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New Year's Hell

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The Battle of Stones River

Along the banks of Stone’s River, just outside Murfreesboro, Tennessee occurred an often-overlooked battle during the New Year’s holiday of 1862-1863. Fought during miserable weather that saw bitterly cold rain and sleet, the three-day engagement would involve more than 80,000 soldiers and inflict staggering casualties, with over 23,500 men killed, wounded, or missing. The fighting was some of the most brutal and desperate of the war. Those who fought and died there witnessed incredible bravery alongside great cruelty, while great leadership mingled with the criminally inept. 

McFadden Farm at Stones River
Stones River National Battlefield, Murfreesboro, Tenn.
Buddy Secor

As 1862 approached its conclusion, the respective war efforts were in a state of flux. Confederate forces remained largely on the defensive. While Federals forces were ordered into the field by President Abraham Lincoln in a late year offensive. In hopes of bolstering the impact of Emancipation Proclamation, which was announced on September 22nd and was set to officially take effect on January 1, 1863, Lincoln ordered three of his principal commanders into action. In the Eastern Theater, General Ambrose Burnside was tasked with gaining a victory over the principal Confederate army in that theater. By mid-December, Burnside had been defeated at Fredericksburg and his subordinates were borderline mutinous.  

In the Western Theater, Federals had made many inroads with victories at places like Forts Henry and Donelson, Shiloh, Corinth, and Perryville. But, Lincoln’s initial push to take the bastion of Vicksburg, Mississippi, by his rising star General Ulysses S. Grant, too, ended in failure.   

The last hope for Lincoln to gain a Federal victory before he signed the Emancipation Proclamation lay in the hands of another of his western armies, the newly christened Army of the Cumberland. Fresh off of its victory at Perryville, Kentucky, where it was known as the Army of the Ohio, the Army of the Cumberland was an army that had done a great deal of marching, but not a great deal of fighting in 1862. After pursuing the Confederate Army of the Mississippi (now dubbed the Army of Tennessee), across the Deep South, and defeating the Confederates at Perryville, the Army of the Cumberland stood poised to secure all of Kentucky and most of western Tennessee for the Union. While most of central and eastern Tennessee remained solidly in Confederate control—and rip for the taking.  

The principal Federal commander, General Don Carlos Buell, had drawn the ire of President Lincoln and his General-in Chief Henry W. Halleck for what the perceived as foot dragging and due to unflattering reports submitted by Buell’s subordinates.  

Thus, on October 24, Halleck ordered General William Rosecrans to take command of Buell’s army, which was renamed the Army of the Cumberland, and force Bragg out of Kentucky and Tennessee as soon as possible and occupy the rail hub at Chattanooga linking Virginia with the Deep South. Halleck looked to stress the urgency of the situation as he wrote to Rosecrans: “You will fully appreciate the importance of moving light and rapidly…I need not urge upon you the necessity of giving active employment to your forces. Neither the country nor the Government will much longer put up with the inactivity of some of our armies and generals." 

“Old Rosy,” as he was known to his men, was 43 years old, and an imposing figure at six-feet tall, but at this point in the war, Rosecrans was something of an unknown. He commanded the troops that captured Corinth earlier in the year, but his lack of aggression did not produce much confidence in his abilities. Rosecrans he also saw no action during the Mexican War and his conversion to Roman Catholicism at West Point placed him well outside the norms in most military circles. His style of leadership could also be a bit confused. He was a hard drinker and was as quick to anger as he was to forgive. In his tent, he was a careful planner and strategist who favored maneuver over confrontation designed to destroy the opposing army, but in battle, when his blood was roused, he became excited and emotional, preferring a direct, on-the scene leadership style. 

In this scenario, caution won out. Despite Halleck’s clear desire to see Rosecrans move against Bragg, the new commander of the Army of the Cumberland remained at headquarters in Nashville. In his mind, the army needed to reorganize and resupply before moving forward. The resulting lethargy lasted from late October into early December, which incensed Halleck. He sent Rosecrans a tersely worded dispatch warning, “As I wrote to you when you took the command, the Government demands action, and if you cannot respond to that demand, some one (sic) else will be tried.” 

