Lincoln and Secession

61st New York Infantry-Lincoln and SecessionAbraham Lincoln is considered one of the two or three best Presidents that the United States has ever had. But like most Presidents he had to learn the job as he went along. And quite honestly, his early decisions on the conduct of the war and who would lead his armies were mostly abysmal. In this post we’ll look at how his call for troops from the states pushed Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee into secession.

Lincoln’s initial strategy of a call for troops precipitated a number of Southern state legislatures to reverse their initial rejections of secession and join the Confederacy. Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee were three states that teetered on the secession issue.

The Virginia Convention of 1861 convened on February 13, 1861 to consider whether Virginia should secede from the United States. Its 152 delegates, a majority of whom were Unionist, had been elected at the behest of the Virginia General Assembly, which also directed that their decision be ratified by a statewide referendum.

Virginia hesitated, and debate raged on for months. On April 4, secessionists badly lost a vote but prepared for the possibility of war nevertheless. Former Virginia governor Henry A. Wise worked behind the scenes and outside the legal process to secure the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry by military means, a move that prompted a furious objection from Unionist delegate John Baldwin of Staunton. After the fall of Fort Sumter on April 13 and Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers on April 15, the momentum turned toward secession, and the convention voted on April 17 to leave the Union. Virginians expressed their agreement at the polls on May 23.

Non-slaveholding yeoman farmers made up a majority of the North Carolina population and constituted the core of the Unionist strength. They were disinclined to secede or fight for the preservation of slavery. Also, the Whig Party, which had disintegrated as a national party by 1860, still had a strong following. Whig leaders comprised the bulk of the unconditional Unionist leadership. Other Whigs and conservative Democrats advocated a “watch and wait” policy while maintaining that secession was a fundamental right of each state. The counties in the west, northeast, and Piedmont were areas of Unionist sentiment.

Democrats like Governor John W. Ellis, Senator Clingman, Congressman Thomas Ruffin, and former congressman William S. Ashe led the secessionists. The main areas of secessionist strength were the coastal counties with large slave populations and the counties that bordered South Carolina, especially Mecklenburg. Lincoln’s election prompted this group to launch local secession meetings. The first meeting was held in Cleveland County on 12 Nov. 1860, the second in New Hanover on 19 November. A series of similar gatherings were held across the state. The movement was given a boost by the secession of South Carolina on 20 Dec. 1860.

On 29 Jan. 1861 the General Assembly agreed to put the convention question to the people on 28 February. The legislature also voted to send delegates to the Washington Peace Conference on 4 February.

The convention campaign was vigorously waged. The Unionists were able to set the terms of the debate early, focusing on the question of “Union or Disunion.” Secessionist attempts to redefine the campaign based on southern self-defense failed.

The Unionists carried the northeastern counties and most of the Piedmont and Mountains. They defeated the secessionists by a vote of 47,323 to 46,672. The delegate elections are more indicative of actual sentiment. Only about a third of the 120 delegates elected were secessionists. The Unionists were helped by positive news from the Peace Conference the day before the election. The debate in the campaign had been injurious to the secessionist cause. On 4 March, a few days after the vote, Lincoln gave his inaugural address, which struck some as conciliatory.

The secessionists did not give up, however. On 22-23 Mar. 1861 delegates from 25 counties assembled in Goldsboro and organized the Southern Rights Party. They urged the legislature to call a convention and demanded that the state join the Confederacy. They posed the new debate in terms of South against North. Despite numerous meetings, by early April North Carolina seemed no nearer to secession than it had been in February.

Then came the news that Confederate forces had bombarded Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on 12 April, followed on 15 April by Lincoln’s call for 75,000 troops. Governor Ellis responded, “You can get no troops from North Carolina.” Zebulon Vance was pleading for the Union with his arm upraised when word arrived of Lincoln’s summons. “When my hand came down from that impassioned gesticulation,” he recalled, “it fell slowly and sadly by the side of a secessionist.”

Ellis called a special session of the legislature for 1 May and immediately ordered the seizure of Federal property. When the General Assembly met, it voted for a delegate election on 13 May to an unrestricted convention to meet in Raleigh on 20 May, the anniversary of the so-called Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. The campaign for the convention was characterized by resignation rather than enthusiasm. Both Unionists and secessionists spoke of the need to act in the face of northern aggression. The major debate-whether North Carolina should separate based on “the right of revolution,” as some Unionists advocated, or on the Calhounian doctrine of secession-was over. The radical secessionists favored the latter position.

