashville. The resulting Confederate positions were not particularly advantageous and the terrain itself would make it a difficult field for either side to fight on. The land was marked by limestone outcroppings, with deep crevices and large boulders, and these were surrounded by dense, thick stands of red cedar. This would make unit cohesion difficult and the dense cedar severely limited visibility in places. In addition, the weather was simply awful. It was cold and windy, with a steady rain that gave way occasionally to freezing drizzle and sleet.

The two armies sparred as Rosecrans approached, with Wheeler’s cavalry slashing the Union columns at every opportunity. Finally, the Union army took up positions opposite Bragg on December 29. Rosecrans deployed Crittenden’s men on the left, anchored on the river and extending across the Nashville Turnpike. George Thomas moved in on Crittenden’s right, extending the union line to the south, while McCook took the far right, with his line arcing to the southwest. For his part, Bragg placed Hardee opposite McCook, with Polk in the center facing Thomas. However, the Confederate right was another matter. Here, Bragg chose to place Breckinridge across the river, which now would separate his right wing from the rest of the army. It was not a sound placement by any means, and, while his commanders would urge a change, Bragg would stubbornly refuse to hear their arguments.

Ironically, both Rosecrans and Bragg envisioned their offensive plans as attacks on the other’s right flank. Should they undertake them simultaneously and meet with success, the two armies would spin about like a gigantic pinwheel. And both planned to attack on New Year’s Eve morning, December 31.

The night of December 30 was cold, wet, and miserable for the soldiers in the line on both sides. Sometime before the evening tattoo, one of the Union’s regimental bands struck up “Yankee Doodle” and then “Hail Columbia.” As the music drifted across the field, the Confederate soldiers listened quietly. Then, one of their bands answered, playing “Dixie.” This friendly exchange of music continued for a time, until a Federal band started to play the bittersweet sounds of “Home, Sweet Home.” Within minutes, a Southern band joined in, and the bands played together in what was a unique expression of mutual longing for home and family. Finally, more and more bands joined in and the collective musical forces of both armies played the tune together. One soldier from Tennessee remembered that, “after our bands had ceased playing, we could hear the sweet refrain as it died away on the cool frosty air.”

New Year’s Eve dawned cold and gray, with fog and drizzle obscuring the field of battle. On the Union left, General Crittenden’s men prepared to move across Stone’s River and begin the assault on Bragg’s right. As a result, Rosecrans was nearby and his focus was on Crittenden’s preparations. To the south along Thomas’ line, it was quiet for the most part and men prepared their breakfasts. However, on the far right near his juncture with McCook’s troops, one of McCook’s divisions was preparing to fight. That division was led by General Phil Sheridan. During the night, one of Sheridan’s brigade commanders, General Joshua Sill, brought him word that his pickets had spotted a considerable amount of Confederate activity to his front, and it appeared they were moving toward the far right of the Union line. The two men rode to wake General McCook and tell him what had been observed. McCook quickly dismissed them and the possible threat, and went back to sleep.

But Sheridan did not like the situation and, upon his return to his division’s lines, he ordered his staff to quietly rouse the men, give them a quick breakfast, and then get them into line of battle. Sheridan next walked the line personally to ensure every regiment was in-place and ready for what he suspected might be a Confederate attack. As the deep black of night steadily turned to a gloomy, opaque, misty gray, McCook received additional reports of movement along his line. Finally, he issued orders to his other divisions to make preparations for an attack. But, it was too little and too late.

Minutes later, the soldiers on McCook’s far right saw dark, shadowy figures quietly approaching through the dense mist. Suddenly, the figures merged into a long, seemingly unending line, and the morning calm was suddenly broken by the shrill cry of the Rebel yell. That yell came from 11,000 Confederates under Hardee. They smashed into the Federal right flank, shooting men down as they ate their breakfast, with their rifles out of reach. There was a brief flurry of hand-to-hand fighting, but McCook’s men began to flee in panic towards the rear and the Nashville Turnpike, three miles away. Some Federal regiments tried to make a stand but, unsupported and isolated, they also soon broke for the rear. Within 30 minutes, two of McCook’s brigades ceased to exist.

