Stones River: A look at the first day of battle

As published in the Murfreesboro Post, Mike West, Managing Editor, March 2, 2008

The Nashville Pike about twenty years after the battle.  (NPS photo)

The Nashville Pike about twenty years after the battle. (NPS photo)

Editor’s Note: To put our ongoing coverage of the Civil War in perspective, here is a brief recounting of the Battle of Stones River hitting upon some key points.

Why fight at Murfreesboro?

Only 2,500 people lived here in 1862.  So why would 83,000 Federal and Confederate troops clash over such an insignificant burg?  Why fight over it?  After all, the Confederates surrendered the state’s capital without a shot being fired.  Nashville, with its valuable rail and river connections, was a Union-controlled city only 30 miles away.

Geography is the answer.

Murfreesboro was important to both the North and the South because of its strategic location between Nashville and Chattanooga and its railroad and roadway connections.

After his “Invasion of Kentucky” brought mixed results, Confederate Maj. Gen. Braxton Bragg reformed his troops at Murfreesboro, which was in Rebel hands thanks to Brig. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s July 13, 1862 raid.  Bragg soon assembled 40,000 soldiers, which was officially dubbed “The Army of Tennessee” on Nov. 26 by Gen. Joseph E. Johnson, who was the Confederate’s supreme commander in the West.

The Confederate’s successes in Kentucky resulted in the cashiering of Union Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell.  Despite the protests of Gen. U.S. Grant, Buell was replaced by Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans, who quickly earned pressure from Washington for his failure to advance.  The Union desperately needed a victory. Lincoln’s armies seemed stalled and the U.S. was still reeling from a disastrous defeat at Fredericksburg, Va.

There was also the issue presented by the Emancipation Proclamation, which was to go into effect on Jan. 1, 1863.

Bragg believed Rosecrans would not move out of Nashville until spring.  But President Lincoln wanted action.  Union General-In-Chief Henry Halleck telegraphed Rosecrans telling him that, “… the Government demands action, and if you cannot respond to that demand some one else will be tried.”

The day after Christmas, Rosecrans began to move his army toward Murfreesboro.  He sent his three corps into town on divergent paths to find the Confederates, which he thought might be positioning along Stewart’s Creek between Murfreesboro and Smyrna.  The creek had steep banks that could easily be defended.  Gen. Alexander McCook’s troops followed Nolensville Pike to a dirt road.  Gen. T. L. Crittenden’s forces marched directly up Murfreesboro Pike.  Gen. George Thomas’ men marched from Franklin Pike to Brentwood and then to Nolensville.

Hearing that the Union army was on the move, Bragg pulled the elements of his army into Murfreesboro.  His regrouping was made possible by Confederate cavalry under the command of Gen. Joseph Wheeler.  The Confederates, working basically as two corps, had been spread across a 40-mile line.  Gen. William Hardee’s corps was at Triune and Eagleville, Brig. Gen. John McCown’s division was at Readyville, while Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk’s corps held Murfreesboro.

The battle line picked by Bragg offered more minuses for the Army of Tennessee than it did pluses.  The line did stand astride the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad and the Nashville Pike, but the ground was broken with heavy limestone outcroppings and almost impassible cedar thickets.  “The field of battle,” Hardee reported, “offered no peculiar advantages for defense … The country on every side was entirely open and accessible to the enemy.”

Stones River, itself, split Bragg’s lines in half, forcing him to place Maj. Gen. John Breckinridge’s division on the opposite side of the river, which was rising due to rain which began on Dec. 26.  Ironically, both Bragg and Rosecrans devised a similar battle plan.  They planned to strike the right wing of the opposing army and to drive it back to the left wing, folding the army like a pocket knife.

But before the battle, Bragg used his cavalry again to great effect.  Wheeler rode with some 4,000 troopers around the entire Union army, capturing a thousand federals and burning or capturing four wagon trains of weapons and supplies.  Wheeler achieved this without Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and Gen. John Hunt Morgan who were on independent raids at the time of the battle.

The eve before the battle, one of the strangest events of the Civil War took place.  In the bitter stillness of the winter night, military bands from both armies began a battle of the bands with “Yankee Doodle” answered by “Dixie” and so forth.  This interlude ended with the bands playing “Home Sweet Home” in unison and many of the homesick soldiers singing along.  It was a cold, restless night for the troops.  On the Union right, two generals were concerned about what was going on the Confederate left.

Brig. Gen. Phil Sheridan, along with his subordinate Brig. Gen. Joshua Sill, feared the Rebels were preparing for an early morning attack, but corps commander McCook was not impressed.  Despite McCook’s nonchalance, Sheridan rousted his brigade at 4 a.m., ordered them to eat breakfast and prepare for battle. Shortly after daylight, the Rebels advanced in a long, double line of infantry.  Hardee’s 10,000 men crashed into the Union camps.  It was Shiloh all over again.

The actual battle began near the current intersection of Franklin Road (Old Fort Parkway) and Gresham Lane.  Confederate Gen. McCown in command of three brigades slammed into Union Brig. Gen. Edward Kirk’s men on the Union’s far right. Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne’s division followed about 500 yards behind McCown.  Kirk’s brigade was driven back onto the brigade of Gen. August Willich.  Kirk was mortally wounded during the first few minutes of fighting.  Willich’s men had their arms stacked and were enjoying breakfast when the Confederate tidal wave hit.  Brigade after brigade was pushed back for nearly two miles until a new Union line was formed along Wilkinson Pike with Sheridan and Sill leading the defense.

