Cavalry was not so well handled, consequently Rosecrans was ignorant of
his opponent's moves while Bragg was informed.
BY THE EVENING of December 30 the opposing
forces were arrayed. It was obvious to both commanders that preparatory
maneuvering was over and that the next day would be a day of Battle. The
reports of the opposing commanding officers suggest that Rosecrans may
have out-smarted himself in his preparations. Early in the evening of the
30th he sent orders to Major General Alexander McD. Mc Cook to have a large
and extended campfires built on his right "to deceive the enemy, making
him think we were massing troops there".
This ruse had the desired effect. As Bragg reported: Late on Monday [December
29] it became apparent the enemy was extending his right, so as to flank
us on the left. McCowns division, in reserve, was promptly thrown to the
flank and added to the command of Lieutenant-General Polk..... Cleburne's
division, Hardee's corps, was moved from second line on the right to the
corresponding position on the left, and Lieutenant-General Hardee was ordered
to that point and assigned to the company of that and McCowns division.
The disposition, the result of necessity, left me no reserve, but Breckinridge's
command on the right, not now threatened, was regarded as a source of supply
for any reinforcements absolutely necessary to other parts of the field."
Thus McCook's fake campfires caused Bragg to accumulate on his left the
overwhelming manpower that was to be an irresistible thunderbolt when it
was launched on the morning of the 31st.
battle plan's of General Bragg and General Rosecrans were basically identical
: an enveloping flanking movement against
the enemy's right: but Bragg gained the ascendancy by moving first. He
outlined his plan of action succiently in his report: General Hardee was
ordered to assail the enemy at daylight on Wednesday, the 31st, the attack
to be taken up by Lieutenant General Polk's command in succession to the
right, on Polk's right flank, the move to be made by a constant wheel to
the right, on Polk's right flank, as a pivot; the object being to force
the enemy back on Stones River, and, if practicable, by the aid of Cavalry,
cut him off from his base of operations and supplies by the Nashville Pike."
THE CONFEDERATE infantrymen moved in the half-light of early morning against
McCook's extreme right, about at the juncture of Grisham Lane with the
Franklin road, the full force of their attack fell on the brigades of Kirk
and Willich of Brigadier General Richard W. Johnson's division of that
corps. Kirk's men were up and under arms, with a strong picket line in
their front; but just about daylight some of the horses of their artillery
were un-hitched and taken to water. It was at this moment that the
Yelling Confederates came
swarming into them.
The resulting confusion was compounded when
General Kirk was Mortally wounded in the first few minutes of the affray.
General Willich was not with his brigade, having gone to see General Johnson.
His men were cooking and eating breakfast, their arm's stacked. The surprised
Federal's fought gallantly, but, overmatched and confused, were forced
to give ground.
McCown's men had exhausted their original momentum, Cleburn moved up and
continued the assault. Meanwhile the front brigades of Polk's left
were driving in on the right of Cleburne and McCown, and Wharton's cavalry
had swung around the Federal right and slashed at their right and rear.
One of the Federal commanders said they saw cavalry on their right, infantry
assailing their left, and heavy masses rushing to the assault in the front.
The threatened regiments were therefore directed to retire as the only
escape from annihilation or capture.
the route of Johnson's division, the Confederates fell on Brigadier General
Jefferson Davis' division, driving it back toward the Nashville Pike.
Davis' troops were able to delay the Confederates only long enough for
Brigadier General Phillip H. Sheridan to prepare his men to receive the
first shock of the "Rebel" attack. Sheridan's command, the left division
of McCook's corps, received the first attack on terrain that was largely
cultivated and thus had little cover. Nevertheless they threw off three
successive attacks made by the brigades of Cheatham and Withers from Polk's
left. Finally however, as Cleburne pressed in on Withers' left, Sheridan
was overpowered by the envelopment and the enfolding artillery fire and
was forced to give way toward the Nashville pike. Rousseau's division
had been sent to Sheridan's support, but there was no stopping the Fury
of the Confederate drive. Rousseau was swept back, and even Sheridan was
soon forced to withdraw.
Sheridan commenced to fall back, Patton Anderson's brigade of Withers'
division moved against the division of Major General Negley posted in a
dense Cedar Glade on Thomas' right, near the Wilkinson pike. Federal artillery
raked the cotton field across which Anderson's men had to advance, repulsing
Anderson's first charge. But A.P.Stewart's brigade was brought up in support,
and the Confederates charged again. The Federal's fell back, abandoning
11 cannons, most of which had belonged to Sheridan's division, and which
had caused such havoc.