A total of 122 Democratic and Whig delegates, 108 of whom were native North Carolinians, gathered on 20 May 1861. The delegates held an average of 30.5 slaves each, with the median being 21, which meant that over one-half of the delegates belonged to the small planter class. Sixty-eight delegates had attended college, making them far better educated than those who had elected them. The average personal and real property per delegate was valued at $61,817, placing them among the wealthy citizens of the state.

The convention elected Weldon N. Edwards, a Democratic planter from Warren County, as president. (Edwards defeated William A. Graham of Orange County.) Edwards gave a speech denouncing continued connection with the “Black Republican Union.”

Onetime Unionist George E. Badger introduced a resolution for separation from the Union based on the right of revolution. An alternate ordinance, simply dissolving the Union and representing the radical position, was proposed by Burton Craige of Rowan County. The Badger proposal was defeated by a vote of 72 to 40. An attempt to modify the Craige ordinance failed. The convention then unanimously passed the ordinance of secession and voted to accept the provisional Constitution of the Confederate States of America. As requested by Governor Ellis, the convention agreed not to put the secession ordinance to a popular vote. On 21 May 1861 the ordinance was signed and President Jefferson Davis proclaimed North Carolina a Confederate state.

Tennessee was the last state to secede from the Union. Tennessee was a complicated state. Like its neighbor Virginia, it was profoundly divided over the issue of secession, with its mountainous eastern section deeply opposed to the idea. They weren’t alone: A special election on Feb. 9 revealed the political gulf between Governor Isham Harris and the people of the state: On the same day that Mississippi left the Union, the voters of Tennessee voted 80 percent against secession.

By the time of Lincoln’s inauguration in March, nothing short of a repudiation of the 1860 Republican platform would satisfy the state’s fire-eaters. The two sides, Unionist and secessionist, stood at a stalemate until the bombardment of Ft. Sumter in early April. While some favored immediate secession, others held that secession was unconstitutional. A larger number futilely hoped for some sort of settlement based on a constitutional compromise regarding the “question of negro slavery.” Even after the outbreak of war, Tennessee, like Missouri and Kentucky to its north, hoped that it could remain neutral.

That changed with Lincoln’s April 15 call for the states to send 75,000 troops to fight the Confederacy. If the federal government was going to “coerce” the seceded states into returning, Tennessee had no choice but to join its Southern neighbors. “Tennessee will not furnish a single man for purposes of coercion but 50,000 if necessary for the defense of our rights and those of our Southern brothers,” wrote Harris in response to Lincoln’s request. The legislature (with 32 percent of the House and 16 percent of the Senate dissenting) voted on May 6 to join her “Southern brothers.”

Unlike every other state to join the Confederacy with the exception of Texas and Virginia, however, the legislators insisted that the public ratify their decision. While the state government prepared for secession and war following the vote for secession, Tennessee was technically not yet a member of the separatist government. But on June 8, by a two-to-one majority, Tennessee’s electorate confirmed the General Assembly’s verdict. The Volunteer State thus became the last to secede.


The Confederates Advance into Tennessee

This entry is part 2 of 10 in the series The Franklin-Nashville Campaign

The Confederates Advance

into Tennessee

After their defeat at Atlanta, the Confederate Army of Tennessee, commanded by General John Bell Hood, had retreated to Palmetto, Georgia. After meeting with Confederate President Jefferson Davis, the Confederate strategy called for Hood to advance across Georgia, into Alabama and ultimately into Tennessee. The objective was to circumvent Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s army group and disrupt his supply lines back to Chattanooga.

Sherman remained in Atlanta for the rest of September 1864 and into October. He began the planning for his famous March to the Sea. Part of this called for a secure supply line to Atlanta via the Western & Atlantic Railroad, the line used in the Andrews Raid (commonly referred to as the Great Locomotive Chase), which took place  on the morning of April 12, 1862.

Map of the Franklin-Nashville CampaignHood headed to the northwest with his 40,000 man army on September 29, 1864. Along the way, Hood skirmished with Union cavalry under Brig. Gens. Judson Kilpatrick and Kenner Garrard in a raid on the railroad near Marietta. Hood moved fast and managed to elude Union reconnaissance parties. This partly due to the lack of training that the Union cavalry had received.

Click Map to enlarge.

Hood’s forces captured Union garrisons at Big Shanty (present-day Kennesaw) with its garrison of 175 men, and the following day Acworth, with an additional 250. Leaving one division at Atlanta, Sherman took his army of 55,000 and began to pursue Hood.

On October 5th, a Confederate division (approximately 3,276) under  Maj. Gen. Samuel G. French attacked a Union garrison under Brig. Gen. John M. Corse at Allatoona, Georgia. The Federal troops (approximately 2,025 men) occupied strong defensive positions in two earthen redoubts on each side of a 180 feet, 65 feet deep railroad cut and many of the men, including the entire 7th Illinois, were armed with Henry repeating rifles.

