An extended lull fell over the western armies following the Battle of Perryville in the fall of 1862. Although victorious, Major General Don Carlos Buell lacked the initiative to follow up on his victory and was soon relieved of command by Abraham Lincoln. Major General William S. Rosecrans assumed command of the Army of the Ohio and reconstituted it as the Army of the Cumberland. On September 22, 1862, Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, and the President expected his generals to bring home as many victories as possible by January 1, 1863—when he would officially sign the act—to give this new measure backbone.
The day after Christmas 1862, Rosecrans's Army of the Cumberland departed Nashville with 44,000 men, marching toward Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee at Murfreesboro, 30 miles to the south. The overly cautious and plodding Rosecrans left some 40,000 men in and around the Tennessee capital to guard his communication and supply routes—nearly evening the odds in favor of Bragg.
The two armies gathered on the banks of Stones River on the evening of December 30 within 700 yards of one another. Rosecrans’ army on the northwest side of the river was organized into three wings with three divisions each. Bragg’s 35,000 men were arranged into two corps of infantry.
Both commanders formulated a nearly identical battleplan for December 31: strike their opponent’s right flank. While a portion of Rosecrans’s army would have to cross the river to accomplish this goal, the Confederates faced no such problem, and at 6 a.m., Maj. Gen. William J. Hardee’s corps smashed into the Union right flank. The Federals were sent reeling backward, and many Union cannon fell into Confederate hands. The stout resistance of Maj. Gen. George Thomas’s wing, the omnipresent Rosecrans, and the failure of Bragg’s army to coordinate its attacks saved the Army of the Cumberland from utter destruction.
By the evening of December 31, the Army of the Cumberland was cornered against Stones River, and Bragg crowed to Richmond, “God has granted us a happy New Year.” A hiatus on January 1 gave both sides time to shore up their battle lines. Rosecrans shifted men eastward across the river and established a formidable line along a hilltop. Bragg, too, focused on the east side of the river, and near 4 p.m. on January 2, the Confederate leader renewed his efforts to dislodge the Army of the Cumberland. Men of Hardee’s corps drove many Federals back across Stones River. The Federal line was once again salvaged, this time due to the courageous efforts of Capt. John C. Mendenhall, who positioned nearly 50 cannon hub-to-hub and blasted away at the Confederate attackers. The artillery, coupled with a Union counterattack, proved too much for Bragg’s men.
Braxton Bragg gave up the field on January 3 and withdrew his forces southward to Tullahoma. While Rosecrans held the initiative, his army was so battered from the battle that it would not campaign again for another six months. In the meantime, Rosecrans consolidated his battered army and established a fortified supply base at Murfreesboro, which would serve the Army of the Cumberland later that year in its drive toward Chattanooga.