Rosecrans responded just as emphatically, “Everything I have done was necessary, absolutely so…If the Government which ordered me here confides in my judgment, it may rely on my continuing to do what I have been trying to do…To threats of removal and the like I must be permitted to say that I am insensible.” Few in Washington could fathom the condition that the Army of the Cumberland was in after the extended line of march into Kentucky, the summer drought of 1862, and the desperate engagement that was Perryville. 

Gen. Bragg Portrait
Gen. Braxton Bragg
Library of Congress

On the Confederate side, General Braxton Bragg faced a different and, in many ways, far worse command situation. Rosecrans, despite the pressures from Washington, had managed to keep a cohesive command organization. Bragg and his subordinate commanders, on the other hand, had managed to create a command atmosphere that can best be described as a “snake pit.” First of all, Bragg was not a likeable man. The famous Southern diarist, Mary Chesnut, recorded that Bragg possessed a unique “winning way of earning everyone’s detestation.” He was ill-tempered, stubborn, intractable, overly sensitive to criticism, and more than a little paranoid. However, in Bragg’s case, the paranoia was legitimate as he was roundly despised by all his army’s commanders. The only man who seemed to like him and see any military abilities in him was President Jefferson Davis. Davis had known Bragg since the war in Mexico and the two men shared a mutual trust and admiration. Unfortunately, that is probably because they shared such similar personalities. 

Davis viewed the public outcry over Bragg’s withdrawal from Perryville as a personal attack. He believed that the only reason Bragg was being so harshly criticized in the Southern press and Confederate Congress was because of his association with Davis. Therefore, as he often tended to do, the Confederate president saw this as yet another example of his numerous enemies, both real and perceived, trying to gain political leverage. As a result, he defended Bragg vigorously in public. However, privately, Davis had deep concerns about Bragg. 

Those concerns were not the product of what the press and his political opponents said, but, rather, were derived from the complaints of Bragg’s own subordinate commanders, and that is a mild description for what Bragg’s generals thought of him. Generals Leonidas Polk, a former Episcopal bishop from Louisiana, and also a close Davis associate, led the charge against Bragg, supported by his fellow commanders, Generals William Hardee and Kirby Smith. General Henry Heth wrote that he and Kirby Smith believed “General Bragg had lost his mind.” Another officer wrote that while Bragg was of sound mind, he was instead “utterly incompetent.” 

In late October, as Bragg’s subordinates plotted a coup against their commander, Davis called Bragg to Richmond. While Bragg was aware of the complaints against him and deeply angered by his commanders’ apparent acts of insubordination, he approached Davis contritely and modestly in their meeting. Bragg argued that, while he indeed retreated before Buell’s army at Perryville and lost Kentucky in the process, he had inflicted 25,000 casualties on the enemy and, most importantly, kept his army intact. Further, Bragg went on to say, with the Confederate defeats in Mississippi, his army was now the only one in the West still capable of resisting Union advances. 

Then, Bragg offered Davis a new plan and one designed not just to resist a Federal attack, but to take the offensive against Rosecrans. He proposed to move his army forward up the line of the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad to establish a new base at Murfreesboro, some 30 miles southeast of Nashville. From there, he would attack Rosecrans, drive his army from Nashville, recapture the state capital, and move to threaten Grant’s rear in western Tennessee. 

This kind of offensive mindset was exactly the sort Davis appreciated and Bragg knew it. The president heartily approved of Bragg’s plan and sent him back to his army carrying Davis’ unqualified support. Davis then called Generals Polk and Hardee to Richmond and elevated them both to the rank of lieutenant general. Duly bribed by promotion, the pair returned to Bragg’s army to carry out the new offensive against Rosecrans. 

Meanwhile, Bragg was back in Tennessee to implement the first stage of his plan by ordering his other key commander, General John Breckinridge, to move his 6,000 man force to Murfreesboro and establish command there. This Breckinridge accomplished on October 28, but he worried that, once Rosecrans figured out how small his force was, the Union general would move to crush him. Luckily for Breckinridge, Rosecrans was too busy reorganizing and resupplying his army. While he noted Breckinridge’s move to Murfreesboro, he did nothing to counter it. 