Nearby, Sheridan’s division along with Sill’s fought back and, with the loss of those two brigades, the Union right had bent back inward. The new flank was attacked by four Confederate brigades but stubbornly held. While they too would eventually be forced to give ground, Bragg’s attack was starting to lose momentum. Then, Polk began his attack on the Union center, in an attempt to prevent any support from going to McCook. But Polk’s attacks were conducted in a piecemeal fashion and George Thomas’ men turned them back, inflicting a great number of casualties.

Meanwhile, Rosecrans could hear the steady thumping of artillery to his right along with a steady cascade of rifle fire. However, despite the bad reports coming in, he did not seem concerned. Finally, when McCook sent a message pleading for reinforcements, Rosecrans realized the magnitude of the disaster on the Union right. He ordered Crittenden to cease his advance and sent troops to bolster Sheridan and Sill.

The fighting on the Union right continued unabated as Hardee pressed both Sheridan and Sill back. Soon, dead horses and soldiers, smashed artillery, and burning wagon littered the fields northwest of Murfreesboro. Because the ground contained so much limestone, blood did not soak into the soil. Rather, it gathered on the ground in pools, both large and small, dotting the landscape and adding a ghoulish quality to an already nightmarish scene.

Sheridan’s division was fighting especially hard and he was everywhere personally directing his men. This would soon become a necessity, as he would lose all three of his brigade commanders before noon. By 10:00 a.m., the Federal line had been pushed back into a V-shape, with the left side facing east and the right facing west. Sheridan’s division manned the apex of this reformed line and, given that they formed a salient, the Confederate attacks now came from both sides. He would fight a skillful withdrawal, all the while maintaining a tight hold on the Union units on either side. And, while this V-shaped line was vulnerable, it also allowed Rosecrans to quickly shift his forces wherever they were needed, which he did with great energy and skill.

Rosecrans
Gen. Rosecrans's visible leadership was highly praised by the rank and file of his army. (Library of Congress)

This morning would be the high point of Rosecrans’ entire career and he exercised a brand of personal courage and leadership typically reserved for corps and division commanders. He rode all about the battlefield, asking for reports, giving succinct orders, and providing encouragement where needed, and it was much need on that cold, bloody morning. On the left, he rode up to Colonel William Price, whose brigade was positioned along the river to prevent any Confederate crossing attempts. Rosecrans shouted at price, “Will you hold this ford?” Price replied, honestly, “I will try, sir!” Rosecrans shouted even louder, “Will you hold this ford?” Price replied, “I will die right here, sir!” Still not satisfied, Rosecrans shouted once more, his voice filled with emotion, “Will you hold this ford?” The young colonel responded, “Yes, sir!”

By midday, the Union apex had shifted to an area known as the Round Forest, a small hill of limestone punctuated by dense cedar groves, and the right was aligning along the Nashville Turnpike. But Rosecrans continued to strengthen his line, sending units wherever they were needed most, no matter what brigade or division they belonged to. As Hardee’s assault lost all its energy due to a steadily mounting casualty toll, Bragg ordered Polk to renew his attacks, focusing on the Round Forest. There, his men were met by a staggering punch issued by Colonel William Hazen’s brigade. Polk continued to hammer away at Hazen and Rosecrans poured reinforcements into what became known as Hell’s Half-Acre. By 1:00 p.m., Polk’s men were spent and Bragg called for Breckinridge to send him four fresh brigades from across the river.

As Bragg waited on Breckinridge’s men, Rosecrans and Thomas further reinforced the Round Forest, bringing in every available piece of artillery. At 4:00 p.m., the first two of Breckinridge’s brigades moved into the line opposite the Round Forest and awaited Polk’s orders, as well as the arrival of the remaining two brigades. However, under pressure from Bragg, Polk elected not to wait and launched the assault with two instead of four brigades. The men marched smartly across the field, now littered with hundreds of bodies from the previous attacks. The newly arrived Union artillery quickly opened fire, blasting huge gaps in the advancing lines, but they kept coming forward. When the Confederate line reached a range of only 50 yards, Hazen ordered his infantry to open fire. The results were devastating. Breckinridge’s men fell by the dozens and the entire attacking line staggered to a halt, then broke to the rear amid a hail of rifle and artillery fire. One regiment lost 47 percent of its men and many others suffered more than 30 percent casualties.