After a two-hour bombardment, French sent a demand for surrender, which was refused. The Confederates commander then sent his three brigades forward to assault the Union fortifications. The battle lasted two hours and it appeared that the Union garrison might have to surrender. However, a false report that Union reinforcements were on their way forced French to withdraw.Battle of Allatoona Pass

This small affair was fairly bloody with the Union force sustaining 706 total casualties while the Confederates took 897 total casualties. French was unsuccessful in seizing the railroad cut and Federal garrison, regretting in particular that he was unable to seize the one million rations stored there, or to burn them before he retreated.

Hood moved his forces on and on October 12th, demanded the surrender of the 700-man Union garrison at Resaca, Georgia. The Union commander, Col. Clark R. Weaver, refused Hood’s ultimatum to surrender, which warned that no prisoners would be taken. Weaver replied “In my opinion I can hold this post. If you want it, come and take it.”

Hood declined to attack the Union position because he believed that it would be too costly, instead bypassing the city, moving north, and continuing the destruction of the railroad.

After the surrender of the Union garrison at Dalton, Georgia, one of the uglier incidents of the war took place. Some 600 of the Union soldiers were African-Americans. The Union commander, Col. Lewis Johnson, demanded that they be treated as prisoners-of-war but General Hood replied that “all slaves belonging to persons in the Confederacy” would be returned to their masters.

Hubbard Pryor, 44th USCTThe African-Americans were marched to the railroad and forced to tear up the rails. Six were shot for refusing to work or being unable to keep up. Col. Lewis Johnson later wrote that the abuse his men received “exceeded anything in brutality I have ever witnessed.” Johnson and his white officers were paroled the following day, but some of his black soldiers were returned to slavery.

Hood now began to plan his long-term strategy. Up to now his troops had destroyed 24 miles of track but Sherman employed upwards of 10,000 men and the line was back in service by October 28th.

Hood realized that he would need to engage Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland before Sherman joined forces with him to have any chance of success. After defeating Thomas, he planned to move into Kentucky to replenish both his troops and their supplies. If Sherman followed him, he would engage him in Kentucky. After defeating Sherman, he would then move through the Cumberland Gap and aid Robert E. Lee at Petersburg.

On October 21st, General P.G.T. Beauregard, Hood’s immediate superior, reluctantly approved Hood’s plan, although he had his doubts with the daunting logistics of it.

Meanwhile, Sherman had received preliminary approval for the March to the Sea. In order to secure his rear, Sherman decided to assist Thomas in the destruction of Hood’s army. He ordered the IV Corps under Maj. Gen.
David S. Stanley to Chattanooga and the XXIII Corps under Maj. Gen. John Schofield to Nashville, as well as Maj. Gen. Andrew J. Smith‘s XVI Corps from Missouri to Nashville.




Rosecrans Maneuvers to Victory

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series The Tullahoma Campaign

Rosecrans Maneuvers

to Victory

Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans began his maneuvers with somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 effectives in his Army of the Cumberland. His objective was to move into the enemy’s rear and either bring him to battle or force him into a precipitous retreat.

He had three infantry corps under the command of Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas, Maj. Gen. Alexander McD. McCook and Maj. Gen. Thomas L. Crittenden. He had a Reserve Corps of some 20,000 men under Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger. Finally he had a Cavalry Corps of over 12,000 troopers, led by Maj. Gen. David S. Stanley.

Facing the Union army was the Confederate Army of Tennessee, commanded by General Braxton Bragg, with about 45,000 men. The Confederate force consisted of two infantry corps under Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk and Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee. There was a Cavalry Corps under Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler and a Cavalry Division under Brig. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Click Map to enlarge.

The Union maneuvering began with a feint by elements of the Reserve Corps and Cavalry Corps to the Confederate left. This was designed to play into Bragg’s assumption that the Union attack would come on his left. Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. John M. Palmer‘s Division moved to Bradyville, well outside the Confederate’s right flank. This was designed to fend off the Confederate cavalry and get into the enemy’s rear.

Rosecrans had implored Washington for more cavalry all spring. As it was, he was outnumbered in this vital area. He received permission to outfit an infantry brigade commanded by Col. John T. Wilder as mounted infantry. This 1,500-man brigade was equipped with long handled hatchets for hand-to-hand combat, which caused their unit to be derisively nicknamed the “Hatchet Brigade”. More importantly, they were also armed with the seven-shot Spencer repeating rifles.

