Close this search box.
Close this search box.

Battle of Murfreesboro & Its Implications In The Central War Theater

Battle of Murfreesboro & Its Implications In The Central War Theater

US Civil War

From my to-be-published “All Hell: America’s Civil War, A Military History – Volume II, Transitions”, the conclusion of the terrible battle of Murfreesboro, and its implications in the central war theater:

Braxton Bragg

“Tomorrow, Bragg determined, he would finish the job if the Federals stayed on his front, or pursue them if they withdrew. He had captured twenty-eight guns and hoped for more. The normally dour North Carolinian wired Jefferson Davis from Murfreesboro: “ . . . God has granted us a happy New Year”. But Bragg did little to reorganize his lines, and Murfreesboro in the rear was a chaos of wounded and stragglers from the battle. And in a nighttime conference with his exhausted corps commanders, Rosecrans decided to hold on, for a victory might yet be possible. Though ammunition and rations were scarce due to the predations of Wheeler, the next few days would remedy the situation. Thomas in particular was adamant for staying, though Crittenden vacillated and both McCook and Stanley were inclined to counsel retreat. Rosecrans reluctantly abandoned Round Forest, which had cost many lives, but the move shortened his line, and he issued orders to strengthen the ranks in front of the Nashville Pike with whatever trenches and works could be scratched from the freezing ground. He and his Army of the Cumberland would stay.

Dawn of the new year 1863 came in quietly.

Except for the inevitable cries of agony from the field. Polk discovered that the Federals were off Hell’s Half Acre and the Round Forest, and occupied it. But a mild probing attack thereafter was met with fierce resistance, and Polk broke it off quickly (See Map 115). The same occurred when Hardee’s battered corps sent skirmishers up to Sheridan’s lines; it was painfully obvious to Bragg that Rosecrans was in no mood to withdraw. In fact, he sent Van Cleeve’s division over the same Stones River fords previously employed, in accordance with at least a small portion of his original plan. Van Cleeve having been wounded, Col. Samuel Beatty was in command, and his men dug in on some commanding ground facing Confederate pickets and a token force left by Breckinridge. All this forced Bragg to return that division to the east bank before nightfall, and Breckinridge again occupied the hills north of Murfreesboro. Except for the useless casualties already suffered, it was as if he had never left.

Other than this, Bragg seemed to have few ideas. He waited all day for any signs indicating a Union retreat. More skirmishing in the late afternoon accomplished nothing. Again, he was gripped by the indecisiveness that had last struck him before the battle at Perryville. True victory, seemingly within his grasp a day before, now eluded him. In the night more reports flowed in: Wharton, who had been sent off by Wheeler with two cavalry brigades to attack Lavergne, which had become a Union supply center, did not accomplish his mission but reported various trains moving northwest. Wheeler interpreted this to mean that Rosecrans in fact would retreat on the morrow, and at this Bragg seemed to shake off some of the doubt. In the morning he would order Breckinridge to drive Beatty from his post, occupy the hill, and place artillery where it would command Rosecrans’ rear. Were this not enough, Polk’s corps would advance from the Round Forest and the battle would begin again.

It was another restless, cold, painful night, with the Army of the Cumberland again holding grimly to its positions. There was little sleep but considerable noisy skirmishing, especially on the east side of Stones River. But the wounded were attended to, more efficiently than at Shiloh, all the mixed and disorganized regiments were reunited with their brigades, and Crittenden placed some sixty guns just across Stones River from Beatty’s position in support. As January 2 dawned, Bragg waited awhile for signs of Union retreat, in vain again as another cold rain fell, then ordered a substantial barrage by Polk’s guns. The result was only more carnage among his own artillery, which were replied to by accurate Union fire along Crittenden and Thomas’ lines. Afternoon came, and the only option left seemed to be to loose Breckinridge upon Beatty. By now, Bragg thought, enough Federal guns had been placed across the river under Beatty to be a danger to his center; how he could have believed that they would not be even more devastating against Breckinridge is hard to understand. The Kentuckian had probed Beatty’s strong line early on. Despite his own outraged protests and against Bishop Polk’s advice, the attack would go on; Bragg haughtily observed that Breckinridge’s large division was the least damaged. Two of Withers’ brigades crossed the river in support, though the intermittent rain continued and the river had begun to rise, and by 4 PM all was in readiness (See Map 115).

