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withdrawn, Bragg ordered Breckinridge to attack Crittenden.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 out-numbered, 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
|The Battle of
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 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 lays 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 along side 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.
|Thomas L. Crittenden