The Battle Of Stone’s River (Union View)
With early light, on the morning of the 31st, the movement in each army began. Rosecrans had established his headquarters in the rear of the left, in order to direct in person the forward movement of that portion of his army which was to cross Stone’s River, sweep all resistance before it, and swing into Murfreesboro. The command was given, and at once Van Cleve advanced two brigades, making the crossing of the river at the lower ford without opposition. Wood’s division had reached the river bank prepared to make the crossing and support Van Cleve. Everything on the left appeared to be working satisfactorily, when the opening sounds of the enemy’s attack on the right reached the left. This was as intended, and went to show that if Bragg’s left was fully occupied he then could give the less attention to his right, engaged by our army. With high hopes the troops then pressing forward continued to cross the river. Within an hour after the opening of the battle, one of McCook’s staff officers reported to Rosecrans that the Right Wing was heavily pressed and needed assistance. Rosecrans was not told of the rout of Johnson’s division, nor of the rapid withdrawal of Davis, made necessary thereby. Rosecrans, sending word to McCook to make a stubborn fight, continued his own offensive movement. Everything was working well as far as he knew. His strong force on the left was not yet engaged. This he could hurl at the enemy’s line of communications and strike on the flank Bragg’s army that was flanking him. Soon after another staff officer from McCook arrived and reported that the entire Right Wing was being driven, a fact that manifested itself by the troops from the broken divisions pouring forth from the cedars in alarming numbers, and by the rapid movement of the noise of battle to the ninth. Then Rosecrans saw the necessity of abandoning his own movement, of recalling the left, and of proceeding at once to the right to save what was left of that corps as speedily as possible, he ordered back his left from across the river, and calling on his staff to mount, rode full gallop over to the right to reform that command on a new line and save his army. Now that he was on the defensive, after McCook’s disaster, it was impossible to carry out his original plan of battle.
On the 30th, McCown in posting his division placed Ector’s and Rains’s brigades in the first line, and McNair’s brigade in the second. Hardee ordered McCown at once to change this so as to bring McNair on the front line. This order was not obeyed until the morning of the 31st, when the movement was made, causing, however, some delay in the advance of Hardee’s command on our right. At half past six o’clock, McCown’s division in the front line with Cleburne’s division in the second swinging around by a continuous change of direction to the right, advanced on to the right of McCook. McCown did not properly execute the movement as intended, and was carried so far to the west as to leave a large gap in the rebel front between Withers’s left and McCown’s right. Into this gap Cleburne immediately threw his division, and advanced, filling the interval in the front line between McCown and Polk. This gave Hardee double the length of front originally contemplated, and made it a single line instead of a double with division front. These two divisions thus formed then struck McCook’s right flank–Johnson’s division, McCook’s line was very weak and poorly posted. It was thin and light, without reserves, with neither the troops nor the commanding officers in their places, as they should have been, under Rosecrans’s orders of the evening before.
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. In the face of all this, Johnson, the commander of the First Division on the right, was not on the line nor near enough to his troops to give orders to them, his headquarters being a mile and a half in the rear. General Willich, the commander of the Second Brigade, which had been posted for the express purpose of protecting the extreme right of our army, was absent from his command at division headquarters. His brigade was not even in line, as they had been ordered to get their breakfast. The batteries of the division were not properly posted, and in some cases the horses were away from the guns to the rear for water. All this was criminal negligence–a failure in the performance of duty–for which some one should have suffered. To the faulty position of the line and to the unprepared condition of the troops is to be attributed the almost overwhelming disaster that overtook our army on that day. As the two divisions of the enemy advanced, Kirk threw forward the Thirty-fourth Illinois to support the skirmish line, and called on Willich’s brigade for help. This brigade being without an immediate commander, no effort was made to support Kirk. The contest was too unequal to be maintained for any great length of time, and Johnson’s division, after a sharp and spirited but fruitless contest, crumbling to pieces, was driven back with a loss of eleven guns. Kirk was mortally wounded and Willich was captured, returning to his command as it was driven back. Kirk’s brigade lost 473 killed and wounded, and had 342 captured. Willich’s brigade had a few less killed and wounded, but more than twice that number captured.
Baldwin in reserve near headquarters was too far from the front to aid in supporting either of the other brigades of Johnson’s division. Stragglers from Kirk’s and Willich’s brigades gave the first information to Baldwin of the disaster on the right. Hastily forming his troops, he had barely to post them in line of battle before the enemy in immense masses appeared on his front at short range, their left extending far beyond the extreme right of his line. Opening at once a destructive fire upon their dense masses with his infantry and artillery, Baldwin succeeded in checking their advance in his front, but their left continued to swing around on his right. Here four pieces of Simonson’s battery posted near the woods in the rear of the first position opened with terrible effect. The enemy came on in such overwhelming numbers, that after half an hour’s stubborn resistance Baldwin was compelled to retire, not however until the enemy had flanked his right and were pouring in an enfilading fire. As it was he barely made his escape, since in a moment longer his entire command would have been surrounded and captured. At the edge of the woods Baldwin endeavored to make another stand, but before he could form his line he was again forced back. Retiring slowly, with several halts in the cedars, Baldwin with his brigade reached the railroad where the rest of the division was being reformed.