However, as the weeks passed, Bragg still faced numerous challenges in executing his planned offensive. First, his supplies were short and foraging in late fall proved difficult. His men needed both food and good clothing if they were to campaign during the coming winter. Then, in early December, his ally, President Davis, complicated matters further by insisting General Joseph Johnston transfer 9,000 men from Bragg’s army to that of General John Pemberton at Vicksburg. Johnston, who commanded the entire Western Theater, had never gotten along with Davis and he bitterly opposed the transfer of troops from Bragg’s army, which was now all encamped at Murfreesboro, but Davis dismissed his concerns. As a result, Brag was left with only 40,000 men to undertake a winter offensive against Rosecrans’ 80,000 in and around Nashville. 

As Bragg struggled to manage his army at Murfreesboro, Rosecrans prepared a plan of his own. Despite his sincere and bombastic opposition to Halleck’s orders to move against Bragg, Rosecrans got the message. As soon as he received more supplies, he fully intended to move against Bragg, and as Christmas arrived, Rosecrans felt the moment had come. Not only was his army well supplied, intelligence told him that Bragg was forced to send troops to Vicksburg. In addition, he learned that John Hunt Morgan and Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry had also detached from Bragg's army. Finally, all indications pointed to Bragg simply settling down for the winter at Murfreesboro. 

On Christmas Day, Rosecrans called a staff conference to present the plan he and General George Thomas had developed. The Army of the Cumberland would advance toward Murfreesboro in three parallel columns, with General Thomas Crittenden going straight down the Nashville Turnpike to Murfreesboro, while Generals Alexander McCook and George Thomas advanced on his right. They would engage Bragg’s army, which Rosecrans mistakenly believed to be scattered around Murfreesboro, and do so with only 44,000 men. Rosecrans had elected to leave the remainder of the army behind, garrisoning Nashville and guarding the railroad. As a result, he had unintentionally evened the odds more in Bragg’s favor. As the meeting concluded, a little Christmas cheer was passed around the room in the form of brandy toddies. The mood became lighter, but soon, Rosecrans pounded his fist on the table in an emotional outburst and told his commanders, “We move tomorrow, gentlemen! We shall skirmish, probably as soon as we pass the outposts. Press them hard! Drive them out of their nests! Make them fight or run! Fight them! Fight them! Fight I say!” 

As Rosecrans announced his advance, Bragg’s camp was enjoying the holidays in high style. Oblivious to any possible threat, the officers attended Christmas balls and parties. The liquor flowed and the officers danced the nights away, while their men huddled for warmth in camp, lonely and far from home. The officers’ merriment did not go unnoticed. The Confederate memoirist, Sam Watkins, a private in Bragg’s army, later wrote that, during the Christmas holidays of 1862, “John Barleycorn was our general-in-chief…our generals, and colonels, and captains had kissed John a little too often.” However, on the morning of December 26, as the Army of the Cumberland moved south, an incident occurred which added to the continuing discord among Bragg’s commanders and the men of his army as well. 

John Breckinridge Portrait
John Breckinridge
Library of Congress

Without a doubt, the ablest of Bragg’s commanders was John Breckinridge. Breckinridge, who had been President James Buchanan’s vice president, was a popular and gifted commander, in spite of his limited military experience.  As a native Kentuckian, he and his men formed an essential part of Bragg’s fall campaign into Kentucky, and Bragg hoped that thousands of fellow Kentuckians would flock to their banner, but their failure to appear greatly embittered Bragg towards his subordinate. As a result, he had no use for Breckinridge or anyone from Kentucky, as he wrote to his wife, “Why should I stay with my handful of brave Southern men to fight for cowards who skulked about in the dark to say to us, ‘we are with you. Only whip these fellows out of our country and let us see you can protect us, and we will join you.’” 

