July 9, 2020
By Mike Burns
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While Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, and Shiloh are familiar answers when “Battles of the American Civil War” makes an appearance on the Jeopardy board, one event that might have slipped past the average historian is the Battle of Stones River. Despite having the highest percentage of casualties on both sides (second only to Gettysburg), the Union efforts at the Battle of Stones River would prove to be a much needed morale boost. After suffering a series of defeats, the conflict secured Nashville as a major supply base for the Union Army for the remainder of the war. However, for the Confederacy, the battle resulted in the loss of confidence in aspects of their leadership that would only grow as the war progressed. The battle lasted four days in the dead of winter, the bone-chilling cold biting at the fingers of the soldiers sprawled across the Tennessee field. Even though the battle was declared a stalemate, the Union efforts to hold back repeated Confederate attacks signaled a refreshing reminder of the strength and aggressiveness of the North.
The Battle of Stones River was so significant for both sides of the Civil War because of a series of events leading up to the conflict that raised the stakes for Union and Confederate forces alike. For the Confederates, capturing neutral regions in the Midwest was crucial as it would encourage those territories to join their army. For many border states along the Mason-Dixon Line, fierce division amongst the population erupted and clashes over loyalty and allegiances burned through small towns like wild fire. “Brother against brother” was the reality for many people living in these areas, and a Confederate victory in proximity would surely persuade them to join their cause. If the Confederacy could push Federal forces out of the Kentucky/Middle Tennessee region, they could cut off supply lines and effectively conquer the Western Theater. Internal military conflicts also led to levels of uncertainty among leaders; a definitive victory could squash any semblance of anxiety.
On the other side, Union forces were hungry for victory after suffering a major loss at the hands of Robert E. Lee at Fredericksburg that sent shock waves across the North. With the Emancipation Proclamation on the eve of its debut, capturing and securing these Midwestern territories would allow continued efforts to support the abolition of slavery and send a message of hope for the disheartened Northern states. A change in leadership and perspective was the solution President Abraham Lincoln was looking for when he appointed Major General William S. Rosecrans to command the Union troops in the region. While the Union was eager to engage in battle, Rosecrans made sure to reorganize the flawed structure of the troops instead of rushing to find the next fight, focusing in particular on artillery and replenishing supplies.
On December 26, 1862, over 41,000 Union soldiers left Nashville to engage with General Braxton Bragg’s 35,000 Confederate soldiers positioned near Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The location along the Stones River, proximity to dense forested areas, as well as access to large open spaces would ultimately serve to the benefit of Union forces. Delayed in their advances by unfavorable weather conditions and initial Confederate oppositions, the Union Army arrived in the small oasis of field and forest by the evening of December 30. As the winter’s night fell over the troops, generals on both sides began to plan for the approaching conflict. Both Bragg and Rosecrans both planned to attack the other side’s right flank in the morning with the hopes of cutting off supply lines and limiting retreat options, however Bragg’s displacement of troops would leave some areas to the east scattered and thinned.
Outside, soldiers were sleeping on the floor, in mud, and on rocks. Days of traveling, fighting, and cold weather had left the men on both sides tired, exhausted, and desperate for inspiration. They would find solace in sweet music that drifted and swirled throughout the camps in the dry, cold air. It was common for bands to accompany armed forces during campaigns to lift spirits and inspire the men. It was said that during this night prior to the battle, both bands on either side could be heard by each other; at one point the two bands joined together for a rendition of “Home Sweet Home” that could be heard throughout the area. Eerily reminiscent of later events to unfold during the Christmas Truce of the First World War, soldiers were able to briefly set their differences aside to see past the violence around them and recognize the humanity in their enemy.
“Just before ‘tattoo’ the military bands on each side began their evening music. The still winter night carried their strains to great distance. At every pause on our side, far away could be heard the military bands of the other. Finally one of them struck up ‘Home Sweet Home.’ As if by common consent, all other airs ceased, and the bands of both armies as far as the ear could reach, joined in the refrain. Who knows how many hearts were bold next day by reason of that air?”
–Sam Seay, 1st Tennessee Infantry
With the soldiers positioned, the strategies solidified, and the firearms loaded, the Battle of Stones River was ready to begin. The stage was now set for a battle with high stakes and high casualties with room for only one side to claim an advantage in the end.