So determined and irresistible was the Confederate
attack and follow-through that by 10 a.m. they had put Johnson's and Davis'
divisions of McCook's corps to flight in a wide sweep of four or five miles
to the Nashville pike. Sheridan's division was still fighting hard at this
time. Indeed, Sheridan's troops were never put to flight. Although he lost
three brigade commanders, Sheridan conducted a fighting withdrawal. By
noon, however, Bragg's first objective had been attained: The Federal line
was doubled back like a Jackknife blade, until it's right wing was at right
angles to the original line of battle.
But the Confederates were not able to deliver
the knockout punch.
forced by events to change his original plans for a flank attack on the
Confederate right, improvised a defense against the threatening disaster
on his own right. Van Cleve's division had crossed Stones River in the
early morning, as originally ordered, but before they could get their advance
against Breckinridge organized they were called back across the river to
resist the Rolling Confederate Drive. Along with Wood's division, numbering
9.000 men backed up by a powerful array of artillery, they had quickly
formed a formidable line along the Nashville pike, making a desperate stand
to maintain communication with the rear.
elated but physically exhausted Confederates, as they came surging out
of the cedar Thickets in pursuit of the flying Federal's, were brought
up short by the strong line od Crittenden's fresh divisions and it's supporting
artillery. The fury of the Confederate attack diminished. As the Confederate
drive against the Federal right began to slow down about 10 o'clock, Bragg
called on Breckinridge to send, first one brigade and then two brigades
to Polk's support. Breckinridge, however, had been the victim of some extraordinary
inept scouting. When Van Cleve began to cross the river early in the morning,
in accordance with Rosecran's original plan of battle. Breckinridge was
informed of the movement. For some unexplained reason, however, his scouts
did not observe the quick withdrawal of Van Cleve's men-or, at least, did
not tell Breckinridge about it- and so left that the commander under attack
from the front. He so informed Bragg in explaining his inability to reinforce
Hardee. By the time Breckinridge became convinced that the threatened attack
was imaginary, he decided that it then too late to help Hardees men, who
had run up against the fresh Federal Line along the Nashville pike and
had fallen back to the protection of the cedars.
NEW POSITION of the Federal line,as established late in the morning, created
a sharp salient at the center, where at midmorning Rousseau's division
of Thomas' left joined Palmer's division of Crittenden's right. Rousseau
was withdrawing, leaving the defense of the salient to Crittenden's troops.
In this salient, on a slight elevation on both sides of the railroad track
just east of the Nashville pike, was a thick clump of trees covering about
four acres. In and around this forest Rosecrans assembled every available
brigade not already in action, and backed them up with artillery on high
ground in rear of the infantry position. The general area of this
stronghold, referred to in the reports as the Round Forest, was maintained
by Grose, Cruft, Hascall, Shaefer, Hazen, and Wagner against successive
waves of furiously attacking Confederates through the rest of the day.
The first Confederate assault on the Round Forest position was made by
Chalmers' brigade, but Chalmers fell wounded as his men were mowed down
by the Federal artillery and rifle fire. General Donelson's Tennessee
brigade, rushed up in support, split as it moved forward.
16th Tennessee, which drove against Round Forest, was checked before it
reached the Union battle line. The 8th, 38th, and 51st Tennessee were temporarily
successful, capturing 1000 prisoners and the 11 guns previously mentioned.
But after they had attacked the cedar thickets south of round forest, a
strong Federal counterattack drove them back to the cedars from which they
had advanced. Two hours later Breckinridge's brigades began to come onto
the field from across the river, in accordance with Bragg's orders, and
Bragg threw them into action as they arrived. One by one the brigades of
Adams and Jackson and Preston and Palmer were hurled against the Round
Forest position, with a courage and abandon that won the admiration of
the defenders- but the hail of fire drove them back after exacting terrific
losses. At the length the short winter twilight deepened to darkness,
putting an end to the fighting - to the great relief of both exhausted
and decimated armies.
CLOSED the first day of a battle that was really two separate battles,
two distinct engagements separated by a day of relative inactivity. In
this first day's fighting, the Federals were driven from their positions
on their right for a distance of four or five miles, and the Confederates
held the field at close of the day. Both armies had suffered shocking losses,
but the Confederates were justified in feeling that the day was theirs.
With an impetuosity that he probably regretted later. Bragg exultantly
telegraphed President Davis that he had won a great victory and "the enemy
is falling back."
has granted us a happy New Year," Bragg exulted in his premature victory
telegram, on the evening of December 31; but when the first day of the
new year dawned a few hours later he began to suspect that it might not
be so happy as he had predicted.
