Following the Battle of Perryville (October 8, 1862), Confederate General Braxton Bragg called off his Heartland Campaign 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 Major General Don Carlos Buell did not pursue Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee as it retreated from Kentucky after the Union victory at the Battle of Perryville (October 8, 1862), U.S. President Abraham Lincoln reorganized Union forces in central Tennessee.
On October 24, the U.S. War Department issued General Orders, No. 168, announcing the creation of the Department of the Cumberland, “by direction of the President.” The order also placed Major General William S. Rosecrans in command of the new department and its troops, designated the Fourteenth Army Corps. Rosecrans had captured the attention of Washington authorities following his recent Union victories at the Battle of Iuka (September 19, 1862) and the Second Battle of Corinth (October 3–4, 1862).
On the same day that Rosecrans was promoted, Halleck ordered Buell to relinquish his command and report to Indianapolis, Indiana, to await further orders.
Rosecrans Prepares to Engage Bragg
On October 30, 1862, Rosecrans issued General Orders No. 1, Department of the Cumberland, announcing that he had taken command of the newly created department. To the dismay of Lincoln and Halleck, Rosecrans spent nearly two months reorganizing his forces and preparing to move against Bragg at Murfreesboro. By December 4, Lincoln and Halleck were losing patience with Rosecrans’ procrastination. In a message dated that day, Halleck cautioned Rosecrans that “The President is very impatient at your long stay in Nashville.” Halleck went on to warn the dilatory general that “As I wrote you when you took the command, the Government demands action, and if you cannot respond to that demand some one else will be tried.”
Despite Halleck’s appeals, Rosecrans did not begin his campaign until three weeks later. 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’s 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 the Battle of Shiloh and the Battle of 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.