Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Battle of Stones River/ The Battle of Murfreesboro

Stones River? Murfreesboro? Why are there two names for this battle? The answer is amazingly simple.

The North and South were at war. Communication between the two sides was strained as each side saw itself as the offended nation.

Each side set out to document the war from their own perspective. Thus, the same battle was given two different names. The Confederates named battles after physical locations such as towns. The Union named battles after bodies of water such as rivers. Therefore, the North named the battle in question after the near by Stones River and the South named the battle after the town of Murfreesborough. The spelling of Murfreesborough was changed after the battle when occupying Union telegraphers began to drop the ugh in an effort to send information more quickly.

“After Confederate General Braxton Bragg's Army of Mississippi was defeated at the Battle of Perryville on October 8, he retreated to Harrisburg, Kentucky, where he was joined by Maj. Gen. Kirby Smith's army of 10,000 on October 10. Although Bragg now had a strong force of 38,000 veteran troops, he made no effort to regain the initiative. The Union victor at Perryville, Maj. Gen. Don C. Buell, was equally passive and refused to attack Bragg.

Bragg, frustrated, withdrew through the Cumberland Gap, passed through Knoxville and Chattanooga, turned northwest, and eventually stopped in Murfreesboro. His army, joined with Smith's Army of Kentucky and together renamed the Army of Tennessee …”[i]

October 23, 1862

Confederate leadership in Richmond demanded Braxton Bragg to appear before them and explain the failed Kentucky invasion. Bragg appeared but behaved in a very cowardly manner. Rather than accepting responsibility, Bragg foist all blame upon General Polk.[ii]

“ After his retreat from Perryville, Ky., Bragg ordered a concentration at Murfreesboro, Tenn. Both the North and the South were dissatisfied with the performance of their top commanders at Perryville, and both sides made changes in organization. The Federal Dept. (and Army) of the Cumberland was created under Rosecrans. The Confederate Army of Tennessee was created under Bragg. J. E. Johnston was sent to command all Confederate armies in the West (Division of the West).”[iii]

The Army of Tennessee established its winter quarters at Murfreesboro, in the exact geographic center of the state. Murfreesboro was an important strategic location between Nashville and Chattanooga. It was bounded by rivers, a railroad and verdant farmlands.

November 11, 1862

Major General William S. Rosecrans replaced William Buell. Leadership in Washington had been greatly displeased when Buell failed to pursue the Confederates after the battle of Perrysville.

November 26, 1862

On November 26th the reorganization was completed and Bragg’s army officially christened the Army of Tennessee.

The rank and file were unimpressed.

Hunger and restlessness enveloped the inactive Confederate troops camped in the pasture lands surrounding Murfreesboro. Bragg’s competency had been questioned and even the lowliest private knew it. Braxton Bragg had lost his men’s respect.

“It is a bad thing for an army to remain too long at one place. The men soon become discontented and unhappy, and we had no diversion or pastime except playing poker and chuck-a-luck. All the money of the regiment had long ago been spent, but grains of corn represented dollars, and with these we would play as earnestly and as zealously as if they were so much money, sure enough.”

~Pvt. Sam Watkins of the 1st Tennessee Infantry

The grains of parched corn they gambled with were the only rations they had received since the retreat from Perryville. Night after night dissatisfied men quietly slipped away to return home or visit sweethearts.

Bragg could not find respect among his commanding officers either. Petty bickering and open hostilities were the order of the day.

Key officers began to fall away. Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan left to raid Kentucky. General Edmund Kirby Smith received release from Bragg's command and left for Eastern Tennessee. Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest launched a raid into West Tennessee. General C. L. Stevenson and his division were ordered to move to Mississippi.

Those who remained could barely contain their disgust. General John C. Breckinridge, the former vice president of the United States, loathed Bragg for attempting to conscript Kentuckians. General Leonidas Polk, still reeling from the discovery that Bragg had blamed him for the failure of the Kentucky invasion, was called to Richmond and given a promotion. Even with this act of placation, Polk was not pleased to continue serving with Bragg. The friction between the two men was palpable.

