Lasting from December 26, 1862, to January 3, 1863, the Stones River Campaign was a short Union offensive that pitted the Fourteenth Army Corps (informally known as the Army of the Cumberland) against the Confederate Army of Tennessee. The campaign featured only one major engagement—the Battle of Stones River (December 31, 1862–January 2, 1863). The Union victory there forced Confederate forces to abandon middle Tennessee and establish new lines along the Duck River near Tullahoma to defend Chattanooga, the last rebel stronghold in the Volunteer State.
The autumn of 1862, as the Civil War dragged late into its second year, was a season of Confederate invasions into the border states. In the east, General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia invaded Maryland to take the war onto Northern soil and to encourage Marylanders to join the South. In the west, General Braxton Bragg’s Army of the Mississippi and General Edmund Kirby Smith’s Army of Kentucky moved into the Bluegrass State to recruit and support Confederate sympathizers there. Three weeks following Lee’s retreat after the Battle of Antietam, Bragg’s Heartland Campaign in Kentucky ended in failure at the Battle of Perryville on October 8, 1862.
Lincoln and Halleck Strategize
Meanwhile, in the North, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck made plans to end the bloody conflict as the Rebels reeled from their defeats. They sought to take advantage of Northern matériel and manpower superiority over the South, by launching three offensives that would overwhelm the Confederacy’s ability to shift reinforcements along its interior lines.
- Major General Ambrose E. Burnside‘s Army of the Potomac would advance south toward the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia.
- Major General Ulysses S. Grant‘s Army of the Tennessee would move down the Mississippi River toward the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg, Mississippi.
- In between, Major General William S. Rosecrans‘ Army of the Cumberland would advance against Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee, encamped near Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
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), President Lincoln reorganized Union forces in central Tennessee.
On October 24, 1862, 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.
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 Tennessee encamped at Murfreesboro.
Short on supplies, and with winter approaching, Bragg had abandoned Kentucky and retreated to central Tennessee following the Battle of Perryville. He halted near the town of Murfreesboro on November 20, where he deployed his forces in a defensive line along Stones River and began reorganizing his army. On December 16, Confederate President Jefferson Davis visited Bragg and ordered him to send a division of 7,500 men to assist in the defense of Vicksburg. Davis’ order left Bragg with about 38,000 soldiers to confront Rosecrans’ approaching forces.
December 29–30, 1862: Rosecrans Approaches Murfreesboro
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: The Battle of Stones River
On December 31, Bragg launched an attack upon Rosecrans’ right flank, opening the Battle of Stones River. 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. Neither side engaged on New Year’s Day, but on January 2, Bragg renewed his assault. Aided by artillery support, the Yankees repulsed the Rebels and forced them back to their original position. The next day, Rosecrans received reinforcements and new supplies of ammunition. Convinced that further strikes would be fruitless, Bragg withdrew his army to the Duck River near Tullahoma, Tennessee, thirty-six miles to the south.
Upon reaching the Duck River, Bragg established a new line, intent on protecting Chattanooga, the last Confederate stronghold in the Volunteer State.
Choosing not to pursue the retreating Confederates, Rosecrans established winter quarters at Murfreesboro, where his army remained relatively inactive for the next five and one-half months. During that time, Rosecrans resisted pressure from his superiors to move against Bragg. Lincoln, Halleck, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton feared that Rosecrans’ inactivity would enable Confederate leaders to detach soldiers from Bragg’s army to relieve Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s operations against Vicksburg. Finally, under threat of being relieved of his command, Rosecrans moved into action on June 23, 1863, launching his Tullahoma Campaign.
The Battle of Stones River was the only engagement of the Stones River Campaign. The short-lived campaign was significant, however, because the three-part offensive envisioned by Lincoln and Halleck had failed in the east (at the Battle of Fredericksburg) and in the west (at the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou). Rosecrans’ victory offered some hope to the war-weary Northern public by ending Confederate control of middle Tennessee. It also added some teeth to the Emancipation Proclamation, which had gone into effect on January 1, 1863.