January 3, 1863 (Saturday)
John Breckinridge’s Confederate division had been slaughtered. It wasn’t merely an attack and retreat – it wasn’t even a simple rout – it was decimation. Nearly a quarter of his men were dead or wounded. The Battle of Stones River, Tennessee was over.
Except Braxton Bragg did not yet know it. At 3am, he had been petitioned by his top officers. A letter bore by a messenger sent to rouse him from his sleep explained that but three out of twenty brigades were ready to fight and it was time to retire. He had decided not to heed their advice. His Army of Tennessee would hold their ground.
Bragg’s answer, it seemed, was the last word on the subject. The Confederate Army would make their stand here. But, like everyone else, Bragg was not actually convinced. Simply, he did not know what to do.
Sometime that rainy night, Cavalry commander Joe Wheeler informed Bragg that the Federals, under William Rosecrans, had been reinforced. Bragg accepted this information without question.
Even later that night (though technically the early morning of this date), one of Bragg’s brigadier-generals, St. John Liddell, asked him what the Army would do next. When Bragg told him that Wheeler reported Union reinforcements, Liddell, who had been on the extreme left flank, flat out denied it.
There was no way Rosecrans had been reinforced, insisted Liddel. But Wheeler had insisted just as frankly that it was true. Liddel denied it again and suggested (almost demanded) that Bragg swing his army between the Union force and Nashville. He was ready to fight. His men, offered Liddel, were ready to fight. All Bragg had to do was give the word.
But no. Bragg had made up his mind (again). He would not attack. He would not hold this ground to the last. He would retreat.
At 10am, Bragg called Generals Polk and Hardee to his headquarters to give them the news. Up to this point, they had officially only known that the army was to make a stand in defense. Unofficially, however, word of a retreat was quickly spreading.
Bragg gave two reasons. The first was that Rosecrans had 70,000 men. The papers of Union General Edwin McCook, whose position was overrun the first day, had been captured. Upon perusal, Bragg discovered Rosecrans to be nearly twice his number. The second reason was Wheeler’s report that Rosecrans had been reinforced.
Neither were true. Rosecrans had at one time had 80,000 or more, but was forced to leave nearly half that number behind. Prior to the battle, he had around 41,000. At this point, he had 28,000 tired and beat up soldiers in the ranks. Bragg, who had 35,000 at the start of the battle had but 23,000 disorganized and disheartened men remaining.
General Liddell had been correct. Rosecrans had received scant reinforcements. But even if Bragg knew how mistaken he was, it probably wouldn’t have changed his mind. His army was whipped. His officers were refusing to fight. It was an utterly hopeless situation.
It’s possible that the reinforcements Wheeler claimed to see was the brigade under James Spears. Only 1,500 in number, they made little difference as far as the battle went. What they brought with them, however, was received like manna from heaven. From Nashville, they brought 303 wagons laden with food. It was enough to feed the entire army several times over.
That night, Spears’ boys, who had already earned their keep, proved themselves on the field. The Rebels, who had not yet retreated, continued to take pot shots from the captured Round Forest. Spears men, accompanied by two additional regiments, formed up and drove the Rebels from the woods.
After that, it was truly over. Bragg ordered the retreat and by the next morning, a sunny Sunday, they were gone.
But where they would go was still a mystery. For the time being, Bragg focused upon Winchester, fifty miles to the southeast. Soon, however, upon discovering that Rosecrans was not pursuing, Bragg cut the distance in half, halting his army at Shelbyville and Tullahoma, where he made his headquarters and to deal with the coming fallout.
((Sources: No Better Place to Die by Peter Cozzens; The Army of Tenenssee by Stanley F. Horn; Days of Glory by Larry Daniel; Stones River by James Lee McDonough; Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, Vol. 1 by Gradey McWhiney.))