Confederates struck early and hard, charging across the grassy field just beginning to thaw in the morning sun. Federal forces had yet to even finish their breakfasts before the charge began. Nearly 10,000 Confederate soldiers were quickly able to sweep through Union lines in one massive wave, pushing Northern forces back nearly three miles. Surprised by the failure of his commanders, Rosecrans reassessed the situation his army now found itself in; changes needed to be made quickly if the soldiers were to survive. Racing through the battlefield, while covered in the blood of his chief of staff who was beheaded next to him by a cannon ball, Rosecrans began reassembling his troops to counter the Confederate wave. The dense forest the Union army now found itself in would serve to their advantage as the rocky terrain and scattered trees significantly slowed down the enemy charge. Losing momentum, Rebel forces had no choice but to halt their charge. Just barely avoiding a catastrophic slaughter, Union forces were still flustered and in complete disarray.
Concurrently, Confederate forces began a similar attack on the northern front. The plan was to weaken the Union line enough for reinforcements to attack from behind and gain the advantage, however, this time the Union Army was prepared for the attack. Successfully repelling the first wave of the Rebel charge, Union forces attempted to restructure themselves for ensuing attacks, but were exasperated and weakened during the fight. Seemingly uncoordinated because of the difficult terrain to traverse, Confederates began another attack on the Federal forces that would last for two hours with heavy casualties. Finally overwhelmed by the Rebel attacks, troops fell back north towards Nashville Pike. While slowing the Rebel advancements, the Union suffered intense losses. Losing more than a third of their forces, the Union army compared this attack to the slaughtering of animals in the stockyards of Chicago calling it, “the slaughter pen.” The Confederates were able to emerge from this segment of the battle with less casualties, but not by much.
“I cannot remember now of ever seeing more dead men and horses and captured cannon all jumbled together, than that scene of blood and carnage … on the (Wilkinson) … Turnpike; the ground was literally covered with blue coats dead.”
–Sam Watkins, 1st Tennessee Infantry, CS.
Rosecrans, attempting at all cost to save his army from certain destruction, canceled one attack in favor of reinforcing troops near Nashville Pike with heavy artillery. The horseshoe shaped position of the soldiers and artillery improved communications, reinforcement options, and gave more support to the front lines. It was reported that many of the soldiers carried full cartridge boxes of ammunition with them in the anticipation that if defense efforts failed here, the battle would be over. Their preparation would pay off as they held a tactical advantage over the charging enemy and inflicted serious casualties to the Confederates. While certainly more prepared than before, what really saved the Union from further losses during the fight was a series of miscommunications, mistakes, and false intelligence reports from the Confederate forces that gave Rosecrans and his army the opportunity to turn the offensive around. Along with these oversights, the terrain would once again work in favor of the Union Army as the dense forests and rocky ground made charges and progression on foot difficult. With a tactical artillery advantage, the Union was able to make quick work of the approaching Rebel forces resulting in heavy losses for the Confederates. A small group of Union soldiers also had a major part in delaying Confederate forces from attacking the Nashville Pike. Led by Colonel Hazen, these troops were the only Union unit not to retreat on that day of fighting. Their commitment, bravery, and heroism prevented a more unified Confederate assault from reaching the Federal position and gave the Union Army more time and resources to prepare for the attack. So proud of their efforts, Hazen’s men erected a monument dedicated to their efforts shortly after the battle that still exists today. It is the oldest intact Civil War monument in the United States.
Although they suffered intense casualties, Braxton Bragg knew the Union had suffered heavier losses during the conflict and felt confident in the assumption that Rosecrans would quickly retreat. These false assumptions would later be a pertinent reason why confidence was lost in Bragg’s leadership and the future of the Rebel cause. As the first day of battle drew to a close, it was apparent that the Union, bloodied and exhausted, had maintained their position and control over the Nashville Pike with enough supplies, troops, and morale to turn the fight in their favor.
The first day of the New Year would be spent by the two armies planning, reorganizing, and readjusting their forces in anticipation for the resumed conflict. Bragg, assuming that Rosecrans would soon retreat, decided to delay any further assaults on the Union Army. Consequently, this gave Rosecrans the opportunity to prepare his troops for further attacks. This would become glaringly apparent once Bragg ordered troops to challenge Union forces on the east side of Stones River on January 2. Confronted by over 50 Union cannons arranged on the west side of the river, Confederates suffered more than 1,800 casualties at the hands of the advantaged artillery in less than 45 minutes. This was a disastrous blow to the Confederates who, until this point, were confident and certain in their assumed victory. It was reported that the leader of the charge, Major General John C. Breckinridge, was so devastated by this loss that he was heard exclaiming “My poor Orphans! My poor Orphans!” as he rode past the carnage. Not only was he referring to the colossal loss in battle, but also because of his regiment’s pledged allegiance to the Confederacy. A Confederate defeat would maroon these local men in a practical Union wasteland, as the Kentucky/Middle Tennessee area would fall under Northern control. These troops from the Kentucky/Middle Tennessee area were often called the Orphan Brigade.