The right flank being driven from its position by the left of the enemy, Davis’s division then felt the full force of the victorious sweep of the rebel troops, flushed with success and aided by the forces immediately in his front. Davis, as soon as the disaster on his right had fully developed, at once changed front and formed a new line, with his right brigade under Post nearly at right angles to its former position, and made all necessary disposition of his troops to receive the attack. Baldwin’s brigade had hastily taken position and had already felt the force of the enemy’s concentrated attack. Still the advancing lines of the enemy greatly overlapped the extreme right of Baldwin. Hardly had the troops been placed in this position before the enemy swept down in heavy masses upon both the flank and front, charging with the rebel yell. The two divisions of McCown’s and Cleburne’s troops which had driven Johnson, hurled themselves upon Baldwin’s and Post’s brigades, while the fresh troops of Withers’s division, composed of Manigault’s and Loomis’s brigades, rushed upon those of Davis, under Carlin and Woodruff, and upon that on the right of Sheridan’s line under Sill. The change of position of Post’s brigade gave to the two remaining brigades of Davis’s division, and Sill’s brigade of Sheridan’s command, the length of division front, and on this the enemy made, a united attack. After Baldwin had been compelled to retire, Pont repulsed the attack on his brigade, and Carlin, Woodruff, and Sill in the front drove back the assaulting column of the rebels with heavy loss. The enemy then reformed his lines, strengthened then with his reserves under Vaughan and Maney of Cheatham’s division and once more pressed forward. Again these heavy lines struck Carlin, Woodruff, and Sill, and were again handsomely repulsed; Sill gallantly charging the rebels and driving them into their line of intrenchments. In this charge, General Sill was killed. His brigade then slowly retired and formed anew in line of battle. Cleburne at the same time charged down on Post’s brigade, and he too was a second time repulsed.
The formation of the battle-front of Davis’s two left brigades under Carlin and Woodruff was almost perpendicular to that of Sheridan’s division, and the left of Woodruff’s with the right of Sill’s brigade formed the apex of a right angle. This position was at once observed by the enemy, who saw that if he could take this extreme point of the angle he would then be in position to enfilade both lines at once. For the possession of this point every effort was made, and a third attack was ordered upon it with four brigades, under the immediate command of Cheatham, in double lines. Hardee had gathered his command together again for another attack on Post’s position. Pressing forward with the victorious troops of McCown’s and Cleburne’s divisions–the troops that had swept Johnson from the field–he enveloped both flanks of Post’s brigade, and compelled him to fall back, with the loss of one gun, to the Nashville pike, where he also reformed his command.
On the withdrawal of Post’s brigade, Carlin’s right was left exposed to the enemy, who with renewed vigor pressed forward in overwhelming numbers on converging lines, massing as they advanced. Circling around on their right the rebels swept down on the remaining brigades of Davis’s division in dense columns. In the previous charge the attack had been so heavy upon the angle formed by Woodruff’s left and Sill’s right, that in the new formation–after the second repulse–the line at this point was somewhat broken, and after Sill’s death the right of the brigade was reformed somewhat to the rear of the former line, the better to support the battery attached to it. In the heavy fighting of the morning the position of all the brigades had been more or less changed, and in several instances the commanding officer of each brigade considered his command as being without support on either flank. On the third assault both Carlin and Woodruff thought this to be the case with their commands, and in the attack then made upon their brigades they became almost surrounded. Carlin stubbornly resisted every effort to drive him from his position until by his remaining longer the loss of his entire brigade became imminent. His regiment on the left gave way and he then retreated across open fields ill the rear to the edge of the woods, where Davis was attempting to reform his line, having placed Hotchkiss’s battery just within the timber. Woodruff then fell back, but being closely pressed, turned and with a determined charge sent the enemy beyond his original position. Being unsupported he was compelled to retire into the cedars. Before Woodruff reached the new lines that Davis wan trying to form, Carlin’s troops opened fire on the advancing enemy, when he was informed that Davis had ordered a farther withdrawal. He then fell back across the Wilkinson pike, where he rallied his men, who however, on the advance of the enemy, fired one volley and broke to the rear without orders. Carlin then went with them through the lines of reserves, halting at the railroad, where he reformed his command. After reaching the cedars Woodruff charged a second time, and compelled the enemy to fall back, but his ammunition giving out, his troops passed to the rear, resisting every effort to rally them until they reached the Murfreesboro pike.
Davis’s division had up to this time protected Sheridan’s right, and these divisions unitedly had resisted two assaults. After the charge of the enemy that broke Davis’s division and sent it through the cedars, Sheridan was compelled to change his line and to protect the right flank of his command from the enemy, now pressing that part of his position, as well as his front, in increasing numbers, as the line became shortened. Hastily withdrawing Sill’s brigade, with the reserves sent it as support, he directed Roberts, with the left brigade, which had changed front and formed in column of regiments, to charge the enemy in the cedars from which he had withdrawn Sill’s brigade and the reserves. This charge was at once made by Roberts, and the enemy’s advance checked sufficiently to give Sheridan time to form his troops on the new line, which he at once did by placing Sill’s and Shafer’s brigades on a line at right angles to his first one, and ordered Roberts to return and form his command on this same line. Sheridan now attempted to form the broken troops of the other division on the right of his new line, but in this he was not successful. After making a gallant fight with his division, finding the right of his new line turned, Sheridan was directed by McCook to advance to the front and reform his troops to the right of Negley’s division of the Centre under Thomas. Throwing forward his left to join Negley’s right, he placed Roberts’s brigade in position at right angles to Negley’s line, facing south, and then placed his two other brigades in the rear, and at right angles to Roberts, so as to face westward and to cover the rear of Negley’s lines. In the angle of these lines on the right of Negley, he placed his artillery. Here he was again fiercely assaulted by the enemy, and one of the fiercest and most sanguinary contests of the day ensued. Massing the four divisions of Hardee’s and Polk’s corps–each of four brigades–Bragg hurled them against the divisions of Sheridan and Negley, and at the same time the enemy opened fire from the intrenchments in the direction of Murfreesboro. Here the fighting was terrific. Five batteries were posted with these two divisions, the artillery range of the respective forces being not to exceed two hundred yards. Three times in dense masses the enemy charged on these divisions, and three times were they repulsed. Here Colonel Roberts was killed. Sheridan’s troops having now exhausted their ammunition–Shafer’s brigade being entirely out and nearly all his horses killed–then gave way, after over four hours of some of the hottest fighting of the day. Sheridan lost in falling back from this position eight guns. Nearly all the remainder of his artillery was drawn by his men through the cedars. On arriving at the Murfreesboro pike, Sheridan reformed his command in an open space near the right of Palmer.