Bragg made no secret of his contempt for Breckinridge and his Kentucky brigade, who, because their state was in Union hands, had come to be called the “Orphan Brigade,” And often demonstrated it in a cruel and vindictive manner. On December 20, Bragg convened a court martial to hear the case regarding charges of desertion leveled against Private Asa Lewis of the 6th Kentucky Infantry Regiment (CSA), who accidentally deserted from the army to care for his family after some confusion about his terms of service. Breckinridge and his officers pleaded with Bragg to show the boy mercy, given that his father and died and Lewis was now the family’s only means of support. But Bragg was implacable and determined to make an example of the young private, and so had him executed the day after Christmas. 

Luckily for Bragg, General Joseph Wheeler and his cavalry remained with the army, and soon brought news of Rosecrans’ advance. Bragg moved to prepare to meet the Union threat, but the three-columns Rosecrans employed confused him, and he was uncertain where the main Federal attack would fall. Therefore, he dispersed his army across all the approaches to Murfreesboro from Nashville. The resulting Confederate positions were not particularly advantageous and the terrain itself made it a difficult field for either side to fight on. The land was marked by limestone outcroppings, with deep crevices and large boulders, and these were surrounded by dense, thick stands of red cedar. This made unit cohesion difficult and the dense cedar severely limited visibility in places. In addition, the weather was simply awful. It was cold and windy, with a steady rain that gave way occasionally to freezing drizzle and sleet. 

The two armies sparred as Rosecrans approached, with Wheeler’s cavalry slashing the Union columns at every opportunity. Finally, the Union army took up positions opposite Bragg on December 29. Rosecrans deployed Crittenden’s men on the left, anchored on the river and extending across the Nashville Turnpike. George Thomas moved in on Crittenden’s right, extending the union line to the south, while McCook took the far right, with his line arcing to the southwest. For his part, Bragg placed Hardee opposite McCook, with Polk in the center facing Thomas. However, the Confederate right was another matter. Here, Bragg chose to place Breckinridge across the river, which now separated his right wing from the rest of the army. It was not a sound placement by any means, and, while his commanders urged a change, Bragg stubbornly refused to hear their arguments. This meant that, ironically, both Rosecrans and Bragg envisioned their offensive plans as attacks on the other’s right flank. And both planned to attack on New Year’s Eve morning, December 31. 

The night of December 30 was cold, wet, and miserable for the soldiers in the line on both sides. Sometime before the evening tattoo, one of the Union’s regimental bands struck up “Yankee Doodle” and then “Hail Columbia.” As the music drifted across the field, the Confederate soldiers listened quietly. Then, one of their bands answered, playing “Dixie.” This friendly exchange of music continued for a time, until a Federal band started to play the bittersweet sounds of “Home, Sweet Home.” Within minutes, a Southern band joined in, and the bands played together in what was a unique expression of mutual longing for home and family. Finally, more and more bands joined in and the collective musical forces of both armies played the tune together. One soldier from Tennessee remembered that, “after our bands had ceased playing, we could hear the sweet refrain as it died away on the cool frosty air.” 

New Year’s Eve dawned cold and gray, with fog and drizzle obscuring the field of battle. On the Union left, General Crittenden’s men prepared to move across Stone’s River and begin the assault on Bragg’s right. As a result, Rosecrans was nearby and focused on Crittenden’s preparations. To the south along Thomas’ line, it was quiet for the most part and men prepared their breakfasts. However, on the far right near his juncture with McCook’s troops, one of McCook’s divisions was preparing to fight. That division was led by General Philip Sheridan. During the night, one of Sheridan’s brigade commanders, General Joshua Sill, brought him word that his pickets had spotted a considerable amount of Confederate activity to his front, and it appeared they were moving toward the far right of the Union line. The two men rode to wake General McCook and tell him what had been observed. McCook quickly dismissed them and the possible threat and went back to sleep. 

But Sheridan remained disturbed and, upon his return to his division’s lines, he ordered his staff to quietly rouse the men, give them a quick breakfast, and then get them into line of battle. Sheridan next walked the line personally to ensure every regiment was in-place and ready for what he suspected might be a Confederate attack. As the deep black of night steadily turned to a gloomy, opaque, misty gray, McCook received additional reports of movement along his line. Finally, he issued orders to his other divisions to make preparations for an attack, but it was too little and too late. 