This lethal combination of mobility and firepower was necessary for them to take and hold Hoover’s Gap. On the first day of the advance (June 24, Colonel John T. Wilder1862), Wilder’s Brigade raced to the gap and seized it from the Confederate unit that was guarding it after a brief skirmish. The Confederates not only withdrew but also never notified higher headquarters of the circumstances of their withdrawal.

Wilder ordered his men to push through the gap and secure it before Confederate reinforcements could arrive. When the Confederates did arrive, Wilder’s men drove them back with the concentrated fire from the Spencer rifle, inflicting 146 killed and wounded (almost a quarter of enemy’s force) to Wilder’s 61. Union reinforcements arrived and poured through the gap. George Thomas, Wilder’s corps commander, shook his hand and told him, “You have saved the lives of a thousand men by your gallant conduct today. I didn’t expect to get to this gap for three days.”

The Union army had pierced the Confederate defensive line in the center. Six miles to the west, Alexander McCook’s Corps was carrying out a similar operation at Liberty Gap. Another mounted and Spencer rifle-equipped unit, the 39th Indiana, moved into the gap and pushed back the two Confederate regiments that were guarding it. McCook then ordered an infantry brigade to reinforce the Hoosiers.

A fierce battle ensued between the Union infantry, reinforced with a second brigade, and two Confederate brigades commanded by Brig. Gens. St. John R. Liddell and Patrick R. Cleburne. The Union forces were able to push a half mile beyond the entrance to the gap.

Despite the heavy rain, the Union forces had carried out Rosecrans’ plan flawlessly. They were now in position to turn the Confederate’s right flank with the capture of the two key passes.

The next day, Confederate forces attempted to take back both passes but were unsuccessful. Rosecrans had halted the forward movement of his army because the rain had turned the roads into quagmires. The Confederate cavalry forces under Wheeler and Forrest failed to provide Braxton Bragg with the intelligence that he needed to properly fight the enemy.

General Leonidas PolkOn the 26th, after gaining sufficient information on the Union army’s intentions, Bragg ordered Polk to take his corps on a night march toward Murfreesboro through Guy’s Gap and attack the Union force at Liberty Gap from the rear, while Hardee pressed them in front. Polk refused, objecting to the difficulty of the maneuver. Bragg called off the attack when he realized the danger from Thomas’ advance through Hoover’s Gap.

Meanwhile, Rosecrans ordered McCook to withdraw from Liberty Gap and move to Hoover’s Gap, where he could exploit Thomas’ breakthrough. At this point Hardee, who had very little knowledge of Bragg’s plans, ordered his force at Hoover’s Gap to retreat toward Wartrace to the west rather than south to Manchester. If they had moved south, this force could have used the successive defensive positions along that route to delay Rosecrans enough for Bragg to implement a successful counterattack.

Instead, Bragg was forced to order his army to withdraw to Tullahoma on June 27th. This signaled a general advance by the Army of the Cumberland all along the battle lines. Wilder’s Brigade entered Manchester at 8:00 AM on June 27th. On the same day, Union cavalry captured Shelbyville with a mounted charge over the breastworks after the retreating Confederates.

On the 28th, Wilder’s Brigade made a raid behind Confederate lines that caused considerable damage to rail lines and supply depots along the way. They reached Sewanee before returning to Manchester. Despite Confederate pursuit, Wilder did not lose a single man and arrived back on June 30th.

Bragg had planned on resisting the Union advance from his strong defensive fortifications outside of Tullahoma. In fact, Rosecrans had planned a General William J. Hardeefull frontal assault on July 1st but Bragg’s two corps commanders became nervous and counseled withdrawal further south. On the night of June 30th, Bragg ordered a withdrawal across the Elk River. Polk and Hardee advised Bragg to move even further south to Cowan, on the Nashville & Chattanooga rail line.

With the successive withdrawals, Bragg lost the opportunity to inflict serious casualties on the Union army. Steven Woodworth wrote, “The resolute and well-conceived Union advance and the constant carping and noncooperation of his generals seemed to have broken Bragg down physically and emotionally.” He also suffered from a painful case of boils that prevented him from mounting his horse.

The Cowan positions was not very defensible, so on July 2nd, without consulting his corps commanders, he ordered a retreat to Chattanooga. By July 7th, the Army of Tennessee was camped at Lookout Mountain.

The Tullahoma Campaign was the high point of William S. Rosecrans career as the commander of the Army of the Cumberland. While every decision that he made seemed to go right, every decision that Braxton Bragg made seemed to go wrong. The campaign exposed the command problems within the Army of Tennessee which were exacerbated by Bragg’s abrasive personality.