Nevertheless; Bragg, ever the strict disciplinarian, positioned his remaining forces in a semicircle around Murfreesboro and demanded they keep watch for approaching Union troops.

Major General William S. Rosecrans, in pursuit of Bragg, moved the Union Army to Nashville. He was not moving fast enough however to please his superiors in Washington.

“If you remain one more week in Nashville, I cannot prevent your removal.”

~ Telegram from General-In-Chief Henry W. Halleck to Major General William S. Rosecrans

Vexed, Rosecrans replied:

"I need no other stimulus to make me do my duty than the knowledge of what it is. To threats of removal or the like I must be permitted to say that I am insensible."

December 26, 1862

“On the 26th of December 1862, General W. S. Rosecrans, who on the 20th of October had succeeded General Buell in the command of the Army of the Cumberland, set out from Nashville with that army with the purpose of attacking the Confederate forces under General Braxton Bragg, then concentrated in the neighborhood of Murfreesboro' on Stones River Tenn.”[iv]

The day after Christmas, “Old Rosy” and his troops left Nashville in three columns. General Crittenden marched his column up the Murfreesboro Pike. His route ran parallel to the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad. General Thomas marched his men southward down the Franklin Pike to Brentwood. He then proceeded to the crossroads at Nolensville and up the Murfreesboro Pike. General McCook took the Nolensville Pike and then diverted his men to a dirt road that lead to Murfreesboro.

Unfortunately, a sudden freezing rain and muddy roads hampered their progress.

“We left our camp near Nashville on the second day of Christmas to drive the Rebels from Murfreesboro. We marched a long distance through rain and mud that reached almost to our knees. In the evening we met in combat and had a sharp set-to. We took a cannon and 5 Rebel prisoner.”

~Private Lars O. Dokken, Company H, 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry

Bragg's intelligence sources informed him of Rosecrans' movement. Hoping to halt Rosecrans’ advance, Bragg sent Wheeler’s cavalry to harass the Union columns with hit-and-run skirmishes. He further instructed Wheeler move to Rosecrans’ rear and disrupt the Union supply trains. Rosecrans, unperturbed by these pestering actions, continued towards Murfreesboro. However, Wheeler created a long enough delay to allow Bragg to move his forces into a line of battle outside Murfreesboro.

December 29, 1862

On December 29th, Rosecrans and his troops set up camp so close to Bragg’s forces the men could hear each other.

December 30, 1862

The Battle of Stones River was set to begin. Oddly enough, both Bragg and Rosecrans planned to attack the enemy’s right in the early morning hours.

Bragg waited. He was certain that the Union would attack at any minute. His wait lasted all day.

As evening fell, regimental bands taunted each other by playing songs such as “Dixie,” a “Yankee Doodle,” “Bonny Blue Flag,” and “Hail Columbia” until, in one sudden and poignant moment, the bands and soldiers joined as one in the strains of “Home Sweet Home.”

"Every soldier on that field knew when the sun went down on the 30th that on the following day he would be engaged in a struggle unto death, and the air was full of tokens that one of the most desperate of battles was to be fought."

~ Brigadier General Henry M. Cist, Army of the Cumberland

That night, Rosecrans ordered extra campfires to be built on his right in an effort to make his line seem longer. He was playing a game of “catch me if you can.” Fooled by the fires, Bragg realigned his troops and planned to launch a sunrise attack.

It would have been difficult to locate an individual soldier on that last evening before the battle.

While the Battle of Stones River included Col. Butler’s 3rd Kentucky Cavalry, the whereabouts of my second great grandfather, James Edward Evans, are undocumented.

Had James gone AWOL?

Bragg was all for executing deserters. He’d ordered the execution of Asa Lewis on December 26th to frighten the enlisted and conscripted men into staying put. However, with the number of men sneaking off to visit girlfriends and family increasing, General Leonidas Polk issued an order promising pardon to all soldiers absent without leave if they would return.[v]

Had James in his desperation for food and shelter sought out his brother, Surgeon John B. Evans, who was attached to Wheeler’s 1st? Doctors often had better assess to rations and blankets. Where would the 1st have stationed their surgeon? The Confederate picket lines were stretched out to within two miles of the Union line outside Nashville. Major General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry patrolled the area between the pickets and the main line.

