January 2, 1863 (Friday)
Sometimes, you just need to take a break. After a hard day of work, a long day’s journey, or after ten straight hours of seeing thousand of your comrades slaughtered by the enemy, it’s understandable to step back and assess the situation.
At Stones River, Tennessee, that’s basically what both Union General William Rosecrans and Confederate General Braxton Bragg did. After the first day of battle, both opposing Generals had plans to renew the next day. But, aside from some minor scrapes, neither did.
During the night following the bloodletting, Rosecrans constricted his lines, giving up the Round Forest his men had given their lives to defending. On the 1st, Confederates under Leonidas Polk, took the woodlot without a fight.
As dawn lit up the 2nd of January, Confederate artillery roared to life. The fire was accurate and intense. Though it lasted only thirty minutes, it make short work of much of the Union artillery.
And then the battlefield was plunged into an eerie silence. While Rosecrans shifted some troops, Bragg sent scouts to suss out the Federal position. It was unchanged, but one a single division that had crossed to the east side of Stones River. From this position, they commanded and enfiladed the line of Leonidas Polk.
It was then that Bragg made up his mind to attack. Though he had suspected that Rosecrans’ Federals were about to retreat, he was now rightly convinced that retreat wasn’t on his mind at all. Rosecrans, it seemed, wanted Bragg to attack him. And so he would oblige.
Breckinridge was the man for the job. Well, Breckinridge and 6,000 infantry, 2,000 cavaliers, and ten pieces of artillery. Around 3:30pm, the Rebel guns again let loose their fury. This time, it was a diversion. The attack was to hit the Union left, but the artillery assault was on the center.
At 4pm, when nothing happened, many Federal officers figured that the obvious attack had been canceled. They saw Rebel troops shifting, but saw no lines of battle and nothing that would indicate a fight.
That is, nothing upon the center. Suddenly, and without even a hint of warning, Breckinridge’s 6,000 burst screaming from the woods in two precise lines. The Union pickets and skirmishers were brushed aside without a thought. When the Rebels hit the Federal division, it held for but a few minutes and then broke.
Witnessing this flight, Rosecrans grabbed any nearby unit he could find to throw at the unstoppable mass. Within reach was a battery of artillery and a brigade of pioneers, more suited for digging trenches than battling Rebels. Soon, however, he found two addition brigades and much more artillery.
By the time Breckinridge’s Division reached the east bank of Stones River, ready to cross, they were met by a murderous explosion of musketry and cannon fire from as many as fifty-eight guns. As a whole, the division reeled, and was stopped. A few, perhaps only a dozen of the 6,000, made it across the river.
In reply, the Federals launched their killing blow – a counterattack that hit Breckinridge on his right, sending the deflated Rebels scrambling in confusion. Bragg did what he could to stabilize his line and cover the retreat, but the short battle was over. It left 1,200 or so Confederates dead and wounded in its wake.
The rain, combined with the dark, which was now upon them, stopped Rosecrans from following up with any major strike. Through the night, the rain fell as the armies again rested.
Around 3am, Bragg was awoken by a messenger carrying a letter from several of his generals. They were asking for – almost demanding – a retreat. Of his twenty infantry brigades, only three were in any condition to carry on the fight.
For the time being, Bragg was not about to retreat. They would, as he informed General Polk, “maintain our position at every hazard.”
By noon the next day, however, he would be singing a different song.
((Sources: Days of Glory by Larry J. Daniel; No Better Place to Die by Peter Cozzens; Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, Vol. 1 by Grady McWhiney; Stones River by James Lee McDonough.))