The Union Army had driven the Confederates out of Middle Tennessee with minimal losses. Union casualties were reported as 569 (83 killed, 473 wounded, and 13 captured or missing). Bragg made no casualty report; his losses, he said, were “trifling.” But the Union army captured 1,634 Confederates, primarily from Hardee’s Corps. As Bragg rode into the Tennessee mountains he told Bishop Charles Quintard, the chaplain of the 1st Tennessee, that he was “utterly broken down” and that the campaign was “a great disaster.”




The Tullahoma Campaign: The Opposing Positions

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series The Tullahoma Campaign

The Tullahoma Campaign:

The Opposing Positions

The Tullahoma Campaign was proof that victories did not require massive casualty lists but were sometimes accomplished with brilliant maneuvers. Tullahoma proved that Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans could maneuver his Army of the Cumberland to victory with a minimum number of casualties, when he was fully prepared to do so.

After the bloody but inconclusive affair at Stones River, General Braxton Bragg withdrew his Confederate Army of Tennessee some 30 miles to the south and established defensive positions along the Duck River and behind the ridge known as the Highland Rim, which encircles the Nashville Basin.

The Confederates placed small groups of pickets at the passes through the rim and cavalry forces at either end of their 70 mile long line. Bragg located his headquarters in Tullahoma, Tennessee.

Bragg was surmising that Rosecrans would advance and capture the vital rail and supply junction of Chattanooga, Tennessee, opening up northern Georgia to enemy attacks. He spread his cavalry forces in a wide area in order to prevent Rosecrans from turning or flanking his position.

Click Map to enlarge.

He placed his largest infantry corps, under Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk, in a strong defensive position at Shelbyville, Tennessee. He was anticipating a Union attack on his left flank through the easy-to-cross Guy’s Gap.

Eight miles to Polk’s right, he positioned Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee and his smaller corps in fortified positions at Wartrace. From this location, Hardee could protect the main road to Chattanooga and reinforce the other three passes on the Highland Rim: (from west to east) Bell Buckle Gap, Liberty Gap, and Hoover’s Gap.

Hoover’s Gap was a 4 mile long pass at 1,100 feet. Two wagons could barely pass through the gap. The gap was strongly entrenched but Bragg only placed one cavalry regiment in the gap. He would later be heavily criticized for this inadequate defense. Hardee warned him that the position would be subject to frontal and flanking attacks.

Meanwhile, Rosecrans kept his army at Murfreesboro for nearly six months. He spent the time resupplying, building a logistical base (Fortress Rosecrans), and training his troops. He was also concerned about movement along the muddy roads in the area. He was bombarded by messages from President Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck to resume campaigning against Bragg, but rebuffed them all through the winter and spring.

The authorities in Washington were concerned that Bragg might intervene against Grant who was advancing against Vicksburg throughout this time period. Lincoln sent a message that said in part, “I would not push you to any rashness, but I am very anxious that you do your utmost, short of rashness, to keep Bragg from getting lost to help Johnston against Grant.”

Rosecrans saw his army as a threat to Bragg. He pointed out that if he moved against Bragg, he might move his entire army south to Mississippi and threaten Grant. Frustration with Rosecrans’s excuses led Halleck to threaten to relieve him if he did not move, but in the end he merely protested “against the expense to which [Rosecrans] put the government for telegrams.”

The Confederates were located in an area that was referred to as the Barrens. As its name would apply, it was an area of poor farmland that was unable to adequately supply Bragg’s army. Ironically, they were protecting  the important rail center of Chattanooga, through which supplies from further south were being shipped to Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Meanwhile, Bragg’s troops were nearly starving.

Throughout this hiatus from battle, Bragg’s subordinate commanders were sending a constant stream of complaints to President Jefferson Davis and the Confederate War Department in Richmond. They complained that Bragg had been inadequate during the battles of Perryville and Stones River.

General Braxton BraggDavis finally sent General Joseph E. Johnston to investigate the complaints. Johnston was still recovering from the wounds that he received at Seven Pines in 1862, that necessitated his replacement by General Robert E. Lee. After a thorough inspection he found the troops in in relatively good condition. He told Bragg that he had “the best organized, armed, equipped, and disciplined army in the Confederacy.”

Johnston did not want to be seen as taking advantage of his position by removing Bragg in order to replace him with himself. When Davis ordered Johnston to send Bragg to Richmond, Johnston delayed because of Mrs. Elise Bragg’s illness; when her health improved Johnston was unable to assume command because of lingering medical problems from his wounds.