“A relative youngster, Wheeler was only 26 when placed in command of the Army of Tennessee's cavalry. Both Forrest and Morgan were his subordinates.

Wheeler led his cavalry completely around the Union army engaging two of Thomas's brigades, in the process.During the night of the Dec. 29, Wheeler, who had moved from the left to the right of Murfreesboro, advancing by the Lebanon and Jefferson Pikes, gained the rear of Rosecrans' army and attacked Starkweather's brigade at Jefferson, at daylight Dec. 30.

From Jefferson, Wheeler proceeded toward La Vergne, picking up stragglers and a small forage train, and arrived at La Vergne about noon that same day. There he captured the immense supply trains of McCook's corps. About 700 prisoners were taken and a million dollars worth of property seized or destroyed.”[vi]

December 31, 1862

At dawn on the 31st, Bragg's ordered an attack McCook’s forces on the Union right flank.

"Early on the morning of the 31st Colonel M. B. Walker's Union brigade (of Fry's division Thomas's corps), on its night march from Nolensville to Stewartsboro, arrived within two and a half miles of La Vergne, and advanced at once to the scene of devastation. The turnpike, as far as the eye could reach, was filled with burning wagons. The country was over spread with disarmed men, broken-down horses and mules. The streets were covered with empty valises and trunks, knapsacks, broken guns, and all the indescribable debris of a captured and rifled army train."

~ Lt. Col. G. C. Kniffin

Wheeler's cavalry also captured supply trains at Rock Springs and Nolensville. This action prevented many Union soldiers from receiving their rations and much needed ammunition.

“General Orders: Headquarters Department of the Cumberland

In front of Murfreesborough, Dec. 31, 1862

Soldiers, the eyes of the whole nation are upon you; the very faith of the nation may be said to hang on the issue of this day's battle. Be true, then, to yourselves, true to your own manly character and soldierly reputation, true to the love of your dear ones at home, whose prayers ascend to God this day for your success.

Be cool! I need not ask you to be brave. Keep ranks. Do not throw away your fire. Fire slowly, deliberately; above all, fire low, and be always sure of your aim. Close steadily in upon the enemy, and, when you get within charging distance, rush on him with the bayonet. Do this, and the victory will certainly be yours. Recollect that there are hardly any troops in the world that will stand a bayonet charge, and that those who make it, therefore, are sure to win.

By command of Maj. Gen. W. S. Rosecrans:

J.P. Garesché,
Assistant Adjutant-General and Chief of Staff.”

The Confederates drove the Union line back to the Nashville Pike by 10:00 am. There the Union managed to hold firm in the area of the Round Forest. Reinforcements arrived from Rosecrans's left in the late afternoon.

"I knew it was hell in there before I got in. But I was convinced of it when I saw Phil Sheridan with hat in one hand and sword in the other, fighting as if he were the devil incarnate."

~ Maj. Gen. Lovell H. Rousseau

Wheeler continued to display his skill:

"At 2 o'clock on the morning of the 31st Wheeler came up bright and smiling upon the left flank of the Confederate army in front of Murfreesboro, having made the entire circuit of Rosecrans's army in 48 hours, leaving miles of road strewn with burning wagons and army supplies, remounting a portion of his cavalry, and bringing back to camp a sufficient number of minie-rifles and accouterments to arm a brigade."

~ Lt. Col. G. C. Kniffin

Oblivious to reality Bragg believed the Union army to be in retreat. It’s possible his scouts mistook the long line of wagons removing the wounded for a full scale retreat. In a fit of euphoria, Bragg prematurely declared victory and telegraphed Richmond:

“The enemy has yielded his strong position and is falling back. We occupy the whole field and shall follow him .... God has granted us a happy New Year.”

