December 30, 1862 (Sunday)
On Christmas Day, Braxton Bragg learned that his Confederate Army of Tennessee was soon to receive the unwelcome gifts given by Yankees under William Rosecrans, his force of 35,000 had been spread out around Murfreesboro, Tennessee in a thirty-five mile smattering. Immediately, he began to concentrate along a three mile arc covering the roads leading into the town from the northeast to the southwest.
The line, which anchored its center along the Nashville Pike, was several hundred yards in front of shallow Stones River. As of this time, the river was fordable, but should it rise and Bragg found the need to retreat, he’d have a slaughter on his hands.
This wasn’t his only problem. The terrain itself wasn’t suited for defense. Most of the area north of Murfreesboro was flat open farmland speckled with dense dark woodlots perfect for hiding the Federals as they approached. Further, Bragg did not have his men (or even his slaves) dig entrenchments. He believed that an entrenched army was a demoralized army. Apparently he hadn’t received the news from the east about how Lee’s victoriously entrenched Army at Fredericksburg was anything but demoralized.
But it was Murfreesboro, the town like a hub on a wagon wheel, that needed to be saved. It was his supply depot and if it fell, it would give a clear and open road to Eastern Tennessee.
With his army mostly consolidated by the 27th, he sent Joe Wheeler’s Cavalry on a Jeb Stuart-like raid to circumnavigate Rosecrans’ entire force. It wasn’t just a joy ride, however. Wheeler stymied the advancing blue columns, burned over 400 supply wagons, captured over 600 Yankees, nearly as many horses, and several thousand arms.
When Wheeler returned with his bounty, it was clear that he had thrown Rosecrans’ advance into a tizzy. Bragg had been expecting an attack all day on the 29th, but none came. And so on this date, he decided to go on the offensive.
Before Bragg was Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland. When in Nashville, it had been over 80,000-strong. But due to being forced to leave division after division behind to guard his supply line from the marauding Rebel cavalry under the likes of John Hunt Morgan and Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Union force had dwindled to a mere 41,000.
His march towards the Rebels at Murfreesboro was a trying one, sprinkled with cavalry raids, misinformation and ill communication. His columns were spread out and the Rebel army wasn’t where it had been when they started – Bragg had concentrated along Stones River.
Finally, his Army of the Cumberland was in a line of battle three miles long, more or less facing off against Bragg’s Army of the Tennessee. Though the country was wide open, the woodlots hid much of the array. It was only through scouts and spies that Rosecrans discovered that the right flank of his army ended in about the center of Bragg’s line.
As night fell, he ordered his right-most division, under Alexander McCook, to set as many campfires as he could right of his line and around Bragg’s left flank. It was a time-honored ruse that usually paid big dividends.
It did little to still the anxious heart thumping wildly in McCook’s chest. He believed with the faith of a Presbyterian that Bragg would attack him at dawn.
This was a valid fear, as it was the Union right that Bragg wanted to attack. Through the night, Bragg massed on his left (the Union right), sending William Hardee’s Corps to bolster the corps under Leonidas Polk, already there.
The plan was for the bulk of his army – all but John Breckinridge’s Division – to assault the Union right flank at dawn. They would attack with a right wheel, pivoting on Polk’s right flank and Breckinridge’s left. Such a move would look beautiful upon an open parade ground. But in a scene such as this, it had little place. The land was wide, but bisected with streams and thick woods.
Coincidentally, Rosecrans was thinking the same thing, more or less. He wasn’t brash enough to start with a right wheel, of course. First, he would brush aside Breckinridge’s Division. Then he would attack by wheeling most of his army around the exposed Rebel flank.
Should everything work perfectly, by this time the follow day, Bragg would be in Rosecrans’ position and Rosecrans would be in Bragg’s. Of course, very little would work perfectly.
((Sources: Days of Glory by Larry J. Daniel; Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, Vol. 1 by Grady McWhiney; No Better Place to Die by Peter Cozzens; Stones River by James Lee McDonough.))