Nothing was resolved by Davis, so the intolerable command situation in the Army of the Tennessee was to continue. This situation was to cause problems throughout Bragg’s time of command. Davis simply was unable to make a decision in either direction. Unlike Lincoln, who changed commanders frequently in the first half of the war, Davis allowed his commanders to remain too long. By the time that he removed them, it was often too late.




The Battle of Stones River: December 30-31, 1862

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series The Stones River Campaign

The Battle of Stones River:

December 30-31, 1862

On December 30, 1862, the two armies formed battle lines about 2 miles northwest of Murfreesboro and it seemed that they were ready to commence the Battle of Stones River.

William S. Rosecrans, the new Union army commander, was a 43-year old graduate of West Point who had left the army to pursue a career in civil engineering. He had remained at West Point during the Mexican War and eventually began to pursue other positions in order to support his expanding family, which would eventually number 8 children.

He applied for a position at the Virginia Military Institute but lost out to fellow West Pointer Thomas J. Jackson. He resigned from the Army in 1854 and took over a coal mining business, running it successfully.  He designed and installed one of the first complete lock and dam systems in Western Virginia on the Coal River, known today as the Coal River Locks, Dams, and Log Booms Archeological District.

Battle of Stones River, December 30, 1862In Cincinnati, he and two partners built one of the first oil refineries west of the Allegheny Mountains. He obtaining patents for many inventions, including the first kerosene lamp successfully to burn a round wick, and a more effective method of manufacturing soap.

While Rosecrans was president of the Preston Coal Oil Company, in 1859, he was burned severely when an experimental “safety” oil lamp exploded, setting the refinery on fire. It took him 18 months to recover, and the resulting facial scars gave him the appearance of having a perpetual smirk. As he concluded recovering from those burns, the Civil War began.

Offering his services to the Governor of Ohio, he began the war as a volunteer aide-de-camp to Maj. Gen. George McClellan. As a a trained officer he quickly rose to brigadier general by May of 1861. He spent the first year of the war in western Virginia where he succeeded McClellan in command of the department.

He was transferred to the Western Theater in May of 1862 and received the command of two divisions (the Right Wing) of Maj. Gen. John Pope’s Army of the Mississippi. He was given command of the Army of Mississippi on June 26, 1862. He took part in the Siege of Corinth, the Battle of Iuka and the Battle of Corinth. Rosecrans came under the command of Maj. Gen. Ulysses Grant after Halleck assumed the post of general-in-chief in Washington.

Rosecrans was ordered to pursue Bragg from his base in Nashville, Tennessee but it required a stern warning from Halleck to get him moving. He began his movement on December 26th and three days later arrived outside of Murfreesboro.

The armies oriented themselves in lines about 4 miles long  from southwest to northeast. The Confederate cavalry had skillfully screened General Braxton Bragg‘s left flank, which was weak at the start. Union Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans could not deduce this weakness or otherwise he might have wheeled left around the flank and into the town of Murfreesboro.

It seems that both army commanders had developed similar plans. They called for their armies to envelop the enemy’s right, get into his rear, andBattle of Stones River, December 31 cut him off from his base. With both plans being the same, victory would go to the side that attacked first. Rosecrans had ordered his army to attack after breakfast on December 31st but Bragg had ordered an attack at dawn.

Bragg had positioned his army with Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk‘s corps on the west side of the river and Maj. Gen. William J. Hardee‘s men on the east. He had expected the Union army to attack on December 30th and when they didn’t, he devised his plan of attack for the following morning.

Rosecrans had positioned his army with the left wing of 14,500 men under Maj. Gen. Thomas L. Crittenden at the northern end of line. The wing of 13,500 men under Maj. Gen. George Henry Thomas in the center and the right wing of 16,000 men under Maj. Gen. Alexander M. McCook at the southern end of the line.

Bragg’s plan was to drive Hardee’s corps and the cavalry under Brig. Gen. John A. Wharton deep into the Union rear. He began moving the majority of Hardee’s corps across the river to his left flank in preparation for the attack. This left Breckinridge’s division in reserve on the east side of the river on the high ground.

Meanwhile, Rosecrans planned to have Crittenden cross the river and attack the heights east of the river. Both sides prepared for their coming attacks by maneuvering into advantageous positions.

At about 6:00 AM, Hardee’s corps attacked the Union right with about 10,000 men. They caught the Union troops of Brig. Gen. Richard W. Johnson‘s division by surprise, having breakfast. The captured several Union artillery batteries and inflicted 50% casualties on Johnson’s division. The neighboring Union division to the left, under Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis, was able to hold only briefly.

