Streetwise Professor

December 29, 2017

Remembering a Forgotten Battle: Stones River, 1862-63.

Filed under: Civil War,History — The Professor @ 6:49 pm

New Years Eve day will be the 155th anniversary of one of the forgotten battles of the Civil War–Stones River (styled Murfreesboro by the Confederates). The battle was actually fought over two days–31 December, 1862 and 2 January, 1863. It resulted in almost 25,000 casualties, but was overshadowed by other events. The Union disaster at Fredericksburg on 13 December and the subsequent Mud March fiasco in January–these events took place much closer to the political capital and media centers of the North–attracted far more notice. The destruction of Grant’s supply depot at Holly Springs on 20 December, and his subsequent retreat from northern Mississippi (thereby terminating his first attempt at Vicksburg) and the nearly simultaneous bloodying of Sherman at Chickasaw Bluffs outside of Vicksburg also detracted attention from the battle in middle Tennessee. The indecisive nature of the combat also helped doom the battle to obscurity: there was no real victor, and no major strategic outcome from all the bloodletting.

The 25,000 combined casualties ranks only 6th on that grim list for the Civil War. But it was the bloodiest major battle in proportion to numbers engaged–the percentage loss on both sides was almost one-third of the troops that fought there. In contrast, the loss rate at Gettysburg was about 28 percent. Absolute casualties were larger at the Wilderness, but more than twice as many men fought in that 1864 Virginia battle.

Yet Stones River is obscure. This is unfortunate, and a slight to those who fought there. And fight they did.

Stones River was the middle of three gruesome battles fought between the Army of the Ohio/Cumberland and the Army of Mississippi/Tennessee between 8 October, 1862 (Perryville) and 19-20 September, 1863 (Chickamauga). All three battles demonstrated the offensive prowess of Bragg’s Confederate army. At Perryville, a Rebel offensive pulverized McCook’s corps. At Stones River, the Southern assault wrecked McCook’s Corps again, and did considerable damage to Crittenden’s as well. At Chickamauga, the Confederate onslaught crushed both. Only when Union troops fought behind fortifications were they ever able to withstand an attack by the Army of Tennessee, until that attack was spent.*

But the battles also illustrated the limits of the offensive. The casualty toll suffered by the Confederate attackers, and the disorganization, physical and emotional exhaustion, and chaos resulting from even  successful assaults, made it impossible to sweep the battered Union armies from the battlefield. In each case, it was easier for the defenders to retreat and form a coherent defense than it was for the winded and bloodied attackers to regroup for a final decisive charge.

Moreover, in each battle, stalwart defenses by relatively small Union commands delayed and disrupted the Confederate attacks sufficiently to allow the Union troops to rally sufficiently to avoid annihilation. At Perryville, Starkweather’s brigade performed this vital task. At Stones River, Sheridan’s division held long enough in the cedars to permit Rosecrans to form a final line at the Nashville Pike. Further, Hazen’s brigade held the Round Forest against repeated attacks. At Chickamauga, the stand around Horseshoe Ridge anchored by Harker’s and Vanderveer’s brigades plus the detritus of many Union regiments permitted Thomas to extract the Union army from its parlous position.

And in all three battles, the failure to achieve decisive victory despite driving Federal troops from position after position, set off bitter recrimination’s in Bragg’s army. After Stones River, Bragg and division commander Breckenridge (former Vice President of the US, and eventual Secretary of War for the Confederacy) engaged in a vicious argument over responsibility for Breckenridge’s disastrous assault on 2 January. In the rest of the army there was grave dissatisfaction over the failure to achieve victory. The poisonous atmosphere hamstrung the army for the remainder of Bragg’s unhappy tenure as commander.

The performance of Confederate troops during this and the other two battles is all the more remarkable given the utterly dysfunctional command structure that ordered and led them into battle.

So take a moment to remember this forgotten contest. Those who fought and bled there do not deserve the obscurity that has characterized the battle almost since the day it was fought. It demonstrates the remarkable qualities of the private soldiers and many of the field grade and company officers on both sides–and the extreme limitations of their commanders. It was a soldier’s battle par excellence, and those soldiers deserve recognition for their stalwart performance on two wintery days in middle Tennessee.

*To this I should add the Army of Mississippi’s assaults on the first day at Shiloh, which almost succeeded in driving Grant’s Army of the Tennessee into the river from which it took its name. Van Dorn’s Army of West Tennessee smashed Rosecran’s Army of the Mississippi on the first day of the Battle of Corinth (3-4 October, 1862), and its assaults on the second day pushed back Rosecrans’ right wing into the town: the Union left was heavily fortified, and this allowed it to hold off the attack on its sector.  Some units of Van Dorn’s army, notably Moore’s Texas Brigade and the Missouri  Brigade fought with the Army of Tennessee during the Atlanta and Nashville campaigns. The counterattack of Bowen’s Division at Champion Hill, which almost brought Grant’s army to ruin in that decisive battle, is another example of the striking power of Confederate troops in the Western Theater. Most of the Confederate attacks on the first day at Chickamauga, with the exception of Cheatham’s Division’s assaults in the Brock Field Area, were initially successful, but ultimately indecisive because of the inevitable loss of impetus due to casualties and disorganization. Breckenridge’s attack on 2 January at Stones River also succeeded in smashing the Union left flank across the river, only to be repelled by the massed artillery battery (57 guns firing on the Confederate  front and flank)  assembled by Captain John Mendenhall.

