“Non nobis Domine! non nobis sed nomini tuo da gloriam.”
General William S. Rosecrans at the end of his report on the battle of Stones River, attributing the Union victory to God.
An unjustly obscure battle of the Civil War began 150 years ago today: Stones River. Based on the number of combatants involved, it was the bloodiest battle fought in an extremely bloody War. The two armies involved, the Union Army of the Cumberland and the Confederate Army of Tennessee, were struggling for control of middle Tennessee. If the Confederate Army of Tennessee could be chased out of middle Tennessee, then Union control of Nashville was secure, and it could be used as a springboard for the conquest of southeastern Tennessee and the eventual invasion of Georgia. If the Union Army of the Cumberland could be defeated, then Nashville might fall, and the Confederate heartland be secured from invasion. The stakes were high at Stones River. A critical factor for the Union was that morale in the North was plummeting. The Army of the Potomac had suffered a shattering defeat a few weeks before at Fredericksburg, and Grant and his Army of the Tennessee seemed to be stymied by the Confederate fortress city of Vicksburg. The War for the Union seemed to be going no place at immense cost in blood and treasure. If the Army of the Cumberland led by General Rosecrans was defeated, voices raised in the North to “let the erring sisters go” might swell into a chorus that would lead eventually to a negotiated peace, especially after election losses for the Republicans in the Congressional elections already demonstrated deep dissatisfaction in the North as to the progress of the War.
General Rosecrans led the Army of the Cumberland out of Nashville the day after Christmas and marched southeast 40 miles to challenge the Army of Tennessee at Murfreesboro. The armies were comparable in size with the Army of the Cumberland having 41,000 men opposed to the 35,000 of the Army of the Tennessee. Both Rosecrans and Bragg planned to attack the opposing army by attacking its right flank. On December 31, Bragg struck first.
Confederate General William J. Hardee led his corps in a slashing attack at 8:00 AM against General Alexander M. McCook’s corps, and by 10:00 AM had chased the Union troops back three miles before they rallied. Rosecrans cancelled the attack against the Confederate right by General Thomas L. Crittenden’s corps, and rushed reinforcements to his embattled right. Confederate General Leonidas Polk, an Episcopalian bishop in civilian life, launched simultaneous attacks against the left of McCook’s corp. Here General Phil Sheridan’s division put up a stout resistance, but was eventually driven back.
By late morning the Union army had its back to Stones River and its line perpendicular on its right to its original position. Rosecrans, who seemed to be everywhere on the battlefield that day, succeeded in rallying his troops. The left of the Union line held against repeated assaults, the fiercest fighting centering on a four-acre wooded tract, known until the battle as the Round Forest, held by Colonel William B. Hazen’s brigade. The ferocity of the fighting can be judged by the fact that after the battle the tract of land would ever be known as Hell’s Half Acre. The Union forces held and by 4:30 PM. winter darkness brought an end to that day’s fighting.
Rosecrans held a council of war that night to determine if the army should stand or retreat. General George H. Thomas who had led his corps in the center with his customary skill and determination made the laconic comment that “There is no better place to die” and Rosecrans readily agreed. The Army of the Cumberland would stand and fight.