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Stones River, Battle of

Stones River, Battle of (1862–63).Stones River—also known as the Battle of Murfreesboro—was one of the costliest engagements of the Civil War in Tennessee. Following the failure of his Kentucky campaign the previous fall, Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg positioned his Army of Tennessee (34,000 strong) to protect the railroad line running southeastward from Nashville into the heart of the Confederacy. Union Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans's Army of the Cumberland (44,000 strong) advanced from Nashville 30 miles to meet Bragg's army at Murfreesboro in late December. Rosecrans and Bragg both planned to attack with their left wings, but Bragg moved first at dawn, 31 December, catching the Federals by surprise. Rosecrans's extreme right wing quickly retreated, offering scattered resistance. The Federal center fought more steadily, particularly Brig. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan's division, which slowed the Confederate advance several hours.

The flat terrain, rocky outcroppings, and intermittent cedar forests also confused and delayed the Confederates. In the center, Col. William B. Hazen's brigade held a wooded area called the Round Forest against repeated and fierce attacks. The Forest spanned the Nashville Pike and the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad, Rosecrans's lines of communication. Hazen's stand saved the Federal army, allowing the right wing to retreat by pivoting on his position.

By nightfall, Rosecrans had managed to patch together a final stand along the pike. When the fighting died down, the Confederates hastily constructed breastworks to protect their gains. The bitter cold caused great suffering for the thousands of wounded men of both armies who littered the field that night. The next day, the two exhausted armies maintained their positions without moving.

The stalemate was temporarily broken on 2 January 1863, when Rosecrans moved a division under Col. Samuel Beatty across Stones River at McFadden's Ford to threaten Bragg's extreme right wing. Confederate Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge's division counterattacked, driving Beatty's men back across the river, but was halted by the concentrated fire of nearly sixty Federal field guns. This engagement demonstrated the effectiveness of Union artillery as a decisive factor on the battlefield. After five days of maneuvering and bitter fighting, neither army had gained an advantage. On 3 January, Bragg was given evidence that Rosecrans was receiving substantial reinforcements, and he decided to give up the field. The Confederates began to retreat that night, but Rosecrans chose not to pursue. He consolidated his position at Murfreesboro, digging extensive fortifications, while Bragg fortified towns a few miles further south along the rail line. The two armies had so exhausted themselves that neither resumed active campaigning for nearly six months.

Stones River was both a tactical and a strategic victory for the North. Occurring after costly Federal defeats at Fredericksburg, Virginia, and Chickasaw Bayou, Mississippi, the morale of the Northern public needed a victory, even one bought at such a dear cost in lives. Confederate and Federal casualties amounted to approximately 13,000 men apiece, roughly one‐third of those engaged.
[See also Civil War: Military and Diplomatic Course.]

Bibliography

James Lee McDonough , Stones River: Bloody Winter in Tennessee, 1980.
Peter Cozzens , No Better Place to Die: The Battle of Stones River, 1990.

Earl J. Hess

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