The Union troops were aided by confusion among the Confederate attackers with Gen. Leonidas Polk’s corps delaying their attack until 7 or 8 a.m. and Maj. Gen. Frank Cheatham sending his brigades out in piecemeal fashion.  Units got separated. Others lost their leadership.  Gen. James Rain was shot through the heart as he direct his brigade against a Union battery.

Sill’s men lined up on a wooded slope off Wilkinson Pike facing east at an angle to Col. William Woodruff, who was commanding the last brigade of the Union right.  Sheridan reinforced Sill with two brigades and artillery.  Thus positioned, the Union troops decimated Col. J.Q. Loomis’ Alabama troops.  Sill resisted two more brigades, then Col. A.M. Manigault’s brigade joined the fray before being turned back.  Sill then launched a counter attack and was killed by a shot through the head.

The 1st and the 4th Tennessee got caught in the confusion as the Confederates tried to overrun the Federal position.  At one point, the Confederates thought they were being fired on by their own artillery.  Col. H.R. Feild of the 1st Tennessee sent a Murfreesboro man, Lt. Fred James, to stop the fire.  James’ parents lived nearby on Wilkinson Pike.  James was within 50 yards of the battery when he was shot dead.

Pvt. Sam Watkins blamed the confusion on alcohol.  “It was Christmas.  John Barleycorn was general-in-chief.  Our generals, and colonels, and captains, had kissed John a little too often,” Watkins wrote.  But the Confederate advance continued, led at one point by General Cheatham himself.  Sheridan’s line was forced to fall back into the cedars north of Wilkinson Pike.

Col. G.W. Roberts, hero of Island No. 10, made a counterattack and was killed.  It was just noon and all three of Sheridan’s brigade commanders were dead or dying.  Fully a third of his men were dead or wounded. Confederate losses were severe as well.

Union soldiers described the carnage as being like a Chicago slaughter pen.  That name stuck.  “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,” Watkins said.

For at least an hour, Union Gen. Rosecrans believed his battle plan was working as drafted, but as the noise of battle on the right flank moved closer he realized that the Army of the Cumberland was facing disaster.  He pulled Brig. Gen. Horatio Van Cleve’s division back across Stones River and ordered Brig. Gen. Thomas Wood and John Palmer’s divisions to reinforce the collapsing right flank.  On horseback, Rosecrans and his staff dashed from place to place on the battlefield.  “The battle must be won,” he kept repeating.  Late in the morning, he discovered an angry Phil Sheridan, whose troops were out of ammunition and exhausted.

Rosecrans moved Capt. James Stokes’ Chicago Board of Trade cannon to a low rise near the railroad line.  The Pioneer Brigade was pulled in for support.  A last line of defense was formed to cover the railroad and the Nashville Pike.  Rosecrans with his staff was dashing toward the Round Forest, the hottest point of the battle, when a Rebel cannonball nearly struck him.  The missile instead beheaded Col. Julius Garesché, his chief of staff.  Rosecrans, covered with Garesché blood, continued to rally his troops.

The Union Army had been folded back like a jackknife.  A “V” shaped salient was formed centering on what area residents called the Round Forest.  Rosecrans concentrated his artillery there in support of Col. William B. Hazen’s and Brig. Gen. Charles Croft’s brigades from Palmer’s division.  Brig. Gen. Milo Hascall’s and Col. George Wagner’s brigades were added from Wood’s Division.  Brig. Gen. James R. Chalmer’s Mississippi troops of Polk’s corps made the initial assault from the direction of the Cowan House, which had been burned by Rebel troops prior to the battle.

The massed Union artillery slaughtered them as the crossed the Cowan’s cotton fields.  When the approached closer, Union infantry mowed more of them down. The Mississippians fell back.  Tennessee troops made the next piecemeal attack on the position.

They were led by Brig. Gen. Daniel S. Donelson’s brigade from Cheatham’s Division.  Donelson was President Andrew Jackson’s nephew and Fort Donelson was named in his honor.  The Union fire was even more damaging.  The 8th Tennessee started the battle with 425 men and had 306 casualties, but Donelson’s men did collide with the Union infantry, pushing back Cruft’s brigade and Negley’s division before being crushed.  The Confederate attackers were quickly out of men and ammunition. Reinforcements were needed.  Bragg verbally ordered Breckinridge to recross Stones River with his five-brigade division of fresh troops.

Breckinridge, still fearing attack from across the river, refused to move.  A series of confusing orders from Bragg followed.  The back and forth discussion continued before Breckinridge finally sent four brigades across the river and toward the battle.  Among those troops was Col. Joseph B. Palmer’s Murfreesboro regiment.  Bragg told Polk to send all the troops in a mass attack on the Round Forest.  Rebel confusion gave the Army of the Cumberland extra time to shore up its lines. No lesson had been learned from the piecemeal attacks of Chalmers and Donelson.

Polk continued the brigade-style attacks first with Gen. Daniel Adams’ brigade, which was decimated.  John K. Jackson’s troops followed launching two attacks and losing a third of his men.  Breckinridge arrived on the field to discover Polk’s actions.  He first attempted to rally his troops only to be told by Polk to attack with the last two brigades.  It was 4 p.m. when he ordered Preston’s and Palmer’s brigades forward.

“About 4 p.m. the enemy again advanced upon my front in two lines.  The battle had hushed, and the dreadful splendor of this advance can only be conceived, as all description must fall vastly short,” Hazen wrote.  It was the strongest Rebel attack yet and Hazen feared his troops would be swept from the field.  Breckinridge’s troops did clear the cotton fields and engaged federal troops concealed along fence rows and in the cedars.  But the Rebel momentum was stopped. and Breckinridge with advice from Hardee concluded the two brigades were two weak for a second assault.

Thus, the first day’s battle at Stones River ended.

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