Despite stiff resistance, Hardee’s attack pushed the Union right back about 3 miles to the railroad and the Nashville Pike by 10 a.m., where Johnson was able to rally them. Rosecrans cancelled Crittenden’s planned attack on the Confederate right, which had begun about 7:00 AM and rushed Battle of Stones River, December 31, 11 AMreinforcements to support his own right.

Polk’s Corps began the second Confederate wave of attacks but they were stymied by the foresight of Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan (McCook’s wing). Sheridan had anticipated the Confederate attack and had his men up and ready in the center of the right half of the line by 4 a.m.

The Union division was subjected to at least five assaults but were able to resist each one at great cost to themselves. Sheridan’s three brigade commanders were killed and one-third of his men became casualties in the fighting. In four hours of fighting in a cedar forest surrounded on three sides, this area became known as “The Slaughter Pen”. By 10 a.m., many of the Confederate objectives had been achieved. They had captured 28 guns and over 3,000 Union soldiers.

Two Confederate blunders aided the Union defense. Breckenridge did not realize that Crittenden’s early morning attack had been halted and his troops withdrawn. When he finally ordered his men forward, he found that he was unopposed. Meanwhile, Bragg had received an erroneous report of Union troops marching south along Lebanon Pike on the Confederate right. He canceled his orders that Breckinridge send reinforcements across the river, which diluted the effectiveness of the main attack.

By 11:00 AM, Sheridan’s men were running low on ammunition and he pulled them back, leaving a gap that Hardee immediately exploited. The Union troops regrouped and held on to the Nashville Pike. By now, Rosecrans’ once extended line had gradually taken a semi-circle shape. The Union line was stabilized by the strong leadership of Rosecrans and by the rallying of the divisions under Johnson and Davis. The new line was roughly perpendicular to the original line, in a small half oval with its back to the river.

Bragg ordered Breckinridge to cross the river and attack the Union right but he was slow to respond. When he did attack at 4:00 PM, his brigades moved forward in a piecemeal fashion and were severely repulsed. Two separate assaults failed and Thomas rsponded with a limited counterattackBattle of Stones River, December 31, 4 PM that cleared his front. By 4:30 PM, the battle was over as darkness approached.

There was a fundemental flaw to Bragg’s plan. His biographer, Grady McWhiney, later observed: “Unless the Union army collapsed at the first onslaught, it would be pushed back into a tighter and stronger defensive position as the battle continued, while the Confederate forces would gradually lose momentum, become disorganized, and grow weaker. Like a snowball, the Federals would pick up strength from the debris of battle if they retreated in good order. But the Confederates would inevitably unwind like a ball of string as they advanced.”

Rosecrans held a council of war that night during which some of his commanders recommended retreat. Rosecrans, who was strongly supported by Thomas and Crittenden, was quoted by several sources as saying, “This army does not retreat” or “There’s no better place to die.” The decision was made to stand and fight.

Bragg had thought that he had won a great victory, even though he had suffered 9,000 casualties. He 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.”

Over the next several days, the fighting would continue and the fortunes of the two armies would be reversed.




The Battle of Stones River: Background

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series The Stones River Campaign

The Battle of Stones River:


The Battle of Stones River, Tennessee (also known as the Second Battle of Murfreesboro) was the first significant engagement that was fought by the newly created Army of the Cumberland.

Originally, the army was known as the Army of the Ohio but after Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell was relieved of command after the Battle of Pea Ridge, Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans was appointed as commander of the newly-created Department of the Cumberland. He renamed the army, using the same designation and for the time being the Army of the Ohio was absorbed into the new Army of the Cumberland.

General William RosecransMost significantly, the Army of the Cumberland came under the overall command of Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. General Orders No. 168 on October 24th, 1862 called for the commissioning of the XIII Corps and the XIV Corps into the Army of the Cumberland under the command of Grant. Rosecrans was to retain command of the Army of the Cumberland for a year until he replaced by Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas at Grant’s order.

After the Battle of Pea Ridge, General Braxton Bragg, joined by Maj. Gen. Kirby Smith‘s 10,000-man Army of Kentucky, withdrew from Kentucky through the Cumberland Gap, all the way to Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Bragg’s Army of Mississippi numbered about 38,000 veteran troops. On November 20, 1862, the combined armies were renamed the Army of Tennessee, a choice that has caused a great deal of confusion since Grant’s Army was the Army of the Tennessee.

On December 16, Bragg was ordered to send the infantry division of Maj. Gen. Carter L. Stevenson to Mississippi to assist in the defense of Vicksburg. The loss of Stevenson’s 7,500 men would be sorely felt in the coming battle. Bragg reorganized his army, and Kirby Smith left for East Tennessee.