Minutes later, the soldiers on McCook’s far right saw dark, shadowy figures quietly approaching through the dense mist. Suddenly, the figures merged into a long, seemingly unending line, and the morning calm was suddenly broken by the shrill cry of the Rebel yell. That yell came from 11,000 Confederates under Hardee. They smashed into the Federal right flank, shooting men down as they ate their breakfast with their rifles out of reach. There was a brief flurry of hand-to-hand fighting, but McCook’s men began to flee in panic towards the rear and the Nashville Turnpike, three miles away. Some Federal regiments tried to make a stand but, unsupported and isolated, they also soon broke for the rear. Within 30 minutes, two of McCook’s brigades ceased to exist. 

Nearby, Sheridan’s division along with Sill’s fought back and, with the loss of those two brigades, the Union right had bent back inward. Four Confederate brigades attacked the new flank but they stubbornly held. Eventually they too gave ground, but Bragg’s attack was starting to lose momentum. Then, Polk began his attack on the Union center, in an attempt to prevent any support from going to McCook, but this assault was conducted in a piecemeal fashion and George Thomas’ men turned them back, inflicting a great number of casualties. 

Meanwhile, Rosecrans could hear the steady thumping of artillery to his right along with a steady cascade of rifle fire. However, despite the bad reports coming in, he did not seem concerned. Finally, when McCook sent a message pleading for reinforcements, Rosecrans realized the magnitude of the disaster on the Union right. He ordered Crittenden to cease his advance and sent troops to bolster Sheridan and Sill. 

The fighting on the Union right continued unabated as Hardee pressed both Sheridan and Sill back. Soon, dead horses and soldiers, smashed artillery, and burning wagon littered the fields northwest of Murfreesboro. Because the ground contained so much limestone, blood did not soak into the soil. Rather, it gathered on the ground in pools, both large and small, dotting the landscape and adding a ghoulish quality to an already nightmarish scene. 

Sheridan’s division fought especially hard as the former went everywhere to personally direct his men. This soon became a necessity, as he lost all three of his brigade commanders before noon. By 10:00 a.m., the Federal line had been pushed back into a V-shape, with the left side facing east and the right facing west. Sheridan’s division manned the apex of this reformed line and, given that they formed a salient, the Confederate attacks now came from both sides. He organized a skillful withdrawal, all the while maintaining a tight hold on the Union units on either side. And, while this V-shaped line was vulnerable, it also allowed Rosecrans to quickly shift his forces wherever they were needed, which he did with great energy and skill. 

William Rosecrans on Horseback
A romantic image of William Rosecrans at the Battle of Murfreesboro, January 2, 1863
Library of Congress

That morning, Rosecrans exercised a brand of personal courage and leadership typically reserved for corps and division commanders. He rode all about the battlefield, asking for reports, giving succinct orders, and providing encouragement where needed, and it was much need on that cold, bloody morning. On the left, he rode up to Colonel William Price, whose brigade was positioned along the river to prevent any Confederate crossing attempts. Rosecrans shouted at Price, “Will you hold this ford?” Price replied, honestly, “I will try, sir!” Rosecrans shouted even louder, “Will you hold this ford?” Price replied, “I will die right here, sir!” Still not satisfied, Rosecrans shouted once more, his voice filled with emotion, “Will you hold this ford?” The young colonel responded, “Yes, sir!” 

By midday, the Union apex had shifted to an area known as the Round Forest, a small hill of limestone punctuated by dense cedar groves, and the right was aligning along the Nashville Turnpike. But Rosecrans continued to strengthen his line, sending units wherever they were needed most, no matter what brigade or division they belonged to. As Hardee’s assault lost all its energy due to a steadily mounting casualty toll, Bragg ordered Polk to renew his attacks, focusing on the Round Forest. There, his men were met by a staggering punch issued by Colonel William Hazen’s brigade. Polk continued to hammer away at Hazen and Rosecrans poured reinforcements into what became known as Hell’s Half-Acre. By 1:00 p.m., Polk’s men were spent and Bragg called for Breckinridge to send him four fresh brigades from across the river. 

