Stones River Campaign, Tennessee

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Stones River Battle and Campaign: Tennessee and Civil War

Stones River Campaign, Tennessee

(A.K.A. Murfreesboro)

Stones River Campaign, Tennessee: Dec 15, 1862, to Jan 10, 1863

When General Halleck took command of the Federal army in the
field, after the battle of Shiloh, and saw it raised to a
strength of more than 120,000 men, while the Confederate army
under Beauregard at Corinth was not even estimated at more than
70,000, and was really much smaller, he ought to have moved
promptly against the Confederate army, with a view to capturing
or destroying it. In not doing so he violated what von der Goltz
considers the first principle of modern warfare: namely, that
''the immediate objective, against which all our efforts must be
directed, is the hostile main army.''

Halleck made the little town of Corinth his main objective, and,
no doubt, congratulated himself that he got possession of it
without a battle, after spending a whole month with his large
army in advancing twenty-two miles. Corinth's only military
importance consisted in the fact that it was at the junction of
two important railways.

After reaching Corinth Halleck still had a chance of overtaking
Beauregard's army and forcing it to fight; but he halted his main
army, and contented himself with sending a small force to follow
the Confederates a short way. Then Halleck gave up all thought
of destroying this force of the enemy, and broke up his own large
army, scattering it in detachments along the Memphis and
Charleston Railway. In doing this he probably acted under orders
from Washington. In starting Buell off to Chattanooga we know
that he was carrying out instructions from Washington. ''To this
movement'' President Lincoln ''had always attached an importance
far in excess of its real consequence, if the matter be
considered from a purely military standpoint; his sympathies were
excited by the sufferings of the Unionists in that region
[East Tennessee], and he also deemed it very desirable that
the United States Government should show itself capable
of affording succor to those who claimed its protection.''

But in ordering Buell to rebuild and repair the Memphis
and Charleston Railway as he progressed, Halleck placed upon him
a handicap that defeated the object of the enterprise. It
so hindered him that Bragg not only reached Chattanooga with
the Confederate army ahead of him, but had time, also, to plan
and begin an invasion of Kentucky. And in ordering and
expecting Buell to use the Memphis and Charleston Railway as his
line of supply, Halleck imposed upon him a condition impossible
for him to fulfil with the troops at his command. It would
have taken Buell's whole force adequately to guard this railway
and keep it open from Corinth to Chattanooga. The railway ''ran
on the boundary between the territory which had just
been conquered and the'' unconquered ''hostile region south of it,
and. . . was therefore exposed to interruption in every mile of
its course'' by the Confederate cavalry, and partisans, and
the inhabitants of the country. With such leaders as Morgan
and Forrest to contend with, it even taxed the Federals to
their utmost to keep the railways open in their rear, through
country wholly conquered, and garrisoned by Federal troops.

In the operations of the cavalry under Morgan and Forrest
and Wheeler in Tennessee and Kentucky we find examples of
successful raids, like those of Stuart in Virginia. Later in the
war we shall find several cavalry raids that were dismal
failures, such as Morgan's raid in Ohio, Stuart's in Pennsylvania
during the Gettysburg Campaign, Stoneman's in Virginia during the
Chancellorsville Campaign, Kilpatrick's upon Richmond in 1864,
Stoneman's upon Macon, Georgia, during the Atlanta Campaign, and
Wilson's in Virginia during the operations round Petersburg. The
first were made in friendly country, while the latter were all
made in hostile country. It may then be laid down as a rule,
that a cavalry raid covering many miles of country and a
considerable length of time must, in order to achieve success, be
made in a country whose inhabitants are friendly. To succeed in
hostile country such a raid must be made under exceptional
circumstances, like those under which Grierson's raid was made in
Mississippi, during the Vicksburg Campaign, or Wilson's in
Alabama in 1865, etc.

The halt of Buell's advance against Chattanooga caused
by Forrest's breaking up the railway at Murfreesboro, in July, as
well as that caused by Morgan's destroying the tunnel at
Gallatin, a few weeks later, shows how dependent an army is upon
its line of communications. True, commanders have been known to
cut loose from their bases, as Scott did in his campaign against
the City of Mexico, and as McClellan did in the retreat from the
Chickahominy to the James, and as Grant did in the Vicksburg
Campaign; but in every such case the commander, like McClellan,
must expect to gain a new base before the supplies in his trains
become exhausted, or he must expect to live off the country, like
Scott and Grant.

