American Civil War: Battle of Stones River

Battle of Stones River. Photograph Source: Public Domain

The Battle of Stones River was fought December 31, 1862, to January 2, 1863, during the American Civil War (1861-1865). On the Union side, Major General William S. Rosecrans led 43,400 men while Confederate General Braxton Bragg led 37,712 men.


In the wake of the Battle of Perryville on October 8, 1862, Confederate forces under General Braxton Bragg began retreating south from Kentucky. Reinforced by troops under Major General Edmund Kirby Smith, Bragg ultimately halted at Murfreesboro, TN. Renaming his command the Army of Tennessee, he began a massive overhaul of its leadership structure. When complete, the army was divided into two corps under Lieutenant Generals William Hardee and Leonidas Polk. The army's cavalry was led by the young Brigadier General Joseph Wheeler.

Though a strategic victory for the Union, Perryville resulted in changes on the Union side as well. Displeased with the slowness of Major General Don Carlos Buell actions following the battle, President Abraham Lincoln relieved him in favor of Major General William S. Rosecrans on October 24. Though warned that inaction would lead to his removal, Rosecrans delayed in Nashville as he organized the Army of the Cumberland and re-trained his cavalry forces. Under pressure from Washington, he finally moved out on December 26.

Planning for Battle

Moving southeast, Rosecrans advanced in three columns led by Major Generals Thomas Crittenden, George H. Thomas, and Alexander McCook. Rosecrans' line of advance was intended as a turning movement against Hardee whose corps was at Triune. Recognizing the danger, Bragg ordered Hardee to rejoin him at Murfreesboro. Approaching the town along the Nashville Turnpike and Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad, Union forces arrived on the evening of December 29. The next day, Rosecrans' men moved into line two miles northwest of Murfreesboro (Map). Much to Bragg's surprise, Union forces did not attack on December 30.

For December 31, both commanders developed similar plans calling for a strike against the other's right flank. While Rosecrans' intended to attack after breakfast, Bragg ordered his men to prepare to advance at dawn. For the assault, he shifted the bulk of Hardee's corps to the west side of Stones River where it joined with Polk's men. One of Hardee's divisions, led by Major General John C. Breckinridge, remained on east side to the north of Murfreesboro. The Union plan called for Crittenden's men to cross the river and attack the heights held by Breckinridge's men.

The Armies Clash

While Crittenden was in the north, Thomas' men held the Union center and McCook's formed the right flank. As his flank was not anchored on any substantial obstacle, McCook took measures, such as burning additional campfires, to deceive the Confederates as to the size of his command. Despite these measures, McCook's men bore the brunt of the first Confederate assault. Beginning around 6:00 AM on December 31, Hardee's men moved forward. Catching the enemy by surprise, they overwhelmed Brigadier General Richard W. Johnson's division before Union resistance began to mount.

To Johnson's left, Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis' division held briefly before beginning a fighting retreat to the north. Realizing that McCook's men were not capable of halting the Confederate advance, Rosecran's canceled Crittenden's attack at 7:00 AM and began flying around the battlefield directing reinforcements south. Hardee's assault was followed by a second Confederate attack led by Polk. Moving forward, Polk's men met significantly stiffer resistance from Union forces. Having anticipated an early-morning attack Brigadier General Philip H. Sheridan had taken the necessary precautions.

Sheridan & Hazen Hold

Mounting a vigorous defense, Sheridan's men turned back numerous charges by the divisions of Major Generals Jones M. Withers and Patrick Cleburne while holding a small cedar forest that became known as the "Slaughter Pen." By 10:00 AM, as Sheridan's men battled, the bulk of McCook's command had formed a new line near the Nashville Turnpike. In the retreat, 3,000 men and 28 guns had been captured. Around 11:00 AM, Sheridan's men began to run out of ammunition and were compelled to fall back. As Hardee moved to exploit the gap, Union troops worked to plug the line.

A bit to the north, Confederate attacks against the brigade of Colonel William B. Hazen were repeatedly turned back. The only part of the original Union line to hold, the rocky, wooded area held by Hazen's men became known as "Hell's Half-Acre." As fighting quieted, the new Union line was essentially perpendicular to its original position. Seeking to complete his victory, Bragg ordered part of Breckinridge's division, along with units from Polk's corps, to renew the attack on Hazen around 4:00 PM. These assaults were repulsed with heavy losses.

Final Actions

That night, Rosecrans called a council of war to determine a course of action. Deciding to stay and continue the fight, Rosecrans revived his original plan and ordered Brigadier General Horatio Van Cleve's division (led by Colonel Samuel Beatty) to cross the river. While both sides remained in place on New Year's Day, Rosecran's rear and supply lines were continuously harassed by Wheeler's cavalry. Reports from Wheeler suggested that Union forces were preparing to retreat. Content to let them go, Bragg limited his actions on January 2 to ordering Breckinridge to clear Union forces from the high ground north of town.

Though reluctant to attack such a strong position, Breckinridge ordered his men forward around 4:00 PM. Striking Crittenden and Beatty's position, they succeeded in pushing some of the Union troops back across McFadden's Ford. In doing so, they ran into 45 guns arrayed by Captain John Mendenhall to cover the river. Taking severe losses, Breckinridge's advance was checked and a swift Union counterattack by Brigadier General James Negley's division drove them back.

Aftermath of the Battle of Stones River

The following morning, Rosecrans was re-supplied and reinforced. Convinced that Rosecran's position would only get stronger and fearful that winter rains would raise the river and split his army, Bragg began retreating around 10:00 PM on January 3. His withdraw eventually halted at Tullahoma, TN. Bloodied, Rosecrans stayed at Murfreesboro and did not attempt a pursuit. Deemed a Union victory, the fighting raised Northern spirits following the recent disaster at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Transforming Murfreesboro into a supply base, Rosecrans remained until embarking on the Tullahoma Campaign the following June.

The fighting at Stones River cost Rosecrans 1,730 killed, 7,802 wounded, and 3,717 captured/missing. Confederate losses were slightly less, numbering 1,294 killed, 7,945 wounded, and 1,027 captured/missing. Extremely bloody relative to the numbers engaged (43,400 vs. 37,712), Stones River saw the highest percentage of casualties of any major battle during the war. Following the battle, Bragg was severely criticized by other Confederate leaders. He only retained his post due to President Jefferson Davis' inability to find a suitable replacement.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Battle of Stones River." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). American Civil War: Battle of Stones River. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Battle of Stones River." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).