It became plain that Bragg had underestimated Beatty’s strength. As 4500 Rebels massed in battle line, placed there only under protest by Breckinridge, fifty-eight Union guns began to pepper their ranks. Rosecrans had just moved Davis’ reformed division across in support, and it is likely the attackers were actually outnumbered, breaking one of the cardinal rules of tactics about which Hardee and others had written. Undaunted, the graybacks surged forward amid heavy loss. There was a fierce hand-to-hand struggle, and things looked promising. The Union front line was broken and driven back. Then, in a well-accomplished ruse, Beatty reformed and withdrew most of his men closer to the river, evacuating the crest of the hill Breckinridge’s division was just breaching. This drew the Confederates into a trap, bringing them within range of even more Union guns directly across the way.

The effect was devastating: as Beatty reorganized his division by Stones River, the Rebels were shattered by massed fire from several directions, and Breckinridge’s force recoiled in confusion back over the hill. Over 1700 further casualties had been taken in less than an hour, and Beatty, aided by reinforcements, was able to recoup his ground and even counterattack (See Map 115). Among the heaviest losses were among the all-Kentuckian brigade which Breckinridge had first commanded long ago; and they had become known as the Orphan Brigade for their un-seceded origin.

Bragg, fearful that this might turn into a general Union offensive, sent the exhausted but still game Cleburne over Stones River to aid Breckinridge as the sun set on the field. Rosecrans, noticing this, ordered Crittenden to reinforce Beatty further, which he did with Palmer’s division. Old Rosy was again all over his lines making improvements. But there was to be no more fury, the troops would return to their positions, and the cold rains upstream put an end to all the maneuvering by covering fords the commanders had previously used. Again sleet and rain fell on the field, increasing the general misery. Bragg was still hopeful during the night, but his subordinates apparently had had enough: Withers and Cheatham even signed a letter encouraging retreat that found its way to the army commanders’ headquarters. Dawn’s light showed Joe Wheeler evidence that far from getting ready to withdraw, Rosecrans was being reinforced: one brigade had arrived down the pike from Nashville, guarding a fresh, 300-wagon supply train of ammunition and rations. More men and medical supplies were on the way. Meanwhile, Rosecrans prepared to bring Beatty, Palmer, and Davis back over the river, which would have given him a preponderance of numbers on the west side. Still in sight of the enemy, the stubborn Yankees there began to fortify their positions. This was enough for Bragg, for it indicated no retreat. Apparently seizing upon any opportunity to save face, he at last announced a withdrawal before sunset on January 3, to the relief of most of his corps and division commanders, handing somewhat of a strategic victory to his opponent.

The slaughter among the pines and farms surrounding Murfreesboro was over. The casualties, similar to those at Shiloh, had been quite incredible.

Originally organized in 1809, in 1861 the 9th Illinois Infantry responded immediately to the call of President Lincoln, a company commander in the regiment during the Black Hawk War. Many of those who mustered in were German immigrants…The 9th was at Shiloh, Tennessee on April 6, 1862 when the Confederate Army of the Mississippi struck at dawn. Some Union regiments fled in panic as Major General U.S. Grant ordered his division commanders to hold at all costs…Sent to reinforce the Union left, the 9th was told “There is going to be plenty of fighting today; there must be no cowards.” South of the Peach Orchard, the regiment was ordered to a tree-choked ravine, and found themselves in a race with Confederates for the same natural barrier. The 9th got there first…Confederate commander Albert Sidney Johnston remarked on the Illinois regiment’s “stubborn stand” as the Arkansas and 29th Tennessee joined the fight. Finally, renewed attacks collapsed the 12th and 15th Illinois on the 9th’s flanks, and with their dead and wounded thick on the ground, the regiment had to withdraw. The 9th suffered 103 killed and 258 wounded on Shiloh’s first day, one of the highest totals of the entire Civil War. Their 90-minute stand helped save Grant’s left, and prepared the way for the great Union counterattack the next day. The proud heritage of the 9th Illinois is carried on today by the 130th Infantry Regiment, Illinois Army National Guard.
Out of only 38,000 men engaged, the Army of Tennessee had lost 1294 killed, 7945 wounded, and 1027 missing, totaling 10,265.