Before assisting in the gallant fight on the right of the centre with Sheridan in his new position, Negley’s division, after repelling all assaults made on it, had been engaged in heavy fighting on its front since the middle of the morning. On the withdrawal of Sheridan, Negley’s division found themselves surrounded by the enemy in swarms. Rousseau’s division in reserve, and Palmer’s on the left, had retired to the rear of the cedars, to form a new line. Falling back through the cedar brakes in the rear of the division, under a concentrated fire of musketry and artillery at short range, the rebels were driven back in front and checked in the rear. Miller’s and Stanley’s brigades on reaching the woods reformed their lines, faced to the rear and fired several volleys into the enemy, then advanced over the open fields across which these brigades had just retired. In passing through the cedars the enemy pressed so closely on the division that in some parts of Miller’s brigade the lines of the opposing armies seemed commingled. The division then reformed on the new line, as directed by Thomas, near the Nashville pike.
Early in the day, with the breaking up and retreat of the two fine divisions of McCook’s corps, the extent of the disaster to the right was forced upon Rosecrans with terrible earnestness. Realizing at once that upon him devolved the task of making such disposition of his command as would ensure the safety of his army, he immediately gave the necessary orders for the movement of the troops. Hurriedly galloping to the centre, where he found Thomas, he at once ordered Rousseau’s division–held as reserve heretofore–to be sent to the support of what was left of McCook’s line into the cedar-brakes to the right and rear of Sheridan. Rosecrans then ordered Crittenden to suspend Van Cleve’s movement across the river on the left, to cover the crossing with one brigade, and to move the other two brigades westward across the fields toward the railroad for a reserve. He also directed Wood to suspend his preparations for his crossing, and for him to move at once to the new line on the right and hold Hascall in reserve. Up to this time Rosecrans had hoped that McCook, notwithstanding the disaster to the right, might stay the onset with his own troops. With the volume of stragglers and the detachments from the broken commands swarming to the rear through the cedars Rosecrans soon became satisfied that McCook was routed. He then ordered Van Cleve to be sent in to the right of Rousseau, and Wood to send Colonel Harker’s brigade farther down the Murfreesboro pike with orders to go in and attack the enemy on the right of Van Cleve. The pioneer brigade had been posted on the knoll of ground west of the Nashville pike and about four or five hundred yards in the rear of Palmer’s centre, supporting Stokes’s battery. On Negley’s division being compelled to retire, Thomas ordered him with Rousseau to form their divisions along a depression in the open ground in rear of the cedars, as a temporary line, until the artillery could be posted on the high ground near to and west of the Murfreesboro pike. Rousseau’s division, cutting its way through the enemy in falling back from the cedars, took position on this temporary line with all its batteries posted on the knoll a short distance to the rear. Here the severest engagement of this day of heavy fighting was had, almost hand to hand. At this point the new line had open ground in front of it for some four or five hundred yards. Rousseau, while his batteries were unlimbering, requested Van Cleve to move with Colonel Samuel Beatty’s brigade of his division to form on his right, check the rebel advance and drive it back. Van Cleve instantly moved his troops on the double quick and reached the desired position in good season. Upon these troops in this new line the rebels charged in dense masses, flushed with the victory of the early morning and elate with the hope of continued success to the end. They had swept everything before them thus far, and felt that with renewed effort the successful issue of the battle was within their grasp. Emerging from the cedars with yell after yell, firing as they came, they rushed forward four lines deep in the attempt to cross the open field and drive back this new line that stood in their pathway to final victory. At once Rousseau’s division and Beatty’s brigade opened fire upon the advancing columns, while Guenther’s and Loomis’s batteries added effect to it by sending double shotted canister into their thick ranks. The rebels moved on for a time, but the fire proved too terrible and they were driven back with great slaughter. On reaching the cedars these troops were rallied by their officers, and with fresh troops as supports they advanced once more, with a determined effort to carry our position at this point. But again they were, after a most desperate struggle, driven back. Again and again they returned to the assault, in four deliberate and fiercely sustained efforts, each time to meet with a repulse. The brigade of regulars under the command of Colonel Shepherd sustained the heaviest blows of this assault. They had the efficient support of Scribner’s and John Beatty’s brigades, of Loomis’s and Guenther’s batteries, and of the pioneer brigade under Captain St. Clair Morton, with Stokes’s battery. Sheppard’s command lost in killed and wounded in this short and severe contest, 26 officers and 611 enlisted men, making a total loss of 637 out of 1,566 effectives. The centre succeeded in driving back the enemy from its front, gallantly holding its ground against overwhelming odds, while the artillery concentrating its fire on the cedar thickets on their right drove the enemy far back under cover of the woods.
