The Battle of Stones River: Why here?

As published in the Murfreesboro Post, October 22, 2006, by Mike West, Managing Editor

Why was the little, rural town of Murfreesboro the scene of a major Civil War battle?

Only 2,500 people lived here in 1862.  So why would 83,000 Federal and Confederate troops fight 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.

But Murfreesborough, as it was spelled then, wasn’t going to be given up without a fight.

Murfreesboro during the Civl War.

Murfreesboro during the Civl War.


First, let us ask you a question: “Why did you decide to move here?”   Location is the obvious answer.

The same was true 144 years ago.  Geography was even more significant in those days.

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

At the beginning of the Civil War, an overconfident United States government expected a quick victory and end to hostilities, but due to the strength of the Confederate’s field command, that didn’t happened.

That strategy was replaced by an effort to scatter Federal troops around the 6,000-mile border of the Confederate States of America as a way of containing Confederate units. That didn’t work either.

It took a new aggressive Union commander, Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to reverse that trend in the west.  Grant’s men captured two strategic Confederate fortifications: Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River in February 1962 and earned himself a promotion.  Later that same month, Nashville fell.

In March, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, commanding U.S. forces in the West, advanced armies under Maj. Gens. Grant and Don Carlos Buell southward to sever the Southern railroads. Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston, supreme Confederate commander in the West, moved to protect the crossroads of the Memphis & Charleston and the Mobile & Ohio railroads in Corinth, Miss., near the Tennessee border.

Grant moved his army by riverboat to Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River. He was under Halleck’s orders not to engage the enemy until Buell could move his army in from Nashville, but Johnston struck first on April 6. The Confederates were at the brink of victory, when Johnston was struck by a stray bullet and killed. Meanwhile, Buell’s troops arrived, giving Grant a combined force of 54,500 compared to 34,000 Confederates. More than 23,746 men were killed, wounded or missing. The CSA also lost control of the best line of east-west rail communications in the west. The Federal navy controlled the rivers all the way from St. Louis to Vicksburg, Miss. That made the rail link from Nashville to Atlanta even more important.

Confederates did launch counter offensives. Gen. Earl Van Dorn failed to retake Corinth. Gens. Braxton Bragg and Edmund Kirby Smith invaded Kentucky.
The Battle of Perryville, fought Oct. 8, 1862, capped Bragg’s “Kentucky Invasion” with a tactical victory for the Confederacy, but an eventual retreat to little Murfreesboro on that strategic point between Nashville and Chattanooga. Buell lost command of the U.S. Army of Ohio for failing to pursue Bragg, who had a much smaller force.

William S. Rosecrans replaced Buell. A civil engineer by trade, he was fifth in his class at West Point. His engineering skills made him a good pick, in some ways, for the duties to come. His political contacts didn’t hurt either.  Rosecrans’ promotion was opposed by Grant, who had protested his inability to act at Corinth.

“General Rosecrans. . . failed to follow up the victory, although I had given him specific orders in advance of the battle for him to pursue the moment the enemy was repelled. He did not do so, and I repeated the order after the battle. In the first order he was notified that the force of 4,000 men which was going to his assistance would be in great peril if the enemy was not pursued.” — The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Vol. 1, published by The Library of America.

Despite all of that, Rosecrans on Oct. 30, 1862, assumed command of the newly named Army of the Cumberland.

At that same time, Murfreesboro was in Confederate hands following Nathan Bedford Forrest’s July 13 raid in which he rousted a brigade of 1,700 Union troops. It’s commander, Gen. T.L. Crittenden was captured along with nearly a $1 million in supplies. Buell ordered troops out to retake Murfreesboro and McMinnville, but Forrest’s cavalry suddenly appeared in their rear and destroyed two railroad bridges between Murfreesboro and Nashville. The federal troops withdrew and left Murfreesboro in Southern hands.

One of the key ideas behind Bragg’s invasion into Kentucky was to draw Buell out of Middle Tennessee, then double back and regain Nashville. That was not to be. Bragg retreated to East Tennessee and Buell returned to Nashville.

On Oct. 23, 1862, Bragg was ordered to Richmond to discuss the results of the Kentucky invasion with President Jefferson Davis, who had been his classmate at West Point. Bragg put Maj. General Leonidas Polk in command and told him to move the army by rail to Chattanooga and then to Murfreesboro, which was being occupied chiefly by Forrest’s cavalry.

However, Forrest’s small force was soon appended by 6,000 men under the command of Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge. A Kentuckian, Breckinridge was vice president of the United States during the Buchanan administration. He was unsuccessful presidential candidate in 1860 and was serving as senator from Kentucky until he was expelled when the war began.

While Bragg was in Richmond, he attempted to blame his failed Kentucky expedition on Gen. Polk, who was an Episcopalian bishop. This would soon cause friction. Instead of demoting Polk, Davis promoted him, while avoiding questions about Bragg’s competency. Bragg and Davis’s friendship held, but the Confederate president did name Virginian Joseph E. Johnston as supreme commander in the West.

Returning from Richmond, Bragg established his headquarters in Murfreesboro where he assembled an army of nearly 40,000 men. On Nov. 26, Johnston visited the town of 2,500 for several days during which he officially named Bragg’s force the “Army of Tennessee.”

Davis and other Confederate officials soon ordered Johnston and Bragg to send troops to the aid of Pemberton in Vickburg, Miss. Both generals resisted the demands prompting a Dec. 10 visit to Murfreesboro by President Davis, who was accompanied by his aide, Gen. G.W.C. Lee, who was Robert E. Lee’s son.
After inspecting the Army of Tennessee, Davis told Johnston to order Bragg to dispatch Gen. G.L. Stevenson and his 10,000-man division to Mississippi.
Bragg protested the serious, perhaps fatal, weakening of his army, but Davis insisted, telling Bragg to “Fight if you can, and fall back beyond the Tennessee.”

With Davis and Johnston headed south to Mississippi, Bragg arranged his army to watch the enemy.

Historian Stanley Horn, in his “Army of Tennessee,” wrote how the army was arranged in a semi-circle with the center under Polk in Murfreesboro, the left flank at Triune and Eagleville under Gen. Hardee and his right at Readyville. He used his cavalry to stage several spectacular raids on Federal lines of communication.

On the home front, with the army’s stay in Murfreesboro the town’s social life exploded with dances, banquets, horse racing capped by President Davis’ visit and the marriage of Confederate raider John Hunt Morgan to Murfreesboro belle, Mattie Ready.

It was quite a Christmas in 1862. A day later, Murfreesboro’s world would change.

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