Bragg commanded two corps, under Maj. Gen. William J. Hardee (divisions of Maj. Gens. John C. BreckinridgePatrick R. Cleburne, and John P. McCown) and Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk (divisions of Maj. Gens. Benjamin F. Cheatham and Jones M. Withers, and a cavalry command under Brig. Gen. Joseph Wheeler.

Bragg had to deal with a command problem, a virtual revolt of his senior generals. They petitioned Jefferson Davis to relieve him (in favor of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, the commander of all armies in the Western Theater). Davis refused to relieve either Bragg or the rebellious generals thereby creating a continuing issue while Bragg remained in command.

Meanwhile, Buell had been replaced by Rosecrans who  moved his XIV Corps (which was soon after designated the Army of the Cumberland) to General Braxton BraggNashville, Tennessee, and was warned by Washington that he too would be replaced if he did not move aggressively against Bragg and occupy eastern Tennessee. Rosecrans did not heed the warnings and did not move his army until December 26th.

Rosecrans had reported his army to have 81,729 effectives in Nashville, his force on the march was barely more than half of that since he needed to protect his base and supply lines from the harassment of the Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry.

The left wing of 14,500 men under Maj. Gen. Thomas L. Crittenden (divisions of Brig. Gens.Thomas J. WoodJohn M. Palmer, and Horatio P. Van Cleve) took a route that was parallel to the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad, passing through La Vergne and south of Smyrna.

The right wing of 16,000 men under Maj. Gen. Alexander M. McCook (divisions of Brig. Gens. Jefferson C. DavisRichard W. Johnson, and Philip H. Sheridan) marched south along the Nolensville Turnpike to Nolensville, south to Triune, and then eastward to Murfreesboro.

The center wing of 13,500 men under Maj. Gen. George Henry Thomas (divisions of Maj. Gen. Lovell H. Rousseau and Brig. Gens. James S. NegleySpeed S. Fry, and Robert B. Mitchell) moved south along the Wilson Turnpike and the Franklin Turnpike, parallel to the Nashville and Decatur Railroad, then eastward through Nolensville and along the same route used by Crittenden south of the Nashville and Chattanooga.

Union cavalry under Brig. Gen. David S. Stanley (a single cavalry division under Col. John Kennett) preceded each of the three columns. The separation of the wings was designed to conduct a turning movement against Hardee at Triune, but when the Federal march began, Bragg moved Hardee back to Murfreesboro to avoid a confrontation.

Murfreesboro, Tennessee was a small town in the Stones River Valley. Named for a Revolutionary War colonel, Hardy Murfree, it had been an early state capital of Tennessee. It was an area of strong Confederate sentiment and Bragg’s men were welcomed by the populace. It was a rich agricultural area and Bragg planned to provision his army there.

It was a  position that Bragg intended to use to block a potential Federal advance on Chattanooga. General Hardee noted afterward that “The field of battle offered no particular advantages for defense.” Declining to move further south to more defensible positions, Bragg was sensitive to the current opinion that no ground in Tennessee should be ceded willingly by Confederate forces.

Click map to enlarge.

Instead, he chose the relatively flat area northwest of the town, straddling the Stones River. Portions of the area, particularly near the intersection of the Nashville Pike and the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad, were characterized by small but dense cedar forests, in places more impenetrable to infantry than the Wilderness of Spotsylvania in Virginia.

Short limestone outcroppings, separated by narrow cracks as if rows of teeth, impeded the movement of wagons and artillery. Hardee’s Corps was initially placed in Triune, about 20 miles (32 km) to the west, Polk’s on the west bank of the river, and a detached division from Hardee’s Corps under Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge on the low hills east of the river. None of the troops were ordered to construct field fortifications.

The Army of Tennessee had been encamped in the area for a month by the time that the Union army arrived on the evening of December 29th. By nightfall, two thirds of Rosecrans’s army was in position along the Nashville Turnpike, and by the next day Rosecrans’s army numbered about 41,000 and Bragg’s 35,000.

The odds were closer than those figures would indicate. Bragg had the advantage of the detached, but cooperating, cavalry commands under Forrest and Morgan, who raided deeply behind Union lines while Wheeler’s cavalry slowed the Union forces with hit-and-run skirmishes. Rosecrans’s reluctance to move from Nashville was the inexperience of his cavalry forces in comparison to the Confederates. On December 29, Wheeler and 2,500 of his men rode completely around the Union army, destroying supply wagons and capturing reserve ammunition in Rosecrans’s trains. They captured four wagon trains and 1,000 Union prisoners.

The battle was to begin on December 30th and last until January 3rd. Based on the number of troops engaged, it was to be the bloodiest battle in terms of the percentage during the American Civil War.