By pressing forward his skirmishers, he soon
determined that the Federals, instead of retreating, were in a strong
defensive position in the new line that they had
established during the night and early morning. To strengthen his line,
Rosecrans had withdrawn from his salient in the Round Forest, and Polk
promptly moved up into this position- the bastion before which so many
of his and Breckinridge's men had fruitlessly sacrificed their lives the
New Year's Day the Confederate cavalry, under Wheeler and Wharton, were
busy in the Federal rear, hacking away at the wagon trains going to and
from Nashville. A spirited attack was made on the stockade at LaVergne
after the capture and dispersal of one of the Federal trains, and although
this attack was beaten off, one of the Federal officers later wrote that
" This conflict, the presence of the enemy's cavalry in heavy force on
the communications of the army, attacking train guards and destroying wagons,
and a multitude of frightened team-sters and demoralized soldiers straggling
to the rear, produced the wildest confusion from Stewart's Creek to the
vicinity of Nashville. This excitement in the rear was in striking
contrast with the comparative quietness reigning over the field, where
each army was awaiting the action of the other."
Neither commander showed any disposition to
renew the fight. Rosecrans in his new and stronger position seemed
satisfied with the respite from attack. Bragg, disappointed in Rosecrans'
failure to retreat, seemed at a loss what to do. Breckinridge, with
the brigades he had brought across the river as reinforcements the preceding
afternoon, was returned to his original position east of the river.
This move was countered by Rosecrans' ordering Crittenden to move Van Cleve's
division (now commanded by Colonel Samuel Beatty) supported by Grose's
brigade, across the river, where they formed a line of battle confronting
Breckinridge. But both sides seemed satisfied with the status quo.
Bragg in his official report summed it up: "Our forces, greatly wearied
and much reduced by heavy losses, were held ready to avail themselves of
any change in the enemy's position, but it was deemed inadvisable to assail
him as then established. The whole day... was passed without an important
movement on either side, and was consumed by us in gleaning the battle-field,
burying the dead and replenishing ammunition."
A WHILE on the morning of January 2 it seemed that the inaction might continue
through another day, although Bragg engaged in a brief exploratory
artillery duel with Rosecrans on his center near the Round Forest, which
had no other effect than to emphasize the fact that the Federals were still
holding their ground. Bragg was particularly impressed by the discovery
that during the night, Beatty's division had occupied the ridge across
the river in Breckinridge's front "from which Lieutenant General Polk's
line was commanded and enfiladed." Bragg considered it " na evident necessity"
that Beatty's force be dislodged or Polk be withdrawn from the advanced
position he now occupied. Accordingly he decided that Breckinridge must
take the position from Beatty.
Breckinridge, when advised of Bragg's plan,
was emphatic in objecting to it. The movement was sure to be disastrous,
he protested; the Federals holding the high ground west of the river completely
commanded the ridge he was ordered to take, and they could rake it with
their guns. Polk volunteered the opinion that the position sought
was not essential to his protection. But Bragg was not moved by the
protests of his subordinates; Breckinridge was ordered to proceed with
the attack: "to drive the enemy back, crown the hill, entrench his artillery,
and hold the position."
advance was scheduled to be launched at 4p.m. To distract the Federals'
attention from the real object, a heavy fire was ordered to be opened from
Polk's front at that exact hour, and this was done. Promptly at the appointed
time Breckinridge moved forward with his 4,500 men, preceded by a heavy
concentration of fire from his artillery, and soon swept Beatty from his
position on the ridge.
MEANWHILE, General Crittenden, accompanied
by his chief of artillery, Major John Mendenhall, while riding along the
Nashville pike on the other side of the river had observed the movements
of Breckinridge as he was forming to deliver his assault. Crittenden
ordered Mendenhall to assemble artillery, and in a few minutes the
artillery chief had massed 57 guns on the high west bank of McFadden's
Ford, a bristling array that completely commanded the ground on the other
side of the river.
men not satisfied with taking their prescribed objective, pursued Beatty's
fleeing men down the slope toward the river, where they came directly
within range of Mendenhall's massed artillery. Confederate after action
reports indicate that small-arms fire delivered by the Union infantry posted
on the west side of the river at McFadden's Ford caused as much confusion
as the artillery projectiles. The over-all result was murderous, as the
terrific artillery fire crashed into the pursuing Confederates, causing
them to waiver and then turn back. Fresh Federal infantry poured across
the river and joined in the pursuit of the survivors of Breckinridge's
ill-fated charge. As darkness stopped the active fighting, Breckinridge
was back in the position from which he had started, with the supposedly
vital ridge still in the possession of the enemy, and with some 1,700 men
left dead and wounded on the field.