Some 8000 of these men had been lost during the juggernaut launched by Hardee and Polk on December 31, or during the fruitless assaults that had followed in the afternoon. The Army of the Cumberland, having engaged something over 40,000 men, had lost even more severely: 1677 killed, 7543 wounded, and 3686 missing (mostly captured on December 31), totaling 12,906. This amounted to twenty-seven percent of each army, a figure not often reached in the bloodiest battles of the war. Rosecrans’ total losses had actually been higher than Burnside’s at Fredericksburg, and from an army much less than half as large! The fighting so crippled the opposing forces that they would not be able to fight again for a number of months.

Bragg withdrew southeast that night, with the knowledge that Stones River was still rising, and handed the little burg of Murfreesboro, hundreds of wounded, and the field to his adversary. Cleburne and Breckinridge’s troops were the last infantry to depart. Wheeler occupied the trenches just dug by the battered gray infantry, covering their retreat and not leaving until almost dawn on January 4. With the rain still falling, the Army of Tennessee retired behind the Duck River, thirty miles away. Polk occupied Shelbyville on the west, and Hardee reached Tullahoma on the east. The implications of the defeat involving Bragg, Johnston, and President Davis would fester and harm the army further, as Bragg would throw all the blame on his subordinates as usual. There was only the barest attempt at pursuit by Stanley’s cavalry; Rosecrans was feeling lucky simply to have endured the worst Bragg could throw his way. He based his army at newly won Murfreesboro, treated the wounded and sick Confederates as well as his own, began to stock up on depleted supplies, and set in for the winter. Despite the terrible losses, there was a feeling that this army had at last seen a baptism of fire en masse, and had come out untarnished after an initial, ignominious rout on the part of McCook’s wing. The status of leaders such as Sheridan, Palmer, Negley, and Thomas was accordingly enhanced.

Beyond this, the standoff at Murfreesboro (or Stones River as it was known in the North) had changed the strategic balance in Tennessee little, except that Bragg had been forced fifty miles closer to Chattanooga. Other riverine barriers still existed. That this could have been accomplished less bloodily a month or so earlier, when Bragg would have been less ready and was engaged in reorganizing his forces, did not occur to Rosecrans, who had fussed over details for so long. The battle was hailed as a victory in the loyal states, mainly to make up for the disastrous news recently received from Virginia, and a rising peace sentiment in the West was temporarily quieted. Old Rosy earned a heartfelt telegram of thanks from Lincoln, who also commented that had the battle “been a defeat, the nation could scarcely have lived over it”. Whether this had all been worth almost 13,000 casualties along a freezing Tennessee stream was another question, perhaps best answered by the thousands of recent widows and grieving families on farms and in little Midwestern towns. And so, at the same time, Lincoln would also state: “If there is a hell, I am in it”.

Written by Richard Newman

Home Page | My Site Richard Newman Books

My interest in the American Civil War goes deep and far into the past. In high school, history and geography were my best subjects, and I wrote papers on the Battle of Little Big Horn and Pearl Harbor. I read books like “Rifles For Watie” and “The American Heritage Picture History of The Civil War”, with its miraculous battle illustrations by David Greenspan. I attended the University of California at Davis and graduated from U.C. Berkeley, not as a history major but as a geographer and sociologist. Little did I know that geography would influence my writing.

      This endeavor has been a long project, influenced by a battlefield trip in 1976 (the Bicentennial), and by many other factors. A watershed for me was the PBS production of The Civil War, plus the fantastic writings of Shelby Foote, Bruce Catton, and many who have preceded me. In the last decade, the advent of vector mapping programs have allowed me to personally create maps to accompany and be tied to the text of this effort, to an extent that I have not seen elsewhere. I have used many sources, old and new, to convey to the reader the progress of the campaigns and battles therein. Of particular interest to me are the effects of climate and vegetation upon the course of the conflict, and how they affected the common soldier. I am aiming this first volume toward those who would like a single volume covering the war from December 1860 through October 1862, after which the war’s character changed inexorably. Following are two more volumes, Transitions and Endings, where the story continues.

     All that said, I present to you “All Hell: An American Civil War Military History, Volume I, Beginnings”! Your comments and opinions, of course, are valued and expected!

Battle of Murfreesboro & Its Implications In The Central War Theater

US Civil War