While the right and centre had been thus actively engaged, the left had also borne its full share of the heavy fighting of the day. Palmer’s division was posted in line of battle with his right resting on Negley’s left. His line was formed with Cruft’s brigade on the right, connecting with Negley, and his left extending across a point of woods to the right of Hazen’s brigade, which was formed in two lines with his left resting on the Nashville pike, while Grose’s brigade was in reserve some two hundred yards to the rear, formed in two lines nearly opposite the interval between the brigades in line of battle. On the withdrawal of the troops of the left from across the river, Wood ordered Wagner with his brigade to hold his position in the woods on the left of the Murfreesboro pike at all hazards, this being an exceedingly important point, protecting our left front and flanks and securing command of the road leading to the rear. Hascall’s and Harker’s brigades were withdrawn, and the latter, under an order from Rosecrans, was moved to the right and rear. In the heavy fighting of the general movement on the right and centre, the left gradually became engaged, and with this Hascall was ordered by Wood to take position between Wagner and Hazen on Wagner’s right. With the general advance of the enemy, moving on the right of Polk’s corps as a pivot, Palmer and the two brigades of Wood’s division on the left became engaged. Cruft early in the morning had been ordered by Palmer to advance, keeping in line with Negley, the latter having sent word to Palmer that he intended to advance his division to attack the enemy. Cruft was advanced in two lines, two regiments in each line with Miller’s brigade of Negley’s division on the right and Hazen’s brigade on his left. After Cruft had advanced about a hundred yards, Palmer discovered that Negley had thrown back his right so that his line was almost perpendicular to Cruft’s and to his rear. After Cruft had driven the enemy’s skirmishers in, the rebels advanced in great force in four ranks with double lines, Chalmers in the front line with Donelson’s brigade following. This charge Cruft repulsed, inflicting severe loss on the enemy. Chalmers was so severely wounded by the bursting of a shell as to disqualify him for further duty on the field. Advancing once more, the rebels again attacked Cruft’s line, when a very severe engagement ensued, and after some thirty minutes’ firing the enemy was again repulsed. When Negley’s division went back through the cedars, Cruft was left without support on his right and he then withdrew to the wood, the enemy following him closely and pressing him hard. While Cruft was thus engaged on the front, Palmer found that the right and centre had been driven from the first line, and that the enemy in Negley’s front was forcing his way into the open ground to his rear. He then changed Grose from front to rear, retired his new left so as to bring the rebels under the direct fire of his line, and opened on them with great effect, holding his ground until the enemy was driven back. Hazen was ordered to fall back from the advanced position he then held, and to occupy the crest of a low wooded hill between the pike and the railroad, and there resist the attack. This was about eleven o’clock, and all of Palmer’s command was engaged with the enemy–Hazen on the railroad, one or two detached regiments to the right, Cruft still farther to the right, actively engaged, while Grose to the rear was fighting heavy odds. Grose shortly after this changed to the front again, the enemy being driven back from his rear, and moved to the left to co-operate with Hazen. After aiding in the repulse of the troops that struck Cruft’s lines, Hazen with constant firing maintained his position on his left at the railroad, retiring his right to place his troops behind the embankment at that place. General Palmer had ordered Grose to co-operate with Hazen, and part of Grose’s troops reporting to him, they were placed in position on the front. Here was held what was considered by the enemy to be the key to our position, known as the “Round Forest.” This was attacked by the right of Donelson’s brigade, but the attack was met with a fire that mowed down half its number, one regiment losing 207 out of 402. In another regiment the loss was 306 out of 425. Polk finding that his troops had been so severely punished that they were not able to renew the attack on the extreme left of our line, and that the new line on the right as formed by Rosecrans resisted every attack, applied for an order from Bragg directing four brigades from Breckinridge’s command to be sent to him to drive our left from its line, and especially to dislodge us from our position in the “Round Forest.” These brigades were sent to him, arriving in two detachments of two brigades each. Adams and Jackson’s brigades first reported, under Breckinridge in person. Those of Preston and Palmer reported about two hours later. About two o’clock in the afternoon Adams and Jackson’s brigades assailed our left with determined energy, but after a severe contest they were compelled to yield and fall back. They were rallied by Breckinridge, but were too badly cut up to renew the attack. About four o’clock, on the arrival of the brigades of Preston and Palmer, the assault on the left was renewed and again repulsed, when the enemy withdrew and made no further attack upon that position. When this last attack was made, Rosecrans, anxious as to this vital point of his lines, hurried there with his staff to assist in the repulse. It was here that a shell grazing the person of Rosecrans carried off the head of his chief of staff, the lamented Garesché.
The new line formed by Rosecrans to protect his communication extended from Hazen on the Murfreesboro pike in a northwesterly direction, Hascall supporting Hazen, Rousseau filling the interval to the pioneer brigade, Negley in reserve, Van Cleve west of the pioneer brigade, McCook’s corps refused on his right and slightly to the rear on the Nashville pike, with the cavalry at and beyond Overall’s Creek. After the formation had been completed later in the afternoon, with a wild yell the enemy debouched from the cedar thickets, and forming into line, advanced as if to charge once more. At once a terrific fire of artillery and infantry opened on them, and their broken ranks went back over the fields driven in great confusion; the batteries Rosecrans had placed on the commanding ground near the railroad inflicting a heavier loss on Polk’s brigade than it had suffered in all the previous fighting of the day. This attack was in the main repulsed by Van Cleve’s division, aided by Harker’s brigade, and the cavalry under General Stanley. This was the last assault on the right and centre, and with the repulse of Breckinridge’s command on the left, the fighting for the day was over; and on the field where death had reaped such a heavy harvest, on the last day of 1862, the troops slept on their arms, waiting for what the next day might bring forth. The night was clear and cold. The armies maintained their relative positions, with some picket firing occurring during the night. Rosecrans gave orders that all the spare ammunition should be issued, and it was found that there was enough for another battle, the main question being where the battle was to be fought. During the night Rosecrans, in order to complete the new formation of his lines, withdrew the left from the advanced position it occupied, and placed it in line some two hundred and fifty yards in the rear, on more advantageous ground, the extreme left resting on Stone’s River above the lower ford and extending to the railroad. Late in the afternoon the brigades under Colonels Starkweather and Walker, that had been on duty in the rear, arrived at the front and were posted in reserve on the line of battle, the former in rear of McCook’s left, and Walker in rear of the left of Sheridan’s division near the Murfreesboro pike. On the morning of the 1st they were placed in the front line, relieving Van Cleve, who then returned to his position on the left.
The extent of the disaster on the right was appalling and seemed at one time about to envelop the entire army. As the storm of battle passed down the line it reached Thomas, who cool, calm, and self-sustained, stood the test of one of the fiercest contests of the war. It was to him that Rosecrans first turned in the hour of disaster and in him he trusted most. The commander of the army, too, was sorely tried. He had come to win victory, but in place of it defeat seemed almost inevitable. Reforming his lines and bravely fighting, he had hurled back Bragg’s army before it had achieved any decisive success. Rosecrans knew that his losses had been extremely heavy, but those of the enemy had been still more severe. He felt that on a question of endurance his army would come out first, although the dash and onset of the rebels had at the opening been able to sweep all before them. In the face of an earnest effort on the part of some of his general officers to persuade him to fall back to Nashville and then throw up works and wait for reinforcements, Rosecrans determined to await the attack of the enemy in the positions of his lines late Wednesday afternoon. He sent for the provision trains, ordered up fresh supplies of ammunition, and decided that if Bragg should not attack before these arrived, that he himself would then resume offensive operations.
