31 December 1862 – 2 January 1863 The battle of Stone’s River pitted Gen. Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee against Maj. Gen. Rosecrans’s Union Army of the Cumberland in one of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles.
Though Rosecrans ultimately claimed the victory, thus boosting Union morale, it was won at a dear cost: the two armies sustained nearly 24,000 casualties, almost one-third of the 81,000 men engaged. The full significance of the battle for the Union is best expressed by Abraham Lincoln, in a telegram addressed to Rosecrans:
I can never forget, if I remember anything, that at 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 country scarcely could have lived over.
The following extract from Essential Histories 10: The American Civil War: The war in the West 1861–July 1863 provides a detailed summary of the battle:
Some 300 miles (480km) northeast of Vicksburg, Rosecrans replaced Buell in late October 1862. The army became known once again as the Army of the Cumberland. Rosecrans’s nickname, ‘Old Rosy,’ was an accurate characterization of his temper. Red-cheeked, affable, and energetic, Rosecrans was a favorite among the soldiers. Slovenliness infuriated him and he impressed soldiers by purging his command of incompetents. ‘Everything for the service, nothing for individuals,’ was his motto. Still, he was cautious and wavered at the critical hour.
When he inherited the army it was in Nashville, where he spent nearly two months preparing to move against Bragg’s 38,000-man army, encamped at Murfreesboro along a swollen Stone’s River. On 26 December, he set out with his 47,000 men to hit Bragg. Having been abused by the press and feeling political pressure for abandoning Kentucky, Bragg was determined not to be defeated. To the east of Stone’s River he positioned Major-General John C. Breckinridge, and to the west of the river Bragg deployed his main force. By 29 December, Rosecrans’s army has arrived in the vicinity of Murfreesboro, and during the night he positioned his men along Nashville turnpike several hundred yards from the Confederate line.
Ironically, both Rosecrans and Bragg had determined to attack the enemy’s left flank, which meant that whoever attacked first would be advantaged. Bragg awaited an attack throughout the day on 30 December, but none was forthcoming. Bragg then struck the first blow on the following day by marching Major-General William Hardee’s corps around the Federal right flank. At dawn, Hardee’s men surprised the Federals and drove them back toward the Murfreesboro-Nashville turnpike and pinned them against Stone’s River. The Confederates threw brigade after brigade at the Federal line, but failed to break it as both Generals George H. Thomas and Philip H. Sheridan resisted stubbornly.
As the early sunset, the last of 1862, closed the day’s fighting, Bragg believed he had won a major victory. Indeed, he had redeemed his army’s fortunes. ‘God has granted us a Happy New Year,’ he telegraphed Richmond. That night Rosecrans held a council of war and questioned his corps commanders as to the feasibility of a retreat. ‘Hell,’ Thomas replied, ‘this army can’t retreat.’ Impressed by the resolve of his subordinates, Rosecrans decided to stay and fight.
The new year opened quietly and ominously. It was cold and the soldiers were tense with anticipation. They had recovered from the previous day’s fight and were expecting any minute to commence fighting again. But the fighting never came. Rosecrans redeployed his troops to strengthen his lines, while Confederate scouts concluded that this was a ruse to mask the Federal retreat. On 2 January 1863, Bragg was dumbfounded to find that Rosecrans had not left. When the Confederate commander ordered Breckinridge to dislodge what he thought remained of the enemy force east of Stone’s River late in the afternoon, the Federals initially fell back. As the Confederates advanced to the river, they found to their tremendous surprise that the Federals had prepared to counter the charge. Nearly 60 Federal cannon unleashed a thunderous barrage, and a counter of infantrymen followed that retired the Confederates in short order.
With his army exhausted and convinced that Rosecrans had been reinforced, Bragg reluctantly left the battlefield that night. He fell back to Tullahoma, Tennessee, thus conceding the battlefield and the victory to Rosecrans, whose soldiers had stood their ground. The Battle of Stone’s River was a stalemate that cost the Union some 13,000 casualties and the Confederates roughly 10,200 casualties, or in both cases roughly 30 percent of their forces. In proportion to men engaged and men lost, this battle ranked as the bloodiest of all battles.
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