In late December 1862, Union and Confederate forces clashed at the Battle of Stones River, near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, during the American Civil War (1861-65). On December 31, Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s 35,000 troops successfully attacked the 42,000-strong Union force commanded by Major General William Rosecrans. Union troops withstood the assault, but retreated to a defensive position, which they would hold against repeated attacks over the next two days. On January 2, 1863, another Confederate assault was repelled by overwhelming Union artillery fire, forcing Bragg to order a Southern retreat. With approximately 23,000 total casualties, Stones River was one of the deadliest battles of the war. Rosecrans claimed victory and the battle provided a much-needed boost to Union morale following their defeat at Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Prelude to the Battle of Stones River

The end of 1862 found Major General William Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland in Nashville, 30 miles north of General Braxton Bragg’s troops. Rosecrans (1819-98) had assumed command of the army only in October, with the understanding that he would attack Bragg (1817-76) and drive the Confederates from central Tennessee. This move was delayed throughout the fall by John Morgan’s cavalry, who harassed the Yankees and threatened their supply line. Finally, the day after Christmas, Rosecrans moved his force south to meet Bragg.

Did you know? In September 1863, William Rosecrans, who led Union forces to victory at the Battle of Stones River, suffered a major loss to Braxton Bragg and the Confederates at the Battle of Chickamauga in Georgia.

Battle of Stones River Begins

The armies collided along Stones River on New Year’s Eve. Facing a larger Union force (42,000 Union soldiers to 35,000 Confederates), Bragg launched an attack in bitterly cold morning fog against the Yankees’ right flank. The attack was initially successful in driving the Union back, but the Yankees did not break. A day of heavy fighting brought significant casualties, and the suffering was compounded by the frigid weather. The Confederates came close to winning, but were not quite able to turn the Union flank against Stones River. The new year dawned the next day with each army still in the field and ready for another fight.

The strike came on January 2, and the Confederates lost the battle. Bragg attacked against the advice of his generals and lost the confidence of his army. The Union troops repelled the assault, and Bragg was forced back to Tullahoma, Tennessee. The North was in control of central Tennessee, and the Union victory provided a much-needed morale boost in the aftermath of the Yankees loss at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. Stones River was a hard-fought, bloody engagement, with some of the highest casualty rates of the war. The Union suffered approximately 13,000 troops killed, wounded or captured, while the Confederates had approximately 10,000 casualties. President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) later wrote to Rosecrans, “…you gave us a hard victory which, had there been a defeat instead, the nation could scarcely have lived over.”