As Bragg waited on Breckinridge’s men, Rosecrans and Thomas further reinforced the Round Forest, bringing in every available piece of artillery. At 4:00 p.m., the first two of Breckinridge’s brigades moved into the line opposite the Round Forest and awaited Polk’s orders, as well as the arrival of the remaining two brigades. However, under pressure from Bragg, Polk elected not to wait and launched the assault with two instead of four brigades. The men marched smartly across the field, now littered with hundreds of bodies from the previous attacks. The newly arrived Union artillery quickly opened fire, blasting huge gaps in the advancing lines, but they kept coming forward. When the Confederate line reached a range of only 50 yards, Hazen ordered his infantry to open fire. The results were devastating. Breckinridge’s men fell by the dozens and the entire attacking line staggered to a halt, then broke to the rear amid a hail of rifle and artillery fire. One regiment lost 47 percent of its men and many others suffered more than 30 percent casualties. 

One would think this could have convinced Bragg of the futility of another attack, but he refused to change his mind. When Breckinridge’s other two brigades arrived, he ordered Polk to sacrifice them as well. It is little wonder that some officers questioned Bragg’s sanity at this point. By now, the Federal artillery in the Round Forest numbered more than 50 guns and, as the assault was renewed, their crews fired as fast as they could reloaded. The second Confederate attack got no farther than its predecessor and the results were nearly identical. Nothing was gained and nothing was proven except for the bravery of Breckinridge’s men. 

At one point, Rosecrans and his staff were close to the action, observing the defense of the Round Forest. With him was Colonel Julius Garesché, his aide and his closest friend from his cadet days at West Point. In fact, it was Garesché who convinced him to convert to Catholicism. As the fighting raged in front of them, a round of solid shot from a Confederate cannon roared past within inches of the commanding general’s head. As it flew by him, it hit Garesché in the face. He was immediately decapitated, and his headless body stayed in the saddle for 20 paces before pitching off the horse to the ground. Rosecrans rode on, his uniform covered with Garesché’s blood, unaware of what happened behind him. Later, when he was told about his friend’s death, he quietly said, “Brave men die in battle. Let us push on.” However, no matter his words, Rosecrans was deeply affected by his comrade’s death. After the battle, he carefully cut the buttons from his uniform and placed them in an envelope marked, “Buttons I wore the day Garesché was killed.” He would carry that envelope with him the rest of his life. 

With sunset, the sounds of battle quickly faded and gave way to the moaning of the wounded. The cold, dark, blustery night was filled with the sight of lanterns floating between the two lines, as men from both sides attended to the wounded and dying. 

Rosecrans held a meeting of his commanders to discuss the next day’s action. Old Rosy asked them if they should retreat, but at that moment, George Thomas, who had been napping, suddenly awoke, looked around him with a fierce gaze and said, “This army does not retreat.” With that, the issue was settled and the Army of the Cumberland would stay and fight. 

Bragg, however, was flush with victory. He was certain Rosecrans would limp back to Nashville during the night, and he sent an urgent telegram to Jefferson Davis trumpeting his success: “The enemy has yielded his strong position and is falling back. God has granted us a happy New Year.” So convinced was Bragg of his victory, he went to bed that night without making a single adjustment to his line of battle. As far as he was concerned, the Battle of Stone’s River was over. 

When the dawn of the new year of 1863 arrived, Bragg was greeted not by the sight of an empty field before him, but, rather, by the same blue lines of infantry that had been there the night before. Bragg stood paralyzed with shock and when his generals came to him seeking orders, he had none to give. Instead, he sunk into a sort of mental lethargy, issuing orders for menial tasks as opposed to crafting a new strategy. Later in the day, he ordered Breckinridge to resume his original position across the river, but that was the extent of his leadership for the day. That night, he continued to seek signs that Rosecrans was finally withdrawing, but they did not come—the Union army was not simply going to go away as he hoped. 