The men of both armies lay down in exhaustion. Their pitiful beds were made of mud, rock, and rain soaked blankets.

“It was a gloomy night – gloomy long before midnight, when the gathering clouds stretched across the heavens and poured upon the contending army a deluge of rain, as if weeping over the slaughter.”

~ Provost Judge John Fitch of the Army of the Cumberland.

Temperatures dropped sharply on New Year’s Eve. Freezing rain pelted the defenseless wounded who were literally freezing to death.

“The frost, the dead and dying and the dark cedars among which we bivouacked were wild enough for a banquet of ghouls.”

~Brigadier General William Preston

January 1, 1863

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. All slaves in Southern sates were now free by Federal law.

The battle field was quiet as both armies nursed their wounded and recovered their dead. As Union troops reinforced their positions near the Nashville Pike, Rosecrans called a Council of War in order to discuss whether it would be wisest to stay and fight or to retreat. The decision was succinctly stated by General George H Thomas:

“I know of no better place to die."

Wheeler’s cavalry plagued Rosecrans' communications line to Nashville. They attacked a wagon train near La Vergne, dispersed the guard, and destroyed about 30 wagons.[vii]

As Colonel Joseph B. Palmer’s troops moved back across Stones River, Rosecrans ordered General T. L. Crittenden to take the high ground overlooking McFadden’s Ford.

“How many poor men suffered through the chill nights in the thick woods ... calling in vain ... for help, and finally making their last solemn petition to God!”

~Colonel John Beatty

January 2, 1863

Bragg ordered General John C. Breckinridge, to drive the Union troops out of his way and back across the river. He wished Breckinridge to take high ground and establish area to position the Confederate artillery.

Breckinridge argued that this plan was a suicide mission. Crittenden’s troops were already in position on the higher ground and digging in. Trying to remove them would be impossible as Breckenridge’s men would be blown to bits by the Union cannons before they were in range to fire a single shot.

Bragg, unmoved, repeated his order. Polk stepped in to reason with Bragg. He calmly explained that sending Breckinridge to cross the river would accomplish nothing. Bragg would not relent.

Breckinridge was left with no alternative. At 4:00 as the rain turned to sleet, Breckinridge led 4,500 in an attack on General Horatio Van Cleve’s Division which occupied the hill overlooking McFadden’s Ford. The Confederates pushed forward into the face of 57 Union cannons. Confederate Brig. Gen. Benjamin Hardin Helm, one of the first in the line, was the brother in law of President Abraham Lincoln.

“Van Cleve’s Division of my command was retiring down the opposite slope, before overwhelming numbers of the enemy, when the guns … opened upon the swarming enemy. The very forest seemed to fall … and not a Confederate reached the river.”

~General T. L. Crittenden

More than 1,800 Confederates were killed or wounded in the ensuing forty-five minutes of concentrated fire.[viii]

January 3, 1863

Rosecrans held his defensive perimeter west of the river. Union spirits were buoyed by the arrival of a supply train and infantry reinforcements.

Wheeler's cavalry made a failed attempt to capture the Union ammunition train.

Confederate Major Generals Benjamin F. Cheatham and James Whiters wrote a letter suggesting retreat and sent it to General Leonidas Polk:

“This army should be promptly put into retreat…we do fear great disaster from the condition of things now existing, and think it should be averted if possible.”

Polk added his signature to the letter and dispatched a courier to Bragg. When the courier arrived in the wee hours of the morning, Bragg is said to have thundered:

“Say to General Polk that we shall hold our own at every hazard.”

Yet by sunrise, Bragg softened his position. With continuing rains swelling the river, Bragg feared that his line would be cut into two with no means for escape or reinforcement. He met with Generals Polk and Hardee and by noon Bragg issued orders to march south under the cover of darkness.

In total darkness, and freezing rain, the Confederates pulled out of Murfreesboro and fell back to Shelbyville and then on to Tullahoma, Tennessee.

Rosecrans did not pursue.

