The following article, replete with first-hand accounts of Union and Confederate soldiers who survived those four terrible days at Stones River, to help our readers appreciate how easily one might have been overcome by the sheer magnitude of death and injury. Only in context can we fully appreciate John Milton Whitehead’s labor of mercy.

 

On the evening of December 30, 1862, Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg and Union Gen. William S. Rose-crans and their combined total of 83,000 soldiers were camped near Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Everyone knew that a battle was only hours away and that the victor would have a strategic advantage. The bands of both armies played, each trying to drown out the other, as they could be heard for some distance. Then, one of the bands struck up “Home Sweet Home,” and “as if by common consent, all other airs ceased, and the bands of both armies, far as the ear could reach, joined in the refrain.”1Samuel Seay, 1st Tennessee, Maney’s Brigade, as quoted in David R. Logsdon, Eyewitnesses at the Battle of Stones River (Nashville: Kettle Mills Press, 1989), 13. Together, the soldiers sang the bittersweet song that brought back memories of home and family. Voices faded as the call came for lights out in the frosty camps.

General Braxton Bragg

At dawn on New Year’s Eve, General Bragg took the initiative by attacking while the Union soldiers were building their fires and eating their breakfasts. One Union soldier described that morning:

The comfort of warming chilled fingers and toes and drinking a grateful cup of hot coffee outweighed for the moment any consideration of danger…. As all was so quiet, not a shot having been fired, I…walked out until the enemy’s breastworks were in view and there, sure enough…a succession of long lines of Gray were swarming over the Con-federate breastworks and sweeping towards us but not yet within gun shot range.2Sgt. Major Widney, 34th Illinois, Kirk’s Brigade, as quoted in Logsdon, 14.

Then came chaos. Men began to run in every direction, for no one knew where to go. That soldier continued:

Our only salvation was to lie flat as possible, for the air seethed with the ‘Zip’ of bullets…. It reminded me of the passage of a swarm of bees. Bullets plowed little furrows around us, throwing up grass and soil into our faces or over our bodies, and others struck with a dull ‘thud’ into some poor unfortunate soul.3Sgt. Major Widney, 34th Illinois, Kirk’s Brigade, as quoted in Logsdon, 15.

The Union was forced back for three miles, briefly holding several positions long enough to allow General Rose-crans to gather Union cannon and redeploy units to shield the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad and Nashville Pike—his army’s lifelines. The Confederates assaulted the Union cannon and infantry, and were met with such a volley from about 40 cannon that they were forced to beat a retreat as best they could. The Confederates attacked the cannon several times, but were beaten back until all attempts ceased for the day. Even so, the Confederates had won so much ground that General Bragg telegraphed Richmond, Virginia, exclaiming, “God has granted us a Happy New Year.”

The following day in Washington, D.C., Thursday, January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln announced his Emancipation Proclamation: “I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within any States…in rebellion against the United States shall be…forever free.” No one in Murfreesboro knew of this momentous event, however. That day was spent tending to the dead and wounded that covered the ground and filled the makeshift hospitals.

Men repairing single-track railroad after Battle of Stone’s River

But the fighting resumed the next day, at 4 p.m., near the banks of the Stones River. The Confederates made a successful attack that drove the Union troops in headlong retreat across the river. Once again, the Confederates were met by Union cannon. Firing more than 100 rounds per minute at close range, the cannon mowed down the Confederates. The roar continued for more than 10 minutes, and shook the earth under the soldiers’ feet. A soldier from Florida gave the following report:

The nearest the [Yankees] came to getting me was shooting a hole in my pants and cutting hair off my right temple. I know a peck of balls passed in less than a yard of me….The man in front of me got slightly wounded [and]…the one on my right mortally and the one on my left killed.4Washington Mackey Ives, 4th Florida, Preston’s Brigade, as quoted in Logsdon, 67.

In less than an hour, 1,800 Confederates fell dead or wounded, and their earlier successful, dashing charge suddenly turned into a retreat.

Two days later, General Bragg withdrew. In the midst of a cold winter rain, the Confederate army retreated from the field. General Rosecrans remained in Murfreesboro and built the most extensive fortification yet erected during the war. The failure of General Bragg to maintain a hold on middle Tennessee lost the Confederacy rich farmland and opened a corridor for the Union army to penetrate the Deep South, thus providing the opportunity for Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea.

Shortly after the battle, a Union soldier wrote:

Before this battle took place, the outlook for our country was very dark and threatening. Our armies had gained no signal [important] victories for many months, and there was very great danger that some of the Nations of Europe would recognize the Southern Confederacy, and that it would be impossible for us to maintain our blockade. Had General Rosecrans’ Army been defeated at the battle of Stones River…it would not only have prolonged the War, but would have greatly increased our danger of conflicts with foreign countries.5J. T. Gibson, 78th Pennsylvania, as quoted in Logsdon, p. iii.

In total, more than 23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, missing or captured. From the Union army, about 1,700 men were killed, 7,800 were wounded and 3,700 were missing—a total of 13,200 casualties from an army estimated to count 41,400. The Confederates’ casualties included 1,300 killed, 7,900 wounded, and about 1,000 missing for a total of 10,200 out of an estimated army of 35,000.

A Confederate soldier wrote of the battle:

I am sick and tired of this war, and I can see no prospects of having peace for a long time to come, I don’t think it will ever be stopped by fighting, the Yankees cant whip us and we can never whip them, and I see no prospect of peace unless the Yankees themselves rebell and throw down their arms, and refuse to fight any longer.6As quoted in E. B. Long with Barbara Long, The Civil War Day by Day—An Almanac 1861-1865 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1971), 307.

Many Yankee soldiers were as tired of the fighting as this unnamed foot soldier, but they did not rebel. The war continued for more than two years after the Battle of Stones River. Finally, with two-thirds of its railroad mileage destroyed, its capital at Richmond in flames, and General Robert E. Lee blocked by General Ulysses S. Grant, the Confederate army was forced to surrender on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.


Our thanks to the National Park service for this account of the Battle of Stones River

 

Endnotes   [ + ]

1. Samuel Seay, 1st Tennessee, Maney’s Brigade, as quoted in David R. Logsdon, Eyewitnesses at the Battle of Stones River (Nashville: Kettle Mills Press, 1989), 13.
2. Sgt. Major Widney, 34th Illinois, Kirk’s Brigade, as quoted in Logsdon, 14.
3. Sgt. Major Widney, 34th Illinois, Kirk’s Brigade, as quoted in Logsdon, 15.
4. Washington Mackey Ives, 4th Florida, Preston’s Brigade, as quoted in Logsdon, 67.
5. J. T. Gibson, 78th Pennsylvania, as quoted in Logsdon, p. iii.
6. As quoted in E. B. Long with Barbara Long, The Civil War Day by Day—An Almanac 1861-1865 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1971), 307.