This Day in History… December 31, 1862

Battle of Stones River

Item #M11555 – Tuvalu sheet honoring the Battle of Stones River.

On December 31, 1862, the Battle of Stones River (also known as the Second Battle of Murfreesboro) began in Middle Tennessee.

In November 1862, Confederate General Braxton Bragg and his army of Tennessee took up a defensive position along the Stones River near the former state capital of Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  Some of his units were sent to help defend the important river fort in Vicksburg, Mississippi, leaving Bragg with a force of 35,000 men.  The Confederate goal was to block the Union Army from advancing on Chattanooga.

Meanwhile, Union Major General William Rosecrans had replaced Don Carlos Buell after the previous commander refused to pursue a retreating enemy force.  Rosecrans was ordered to occupy eastern Tennessee and moved his Army of the Cumberland to Nashville.  The day after Christmas, the Union march began in pursuit of Bragg’s forces.

Item #MA741 – Civil War Adversity Cover.  Click the image to the neat history behind these covers.

Rosecrans arrived on December 30, after being harassed along the way by Confederate Cavalry.  The two camps were about 700 yards apart.  In the evening, bands from both sides began playing patriotic songs.  After a while, one band played the opening notes of “Home Sweet Home,” and the other bands and thousands of soldiers from both sides joined in.

By morning, the sense of unity was gone as both sides prepared for battle.  Bragg and Rosecrans both planned to attack the enemy’s right, get behind them and cut off supplies and reinforcements.  The Confederates surprised the Union early in the morning, while the Northern troops were still eating breakfast.  Northern artillery batteries were captured without firing a shot, and one division lost over half its men.

US #787 pictures Civil War Generals William T. Sherman, Ulysses S. Grant, and Philip Sheridan.

Major General Philip Sheridan had anticipated an early morning attack, so his unit was ready for the Confederate strike in the center.  Sheridan’s men held off three charges and slowed the South’s advance.  In four hours of heavy fighting in a cedar forest that became known as “The Slaughter Pen,” Sheridan lost over one-third of his men, including three brigade commanders.

Item #20083 – Philip Sheridan commemorative cover.

The Union Army was forced back to a defensive position along the Stones River.  Bragg was certain he had won the battle and sent a telegram to Richmond stating, “The enemy has yielded his strong position and is falling back…God has granted us a happy New Year.”  Instead of planning a retreat, Rosecrans held a council of war that night and decided to stay and fight.  He ordered a division to cross the river and place artillery on the heights above.

Item #MA1708 – One-of-a-kind Flag of Truce Civil War cover.

New Year’s Day was spent resting and tending to wounded.  Bragg expected Rosecrans to retreat, but the Union General reinforced his position.  By the next afternoon, Bragg decided to attack again.  The Union artillery on the banks of the river rained down on the approaching troops and sent them back.  A Union counterattack followed quickly to end the day of fighting.

On the morning of January 3, the Union Army was reinforced with fresh troops and supplies.  Realizing his disadvantage, Bragg withdrew his forces to Tullahoma, Tennessee, 36 miles to the south.  Rosecrans led his men to Murfreesboro to occupy the Confederate town.

Sierra Leone #2470-77 – Collection of Sierra Leone stamps honoring the Civil War.

Rosecrans claimed victory at Stones River because Bragg withdrew from the battle.  President Lincoln congratulated the general in a letter saying, “You gave us a hard-earned victory, which had there been a defeat instead, the nation could scarcely have lived over.”  The Union controlled Middle Tennessee for the remainder of the war, and Murfreesboro became a supply depot for the North.  There were over 24,000 casualties from the 76,000 men who fought.  It had one of the highest percentages of dead and wounded of any major battle of the Civil War.

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