During the morning of January 1, 1863, the rebels made repeated attempts to advance on Thomas’s front in the centre, but were driven back before emerging from the woods. Crittenden was ordered to send Van Cleve’s division across the river, to occupy the position opposite the ford on his left, his right resting on high ground near the river and his left thrown forward perpendicular to it. The rebel right, under Polk, kept up a brisk skirmish fire on their front. Chalmer’s brigade was ordered to occupy the ground in front of the “Round Forest.” Bragg, anticipating an attack on his right under Breckinridge on the morning of the 1st, during the night ordered two brigades of that division to recross to the east side of the river. But none was made. About two o’clock in the afternoon the enemy showed signs of movement, by massing large numbers of his troops on our right at the extremity of an open field a mile and a half from the Murfreesboro pike. Here the rebels formed in lines six deep, and massed thus heavily, remained without advancing for over an hour. Gibson’s brigade and a battery occupied the woods near Overall’s creek, while Negley’s was placed as supping; on McCook’s right, the evident design of Bragg during the day was simply to feel the lines of our army to find out if Rosecrans was retreating. Satisfied of this, he felt that while he could maintain his position he was not in condition to attack, after the heavy hammering his army had received the day before.
At daylight the next day Bragg gave orders to his corps commanders to feel our lines and ascertain Rosecrans’s position. Fire was opened from four batteries on the centre, and a demonstration in force was made by his infantry, followed by another on McCook; but at all points meeting with a heavy artillery fire, he concluded that our army still occupied the battlefield in force, Bragg ordered Wharton’s and Pegram’s brigades of cavalry to cross to the right bank of Stone’s River immediately in Breckinridge’s front. Soon after this a number of his staff officers discovered for the first time that Van Cleve’s troops, sent over the day before, had quietly crossed unopposed, and had established themselves on and under cover of an eminence from which Polk’s line was commanded and enfiladed. It was an evident necessity either to withdraw Polk’s line or to dislodge Van Clove’s. The first alternative was not to be entertained until the failure of an attempt to accomplish the latter. Polk was at once ordered to send over to Breckinridge the remaining brigades belonging to his division still with Polk, and Breckinridge, reporting to Bragg, received his orders. The attack was to be made with the four brigades of Breckinridge’s command, the cavalry protecting his right and co-operating with him. The crest of ground near the river, where Van Cleve’s division was in position, was the point against which the main attack was to be directed. This taken, Breckinridge was to bring up his artillery and establish it on the high ground, so as to enfilade our lines on the other side of the river. Polk was to open with a heavy fire on our left as Breckinridge commenced his advance. The signal for the attack was to be one gun from the centre, and four o’clock was the hour set for the firing of this gun.
Breckinridge drew up his division in two lines, the first in a narrow skirt of woods, the other some two hundred yards in rear. General Pillow, after the first day’s fighting, reporting for duty, was assigned to the command of Palmer’s brigade. Pillow’s and Hanson’s brigades formed the first line, Preston’s and Adams’s brigades the second. The artillery was placed in rear of the second line, and in addition to that of his brigade, ten Napoleon guns–12-pounders–were sent to aid in the attack.
Van Cleve’s division was under the command of Colonel Samuel Beatty, with Price’s brigade on the right next to the river, Fyffe’s brigade on the left. Grider’s brigade formed Beatty’s support, while a brigade of Palmer’s division was placed in position on the extreme left to protect that flank. Drury’s battery was posted in the rear. In front of Breckinridge’s line was an open space some six hundred and fifty yards in width, with a gentle ascent which it was necessary for his troops to cross before reaching our lines. Several hundred yards in the rear of the latter was the river, increasing the distance as it flowed beyond our left.
General Rosecrans had ordered Crittenden to send Beatty’s division across the river as protection to the troops on the left and centre, as from the high ground near the river the enemy, by an enfilading fire, could sweep these portions of our line. During the morning of the 2d Negley’s division was ordered from the right, and placed in position on the west bank of the river, in the rear of Beatty’s division, as reserves, being here on the left of Hazen’s and Cruft’s brigades of Palmer’s division.
As soon as Breckinridge’s command entered the open ground to his front, the artillery massed on the west bank of the river by order of Crittenden, consisting of all the guns of the left wing, together with the batteries belonging to Negley’s division and Stokes’s battery., making 58 guns in position, opened a heavy, accurate, and destructive fire. Large numbers of the enemy fell before they reached Beatty’s infantry lines. Pressing forward without waiting to throw out a skirmish line, Breckinridge’s command swept onward, reckless of the artillery fire and that of the infantry, and struck Price’s and Grider’s brigades, broke their lines, drove them from their position on to their support in the rear, which also gave way, when the entire division retreated in broken ranks across the river, taking refuge behind the line of Negley’s division, and there reforming. Breckinridge reports that he “after a brief but bloody conflict routed both the opposing lines, took 400 prisoners and several flags, and drove their artillery and the great body of their infantry across the river.” His success, however, was exceedingly short-lived. Colonel John F. Miller, commanding the right brigade of Negley’s division, had, in the absence of Negley in the rear, ordered the troops of his division to lie down under cover of the bluff of the river bank, and hold their fire until our troops from the other side crossed over and moved to the rear. As soon as the last of Beatty’s men had passed through Miller’s lines, he commanded the division to rise and open fire on Breckinridge’s troops. Miller’s fire was so effectively given as to cause the enemy at once to recoil, Breckinridge’s command being also under the artillery fire on the left, enfilading his ranks. His division soon wavered, and then began falling back. At this Miller–Negley still not appearing–ordered the division to charge across the river, and to drive the enemy to their line of intrenchments, which they did. While crossing, Miller received word from Palmer not to cross his command, but as the greater part of his troops were over the river driving the enemy, Miller pressed on in person, and hurried the troops last to cross, up to the support of those in the advance. He was then ordered by Palmer to recross the river, and to support the artillery on the hill on the west bank. The troops under Miller were then advancing through the cornfield, driving the enemy, and as his right flank was fully protected, he had no inclination to turn back, and he ordered the troops forward. One of the enemy’s batteries was posted in a wood just beyond the cornfield to the front. It was keeping up a brisk fire on Miller’s advance, when he ordered his men to charge this battery, which they did, capturing three guns. At the time of the charge the Twenty-sixth Tennessee was supporting the battery. This regiment was broken by the assault, a large number of them captured, with the colors of the command. Sending the prisoners, guns, and colors to the rear, Miller reformed his line so as to hold the ground until relieved by other troops. These being crossed over the river under Hazen, together with Davis’s division, Miller’s command returned to the west bank of the river and there reformed the division in line, and took position for the night. Negley himself was not across the river with the command during the engagement.