Overall, both sides lost more than 18,700 killed or wounded in the midwinter battle.[ix]

The Aftermath

Bragg took a beating in the press for retreating yet again.

“During the following weeks, when people read detailed accounts of Stones River listing 12,000 Confederate casualties and telling how Bragg had withdrawn thirty-five miles to Duck River, the success of Morgan’s raid stood out in contrast.” [x]

Murfreesboro was a shambles. The bodies of dead men and dead horses littered the ground. Every available home, barn, and shed had been turned into hospitals for the wounded. John Hunt Morgan’s new bride Mattie was quickly discovering that being the wife of a military leader is not a life of glamour.

“…following the Battle of Stones River and Bragg’s retreat from Middle Tennessee, Mattie, accompanied by her lovely sister Alice, was forced to take flight from home. The Ready house was used by Union Gen. Rosecrans for his headquarters in Murfreesboro.”[xi]

Murfreesboro remained under Union control for the rest of the war.

“By Sunday morning the town having the appearance of entire desertion. Scarcely a person seen in the streets. ... The Confederates all gone with the exception of a small force of Confederate cavalry remaining behind to watch the movements of Rosecrans’ army. The wounded had been gathered up ... the surgeons were quite busy dressing the wounds of soldiers brought in from the battlefield.”

~ John C. Spence

"...Murfreesboro is deserted of its inhabitants, every house being either a hospital or a soldiers' barracks. I have been in town several times since its occupation and have seen only one woman and child in it. This is a terrible reality to the southern people at least, and it is impossible to give you the faintest idea of the horrors it inflicts upon them...”

~ Union Surgeon Stephen O. Himoe

“I ride over the battlefield – in one place a caisson and five horses are lying, the latter killed in harness, and all fallen together. Nationals and Confederates, young, middle-aged, and old, are scattered over the woods and fields for miles. ... We find men with their legs shot off, one with brains scooped out with a cannon ball, another with half a face gone, another with entrails protruding, young Winnegard of the Third, has one foot off and both legs pierced by grape at the thighs, another boy lies with his hands clasped above his head, indicating that his last words were a prayer. Many Confederate sharpshooters lay behind stumps, rails, and logs, shot in the head. A young boy, dressed in the Confederate uniform, lies with his face turned to the sky and looks as if he might be sleeping. ... Many wounded horses are limping over the field.”

~ U.S. Brigade Commander Colonel J. Beatty

“Mrs. Payne, ... a frequent visitor at the hospital, ... had cared for several Confederate soldiers, one of whom was Capt. Bramlett, who had died at her house. She said that when he was about to die she concluded to remove the coarse blankets and replace them with neater ones; that he caught her hand and said, 'No, do not remove those blankets, for they saved my life at Stone's River. They were placed over me that cold night by the hand of an enemy, but a brother. You may come across him sometime, and if you should, tell him I died under the blankets he placed over me that night.' She sent them to his parents in Paris, Ky.”

~ Union Surgeon, Dr. Hickman

Dr. Hickman had lain the blankets over Captain Bramlett.


[i] “The Battle of Murfreesboro/Stones River,” The American Civil War
[ii] West, Mike. “ The Battle of Stones River: Why here?” The Murfreesboro Post
[iii] Boatner, Mark M. III. “Civil War Dictionary"
[iv] Kniffin, G. C. Lieut. Colonel. “The Battle of Stones River”
[v] West, Mike. “ Bully for Bragg. He’s hell or retreat,” The Murfreesboro Post
[vi] West, Mike. “March to Murfreesboro began on Dec. 26” The Murfreesboro Post,
[vii] Boatner, Mark M. III. “The Battle of Stones River” Civil War Dictionary.
[viii] “Breckenridge’s Charge”
[ix] Cheeks. Robert. “Battle of Stones River,” America’s Civil War Magazine, September 1999
[x] Ramage, James A. “Rebel Raider” chap 12, p. 145.
[xi] Jones, Shirley Farris. “ Mattie Ready Morgan: The hardships of war,” The Murfreesboro Post, Part 2 of a series,

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