No other army on either side mounted so many successful frontal attacks. (Many of the Army of Northern Virginia’s successful attacks, e.g., Second Manassas, Chancellorsville, were flank attacks, while others such as on Barlow Knoll the first day at Gettysburg or against the Emmitsburg Road on the second day involved a numerically superior force attacking badly positioned Union defenders.)

What accounts for the great shock effect of Confederate infantry attacks in the West? Sheer aggressiveness and elan has to be part of it: even attacks against breastworks that failed (e.g., Franklin, the Battle of Atlanta) were pressed with extreme vigor. (Peachtree Creek and to some degree Ezra Church and Jonesboro were exceptions). I would also surmise that the difference in performance in attacks on unfortified and fortified defenders demonstrates that the attackers’ fire was particularly accurate and heavy. Inflicting heavy casualties while advancing a defending force increased the odds of success. Entrenchments or barricades largely eliminated the ability of the advancing force to render large numbers of the defenders hors de combat.

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  1. I know next to nothing about that war. What did the soldiers die of, largely? Small arms fire? Artillery fire? Disease?

    Comment by dearieme — December 29, 2017 @ 7:01 pm

  2. @dearieme–Disease was the primary killer, accounting for ~60 percent of deaths. As for battle casualties, the vast bulk were from small arms–on the order of 90 percent.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — December 29, 2017 @ 10:45 pm

  3. I’m working my way thru Winston Groom’s “The Generals” when I came across the story of this battle with respect to MacArthur. Douglas MacArthur’s father, Arthur MacArthur was a captain in the 24th Wisconsin. Every mounted officer, except MacArthur, were casualties in the battle. I lived or worked in Chicopee Falls for 40 years, but only a few months ago caught sight of the memorial to Arthur MacArthur in front of the fire station. History is truly never dead.

    Comment by The Pilot — December 31, 2017 @ 1:43 pm

  4. I should add Arthur MacArthur was born in Chicopee Falls, MA.

    Comment by The Pilot — December 31, 2017 @ 1:48 pm

  5. @The Pilot. Interesting. Yes, MacArthur was quite a star during the war, notably at Missionary Ridge and Franklin. Here’s a good photo of him.

    As an aside, the 24th Wisconsin was a new regiment at Stones River, and had the snot kicked out of it multiple times there.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — January 3, 2018 @ 1:15 pm

  6. @The Pilot. I was wondering how MacArthur made it from Chicopee Falls to Wisconsin. I see that his father moved the family there when Arthur Jr. was 4.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — January 3, 2018 @ 9:11 pm

  7. Fine analysis.

    My mother was transferred from Bloomington Illinois to Murfreesboro Tennessee in her job with State Farm in the 1950’s, then moved back to Central Illinois to marry my father. We toured those battlegrounds extensively when visiting Mom’s friends from Tennessee, and heard many battle stories from the descendants of those who fought there. I recall the Union Army having Central Illinois regiments in them, but could be wrong (also recall local lore that the Central Illinois Union Regiment was never defeated in battle).


    Comment by John Powers — January 4, 2018 @ 5:10 pm

  8. @John Powers. Glad you liked the post. Interesting re touring the battlefield.

    Regarding central IL regiments, there were many IL regiments in the battle. I believe only Ohio had more. As for central IL regiments in particular, the two units that recruited most heavily from the Bloomington area specifically–the 33rd and 94th–were not at Stones River. They were in the Mississippi River theater.

    One regiment that was from central-ish Illinois–the 27th–was partially organized in Jacksonville, which is just west of Springfield. It was in Roberts’ brigade in Sheridan’s division, which particularly distinguished itself. Although it was eventually pushed back, it was not defeated and dished out far more punishment than it received, repulsing multiple Confederate attacks. It also fought hard at Chickamauga.

    Here’s a source that allows you to get an approximate idea of the general region units were from. Units that were organized at Camp Butler were mainly from the middle part of the state. If you are really interested, there are sources that will give you a more detailed breakdown. You can go from this general list to identify the Camp Butler units, and then drill down into the other sources to get the specific counties from which the units were recruited.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — January 5, 2018 @ 1:56 pm

  9. The MacArthurs had their strange elements, not limited to Douglas. His son, still alive, is essentially a hermit in NYC. Lives under an alias and got caught up in a Zeckendorf real estate buyout deal. Trivia for a Trivia Bsr contest.

    Comment by The Pilot — January 5, 2018 @ 4:11 pm

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