When an army finds its communications menaced by the enemy it
must fall back to recover or protect them; or it must concentrate
and either attack the enemy or seize his communications. When,
therefore, it became known to Buell that Bragg was moving against
the Louisville and Nashville Railway, that was enough in itself
to make him fall back into Kentucky. But he also had another
reason-a political reason; so, too, the chief motive of Bragg's
invading Kentucky was political and not military. Questions of
politics cannot be separated from war; they cause every war; they
govern the conduct of every campaign; they fix the terms of every
peace. The political motive of Bragg's invasion of Kentucky was
to encourage such an uprising among the citizens of the State
favorable to Secession as would place the State in the
Confederacy; the political motive of Buell's retreat into the
State was to hold it for the Union.

Yet from a purely military point of view, also, Bragg's advance
to Munfordville was good strategy and well managed. By
threatening Nashville, Buell's secondary base, Bragg made Buell
believe for a time that Nashville was his objective; thus
he detained the Federal army long enough to enable him to beat
it in the race for Munfordville. He had captured Munfordville
and was in possession of it when Buell was still at Bowling
Green; he was, therefore, squarely across Buell's line of
communications. Bragg, strategically, had every advantage of
position over Buell. He was not concerned about his own
communications with Chattanooga-he had no railway connection with
that place nor other line than the long, miserable roads by which
he had marched. If defeated at Munfordville he would fall back
upon Lexington, Kentucky, where Kirby Smith had gathered a large
quantity of stores. So it mattered nothing to him that his army
at Munfordville faced toward its original rear. The case was
quite different with Buell. He was already deprived of his
communications with Louisville, his only base of supplies. He
was obliged to recover them soon; even if he could have collected
provisions in the country for his army he could not have left the
city of Louisville, with its great depots of public stores, to be
captured by the enemy. The consequences of defeat for Buell
would, therefore, have been very serious.

But Bragg's position athwart Buell's communications gave him no
tactical advantage over his adversary; if he had attacked Buell
he would have found it as hard to win a victory as it would have
been if Buell's communications had been straight behind the Union
army. Yet to make sure of his strategic advantage, Bragg had
either to attack and win, or else leave a force to ''contain''
Buell's army, and with the bulk of his own army capture
Louisville. But Bragg did not feel himself strong enough for
either of these projects; and Kirby Smith's army was a hundred
miles away and not under his command. Although he and Smith were
cooperating with each other, they were mutually independent of
each other. There was lack of a single supreme commander in the
theater of war at the critical moment. General Wheeler, in his
account of the campaign, says: ''Nothing was therefore wanting in
Kentucky but absolute authority in one responsible commander.
Cooperation of the most cordial character is a poor substitute.
The word cooperation should be stricken from military
phraseology.'' ''It was another instance of the folly, which both
the Union and the Confederate governments were so constantly
committing, of having more than one commanding officer in one
theater of war.''

Bragg could not remain at Munfordville many days waiting for
Buell to attack him in his chosen position. He was out
of supplies, so had to move toward Lexington. And having
cleared the way and let Buell pass on to Louisville, where he
received large reinforcements and reorganized his army, Bragg
and Kirby Smith had nothing left to do but to retreat into
Tennessee. From the political as well as from the military point
of view their invasion had proved a failure. The proclamations
to the people had been in vain; they had brought about no
uprising in favor of Secession. The Secessionists went through
the form of installing a Confederate governor at Frankfort, and
Bragg was away at that empty ceremony, when he might better have
been with his army, just before the battle of Perryville. That
battle ''was an accidental encounter of two armies, rather than a
pitched battle.''

