Stones River May Be Real Turning
published in The Washington Times, Friday, December 12, 2003
What was the turning point of the Civil War? Traditionally, the answer has been Gettysburg -- the high-water mark of the Confederacy. More recently, the case has been made for Antietam, after which President Lincoln decided to issue a proclamation of emancipation. A case, however, can be made for Stones River, also known as Murfreesboro, Tenn.
In the fall of 1862, the Confederacy went on the offensive, east and west, but that ended with Union victories at Sharpsburg, Md. (Antietam); Perryville, Ky.; and Corinth, Miss.
However, in December, the Union Army of the Potomac suffered a disastrous loss at Fredericksburg, and Ulysses S. Grant's first attempt to take Vicksburg failed. In Tennessee, Confederate Braxton Bragg, the defeated general at Perryville, retreated to Murfreesboro, southeast of Nashville, where the Union Army of the Cumberland, under its new commander, William S. Rosecrans, was poised to strike at the Tennessee heartland.
In addition to the Confederate victories, the political situation had soured for the North. Democrats, generally unsympathetic to the war, picked up seats in several key Northern states in the elections of 1862. Even more ominous was the threat of a foreign power, specifically Great Britain, coming in on the side of the Confederacy.
In December, Union General in Chief Henry W. Halleck telegraphed Rosecrans:
"It has been feared that on the meeting of the British Parliament, in January next, the political pressure of the starving operatives may force the Government to join France in an intervention. If the enemy be left in possession of Middle Tennessee, which we held last July, it will be said that they have gained on us. ... A victory or the retreat of the enemy before the 10th of this month would have been of more value to us than ten times that success at a later date."
Several problems had to be addressed before Rosecrans could move: Supplies had to be gathered, troops outfitted, rations cooked, the railroad to Louisville repaired. On Dec. 26, the Army of the Cumberland marched out from Nashville, Tenn., to Murfreesboro. The right wing was commanded by Thomas Crittenden, son of a U.S. senator and brother of a Confederate general; the left wing by Alexander McCook, one of 14 "Fighting McCooks" who served in the Union Army. The center was commanded by George Henry Thomas, a native of Southampton County, Va., who had remained loyal to the Union.
By Dec. 30, Rosecrans' army of 41,000 was within a few miles of Murfreesboro and Bragg's 35,000-man Army of Tennessee. The Union position was west of Stones River in a nearly straight north-south alignment. Bragg's army faced Rosecrans to the east, with Breckenridge's division across Stones River.
The soldiers struggled to sleep on that cold, rainy night, and the bands of the two armies, which were separated in some cases by a just a few hundred yards, began to play and compete against each other with "Dixie," "Hail Columbia," "Bonnie Blue Flag," and "Yankee Doodle." When a Union band struck up "Home Sweet Home," however, a Confederate band picked up the tune until all were playing the sad, sentimental tune.
A curiosity of the battle is that each general had the same plan. Rosecrans was to have Crittenden cross Stones River and strike the Confederate right. Similarly, Bragg would have his left strike the Yankee right. Had both armies struck at the same time, it's possible they would have whirled round each other in a great circle -- but that didn't happen.
Bragg struck first. At dawn, 10,000 Confederate troops under Gen. William Hardee attacked the Union right. Some Union troops, believing the battle would commence on their left, were away from their units getting breakfast. Reinforcements from Leonidas Polk's corps joined the Confederate attack, eventually causing the disintegration of two-thirds of the Union right. If the Confederates could get to the Nashville Pike, they would be at the rear of Rosecrans' army, cutting it off from its base at Nashville.
Rosecrans was with the left wing of his army, planning to attack, when word came to him of the calamity on the right. The issue now became, would the Union hold off the Southern assault long enough for him to build a new Union position along the Nashville Pike?
He called back troops that already had crossed Stones River to attack the Confederate right, and he redirected troops and artillery to form a new Union right. He sent reserves to aid Philip H. Sheridan's division, the one remaining division of the right, and Thomas at the Union center. Those troops fought valiantly but were forced to conduct a fighting retreat when they ran low on ammunition. They had, however, bought valuable time for the Union side.
Casualties suffered by the attackers were great as Southern units came apart in the confusion. The assault on the Union right began to bog down, and Rosecrans was successful in rebuilding the right.
Bragg reasoned that if Rosecrans' right had been strengthened, his left must have been weakened. The focus of the battle now became a wooded area on the Union left called the Round Forest -- which the soldiers would call Hell's Half Acre. At least three Confederate assaults went in, only to be repulsed by troops under Col. William Hazen.
Bragg felt confident that Rosecrans would retreat to Nashville. "God has granted us a happy New Year," he telegraphed to Jefferson Davis in Richmond, but the Unionists had not retreated. In fact, Rosecrans had sent a division to occupy high ground on the left across Stones River.
No significant fighting took place on Jan. 1, but on the second day of the new year, Bragg struck this Union position. Although initially successful in driving the Yankees from the high ground, the Confederates were routed by artillery fire from 58 massed guns at a second Union position, and Bragg's army retreated southwest the next day. The two armies would meet again six months later in the little-known but important Tullahoma, Tenn., campaign, resulting in Bragg's retreat to Chattanooga.
That Stones River was a bloody and important battle is indisputable. With more than 24,000 casualties, nearly a third of the participants, it was bloodier than Shiloh or Fredericksburg. On what basis, however, could it be considered the turning point of the war?
It was a lone victory bracketed by Northern setbacks in Virginia and Mississippi while the political situation seemed bleak. The first day of the battle was the eve of the day the Emancipation Proclamation took effect -- then seen by many as a move spurred by desperation on Lincoln's part -- and a Confederate victory would have opened the door to Ohio and the cities of the North. A Union defeat on the very day of the proclamation would have negated the diplomatic benefits of Antietam. There may never have been a Gettysburg or Vicksburg.
Perhaps the best proof of the singular importance of Stones River comes from Abraham Lincoln. Eight months after the battle, after Vicksburg and Gettysburg, he wrote to Rosecrans: "I can never forget, whilst I remember anything, that about the end of last year and the beginning of this, you gave us a victory, which, had there been a defeat instead, the nation could scarcely have lived over."
• David G. Moore is writing a biography of Gen. William S. Rosecrans.
Return to Rosecrans, Part 4, Civil War