by Andy Turner
December 31st is a day of celebration. The year is over and a new one is about to begin, so everyone has a party. But it is mostly about hope: hope for the future and all the possibilities that entails. On this day in 1862, however, the futures of thousands of men ended.
December 31, 1862, saw the opening of the Battle of Stones River near Murfreesboro, Tennessee. As that year was coming to an end, Union Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans prepared to move his Army of the Cumberland out of Nashville towards Murfreesboro to drive the Confederate army of Gen. Braxton Bragg out of Tennessee. On Christmas day Rosecrans went over the plans with his generals and told them, “Press them hard! Drive them out of their nests! Make them fight or run!”
Almost as soon as the Federals left Nashville they began to encounter Confederate cavalry. The advance was slow as the Union soldiers were continually stopping to form a line of battle to drive off the harassing troopers. This delay allowed Bragg to consolidate his forces and prepare for the eventual attack.
Bragg was in a tough position. He had a supply depot at Murfreesboro that he wanted to defend. One possibility was to pull his men and supplies farther south, but he felt that would leave East Tennessee open to invasion. He decided he needed to stay and hold Murfreesboro. There were three roads that Rosecrans could use for his approach, the Nashville and Wilkinson Turnpikes and the Franklin Road. Bragg wasn’t sure which way the Union soldiers would come, so he needed to defend all three.
Bragg established a defensive line west and northwest of town that covered the three roads. The line was not built on any landscape feature that would provide a natural defense. The land was flat and open with occasional thick patches of trees that would interfere with troop movements and artillery. On top of that, Bragg’s line was split by Stones River. Earlier in the month there had been a good amount of rain in the area that meant with more, the river could rise at any time, creating a formidable barrier splitting Bragg’s line.
On December 29 the advance of the Union army approached Stones River. Having been informed that the Confederates were retreating, Union Maj. Gen. Thomas L. Crittenden ordered an attack. After pushing back skirmishers, the Union force ran into a Confederate division and the attack came to a halt. The remainder of the Union army arrived and established a position in front of their enemy.
On the 30th, Rosecrans did not attack. Bragg took the opportunity to send Brig. Gen. Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry into the Union rear to create what havoc he could. He was successful. By the time he rode back into the Confederate lines, Wheeler and his men had attacked four Union wagon trains, destroyed large amounts of Union supplies, captured and paroled nearly 1,000 men, and brought back horses for his men and enough weapons to arm a brigade.
That night both commanders prepared for the next morning. Each of them planned to attack the enemy’s right flank. On the morning of the 31st the Confederates struck first.
Initially not too concerned with what was happening, Rosecrans eventually had to abandon his plan of attack to reinforce his right flank and keep it from collapsing.
The Confederate attack had been strong and pushed the Union soldiers back. Several factors, though, kept them from exploiting the opening success. The advance was difficult for the Southern soldiers as cedar thickets made it difficult, if not impossible, for units to maintain contact with those beside them and keep their lines together as they advanced. Another problem they ran into was the Round Forest. Near the center of the Union line, the four-acre plot of cedars had a railroad cut running through it. The trees and the cut made the Round Forest the strongest defensive position in the area.
By noon the right flank of the Union army had folded back with the Round Forest as the hinge. Continued attacks, however, could not dislodge the Union troops from the position that the soldiers would call “Hell’s Half Acre.” By four o’clock, with daylight fading, a final push by the Southern forces was repulsed and the fighting ended for the day. The Federal troops had held in the center.
That night Rosecrans pondered his next move. He asked the opinion of his officers, a couple of whom advised retreat. A couple of others didn’t give an opinion either way, but stated they would support the general no matter which option he chose. Maj. Gen. George Thomas’ opinion was that their army did not retreat. In the end, Rosecrans decided to remain in place while sending wounded back to Nashville in wagons that would return with needed supplies.
Bragg was convinced that his men had won a great victory and driven off the Union army. Reports on New Year’s Day of Union wagons heading for Nashville convinced him that his enemy was retreating. He was shocked to find, later that day, that the Federals were still in position. Bragg, however, did nothing that day to prepare for a continuation of the battle. Finally on the 2nd, he decided to attack the Federal left flank to drive them back. In the end, the attack gained nothing and cost the Confederates numerous casualties that they could ill afford.
On the 3rd of January Bragg decided it was time to go. His men were exhausted from the fighting and poor weather and he had received word that Rosecrans was getting reinforcements from Nashville. That afternoon the retreat began, starting with supply wagons heading south.
The loss was a blow to the Confederacy. It gave the Federals a secure hold on Nashville as a base of operations in the West and offered relief to pro-Union people in East Tennessee. With Union losses in the East, particularly at Fredericksburg just a few weeks before, the victory gave the Northern government a much-needed boost.
On New Year’s Day when Bragg had thought his men had won the battle, he telegraphed Richmond stating, “The enemy has yielded his strong position and is falling back. God has granted us a happy New Year.” As it turned out, 1862 had not ended on the high note Bragg believed and it wasn’t going to get better in the days to come.