The North and the South were both disappointed at the outcome of
the campaign in Kentucky; the North thought Buell ought not to
have let Bragg's army escape, but ought to have destroyed it; the
South thought Bragg had achieved a great victory at Perryville
and ought to have followed it up instead of retreating. The
press of the two sections respectively condemned the two
commanders; and the governments at Washington and Richmond
yielded to the dictates of the press. Buell was replaced by
Rosecrans. Referring to this incident Ropes says: ''It cannot be
doubted that the cause of the Union was seriously injured by
withdrawing Buell from the command of this army. Buell was as
able a general as any in the service.'' Bragg was not removed;
General Joseph E. Johnston was sent to his headquarters with
orders to relieve him, but was prevented by circumstances from
carrying out the order. So Bragg was left in command.

Hardly had Rosecrans taken command of the Army of the Cumberland
when he began to receive harassing letters from Halleck, who was
now general-in-chief at Washington. About the 6th of December he
received such a letter. ''The President,'' said Halleck, ''is very
impatient at your long stay in Nashville. . . . Twice have I
been asked to designate some one else to command your army. If
you remain one more week at Nashville I cannot prevent your
removal. 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.'' To this letter General
Rosecrans sent a reply for which the country and all its future
commanders owe his memory a debt of gratitude. ''I reply,'' said
he, ''in few but earnest words. I have lost no time. . . . 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-
that is, my whole duty. If my superiors have lost confidence in
me they had better at once put some one in my place and let the
future test the propriety of the change. I have but one more
word to add, which is, that I need no other stimulus to make me
do my duty than the knowledge of what it is. To threats of
removal or the like I must be permitted to say that I am
insensible.'' He did not move within a week, and he was not
relieved from command.


The excellence of the work of Bragg's cavalry in the last phase
of this campaign-the operations extending from Nashville to
Murfreesboro-has already been noticed. This cavalry did equally
as good service on the advance into Middle Tennessee and
Kentucky, and during the retreat from Kentucky. Of a truth, it
would be hard to find in the annals of modern warfare any better
cavalry work. Colonel David Urquhart, a member of Bragg's staff,
in a narrative of the campaign, says, concerning the retreat from
Kentucky: ''General Wheeler with his cavalry brought up the
rear-fighting by day and obstructing the roads at night. Before
the pursuit was abandoned at Rock Castle that officer was engaged
over twenty-six times. His vigilance was so well known by
the infantry that they never feared a surprise.''

On the other hand, Buell's army was so lacking in the number and
quality of its cavalry as to be at a great disadvantage. Bragg
was kept informed by his cavalry scouts of the movements of every
part of Buell's army, while Buell was left in ignorance of
Bragg's movements. Buell ''had again and again applied to the
Government to remedy'' his deficiency in cavalry, ''but in


In the first place, why was the main part of Bragg's
first defensive position, or rather his ''position in readiness,''
taken on the west side of Stones River? Certainly a stronger
position would have been one on the east side of the river with
the town either in the first line or as a rallying point. On
this side a shorter line would have covered all the roads
converging on the town; it would have had a clearer field of fire
in front of it; it would have had the river in its front as an
obstacle for the enemy, rather than in its own rear. If
Murfreeshoro had been in the enemy's country Bragg would
undoubtedly have taken his position on the east side of the
river. As it was he wanted to save the town from the horrors of
battle; so he put his line as far in front of it as he could,
without uncovering the convergent roads.

Rosecrans had 47,000 men, and Bragg had only 38,000-why, then,
did Bragg attack instead of waiting in his intrenchments for
Rosecrans to attack him? He knew that Rosecrans would attack-it
was for this that Rosecrans had marched from Nashville. The
answer is found in Bragg's ''personal equation.'' Almost any other
general would have waited, but it was Bragg's nature to attack
whenever he saw a chance of victory. He was naturally
aggressive. He believed in getting in the first lick. In this
case he hoped to defeat Rosecrans before all of the National
troops could reach the battle-field.

This was the second battle of the war in which the plans of the
hostile commanders were practically the same. At the First Bull
Run Beauregard meant to attack the Union left, while McDowell
purposed turning the Confederate left. In each case the
commander that was first to move threw his opponent on the
defensive. At Stones River each commander selected his
opponent's right flank, instead of his left, to attack, for the
reason that he was thereby better able to cover his own
communications. If either of these commanders had chosen the
other flank he would have fought with his army faced to
a flank.

