Stones River National Battlefield

Location: Murfreesboro, Tennessee

Webpage: National Park

General Description: The year was 1862-1863, the second year of the Civil War, and President Lincoln was desperate for a victory before announcing the Emancipation Proclamation in January.  In early December, General Burnside was pressured to attack General Lee at Fredericksburg to obtain his victory only to be handed a devastating defeat against the entrenched Confederate forces.  General Grant had been unable to obtain a significant victory against the Confederate forces in Vicksburg, Mississippi out west.  Therefore, it fell to General Rosecrans who had recently been put into command of the Army of the Cumberland in Nashville, Tennessee to secure a significant victory.  December is certainly not the best time for major military actions due to the weather and road conditions and Confederate General Bragg’s Army of Mississippi had established winter quarters in nearby Murfreesboro, southeast of Nashville.  On the day after Christmas in 1862, General Rosecrans began moving nearly half of his force, 41,000 soldiers down the Nashville Pike towards the Confederates.  However, he was continually harassed by Confederate cavalry attacking his supplies and reserves in combination with heavy rains greatly slowed his advance.  On December 30, the Union army moved into line two mile northwest of Murfreesboro where they faced an opposing Confederate force of 35,000 soldiers in two lines.  By this point in the war neither side was in the habit of constructing massive defensive entrenchments and General Bragg believed more in the value of decisive offensives rather than holding defensive positions.  As it turned out, both Generals had the same war plan of attacking the enemies right flank, turning it and attacking the rear.  General Rosecrans called for an attack after breakfast, however, General Bragg ordered his at dawn and was the first to attack.  With the majority of General Rosecrans army on his left flank, his right flank was surprised by the charging Confederates during breakfast on December 31, 1862.  The right flank quickly dissolved with Union forces in a panic towards the main forces on the Nashville Pike. By 10 am the Union army was pushed back three miles to the Nashville Pike and railroad.  The Union line now formed two blades of a switchblade with one extending north along the pike and the other extended northeast along Stones River.  The foresight of Major General Sheridan saved the Union army from total defeat as he has his men in position before dawn in the center of the right flank.  Although suffering over a third casualties General Sheridan was able to slow the Confederate advance at “The Slaughter Pen” and allowed the Union to regroup along the pike.   With reinforcements and massive cannon attack the Union was able to stop the Confederates on their right at the “Cotton Field” after suffering heavy casualties of their own.  Meantime, the Confederates also repeatedly attacked the original center of the Union forces along the pike at the “Round Forest” and later called “Hell’s Half-Acre”.  The Union was able to repulse multiple attacks from the Confederates throughout the day.  That night Bragg was certain of his victory and expected Rosecrans to withdraw back to Nashville and sent a telegram to Richmond.  However, Rosecrans decided not to withdraw and ordered Van Cleve’s division to cross the river on the left flank and occupy the heights there protecting both crossing points of the river.  However, the day was relatively quiet as both armies rested up and retrieved their wounded from the battlefield.  On January 2, Bragg ordered Major General Breckenridge to attack Van Cleve’s position on the east side of the river beginning at 4 pm in the afternoon since this position offered a line of cannon fire to the Union batteries along the pike.  The Union forces were forced back across Stones River at McFadden’s Ford, however, once they topped the ridge on the west side of the river they came under heavy cannon fire from over 90 cannons massed together.  The Confederate attack stalled after losing 1800 men in less than an hour and the Confederates retreated.  Following this attempt, Bragg retreated to Murfreesboro leaving the field to the Union.  Thus ended the Battle of Stones River, which both sides claimed as a victory with a horrible toll, the highest percentage loss for both sides during the Civil War and higher in absolute numbers then either Shiloh or Antietam.  Murfreesboro was to become the major supply depot for the Union army with the construction of Fort Rosecrans that straddled Stones River, the Nashville Pike, and the essential Nashville and Chattanooga railroad, which Rosecrans spent the next 5.5 months building.



1) The Visitors Center at Stones River National Battlefield is a small modern structure that houses a modest museum and film about the battle and its aftermath.  This is also the beginning point of the driving tour of the battlefield.  Once again we purchased the CD for the driving tour which added a lot to the understanding of the two day battle.


2) The driving tour begins at the center of Union line on December 30 along the Nashville Pike.  The line extended 3 miles to the right and just over a mile to the left.  There was one interesting story about that night when the various military bands would perform after dark.  You would have opposing songs being played in competition with each other, but when one side began the song “Home Sweet Home” the other side picked up the tune and before long all the military bands on both sides were playing together.  The next day would see heavy casualties and destruction.


3) The next stop on the tour was at the “Slaughtering Pens” which is a field of limestone outcroppings used by General Sheridan to slow the advance of the Confederate on the Union right flank.  While most of the other Union soldiers were still eating breakfast they were routed by the charging Confederates at dawn.  However, Sheridan had prepared his division before dawn for just such an occurrence and occupied the center of the right flank.  With very little cover in these cotton fields, these limestone outcroppings at first provided good cover for stopping the Confederates.  However, they also provided a serious barrier to retreat from when they ran low on ammunition and nearly a third of his division was slaughtered.


4) The next phase of the battle occurred at the “Cotton Fields” which marks the farthest line of the Confederate advance.  At this point they had turned the Union right flank back three miles to the Nashville pike.  However, across these open fields, which are maintained in their Civil War condition by the Park Service, they faced massed Union cannon along the pike and 10,000 Union soldiers coming from their aborted attack on the Confederate right flank.  The Confederates suffered heavy losses as they continued to try and drive the Union back.  It is interesting, since later in the war the Confederates would have dug in at this point rather than trying to advance against the massed artillery and being cut to pieces.


5) The next stop is the location of the Union batteries along the Nashville pike and back to the Visitors Center which provided a perfect opportunity to eat our lunch.  You then proceed back down the Nashville Pike to what is now the point of the Union line since the right flank has been pushed back.  This is the location of the Round Forest which was later called “Hells Half-Acre”.  This was the only Union position to hold that first day of the battle as they repulsed multiple attacks throughout the day.  It is also the location of the oldest Civil War monument, the Hazen Brigade Monument, which was constructed by the survivors from Hazen Brigade that held the Round Forest just six months after the battle.  They were able to construct this monument here so soon after the battle because the soldiers were still in the area constructing Fort Rosecrans.


6) The final stop of the driving tour is at McFadden’s Farm, which is the site of the battle during the evening of January 2.  You can get a sense of what the Confederates were facing with cannon lining the entire length of the ridge while they were attempting to attack uphill from McFadden’s Ford.  You can take a short walk down to what remains of McFadden’s Ford which today is not much with the construction of a major bridge for the US highway over the river at this point.

7) Except for a couple of locations along the Stones River, there is not much remaining of Fort Rosecrans since Murfreesboro has expanded north into the original area of the fort. At 225 acres, Fort Rosecrans was the largest fort built during the Civil War.  Upon completion, it became a center for logistical support for the Union’s push into the South.  The periphery consisted of earthen curtain walls connecting a series of bastions, while the inside was filled with warehouses, sawmills, depots, and barracks.