Bragg was deeply chagrined at the failure of Breckinridge’s movement. In his report of the action he says, “The contest was short and severe, the enemy were driven back and the eminence gained, but the movement as a whole was a failure, and the position was again yielded. Our forces were moved, unfortunately, to the left so far as to throw a portion of them into and over Stone’s River, where they encountered heavy masses of the enemy, while those against whom they were intended to operate had a destructive enfilade on our whole line. Our reserve line was so close to the front as to receive the enemy’s fire, and returning it took their friends in the rear. The cavalry force was left entirely out of the action.” Bragg immediately sent Anderson’s brigade across the river, which formed in line on the front of Breckinridge’s command, and remained there in position during the night. He also sent Cleburne’s division over, and placed Hardee in command of that side of the river. Rosecrans ordered Davis to take and hold the line occupied by Beatty’s division. Later, all the troops of Crittenden’s corps crossed the river and occupied the crests, intrenching themselves in this position.
During the morning of the 3d Bragg ordered a heavy and constant picket firing to be kept up on his front, to determine whether our army still confronted him. At one point in the wood to the left of the Murfreesboro pike the rebel sharpshooters had all day annoyed Rousseau, who requested permission to dislodge them and their supports, covering a ford at that place. About six o’clock in the evening two regiments from John Beatty’s brigade of Rousseau’s division, co-operating with two regiments of Spear’s brigade of Negley’s division, under cover of a brisk artillery fire, advanced on the woods and drove the enemy not only from their cover, but also from their intrenchments a short distance from the rear.
At noon Bragg, on consultation with his generals, decided to retreat, leaving the field in possession of his opponent. At 12.15 of the night of the 2d, after Breckinridge’s failure Cleburne and Withers had sent a communication to Bragg’s headquarters, through Polk, stating that there were but “three brigades that are at all reliable, and even some of these are more or less demoralized from having some brigade commanders who do not possess the confidence of their commands.” They expressed their fears of great disaster which should be avoided by retreat. This was endorsed by Polk at 12.30 A.M., January 3d, “I send you the enclosed papers as requested, and I am compelled to add that after seeing the effect of the operations of to-day, added to that produced upon the troops by the battle of the 31st, I very greatly fear the consequences of another engagement at this place on the ensuing day. We could now perhaps get off with some safety, and with some credit if the affair was well managed; should we fail in the meditated attack, the consequences might be very disastrous.”
By 11 P.M. the whole of Bragg’s army, except his cavalry, was in retreat in good order to a position behind Duck River. His cavalry held the front at Murfreesboro until Monday morning, when they fell back and covered Bragg’s immediate front. Sunday the 4th was spent in burying the dead, and the cavalry was sent to reconnoitre. On the 5th Thomas’s entire command, preceded by Stanley’s cavalry, marched into Murfreesboro, and encamped on the Manchester and Shelbyville road.
The cavalry under Stanley rendered very efficient service on the advance from Nashville. Dividing these troops into three columns he sent the first brigade under Colonel Minty with Crittenden’s corps; the second brigade under Colonel Zahm moved to the right, protecting McCook’s right flank; the reserve Stanley commanded in person, and moved with the head of McCook’s command on the Nolinsville pike. Colonel John Kennett, in command of the cavalry division, commanded the cavalry on the Murfreesboro pike. There was constant skirmishing between the enemy’s cavalry and artillery and each of the columns up to the 31st, as the army advanced, getting into position. At midnight on the 30th, Stanley moved with part of his command to Lavergne, where the enemy’s cavalry was interfering with the trains. At 9.30 he was ordered by General Rosecrans to hasten to the right and cover McCook’s flank. On reaching there he found McCook’s new line formed on the Nashville road, when the enemy’s skirmishers advanced and drove Stanley’s dismounted cavalry out of the woods to the open field. Here he was reinforced, and charging the rebels routed them, driving them back to their lines. On the 1st Zahm’s brigade was sent to Lavergne to protect the wagon trains being sent to Nashville. He had several skirmishes with Wheeler, but finally secured the safety of the train and repulsed every attack of the rebel cavalry.
On the 2d and 3d of January the cavalry was engaged in watching the flanks of our position. On the 4th Stanley discovered that the enemy had fled. Collecting his cavalry he moved to the fords of Stone’s River, in readiness to cross, and on the 5th, preceding Thomas, they entered Murfreesboro. Zahm’s command went out on the Shelbyville pike six miles, meeting with no opposition. Stanley with the rest of his cavalry marched down the Manchester pike, encountering the enemy’s cavalry strongly posted at Lytle’s Creek in heavy force. Fighting here until sundown, the rebels were driven from one cedar-brake to another until Spear’s brigade came up, when they were driven from their last stand in disorder. The cavalry returned and camped at Lytle’s Creek to recuperate, after nine days of active campaigning. During this time the saddles were only taken off the horses to groom them, and were immediately replaced.
Bragg in his retreat left in his hospitals all his wounded in Murfreesboro. By this some 2,500 prisoners fell into our hands to be cared for.
Thus, after seven days’ battle, the Army of the Cumberland rested in Murfreesboro, having achieved the object of the winter campaign. The final battle for Kentucky had been fought by Bragg and lost. Nashville, too, was now beyond his hopes, and for the great victory of the 31st, which he claimed, Bragg had but little to show.