One would have thought this would have convinced Bragg of the futility of another attack, but he refused to change his mind. When Breckinridge’s other two brigades arrived, he ordered Polk to sacrifice them as well. It is little wonder that some officers questioned Bragg’s sanity at this point. By now, the Federal artillery in the Round Forest numbered more than 50 guns and, as the assault was renewed, they were fired as fast as they could be reloaded. The second Confederate attack got no farther than its predecessor and the results were nearly identical. Nothing was gained and nothing was proven except for the bravery of Breckinridge’s men.

At one point, Rosecrans and his staff were close to the action, observing the defense of the Round Forest. With him was Colonel Julius Garesché, his aide and his closest friend from his cadet days at West Point. In fact, it was Garesché who convinced him to convert to Catholicism. As the fighting raged in front of them, a round of solid shot from a Confederate cannon roared past within inches of the commanding general’s head. As it flew by him, it hit Garesché in the face. He was immediately decapitated and his headless body stayed in the saddle for 20 paces before pitching off the horse to the ground. Rosecrans rode on, his uniform covered with Garesché’s blood, unaware of what happened behind him. Later, when he was told about his friend’s death, he quietly said, “Brave men die in battle. Let us push on.” However, no matter his words, Rosecrans was deeply affected by his comrade’s death. After the battle, he carefully cut the buttons from his uniform and placed them in an envelope marked, “Buttons I wore the day Garesché was killed.” He would carry that envelope with him the rest of his life.

With sunset, the sounds of battle quickly faded and gave way to the moaning of the wounded. The cold, dark, blustery night was filled with the sight of lanterns floating between the two lines, as men from both sides attended to the wounded and dying.

Rosecrans held a meeting of his commanders to discuss the next day’s action. Old Rosy asked them if they should retreat, but only McCook and a cavalry officer thought that was the right course of action. As Rosecrans asked about retreat, George Thomas, who had been napping, suddenly awoke, looked around him with a fierce gaze and said, “This army does not retreat.” With that, the issue was settled and the Army of the Cumberland would stay and fight.

Frances Clayton
Frances Clayton, fighting as "Jack Williams," was wounded in Sheridan's Slaughter Pen. (Library of Congress)

Bragg, however, was flush with victory. He was certain Rosecrans would limp back to Nashville during the night, and he sent an urgent telegram to Jefferson Davis trumpeting his success: “The enemy has yielded his strong position and is falling back. God has granted us a happy New Year.” So convinced was Bragg of his victory, he went to bed that night without making a single adjustment to his line of battle. As far as he was concerned, the Battle of Stone’s River was over.

When the dawn of the new year of 1863 arrived, Bragg was greeted not by the sight of an empty field before him, but, rather, by the same blue lines of infantry that had been there the night before. Bragg was shocked and seemed paralyzed. When Hardee, Polk, and Breckinridge came to him seeking orders to deal with the continued Yankee presence, Bragg had none to give. Instead, he sunk into a sort of mental lethargy, issuing orders for menial tasks as opposed to crafting a new strategy. Later in the day, he ordered Breckinridge to resume his original position across the river, but that was the extent of his leadership for the day. That night, he continued to seek signs that Rosecrans was finally withdrawing, but they did not come—the Union army was not simply going to go away as he hoped.

