December 31, 1862 (Wednesday)
As the chilly dawn broke over Stones River, Union General William Rosecrans could hear the sounds of musketry on his right flank. This, he thought, was perfect. All was going according to plan. He was mistaken, but we’ll allow him to live in blissful ignorance for a little longer.
The plan was for his right, under Alexander McCook, to make a demonstration against the Confederate left, holding it in place while he brought the center and left of his Army of the Cumberland around the right flank of the Confederate Army of Tennessee, Braxton Bragg commanding.
Maybe McCook was a little early, but still, it was better than late. When a cavalry scout rode up to his headquarters to inform him that the Army’s right flank was collapsing, Rosecrans snuggled down into his bliss and promptly ignored the news. When McCook himself sent a courier bearing similar bad tidings, Rosecrans began to consider that all was not as it seemed.
“Tell General McCook to contest every inch of ground!” exclaimed Rosecrans before retreating again into this security blanket that was his original plan. “If he holds them, we will swing into Murfreesboro with our left and cut them off.”
In Rosecrans’ defense, McCook did leave out the parts which involved three of his brigades being routed or in retreat. Still, for over an hour, the great cacophony of battle rang out to his right as reports of the deaths and capture of generals filtered into his head quarters.
Before long, two of McCook’s three divisions were in a rapid retreat. With this, it finally dawned on General Rosecrans that Bragg and his Rebels had beaten him to the fight. The rest of his army was en route to his left flank, marching away from the battle, to be in position to launch the attack that was part of Rosecrans’ original plan. He ordered two of those divisions to break off an bolster McCook on the right. Rosecrans, to his credit, joined them.
The scene before him was horrifying. Thousands of his men were in retreat, while thousands more Confederates were advancing in parade-perfect lines, the screams of hell in the throats.
Rosecrans’ redemption came quickly. He threw together a new line of defense, even placing artillery throughout. The Rebel flank attack was now threatening his supply trains. These had to be saved. Stragglers and the survivors of the initial attacks were reformed and held as reserves.
The Union General became an omnipresent god on the battlefield, seemingly being everywhere at once. He did not panic or lose his temper. He was a calming force to his rattled men, displaying courage and daring in the face of so much killing and dying. He personally led ammunition wagons to the units in need and placed artillery where it would be most effective.
By noon, the entire Union line was doubled back uponon itself in the shape of a V. The right was holding against the heavy Rebel assault, but was now backed up against the Nashville Pike – the Union line of supply and retreat. If it fell, Nashville was all but taken.
At the apex of the V, a small clump of trees known as the Round Forest, was held by a single brigade under William Hazen. The Confederates repeatedly pounded the four acre copse, but could not break the Union line. As the Rebels attacked in a broken, piecemeal fashion, other Federal units would nip at their exposed flanks, sending them tumbling back to their main lines or capturing entire companies en mass. Rosecrans was in the Round Forest, as well, doing as he had done through most of the day.
On the Confederate side, General Braxton Bragg realized that his attack was losing precious momentum. He resolved to attack the Union left with John Breckinridge’s Division. Breckinridge, however, was convinced that the Yankees were about to fall upon him and declined the offer. Bragg, figuring Breckinridge knew what he was talking about, decided to do without.
But then, after the repeated failed attacks against the Round Forest, Bragg could no longer do without and ordered Breckinridge forward. After a few hours of insisting there was a large Union force before him, Breckinridge moved out to discover his error.
By this time, Bragg had changed his mind. No longer did he want Breckinridge to advance upon the Union left, but to join with Leonidas Polk for a grant assault upon the Union center at the Round Forest. He wasn’t fully convinced that Polk could break the Union center, but he figured that it would force Rosecrans to draw reinforcements from the right, making it easier to gain the Nashville Pike.
Bragg was wrong. Or, at least, Polk was not up to the task. Around 2pm, Polk attacked. He did not, however, attack with everything he had. He sent his troops in piecemeal so they could be easily mauled, bit by bit.
When Breckinridge finally arrived, several failed assaults had already devastated Polk’s command. He went forward anyway and was beaten back all the same. The carnage was terrible and nothing was gained.
Around 4pm, a call for reinforcements came from William Hardee, who commanded the original assault on the Union right. By this point, Bragg had no reinforcements to send. Hardee refused to order another attack against the battered Yankees defending the Nashville Pike, knowing it would fail.
When darkness came, General Rosecrans called a council of war. Stories differ as to what was said and how it all took place, but in the end, the Army of the Cumberland would not retreat.
General Bragg was convinced that he had won the day. The Yankees were falling back, he wired Richmond. All the ground they originally held with their lines was in Rebel hands. This wasn’t technically true, but it had a nice ring to it. Bragg had lost 9,000 or so men, almost a third of his army. Somehow he figured that Rosencrans had lost more.
Both Generals decided that they would attack the next day. Neither did. Both would test the water only to find it too hot. Any concerted effort to kill their fellow man would have to wait for yet another day.
((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.))