When Second-Best Generals Fight



Can you hold your present position for three hours?”

Major General William Rosecrans put that question to his right wing commander, Major General Alexander McCook, the day before battle.

McCook casually answered, “Yes, I think I can.” They knew they were facing a Confederate army nearby. McCook ordered his rightmost units to build campfires that night, extending far to the right of his actual line, hoping to fool Confederate Lieutenant General Braxton Bragg into thinking he was facing greater numbers.

The Battle of Stones River was a bloody struggle over an ill-chosen battlefield. Bragg could have picked higher ground behind the Duck River, farther south. That would have made a Union attack more difficult. But no, Bragg concentrated his army around Murfreesboro, Tennessee, with the bulk of two corps west of Stones River. The hills that dominated the landscape went overlooked. Instead the fight would be scattered around a mix of cedar woods, occasional hills, and a few farms.

“In few other battles were the characters of the commanding generals so completely eccentric,” wrote historian Peter Cozzens. He had a point. Neither Bragg nor Rosecrans could be called the sharpest knife in the drawer.

Robert E. Lee easily eclipsed Bragg, his winning streak standing in stark contrast with Bragg’s inability to win a battle. Lee had already notched several victories around Richmond and the decisive wins at Second Manassas and Fredericksburg. Bragg only had his loss at Perryville, Kentucky, made worse by his talent for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Worse, Bragg was a strict disciplinarian, remembered by his contemporaries as too quick to find fault with his subordinates, who were not shy in finding fault with Bragg behind his back.

Ulysses S. Grant also overshadowed Rosecrans. Grant had wins scored at forts Henry and Donelson as well as at Shiloh. Rosecrans served under Grant after Shiloh and proved a slow and diffident subordinate. At Iuka, Mississippi, Rosecrans failed to do his part to trap a larger Confederate force in a pincer movement with a second Union force under Grant’s remote command. Thus Rosecrans failed to earn Grant’s confidence.

Subordinates and contemporaries recall Rosecrans as being harsh on some officers under his command, but that never got to the men in the line. Whether it was in battle or in camp, the troops always saw Rosecrans, and he made damn sure they had everything they needed. He would drive the War Department crazy, firing off fifteen or twenty telegrams a day, demanding more men, supplies, and horses. In reply, the War Department always demanded that Rosecrans take action. He was even threatened with relief if he persisted in waiting for “the right moment.” By late December, he heeded the call of his superiors and advanced his army of 47,000 south from Nashville to face Bragg with 38,000 men at Murfreesboro.

Bragg and Rosecrans both planned to launch major attacks on their left against their enemy’s right. So it was with some urgency that Rosecrans asked McCook: can you hold? Rosecrans sought a breakthrough on the left to take Murfreesboro. He needed his right to hold steady.

McCook said yes and went back to doing nothing. He never did ride the length of his line to make sure all the units of his command were properly posted, all brigades in line, ready to defend. One brigadier was so sloppy that he had only two of his five regiments actually facing the enemy.

As two of McCook’s division commanders snoozed that night, a third perked up. Brigadier General Philip Sheridan took to heart the worries of one of his brigade commanders that “something might happen,” given Confederate activity beyond his front. Sheridan reinforced that troubled brigadier’s position with two regiments and roused his division to readiness before sunup.

Off to Sheridan’s right, the groggy Federals got a rude awakening at 6:30 A.M. on December 31, 1862. A gray mass of Confederate infantry poured out of the tree line several hundred yards away. Formed up in ranks, the division of Major General John P. McCown came crashing into the disorganized division of Brigadier Richard Johnson’s division, holding the extreme right of McCook’s line.

Johnson’s division slowly disintegrated. As men fell in greater numbers, each brigade would falter and fall back to the rear. This would unpeel the line, exposing the flank of the next brigade, which would also fall back to avoid being attacked from its vulnerable side. Eventually, Johnson’s division retreated in disorder.

The right flank of Brigadier General Jefferson Davis’s division became uncovered. The same sequence repeated itself, as units seeing their right flank exposed fell back to re-form their lines, only to fail rallying. Retreat turned into a rout as regiments, then brigades, sought the safety of the rear.

By 8 A.M., Rosecrans’s right flank was collapsing. Then Sheridan’s division became the thin blue line that must hold back the gray wave, lest it sweep away an entire army. Rosecrans’s plan to launch a major attack with his left wing became moot.

The battle was going all wrong.

Sheridan Stands Firm

McCown’s division belonged to Lieutenant General William Hardee’s corps, whose morning attack kicked the divisions of Johnson and Davis like battered tin cans. The division of Major General B. F. Cheatham, belonging to Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk’s corps, formed up to support that attack by taking a whack at Sheridan’s line, which threaded its way through a scruffy stand of cedars. Cheatham sent three brigades piecemeal at 8 A.M., each hitting different sections of Sheridan’s position. A pair of Union artillery batteries caught the Confederates in a crossfire, ripping bloody holes in their advancing ranks.

Cheatham sent in his fourth—and last—fresh brigade to breach Sheridan’s line, to no effect. By failing to attack with all four brigades at the same time, Cheatham allowed Sheridan to shuffle his regiments and batteries to meet each crisis separately. Sheridan gave ground in good order and again reordered his line, but he looked with worry at his right. Union units still streamed back, uncovering his flank. No one was rallying the broken brigades. It was only 9 A.M.

Sheridan made sure he was seen by his men, and in turn controlled his battle. McCook, the corps commander, was nowhere to be seen. He’d be spotted, now and then, among the fleeing mob of blue. His order was inspiring: fall back.