That the right wing of the Federal army was beaten and driven
back in the early stages of the battle was undoubtedly due to the
faulty position of that part of the line, and to poorly performed
outpost duty. McCook knew on the afternoon of the 30th December
that the Confederate line was extending beyond his right, and he
so informed Rosecrans. Rosecrans then said that he thought the
line ought to face more nearly south; but he left the matter to
McCook, and the direction of the line was not changed. McCook
should have turned his line so that his right would have extended
along the southern edge of the thicket whose corner rested on
Overall Creek, about three quarters of a mile due south of the
crossing of Wilkinson Turnpike.

''Few battles,'' says Ropes, ''have been fought which have better
exhibited the soldierly virtues than the battle of Murfreesboro
or Stones River. The Confederate assaults were conducted with
the utmost gallantry and with untiring energy. They were met
with great coolness and resolution. . . . The Confederates had a
right to claim a victory, for they had taken twenty-eight guns
and about 3,700 prisoners. Still, the Federal army was, for all
practical purposes, as strong as ever. The truth is, the
Confederates were not numerous enough to complete their

The tactics were, in general, good on both sides. The units
of troops were brought into action in the proper order and
manner; gaps in the line were filled, and supports put in
promptly. The artillery, especially on the Federal side, was
employed most effectively. Bragg's army fought the battle almost
as he had planned it; but not quite. And the little departure
from his plan was fatal to his success. He purposed using
Breckinridge's division as his general reserve; but Breckinridge
failed to send it over the river, when ordered to do so at the
crisis of the battle. Finally when he did send over his
division, Polk made the mistake of assaulting with a part of it,
instead of waiting for the whole division to cross; and he was

Source: American Campaigns Vol. I, p. 321

Recommended Reading: No Better Place to Die: THE BATTLE OF STONES RIVER (Civil War Trilogy). Library Journal: Until now only three book-length studies of the bloody Tennessee battle near Stone's River existed, all old and none satisfactory by current historical standards. This important book covers the late 1862 campaign and battle in detail. Though adjudged a tactical draw, Cozzens shows how damaging it was to the South. Continued below.

Not only did it effectively lose Tennessee, but it completely rent the upper command structure of the Confederacy's major western army. Valuable for its attention to the eccentric personalities of army commanders Bragg and Rosecrans, to the overall campaign, and to tactical fine points, the book is solidly based on extensive and broad research. Essential for period scholars but quite accessible for general readers. 

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Recommended Reading: Six Armies in Tennessee: The Chickamauga and Chattanooga Campaigns (Great Campaigns of the Civil War). Description: When Vicksburg fell to Union forces under General Grant in July 1863, the balance turned against the Confederacy in the trans-Appalachian theater. The Federal success along the river opened the way for advances into central and eastern Tennessee, which culminated in the bloody battle of Chickamauga and then a struggle for Chattanooga. Continued below.

Chickamauga is usually counted as a Confederate victory, albeit a costly one. That battle—indeed the entire campaign—is marked by muddle and blunders occasionally relieved by strokes of brilliant generalship and high courage. The campaign ended significant Confederate presence in Tennessee and left the Union poised to advance upon Atlanta and the Confederacy on the brink of defeat in the western theater.


Recommended Reading: CIVIL WAR IN WEST SLIP CASES: From Stones River to Chattanooga [BOX SET], by Peter Cozzens (1528 pages) (University of Illinois Press). Description: This trilogy very competently fills in much needed analysis and detail on the critical Civil War battles of Stones River, Chickamauga and Chattanooga. Continued below...

"Cozzens comprehensive study of these three great battles has set a new standard in Civil War studies....the research, detail and accuracy are first-rate." Mr. Cozzens' has delivered a very valuable, enjoyable work deserving of attention. The art work by Keith Rocco is also a nice touch, effecting, without sentimentality...historical art which contributes to the whole.