More false intelligence gathered by Rebel forces indicated Rosecrans would be receiving substantial reinforcements causing fear of a swift end to the conflict. While this was ultimately untrue, the assumption lead Bragg to retreat his troops out of Murfreesboro, concluding the battle. Rosecrans decided to hold position in Murfreesboro instead of pursuing Bragg further saying, “Bragg’s a good dog, but Hold Fast’s is better.” This was a play on words referencing Charles Dickens' recently published novel, Great Expectations, implying that silence is better than boasting.
As mentioned at the beginning, the battle officially ended in a draw between the Union and Confederate Armies but the consequences of the actions taken at Stones River would have long reaching effects on the remainder of the Civil War. For the Confederates, Braxton Bragg became the subject of intense scrutiny for his mistakes made during the battle from his fellow Confederate allies. It was only because of Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s inability to find an alternative leader to assume command that Bragg would continue in his position. The Confederates lost a critical opportunity to secure the Tennessee area to prevent Union influences and encourage more people to join their cause. While not the exact turning point in the war, this lack in Rebel aggressiveness would reveal the blemishes, scratches, and chips in the viability of a Confederate victory.
For the Union, the result of the battle was monumental for the morale and public perception of the war. It gave the North an opportunity to influence policy and law in new territories and encouraged those living there to join the Federal cause. The securing of Murfreesboro would be a strategic advantage for the Union as it ensured a reliable supply line for the Western Theater for the remainder of the war. The threat of Confederate occupation of the Kentucky and Middle Tennessee territories was crushed. Had the Union fallen to the Rebel offensive, the war might have been much shorter and with a different victor. So impressed by his actions and ability to repel Confederate forces, President Abraham Lincoln wrote to Rosecrans saying, “… you gave us a hard victory, which, had been a defeat instead, the nation could scarcely have lived over.”
Rock Island Auction Company has the distinct honor of hosting an artifact owned by veteran of the Battle of Stones River, John Fox. After being taken prisoner by Confederates early in the battle, Fox spent half a year in a prison camp where he faced grueling conditions and intense hardships. After being released, Fox reenlisted in the Union Army and continued to serve in combat for the entirety of the war. Available for sale in the upcoming September 11-13 Premier Auction is the Henry rifle owned and personally used by Fox. Most Henry rifles manufactured during the Civil War were privately purchased by Federal soldiers from Midwestern regiments. John Fox bought this particular rifle with his own funds and had it inscribed with his name and infantry number. Most Henry rifles were "working guns;" the surviving examples typically exhibit wear associated with years of hard use. This example is in excellent condition and still bares Fox’s inscription on the left side plate; a stark remembrance of the courage and bravery of soldiers who fought in the Civil War.
Learn more about the indomitable John Fox below!
Rosecrans would stay in Murfreesboro for another 5 months, taking the time to build defenses and fortify the area. Nashville would remain under Union control for the rest of the war and served as an important base for resupplying troops in the Western Theater. It wouldn’t be until June of that year when Rosecrans and Bragg would face off again, this time in Tullahoma, Tennessee. The Tullahoma Campaign would end around the same time as Union Armies secured historic victories at both the Battle of Gettysburg and the Battle of Vicksburg, signaling the beginning of the end for the Confederate States of America.
The Battle of Stones River saw the second highest causality rate for both sides in the entirety of the Civil War, second only to Gettysburg. The Union and Confederate Armies started the battle with over 41,000 troops and 35,000 soldiers, respectively, and left with a casualty rate of over 29%. Considering the battle only had about 78,000 men engaged in it, these percentages are alarmingly high, with almost one out of every three soldiers either dying in combat or being severely wounded. Today, the battle field is still preserved in its authenticity and used for educational purposes. Open to the public, Stones River National Battlefield is over 300 acres, contains more than 6,000 Union graves, and holds the oldest Civil War monument in the country. Because of increased development on the land, the original 3,000 acre site remains only a fraction of the size it once. Visit American Battlefield Trust’s website to learn about preserving this beautiful piece of history.
Rock Island Auction Company is where history travels to find a new home. With other incredible items from across centuries available for sale in the September 11-13 Premier Auction, there is a world of adventure, excitement, and suspense waiting to be discovered here in Rock Island. Interested in learning more? Click here to order a Premier Auction Catalog and see more museum-quality pieces that span the course of history.
History.com Editors. (2009, November 9). Battle of Stones River. https://www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/battle-of-stones-river.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2019, December 24). Battle of Stones River. Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-Stones-River.
U.S. Department of the Interior. The Battle of Stones River. National Parks Service. https://www.nps.gov/stri/learn/historyculture/battle0.htm.
Stones River. American Battlefield Trust. (2019, December 10). https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/stones-river.
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