CONSEQUENCE of this disaster is succinctly told in General Bragg's report
ot the battle: on Saturday morning the 3rd, our forces had
been in line of battle five days and nights, with but little rest,
having no reserves, their baggage and tents had been loaded and the wagons
were four miles off; their provisions, if cooked at all, were most improperly
prepared with scanty means; the weather had been severe from cold and almost
constant rain, and we had no change of clothing, and in many places could
not have fires. The necessary consequence was the great exhaustion of officers
and men, many having to be sent t o hospitals in the rear, and more still
were beginning to struggle from their commands, an evil from which we had
so far suffered but little. During the whole of this day the rain continued
to fall with little intermission, and the rapid rise in Stones River indicated
it would soon be unfordable. Late Friday night I had received the
captured papers of Major-General McCook, commanding one corps
d'armee' of the enemy, showing their effective strength to have
been very near, if not quiet, 70,000 men. Before noon, reports from
Brigadier-General Wheeler satisfied me that the enemy, instead of retiring,
was receiving reinforcements. Common prudence and the safety of my army,
upon which even the safety of our cause depended, left no doubt in my mind
as to the necessity of my withdrawal from so unequal a contest. My
orders were accordingly given about noon for the movement of the trains,
and for the necessary preparations of troops...... The whole force, except
the cavalry, was put into motion at 11 p.m. and the army retired in perfect
order to it's position behind Duck River, without receiving or giving
a shot. Our cavalry held the position before Murfreesboro until Monday
morning, the 5th, when it quietly retired, as ordered, to cover our front.
HIS REPORT General Bragg accepts full responsibility for the decision
to retire from the field, virtually admitting defeat. In truth, the
idea that the enemy should retreat after the debacle on January 2 originated
with his own subordinate commanders. Shaken by the staggering repulse suffered
by Breckinridge, their own divisions decimated by losses, their confidence
in Bragg at its lowest ebb, Generals Cheatham and Withers that night drew
up and signed their names to an unusual document, a letter addressed to
General Bragg expressing the view that "this army should be promptly put
in retreat." Some of their men were demoralized, they said, and they feared
"great disaster from the condition of things now existing" unless the army
withdrew. The letter was forwarded to Bragg through their core commander,
Polk, and Polk sent it to Bragg with an endorsement stating: "I very greatly
fear the consequences of another engagement ay this place on the
ensuing day"; such an engagement, he said, "might be very disastrous."
When this document reached Bragg at 2a.m., he immediately and emphatically
rejected the proposal:"Say to the general we shall maintain our position
at every hazard," and went back to bed. When Polk got this bellicose reply
he took the matter up with Hardee, who said he thought Bragg's decision
was "unwise in a high degree." But when next morning at 10 o'clock Bragg
called polk and Hardee to his headquarters for a conference, they found
him in a decidedly less belligerent mood. Rosecrans, he said, had 70.000
men and was receiving reinforcements. On the whole, after thinking
the matter over, he thought they had better retreat. Polk and Hardee
agreed, and preparations proceeded fir the withdrawal that night.
in speaking of the reinforcements received by Rosecrans during the night
of the 2nd, was probably misled into magnifying the number of men that
had been added to the Federal force. The only reinforcements actually
received that night were Spear' brigade of Tennesseans and the 85th regiment
of Illinois Volunteers. The report of Bragg's scouts may have exaggerated
the strength of these fresh units; but to a great extent Bragg's
impression that the enemy was receiving heavy reinforcements was probably
due to an elaborate scheme of deception devised by Rosecrans. The
latter mentions this briefly in his report; one of his officers tells about
it in more detail.
ROSECRANS in his report tersely summarizes the last days of the campaign:
Sunday morning, January 4, it
was not deemed advisable to commence offensive movements, and news soon
reached us that the enemy had fled from Murfreesbourough. Burial parties
were sent out to bury the dead, and the cavalry was sent to reconnoiter.
Early Monday morning general
Thomas advanced, driving the rear guard of Rebel cavalry before him six
or seven miles toward Manchester. McCook's and Crittenden's corps,
following, took position in front of the town, occupying Murfreesbourough.
Rosecrans, having achieved success in his
first big scale command, might well have been personally proud of his accomplishment.
But Rosecrans was a pious man, and he closed the report in these words:
" I say from conviction and as a public acknowledgment due to Almighty
God, in closing this report, Non nobis Domine! nono nobis sed
nomini tuo gloriam. (Not unto us O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy
name give the glory.)
Confederates, ARMY OF TENNESSEE, Gen., Braxton
Bragg, 37.712 effectives.
Federals, ARMY OF THE CUMBERLAND, Maj.
Gen. W.S. Rosecrans, 43.000 effectives.
Total casualties: 13.249