The next morning, Bragg, upon finding the enemy still in his front, ordered an artillery bombardment to see if it might provoke a response. He wanted to see just how committed Rosecrans was to holding his position. When the Federal artillery answered in kind and more so, he had his answer. After fretting about a course of action, he decided to try to place his own artillery on high ground east of the river in front of Breckinridge. This would allow him to pour a potentially devastating fire into the Union left flank, which might drive Rosecrans out of his positions. Bragg order a reconnaissance of the area and, when the scouts returned, they told him that the high ground he wanted for his artillery was already in possession of a Union division. Bragg decided to order Breckinridge to take the ridge and called the Kentuckian to his headquarters. When he was told of his assignment, the former vice president protested in anger, telling Bragg that his men could not possibly take such a strong position. Exhibiting both his intransigence and his dislike for Breckinridge, Bragg told him that his Kentucky soldiers had suffered the least thus far and now it was their turn to prove their worthiness. 

Breckinridge again protested the order, telling Bragg that he had personally seen the Federal emplacements and they could not be taken by direct assault. Bragg angrily told him, “Sir, my information is different. I have given an order to attack the enemy and expect it to be obeyed!” With that, the discussion was over. 

When Breckinridge returned to his men and told them what had been ordered, General Roger Hanson, commander of the Orphan Brigade, exploded in anger, and proposed that he go to the headquarters and shoot General Bragg. Breckinridge prevailed upon him not to do so, and, instead, to go prepare his command for the attack. 

At 3:00 p.m., as Breckinridge massed his men for the assault, Rosecrans observed the activity and sent reinforcements across the river. More importantly, he also moved additional artillery onto the west bank of the river, where they could cover the Union defenders. By the time Breckinridge began to move forward, Rosecrans had assembled 58 guns on the high ground facing east. 

Breckinridge's charge
Breckinridge's charge was raked by musketry and artillery from the front and flank.
Library of Congress

An hour later, Breckinridge’s men started to advance across nearly 600 yards of open ground into the teeth of a Federal division and a mass of supporting artillery. Despite the heavy defensive fire, the Kentuckians never faltered, moving ever closer, and finally pouring over the Union lines. The blue-clad defenders fell back in disorder and, after 30 minutes of fierce fighting, Breckinridge’s men had accomplished an objective they believed was impossible, but rather than stopping to dig in and hold, they foolishly pressed forward in pursuit of the fleeing Yankees. It proved to be a fatal error. 

As soon as the retreating Union troops were out of the way, the 58 Federal guns west of the river opened fire on Breckinridge’s still advancing line. Blasting away at better than 100 rounds per minute all together, they simply slaughtered the Kentuckians. Within minutes, the entire flow of the battle had changed. As the Southerners turned to retreat back up the slope of the hill, Crittenden ordered infantry reserves forward, driving the Orphan Brigade back across the hill they had just taken and into the fields they had just crossed so bravely. Seeing the sad remnant of the Orphan Brigade returning, Breckinridge broke down, sobbing, “My poor Orphans! My poor Orphans! My poor Orphan Brigade! They have cut it to pieces.” 

That night, amid another cold, driving rain, Bragg called a meeting of his key commanders. After some spirited discussion, they could not reach a decision on how to next proceed. However, on the morning of January 3, Bragg became convinced that his army was beyond its limits, and at 10:00 a.m., he ordered a withdrawal and the Battle of Stone’s River was over, at last. 

The battle was hailed as a major victory in Washington, while President Davis and General Bragg suffered not only a defeat, but one made an embarrassment by Bragg’s premature announcement of victory on New Year’s Eve. Middle Tennessee was now lost to the Confederacy, and Lincoln had a victory to counterbalance the recent defeat at Fredericksburg. Bragg remained in command of the Army of Tennessee both because Davis could not stand the loss of face he would suffer if forced to dismiss Bragg, and also because there simply was no one else for the job. Bragg and his commanders continued to fight harder against one another than they ever did against the enemy until he was finally relieved of command following the Union breakout at Chattanooga in November 1863. 

For William Rosecrans, Stone’s River was the high point of his entire career. Even when he later had to relieve Rosecrans of command after Chickamauga, Lincoln remembered the timely victory at Stone’s River. Writing to Rosecrans after his dismissal from command of the Army of the Cumberland, the president said, “whilst I remember anything, that about the end of last year and the beginning of this, you gave us a hard-earned victory, which, had there been a defeat instead, the nation could scarcely have lived over.”