Battle of Stones River

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Rosecrans at Stones River. Credit Kurz & Allison via Wikimedia Commons

Rosecrans at Stones River. Credit Kurz & Allison via Wikimedia Commons

150 years ago today, Middle Tennessee’s New Year’s Eve was marked by ominous sounds. After months of Union troops in Nashville and Confederates in Murfreesboro doing little more than harassing each other, the two sides clashed so fiercely in the Battle of Stones River that the fighting could be heard thirty miles away.

BATTLE OF THE BANDS

The night before, tens of thousands of Yankees and Rebels set up makeshift camps three miles wide just north of Murfreesboro. Along one section, they were separated by a just few hundred yards of open ground.

On both sides, regimental bands played to entertain the troops who were settling in for the night. The northern musicians played songs like “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and Confederates answered back with “Dixie.” “Hail, Columbia” was met with “Bonny Blue Flag.” It’s not clear just who began “Home Sweet Home,” but before long the bands were playing the poignant favorite in unison while men in both uniforms sang along.

FIGHTING TO BOLSTER SUPPORT

Winter is generally the quiet season during war, but Stones River Battlefield park ranger Gibb Backlund says the battle lines had been drawn that cold, December day because President Abraham Lincoln needed a victory. The Union had suffered a major defeat in Virginia, and there was a lot of opposition to the war in the North.

National Parks Ranger Backlund stands where Union soldiers camped the night before the battle. The Confederates were closer to the trees seen here in the far background. Credit Nina Cardona, WPLN.

National Parks Ranger Backlund stands where Union soldiers camped the night before the battle. The Confederates were closer to the trees seen here in the far background. Credit Nina Cardona, WPLN.

“People were getting tired of it,” Backlund explains, saying that was all the more distressing to Lincoln because the politically risky Emancipation Proclamation was due to go into effect January 1. “And so he pushed for the Union General, William Rosecrans to march out of Nashville and engage the Confederates.”

The first step was to send spies, including at least one black Nashvillian. Historian Bobby Lovett says William Napier was light skinned enough to pose as a white man visiting relatives. Napier was able to go inside the Confederates camps around Murfreesboro to count up the number of troops and heavy artillery that were on hand.

RELENTLESS FIRST DAY

But on the morning after that battle of the bands, it was the Southern army that struck first, surprising the Northern troops at dawn. The Confederates pushed Union lines until they folded in on themselves. Wave after wave of Rebels attacked for ten hours straight. Only one Yankee brigade managed to stand its ground until the sun set on what seemed to be a sure Confederate victory. The rest had been forced into thickets of cedar trees.

The open battlefield was surrounded by areas forested with cedar, like this one behind the cannon. Heavy artillery could not be used within the woods and visibility was hindered, so fighting in the trees was more chaotic and difficult than on open grounds. Credit Nina Cardona, WPLN.

The open battlefield was surrounded by areas forested with cedar, like this one behind the cannon. Heavy artillery could not be used within the woods and visibility was hindered, so fighting in the trees was more chaotic and difficult than on open grounds. Credit Nina Cardona, WPLN.

When darkness brought an end to the fighting, the Northerners were told to make that night’s camp an especially spartan one with absolutely no campfires. But as the officers debated whether it was time to retreat, Backlund says the Rosecrans noticed flickering lights along the path back to Nashville. “He suspected he was surrounded by Confederates, and so he stayed put.”

MOVING THE BIG GUNS

Nobody had the energy or will to fight for the next day and a half. Instead, both sides gathered their wounded. But while the Southern army combed the battlefield for supplies, the Northerners rearranged artillery. When a Confederates division finally attacked again late in the afternoon of January 2nd, they found themselves facing 57 heavy guns, all massed together on a bluff.

That changed everything. In just one hour, 1,400 Confederates were killed or wounded. The Rebels had no choice but to retreat, not just from that position but from the battle. The Union had its victory.

Winning came at a steep price: both sides lost nearly a third of their men. The total body count was less than at Shiloh or Antietam, but fewer men marched into Stones River. Backlund says their chances of killed, wounded or captured were greater than in any battle of the Civil War, “except for the Confederates at Gettysburg.”

After the fighting was over, Southern General Braxton Bragg pulled his army back to Tullahoma, giving up control of valuable farmland along the way. Murfreesboro became home to a massive earthen supply depot that eventually helped the Union prepare for the Battle of Chattanooga and Sherman’s March to the Sea. And across the Northern states, newspaper headlines trumpeted the win that President Lincoln had wanted so badly.

 

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