On the night before the big showdown, there was a “singing battle” between the rival soldiers who were established in positions within a few hundred meters apart. Some Federals began to sing their ‘national’ folk songs “Hail Columbia” and especially the “Yankee Doodle”, and the Confederates answered immediately singing their own traditional songs “Dixie” and “The Bonnie Blue Flag”. Soon the two rival lines began to sing each one its own traditional song more and more loudly, in an almost unbearable squealing. Eventually a group of soldiers started to sing the nostalgic song “Home Sweet Home” for the home and the family that every soldier had left behind, which brought a “musical compromise” of the opponents. Soon, thousands of ‘Yankees’ and “Rebels” were singing simultaneously its nostalgic lyrics, as an informal peace, without knowing that in the next day they would clash in the second bloodiest battle of the Civil war, after the battle of Gettysburg.
At dawn of December 31, Major General Hardee led the Confederate left wing and a strong cavalry force against the Federal right. The impetuous Southerners quickly outflanked their opponents who fell back towards the bank of Stones River. Thus Bragg surprised Rosecrans, forcing him to cancel his own envelopment maneuver. Around 7.00 am and under the pressure of the Confederate attack, Rosecrans recalled the division of his left wing which he intended to use for the maneuver. Its commander, Major General Thomas Crittenden, had crossed with his men the Stones in order to outflank the Confederate right wing under Major General John Breckinridge. Meanwhile, in the center of the two lines, the Union division of Major General Philip Sheridan and the Confederate Army corps of Major General Polk were clashing with unusual ferocity. The two rival army corpses were “familiar” to each other since the battle of Perryville, where they had clashed with the same determination.
Battle of Stones River. Positions on December 31 (US Military Academy).
The Confederate left under Hardee continued its triumphant march limiting until noon its opponents in a narrow strip of land near the banks of the Stones. Meanwhile, the Confederate cavalry that supported Hardee had reached the rear of the Federal army spreading havoc. Soon the infantry units of Hardee and Polk joined forces pressing constrictingly the Federals. Although it seemed that Bragg would win a victory, the latter showed great courage managing to regroup in their limited territory and finally repel the enemy brigades which were “pummeling” them one after the other. By evening, the attacks of the Southerners lost momentum because of physical exhaustion. The determination and courage of both opponents had cost numerous deaths and injuries. The same evening, Rosecrans convened a war council. Several of his subordinates proposed a retreat influencing Rosecrans towards this decision, but Maj. Gen. Thomas (commander of the Union center) supported by Crittenden insisted for the army not to subside. Eventually Rosecrans agreed with him. The officers returned to their units and reorganized them.
Maj. Gen. George Henry Thomas
New Year’s Day of 1863 passed without significant action because of the general fatigue. On January 2, Bragg launched an attack of his right wing on the Fed left. Breckinridge’s men again pushed back their opponents across the river (where the Union center and right wing were concentrated) but were repelled suffering heavy losses by the superior Fed artillery (60 guns). A counterattack of the Northerner left wing followed, which again crossed the Stones and pushed the Confederate right wing back to its initial positions. The Battle of Stones/Murfreesboro was marked by such ferocious “hammerings” and “counter-hammerings”. January 3 passed without significant conflicts.
Meanwhile, Braxton Bragg had difficulty in believing that his rival general had not ordered retreat despite his substantial failure on the tactical field. Over the past two days, Rosecrans had assembled in his ground some of his units which had been lagging behind, coming from Nashville. The Confederates thought that the newcomer units were Federal reinforcement and thereby in the evening of January 3, Bragg, disappointed by this (incorrect) ascertainment and observing the exhaustion of his men, ordered a retreat. Many felt that he lost a certain victory. In any case, the battle ended without a winner as the Confederate Army of Tennessee fell back to neighboring Tullahoma (Tennessee) and the Union Army of Cumberland suffered such damage that was immobilized for six months without threatening Chattanooga (as the original plan was).
Maj. Gen. William J. Hardee
The Battle of Stones River or Battle of Murfreesboro had a cost of about 13,000 Federal and 10,200 Confederate casualties, making it the second bloodiest battle of the war after that of Gettysburg. The size of the lethality of a battle is not to be calculated by simply comparing the number of the casualties caused in it, with the number of casualties in other battles of the same war (as it is usually happening), but by calculating the percentage of the men who were lost in it on the total number of the men who took part in it. The simple comparison of the figure of casualties in a battle with the figures of casualties of the other battles is invalid because the involved armies of each battle have different sizes, often of a large deviation. During the Battle of Stones/Murfreesboro, both opponents had lost around 27% of their manpower. According to other estimates, the Union Army of Cumberland had lost 31% of its manpower.
Battle of Stones River. Artwork by Kurz and Allison(1891).
In conclusion, the autumn counterattack of the Confederacy in the West had failed but her military commanders had managed to pin down the Northerners on the limits of the regions that they had occupied until June 1862. In reality they had not failed considering the chronic Confederate lack in manpower comparing to the Union’s almost inexhaustible human resources. Chattanooga was saved while further in the West the Feds had not managed to advance South of Corinth.
(1) Sauers, Richard A.: ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR: A POLITICAL, SOCIAL AND MILITARY HISTORY, W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.
(2) McPherson, James M.: BATTLE CRY OF FREEDOM: THE CIVIL WAR ERA (Oxford History of the United States), Oxford University Press, 1988.
(3) Charles, Roland: AN AMERICAN ILIAD: THE STORY OF THE CIVIL WAR, Lexington, 2002.
(4) Foote, Shelby: THE CIVIL WAR: A NARRATIVE, Random House, New York, 1958.