The Battle of Stones River, also known as the Battle of Murfreesboro, was a land engagement fought near Murfreesboro, Tennessee during the American Civil War, between December 31, 1862 and January 2, 1863.
Following the Battle of Perryville (October 8, 1862), Confederate General Braxton Bragg called off his Heartland Offensive and withdrew his forces from Kentucky to Tennessee. There, Bragg reorganized his command by merging forces with General Kirby Smith’s Army of Kentucky to form the Army of Tennessee. In November, Bragg established a defensive position along the west fork of Stones River, near Murfreesboro, intent on preventing a Union advance on Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Rosecrans Replaces Buell
Frustrated because the Union forces did not immediately pursue Bragg during his retreat from Kentucky, President Abraham Lincoln relieved Major General Don Carlos Buell of his command of the Army of the Ohio and placed Major General William Rosecrans in charge of the newly formed 14th Army Corps (informally known as the Army of the Cumberland) on October 24, 1862.
Rosecrans Prepares to Engage Bragg
Upon Rosecrans’ promotion, Union General-In-Chief Henry Halleck informed Rosecrans that “. . . the Government demands action, and if you cannot respond to that demand some one else will be tried.” Rosecrans quickly established headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee, and prepared his army for battle. On December 26, Rosecrans left Nashville with roughly 44,000 men, prepared to engage Bragg’s army of about 38,000 soldiers encamped at Murfreesboro.
December 29 – 30, 1862: Both Armies Deploy
The Army of the Cumberland approached Murfreesboro along the Nashville Turnpike and Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad. Rosecrans found Bragg’s army on December 29, and his men moved into line the next day. On December 30, the two armies were facing each other in parallel lines about four miles long.
December 31, 1862 – January 2, 1863: Clash at Stones River
December 31: Bragg Attacks First, But Federals Hold
Each general planned to engage the other’s right flank the next day, but Bragg launched his assault first, attacking at dawn. The Rebels drove the Federals back initially, but the Union lines eventually held when Rosecrans sent reinforcements from his left flank. By the end of the day, Bragg was certain he had secured a victory, but the Federals established a new and stronger line.
On New Year Day, neither army engaged.
January 2: Federals Force Bragg Back
The next day, Bragg continued his assault on the Union lines, but the Federals offered stronger resistance from their new positions. Aided by artillery support, the Union soldiers repulsed the assault, forcing the Rebels back to their original position.
January 3: Bragg Withdraws to Tullahoma
On January 3, Rosecrans received reinforcements and new supplies of ammunition, convincing Bragg that further assaults would be fruitless. Thus, he withdrew his men to Tullahoma, Tennessee, thirty-six miles to the south, yielding Murfreesboro to Rosecrans.
The Battle of Stones River was an unusually deadly battle, even by Civil War standards. The Confederates suffered over 10,000 casualties (killed, wounded, missing/captured) and the Federals suffered over 13,000. Total casualties for the battle were comparable to the carnage at Shiloh and Antietam. The percentage of casualties at Stones River was higher than any other battle in the Civil War.
The Union victory was a significant morale booster in the North. President Lincoln congratulated Rosecrans stating, “You gave us a hard-earned victory, which had there been a defeat instead, the nation could scarcely have lived over.”
Rosecrans chose not to pursue Bragg until June, when the two armies met again at the Battle of Hoover’s Gap, near Tullahoma. Instead, Rosecrans set about reinforcing his position at Murfreesboro, establishing a supply depot that served the Union for the rest of the war.