In the heavy skirmishing prior to the 31st, success attended every movement of the Federal army. The heavy fighting of the early part of the 31st was all in Bragg’s favor up to the time his advance was checked by our centre and the new line on the right. From that time to the occupation of Murfreesboro every movement resulted in favor of the army under Rosecrans, and the retreat of Bragg after the defeat of Breckinridge gave the halo of victory to our army as the result of the campaign. In his retreat Bragg admitted that he had gained nothing but a victory barren of results, at the cost to him of 10,125 killed, wounded, and missing, 9,000 of whom were killed and wounded, over twenty per cent. of his command. Bragg’s field return of December 10, 1862, shows an effective total of 51,036, composed of 39,304 infantry, 10,070 cavalry, and 1,662 artillery. By reason of Morgan and Forrest being absent on their raids, Bragg’s cavalry was reduced to 5,638. This gave an effective force of 46,604, which was the strength of the army with which Bragg fought the battle.
Rosecrans’s force on the battle-field was: Infantry, 37,977; artillery, 2,223; cavalry, 3,200; total, 43,400. His loss was: killed, 1,553; wounded, 7,245. The enemy captured about 2,800 men. Making his total loss about twenty-five per cent. of his force in action, Rosecrans lost twenty-eight pieces of artillery and a large portion of his wagon train. Bragg lost three pieces of artillery.
Why did Rosecrans’s plan of battle miscarry so fatally and Bragg’s come so near absolute success? The fault was not in the plan as conceived by the former. The near success of the latter proved a vindication of that. The originator of the plan was not at fault personally, for at no time during the battle did he falter or prove unequal to his command. When called on to give up his plan of the offensive and assume the defensive to save his army, the wonderful power of Rosecrans as a general over troops was never displayed to a greater advantage. With the blood from a slight wound on his check, in a light blue army overcoat, through the mud and rain of the battle-field, he rode along the line inspiring his troops with the confidence he felt as to the final result. To Rosecrans there was but one outcome to the battle at Stone’s River, and that was victory. When some of his general officers advised retreat to Nashville, not for an instant did he falter in his determination to “fight or die right here.” The demoralization of one of his division commanders was so great, that on Thursday afternoon, when the rebels were massing on Rosecrans’s right, this general, commanding a division, announced to his brigade commanders that in the event of the anticipated assault resulting disastrously, he proposed to take his division and cut his way through to Nashville. To his troops–the greater part of whom had never seen Rosecrans under the enemy’s fire–when on their return from the cedars, they formed anew in front of the Nashville pike–seeing the Commanding General of the army riding fearlessly on the extreme front, in the heat of battle, cool and collected, giving orders and encouraging his men–his mere presence was an inspiration. His personal bravery was never more fully shown than when he rode down to the “Round Forest” with his staff, under fire, at the time Garesché was killed by a shell that only missed the chief by a few inches. In this ride Rosecrans had three mounted orderlies shot dead while following him. When the entire extent of McCook’s disaster in its crushing force was revealed to him, he felt the full burden of his responsibility, and rising to the demands of the hour he was superb. Dashing from one point to another, quick to discern danger and ready to meet it, shrinking from no personal exposure, dispatching his staff on the gallop, hurrying troops into position, massing the artillery and forming his new lines on grounds of his own choosing, confident of ultimate success, and showing his troops that he had all confidence in them, it was worth months of an ordinary life-time to have been with Rosecrans when by his own unconquered spirit he plucked victory from defeat and glory from disaster.
But if the plan was not at fault, what was? Rosecrans started from Nashville for an offensive campaign, and before his plan of battle had met the test, he was compelled to abandon it, and assume the defensive. Where was the fault and who was to blame? The fault was McCook’s defective line, and in part Rosecrans was responsible for it. He ought never to have trusted the formation of a line of battle so important to the safety of his whole army to McCook alone, and he certainly knew this. Rosecrans gave his personal attention to the left, but he should at least have ordered the change his quick eye detected as necessary in McCook’s line, and not trusted to chance and McCook’s ability to withstand the attack with his faulty line. No one who saw him at Stone’s River the 31st of December will say aught against the personal bravery and courage of McCook under fire. All that he could do to aid in repairing the great disaster of that day he did to the best of his ability. He stayed with Davis’s division under fire as long as it held together, and then gave personal directions to Sheridan’s troops, in the gallant fight they made against overwhelming odds. As Rosecrans himself says in his official report of McCook, “a tried, faithful, and loyal soldier, who bravely breasted the battle at Shiloh and Perryville, and as bravely on the bloody field of Stone’s River.” But there is something more than mere physical bravery required in a general officer in command of as large a body of troops as a corps d’armee. As an instructor at West Point, McCook maintained a high rank. As a brigade and division commander under Buell, there was none his superior in the care and attention he gave his troops on the march, in camp, or on the drill-ground. His division at Shiloh as it marched to the front on the second day did him full credit, and in his handling of it on that field he did credit to it and to himself. What McCook lacked was the ability to handle large bodies of troops independently of a superior officer to give him commands. This was his experience at Perryville, and it was repeated at Stone’s River. With the known results of Perryville, McCook ought never to have been placed in command of the “right wing.” Rosecrans at Stone’s River, of necessity was on the left, and being there he should have had a general in command of the right with greater military capacity than McCook. Rosecrans’s confidence was so slight in his commander of the left that he felt his own presence was needed there in the movement of the troops in that part of the plan of battle.