Recommended Reading: Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862. Review: The bloody and decisive two-day battle of Shiloh (April 6-7, 1862) changed the entire course of the American Civil War. The stunning Northern victory thrust Union commander Ulysses S. Grant into the national spotlight, claimed the life of Confederate commander Albert S. Johnston, and forever buried the notion that the Civil War would be a short conflict. The conflagration at Shiloh had its roots in the strong Union advance during the winter of 1861-1862 that resulted in the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee. Continued below…

The offensive collapsed General Albert S. Johnston advanced line in Kentucky and forced him to withdraw all the way to northern Mississippi. Anxious to attack the enemy, Johnston began concentrating Southern forces at Corinth, a major railroad center just below the Tennessee border. His bold plan called for his Army of the Mississippi to march north and destroy General Grant's Army of the Tennessee before it could link up with another Union army on the way to join him. On the morning of April 6, Johnston boasted to his subordinates, "Tonight we will water our horses in the Tennessee!" They nearly did so. Johnston's sweeping attack hit the unsuspecting Federal camps at Pittsburg Landing and routed the enemy from position after position as they fell back toward the Tennessee River. Johnston's sudden death in the Peach Orchard, however, coupled with stubborn Federal resistance, widespread confusion, and Grant's dogged determination to hold the field, saved the Union army from destruction. The arrival of General Don C. Buell's reinforcements that night turned the tide of battle. The next day, Grant seized the initiative and attacked the Confederates, driving them from the field. Shiloh was one of the bloodiest battles of the entire war, with nearly 24,000 men killed, wounded, and missing. Edward Cunningham, a young Ph.D. candidate studying under the legendary T. Harry Williams at Louisiana State University, researched and wrote Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862 in 1966. Although it remained unpublished, many Shiloh experts and park rangers consider it to be the best overall examination of the battle ever written. Indeed, Shiloh historiography is just now catching up with Cunningham, who was decades ahead of modern scholarship. Western Civil War historians Gary D. Joiner and Timothy B. Smith have resurrected Cunningham's beautifully written and deeply researched manuscript from its undeserved obscurity. Fully edited and richly annotated with updated citations and observations, original maps, and a complete order of battle and table of losses, Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862 will be welcomed by everyone who enjoys battle history at its finest. Edward Cunningham, Ph.D., studied under T. Harry Williams at Louisiana State University. He was the author of The Port Hudson Campaign: 1862-1863 (LSU, 1963). Dr. Cunningham died in 1997. Gary D. Joiner, Ph.D. is the author of One Damn Blunder from Beginning to End: The Red River Campaign of 1864, winner of the 2004 Albert Castel Award and the 2005 A. M. Pate, Jr., Award, and Through the Howling Wilderness: The 1864 Red River Campaign and Union Failure in the West. He lives in Shreveport, Louisiana. About the Author: Timothy B. Smith, Ph.D., is author of Champion Hill: Decisive Battle for Vicksburg (winner of the 2004 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Non-fiction Award), The Untold Story of Shiloh: The Battle and the Battlefield, and This Great Battlefield of Shiloh: History, Memory, and the Establishment of a Civil War National Military Park. A former ranger at Shiloh, Tim teaches history at the University of Tennessee.


Recommended Reading: Shiloh: The Battle That Changed the Civil War (Simon & Schuster). From Publishers Weekly: The bloodbath at Shiloh, Tenn. (April 6-7, 1862), brought an end to any remaining innocence in the Civil War. The combined 23,000 casualties that the two armies inflicted on each other in two days shocked North and South alike. Ulysses S. Grant kept his head and managed, with reinforcements, to win a hard-fought victory. Continued below…

Confederate general Albert Sidney Johnston was wounded and bled to death, leaving P.G.T. Beauregard to disengage and retreat with a dispirited gray-clad army. Daniel (Soldiering in the Army of Tennessee) has crafted a superbly researched volume that will appeal to both the beginning Civil War reader as well as those already familiar with the course of fighting in the wooded terrain bordering the Tennessee River. His impressive research includes the judicious use of contemporary newspapers and extensive collections of unpublished letters and diaries. He offers a lengthy discussion of the overall strategic situation that preceded the battle, a survey of the generals and their armies and, within the notes, sharp analyses of the many controversies that Shiloh has spawned, including assessments of previous scholarship on the battle. This first new book on Shiloh in a generation concludes with a cogent chapter on the consequences of those two fatal days of conflict.

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