By Dale Thomas
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2001, 2008, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in the winter of 2001.
The Battle of Stones River took place between December 31, 1862 and January 2, 1863. The fighting started as it had at Shiloh, the previous spring, and the casualties were similar. On the morning of New Year’s Eve, the Confederate attack surprised the Federals who were still eating breakfast. The map shows the course of the fighting during that first, bloody day. The next day saw little significant fighting, but there was no celebrating of New Year’s Day. The two armies held their ground and tended to the wounded and dead.
On the third day, Thomas and McCook remained in position, while Crittenden was now across the river, occupying the high ground in front of Breckinridge. Hardee and Polk were approximately where they had been at the end of fighting on the first day. Surprised that Rosecrans had not withdrawn, Bragg ordered Breckinridge to attack Crittenden. Overwhelmed and outnumbered, Crittenden’s forces retreated back across the river, but Federal artillery, high above the western bank, fired shot, shell, and canister on the Confederates who fell back after suffering heavy losses. The three-day battle ended with the Federals reoccupying the heights on the east side of Stones River.
Although tactically indecisive, the Battle of Stones River was strategically a victory for the Union. The casualties on both sides totaled over 23,000 wounded, missing, and dead. After Bragg’s withdrawal from Murfreesboro, Rosecrans’ army was now in control of middle Tennessee. In need of good news after the defeat at Fredericksburg, Lincoln wrote to Rosecrans:
“(Y)ou gave us a hard-earned victory, which had there been a defeat instead, the nation could scarcely have lived over.”
In the Preface of his book, Stones River – Bloody Winter in Tennessee, James Lee McDonough wrote: “I was born, raised, and have lived most of my life within thirty miles of Stones River. Nevertheless, I had visited many of the famous battlefields of the Civil War before I ever tramped around the lines at Murfreesboro.” An understanding of the author’s comments can be most appreciated if you visit the battlefield today. Unlike Shiloh, where the isolation from urbanization has preserved the natural terrain, the diminutive site of Stones River has lost most of its historic topography.
Stones River National Battlefield contains only 570 acres of the nearly 4,000 acres that make up the original battleground. The land within the National Park is traced on the map with broken lines. The largest area includes the National Cemetery, where nearly half of the 6,000 dead are unknown, and the site where Thomas, commanding the Federal Center, stopped the Confederate attack on the first day. To the northeast, a smaller parcel of land contains the site of the Federal artillery that was so decisive on the last day.
What remains of Fortress Rosecrans, constructed after the battle to guard supply lines, is preserved in an area in the southeastern portion of the map. It was the largest earthen fortification built during the Civil War, but today only a remnant of the 14,000-foot wall has survived.
Almost 140 years after the battle, the land immediately to the west of the National Park is gradually being developed. The region to the south is still relatively empty, but if you travel east on the Wilkinson (Manson) Pike, the “Battleground Estates” occupy the position held by Polk at the start of fighting on the first day.
Murfreesboro’s commercial and residential development has claimed a large portion of the battlefield east of the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad tracks (CSX Transportation). Beneath the urban sprawl lies much of the ground where Breckinridge lost 1,800 dead and wounded soldiers to Federal artillery. The Hazen Monument, oldest intact memorial of the Civil War, stands near the Round Forest and alongside railroad tracks that divide past from the present — gas stations, car dealerships, and fast food restaurants.
The Battle of Stones River was tactically a draw. Nevertheless, in August of 2000, urbanization, the result of Yankee commercial and industrialization since Reconstruction, appears to be the clear winner as you leave the National Park and drive north to Interstate Highway 24.
Stones River National Battlefield
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