Rosecrans in his report repeatedly speaks of “the faulty line of McCook’s formation on the right.” But he knew of this on the 30th, and told McCook that it was improperly placed. McCook did not think so. Rosecrans told him that it faced too much to the cast and not enough to the south, that it was too weak and long, and was liable to be flanked. Knowing all this and knowing McCook’s pride of opinion, for McCook told him he “did not see how he could make a better line,” or a “better disposition of my troops,” it was the plain duty of Rosecrans to reform the line, to conform to what it should be in his judgment. The order to McCook to build camp fires for a mile beyond his right, was another factor that brought about the combination that broke the line on the right. Rosecrans was correct in the conception of this, in order to mislead Bragg and cause him to strengthen his left at the expense of his right. Had Bragg awaited Rosecrans’s attack, this building of fires was correct–if it took troops away from the right to reinforce the left; but this it did not do. Bragg moved McCown and Cleburne’s divisions from his right to his left on Tuesday, but after this Bragg brought none of his forces across the river until Wednesday afternoon. The building of the fires caused Bragg to prolong his lines, lengthening them to the extent that before Hardee struck Kirk’s and Willich’s brigades, he thought our line extended a division front to their right. Finding this not to be the case, he whirled his left with all the force of double numbers on to the right of McCook. The rebels then swinging around threw themselves in the rear of Johnson’s division before they struck any troops on their front. Of course it is mere guess-work to say just what the outcome might have been of any other formation of the line, but it is safe to say that had the left instead of the centre of Hardee struck the right of McCook, there would have been a better chance for the troops on the extreme right of his line to have shown the spirit that was in them, before they were overpowered by mere superiority of numbers.
Then there were some minor mistakes that aided in a great degree the bringing about of that mishap which imperilled the safety of the entire army. Even granting that Johnson was not in any way responsible for the position occupied by his troops on the front line of battle, still it is hard to find any excuse or even explanation for a general officer in command of a division who, knowing the enemy was in force on his front, and intending to attack his command at daylight the next morning, would place his headquarters a mile and a half in the rear. This too, when he knew that the post of honor and responsibility for the safety of the entire army had been committed to his keeping. What then shall be said for him when it appears by the report of the commanding officer of his reserve brigade that when it returned from the support of a cavalry reconnoissance, the general commanding the division ordered this brigade, on the eve of battle, to take position in the woods, “near the headquarters of the division,” instead of in supporting distance of the front line? He could not have thought that the division headquarters needed the support of the reserve more than the line of battle. It is safe to say that had the line of Johnson’s division been properly formed, so as to give the most strength to the command–short and well centred, with a good brigade like that of Baldwin’s in reserve, with all officers in their places–these troops would have given a very different account of themselves when the blow struck the right. There was no commanding officer in the front with Johnson’s division, of greater command than a regiment–save General Kirk. The troops of Willich’s brigade on the right flank refused to come to his assistance, because there was no one to give them orders. Johnson says in his official report that “In consultation with Major-General McCook, late in the afternoon of December 30th, he informed me that he had reliable information to the effect that the centre of the rebel line of battle was opposite to our extreme right, and that we would probably be attacked by the entire rebel army early on the following morning.” Johnson then coolly adds: “His prediction proved true.” Yet with these facts staring them in the face, McCook and Johnson made no other efforts to strengthen the right of the line, and Johnson, on the arrival of his reserve brigade later, posted it in the woods a mile and a half from his front “near his headquarters.” General Kirk was mortally wounded in the attack on his command, but lived long enough after the battle to make a report of the part taken in the engagement by his brigade. He states in his report, that he suggested to Johnson to send his reserve brigade to support the main lines, and that Johnson declined to do so.
The location of Johnson’s headquarters, and Johnson being there, makes him responsible for the capture of Willich, and the breaking up of that fine brigade. Willich had been on the line for an hour before daylight with his brigade under arms, and from what he heard of the movements of the enemy in his front, he was satisfied that a change should be made in the position of the division, and started to Johnson’s headquarters to communicate with him. Before he could return to his troops, the enemy was upon them, and drove them from the position they held, without their making a stand. Being without either division or brigade commander, they drifted to the rear. Willich had a horse shot under him, and was captured without giving an order, before he reached his command.
When the artillery was posted in line of battle on the 30th, roads were cut through the cedars to allow the batteries to reach the front line. The heavy loss of guns, reported by Rosecrans, was occasioned by these batteries being unable to reach the roads through the cedar thickets in the retreat, and in many instances guns were abandoned in the woods, through which it was impossible to haul them.
Bragg alleges in his official report that our troops were surprised, and cites the fact that his men passed through the camps where breakfast was being prepared. He was right as to his fact, but wrong in his deduction. Willich’s brigade was the only one that was not through the morning meal, and this was by reason of his troops being under arms for nearly two hours prior to this time, after which Willich gave them orders to prepare their meal. Kirk’s brigade had been under arms since five o’clock in the morning, ready for action an hour before the battle commenced, and in Post’s brigade the men were in order of battle for an hour before the first dawn of light. The front of all these brigades was covered with heavy picket lines well thrown out. General Sill reported to General Sheridan at two o’clock in the morning, “great activity on the part of the enemy immediately in his front, with movements of troops to their left,” and from four o’clock in the morning until seven, Sheridan’s troops were standing under arms, and the cannoneers were at their places.
It is difficult to determine which to admire the more, the heavy, quick, decided onset of the rebels, as with ranks well closed up, without music, and almost noiselessly, they moved in the gray light of the early December morning, out of the cedars, across the open fields, hurling the full weight of their advancing columns upon our right, with all the dash of Southern troops, sweeping on with rapid stride, and wild yells of triumph, to what appeared to them an easy final victory; or, later in the afternoon, when our troops that had been driven from the field early in the morning, were reformed under the eye of the commanding general, met and threw back from the point of the bayonet, and from the cannon mouth, the charge after charge of the same victorious troops of the earlier portion of the day. One was like the resistless sweep of a whirlwind in its onward course of destruction, the other the grand sturdy resistance of the rocky coast, which the waves only rush upon to be dashed to pieces. In each of these, the two armies displayed their distinctive feature to the best. Under Thomas, the Centre of the army evinced, in a marked degree, the staying qualities of that commander, which afterward were shown so conspicuously at Chickamauga.
Source: “The Army Of The Cumberland” (Chapter VIII) By Henry M. Cist, Brevet Brigadier-General U. S. V.; A. A. G. On The Staff Of Major General Rosecrans, And The Staff Of Major-General Thomas; Secretary Of The Society Of The, Army Of The Cumberland