The next morning, Bragg, upon finding the enemy still in his front, ordered an artillery bombardment to see if it might provoke a response. He wanted to see just how committed Rosecrans was to holding his position. When the Federal artillery answered in kind and more so, he had his answer. After fretting about a course of action, he decided to try to place his own artillery on high ground east of the river in front of Breckinridge. This would allow him to pour a potentially devastating fire into the Union left flank, which might drive Rosecrans out of his positions. Bragg order a reconnaissance of the area and, when the scouts returned, they told him that the high ground he wanted for his artillery was already in possession of a Union division. Bragg decided to order Breckinridge to take the ridge and called the Kentuckian to his headquarters. When he was told of his assignment, the former vice president protested in anger, telling Bragg that his men could not possibly take such a strong position. Exhibiting both his intransigence and his dislike for Breckinridge, Bragg told him that his Kentucky soldiers had suffered the least thus far and now it was their turn to prove their worthiness.

Breckinridge again protested the order, telling Bragg that he had personally seen the Federal emplacements and they could not be taken by direct assault. Bragg angrily told him, “Sir, my information is different. I have given an order to attack the enemy and expect it to be obeyed!” With that, the discussion was over.

When Breckinridge returned to his men and told them what had been ordered, General Roger Hanson, commander of the Orphan Brigade, exploded in anger, and proposed that he go to the headquarters and shoot General Bragg. Breckinridge prevailed upon him not to do so, and, instead, to go prepare his command for the attack.

At 3:00 p.m., as Breckinridge massed his men for the assault, Rosecrans observed the activity and sent reinforcements across the river. More importantly, he also moved additional artillery onto the west bank of the river, where they could cover the Union defenders. By the time Breckinridge began to move forward, Rosecrans had assembled 58 guns on the high ground facing east.

An hour later, Breckinridge’s men started to advance across nearly 600 yards of open ground into the teeth of a Federal division and a mass of supporting artillery. Despite the heavy defensive fire, the Kentuckians never faltered, moving ever closer, and finally pouring over the Union lines. The blue-clad defenders fell back in disorder and, after 30 minutes of fierce fighting, Breckinridge’s men had accomplished an objective they believed was impossible. However, now, rather than stopping to dig in and hold, they foolishly pressed forward in pursuit of the fleeing Yankees. It proved to be a fatal error.

As soon as the retreating Union troops were out of the way, the 58 Federal guns west of the river opened fire on Breckinridge’s still advancing line. Blasting away at better than 100 rounds per minute, they simply slaughtered the Kentuckians. Within minutes, the entire flow of the battle had changed. As the Southerners turned to retreat back up the slope of the hill, Crittenden ordered infantry reserves forward, driving the Orphan Brigade back across the hill they had just taken and into the fields they had just crossed so bravely. Seeing the sad remnant of the Orphan Brigade returning, Breckinridge broke down, sobbing, “My poor Orphans! My poor Orphans! My poor Orphan Brigade! They have cut it to pieces.”

Breckinridge's Charge
Breckinridge's charge was raked by musketry and artillery from the front and flank. (Library of Congress)

That night, amid another cold, driving rain, Bragg called a meeting of his key commanders. After some spirited discussion, they could not reach a decision on how to next proceed. However, on the morning of January 3, Bragg became convinced that his army was beyond its limits. At 10:00 a.m., he ordered a withdrawal and the Battle of Stone’s River was over, at last.

The battle was hailed as a major victory in Washington, while President Davis and General Bragg suffered not only a defeat, but one made an embarrassment by Bragg’s premature announcement of victory on New Year’s Eve. Middle Tennessee was now lost to the Confederacy and Lincoln had a victory to counterbalance the recent defeat at Fredericksburg. Bragg would remain in command of the Army of Tennessee both because Davis could not stand the loss of face he would suffer if forced to dismiss Bragg, and also because there simply was no one else for the job. Bragg and his commanders would continue to fight harder against one another than they ever did against the enemy until he was finally relieved of command following the Union breakout at Chattanooga in November 1863.

For William Rosecrans, Stone’s River would be his finest hour. Even when he later had to relieve Rosecrans of command after Chickamauga, Lincoln remembered the timely victory at Stone’s River. Writing to Rosecrans after his dismissal from command of the Army of the Cumberland, the president said, “whilst I remember anything, that about the end of last year and the beginning of this, you gave us a hard-earned victory, which, had there been a defeat instead, the nation could scarcely have lived over.”

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