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.


Series NavigationThe Battle of Stones River: December 30-31, 1862 >>

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