Rosecrans knew none of this. He was at his headquarters, far away from seeing failure. He received one generic message from McCook seeking reinforcements, to which Rosecrans replied with a generic “hold your ground.” But a staff officer delivered the second report, telling Rosecrans his right flank was collapsing. That was when Rosecrans sprang into action like an unguided missile.

Rosecrans was excitable in a crisis, often issuing a stream of orders, many of which were contradictory. But he made a couple of good decisions early, despite being in a jabbering near-panic. He committed Major General Lovell Rousseau’s reserve division and the army’s Pioneer Brigade to form a line behind Sheridan’s right, giving the position some strength and depth. Next, Rosecrans abandoned his planned attack on his left with the wing commanded by Major General Thomas Crittenden. The movement across Stones River was halted, while Rosecrans pulled two brigades from this force to become the new army reserve.

By 10 A.M., Sheridan’s line looked like a V, his right flank pulled back as far as it would go. McCook showed up and ordered a brigade to the rear, uncovering a section of line. That stupid move allowed Polk’s corps to overrun a Union artillery battery that had helped hold the line all morning. By 11 A.M., Sherman reluctantly pulled his division out and fell back. But Rousseau’s division was in line, ready to block the next attack. Hardee was not going to score his outflank easily. He pushed McCown’s division to attack, looking to get around Rousseau’s right, but Rosecrans checked the move by slotting in his last two reserve brigades to extend Rousseau’s line. Sheridan lined up his division on Rousseau’s left, while Major General James Negley’s division fell in by Sheridan’s left.

Bragg’s Punch Loses Force

Now Bragg had to reinforce Hardee’s slackening attack. Posted across Stones River on his right was the division of Major General John Breckenridge, just south of a series of hills that Bragg and Rosecrans overlooked. (Too bad: they offered commanding views of the battlefield.) Bragg ordered Breckenridge to release two of his four brigades and march them over to Hardee as reinforcements. But Breckenridge feared a suspected Union attack on the Lebanon Pike off on his right. He kept the two brigades.

By noon, Major General George Thomas, commanding the Union center, got word from Sheridan that his division was running low on ammo and needed to pull out of line to replenish. That withdrawal created another gap. Hardee tried to push his corps between Rousseau’s and Negley’s divisions. Always calm in a crisis, Thomas pulled back these two divisions to higher ground and made a stand. One brigade under Colonel William Hazen held fast near the Round Forest, blunting further attacks. It was the only unit of the day not to give ground.

Rosecrans’s line was holding. It was sloppy, running at a right angle to the line originally held in the morning, with both flanks resting on Stones River. Johnson’s and Davis’s divisions were rallied on the right. Sheridan now had a new position behind them. Confederate cavalry was picking off Union supply trains. But the northern men were holding.

By 4 P.M., Breckenridge figured out that no Union troops were heading toward him. He sent the two brigades to Polk for an attack against the Union line. But Polk rushed them piecemeal into the fray. Like Cheatham’s attacks earlier in the day, the unsupported brigades got cut down to no purpose.

The sun set on a messed-up battle that neither Bragg or Rosecrans fully controlled. Neither could deliver the killing blow.

Happy New Year

As midnight approached, Rosecrans rang in the New Year with a council of war with his generals. Accounts vary about the meeting. “There is no better place to die,” Thomas reportedly said as he favored holding. In the end Rosecrans decided to stay and fight rather than quit and run. Both armies spent New Year’s Day doing nothing, hungover from the previous day’s battle. Only Polk launched one attack, trying to push through Thomas’s section of line, but to no effect.

Come January 2, Bragg decided to renew the battle on his right. Breckenridge’s division was the freshest unit left, despite Polk’s mishandling of its two brigades earlier in the battle. Bragg ordered the division to assault north into the chain of hills now held by a Union division. Breckenridge obeyed with gritted teeth, knowing his command would be mauled, but he would do his best. The attack drove the Union back, almost succeeding. But on the west bank of Stones River, upon a hill with a good view, the Union posted a gun line forty-five pieces strong. The artillery let go, shredding Breckenridge’s left flank. The division fell back.

That night, it was Bragg who took counsel of his fears. Believing that Rosecrans was about to be reinforced, he ordered his army to withdraw southward to Tullahoma. One brigadier protested, noting that all of the Union’s troops in Tennessee were there at Murfreesboro. Rosecrans had nothing left to draw on. But Bragg clung stubbornly to his illusion. The Confederates withdrew, thus giving up the last meaningful remainder of Tennessee to the North.

Each side suffered about 12,000 casualties. But the Union could make good its losses. The South could not. Credited with a meanly won victory, Rosecrans provided some needed political boost to the Lincoln administration, which was eager to prove that the victory at Antietam was no fluke and that emancipation was no empty promise.

Rosecrans did not pursue Bragg, but instead kept his army at rest, building up another horde of replacements, horses, and supplies to fuel his next advance, months away.

Bragg, meanwhile, wallowed in recriminations. He had lost the confidence of his officers before Stones River, and so the call to replace him was taken up again. Subordinates spoke out of turn, communicating through back channels to the Confederate press or to President Jefferson Davis himself about how an army of lions was being led by a chicken. But Bragg had the one vote that mattered, and that was Davis’s. Bragg would stay in command, and the dysfunctional agony of his army would continue. Victory muted the same internal discord inside the Army of the Cumberland . . . for now.


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