Stones River and Civil War Memory

Near the end of the war, during Ulysses S. Grant’s last meeting with Abraham Lincoln, the two had a particularly interesting conversation. Lincoln described to Grant and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles his dream of an indestructible ship, which had preceded many great victories. He included among these William S. Rosecrans’ victory at Stones River. Grant, despite his considerable talents, held grudges and his animosity towards Rosecrans dated back to the confused fighting at Iuka in September 1862. Despite having accepted the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s army at Appomattox and being in the presence of his commander-in-chief who was sharing an unusual and sensitive topic, Grant still clung to the dispute. He declared that Stones River was a battle of no consequence. Lincoln disagreed and the matter was dropped. Welles perceptively saw that Grant was jealous of Rosecrans’ laurels and unwilling to concede much, if anything, to those he disliked, no matter their accomplishments. It is also a reason why one of the key battles of the war is among the least discussed when compared to other important battles.

The fall and early winter of 1862 had not been kind to the Union. Although the Confederates had been beaten at Antietam, it was not a great victory, and was followed up with the controversial removal of George McClellan and the humiliating defeat at Fredericksburg. For Grant, it was the nadir of his Civil War career. Grant felt humiliated when the press lauded Rosecrans’ victory at Corinth. Rosecrans was gone, but Grant’s first major drive on Vicksburg ended in defeat with his supply depot destroyed at Holly Springs and the abject failure of William Tecumseh Sherman’s assault at Chickasaw Bluff. In Kentucky, Braxton Bragg had been defeated at Perryville, but escaped destruction and he retook middle Tennessee, including the rich farmlands around Murfreesboro, a hotbed of secessionist sentiment. Don Carlos Buell, much like McClellan, was removed for not following Lincoln’s dubious pursuit strategy. His successor was Rosecrans, who agreed with Buell; the Union army could not pursue Bragg and needed time to rest, train, and organize.

William S. Rosecrans (LoC)

Under pressure from Washington, Rosecrans moved on Murfreesboro before he was ready. The result was the Battle of Stones River, a three-day confrontation that ended on January 2, 1863 with combined casualties of nearly 24,000, surpassing more famous battles such as Fredericksburg, Second Bull Run, and Antietam in terms of battlefield losses. It was also the bloodiest major Civil War battle by percentage, with 36% of all combatants becoming causalities.

Stones River – Charge of 78th Pennsylvania and 21st Ohio on January 2.

For the South, the battle was a major defeat. Before Stones River, Jefferson Davis had patched together a tacit truce between Bragg and his detractors among his subordinates. The defeat reopened old wounds and added new ones. Arguably, the Army of Tennessee never recovered; it would be a hotbed of high command bickering for the rest of the war. It also never again held such a strong strategic position and nor did it ever regain substantial territory. The following years saw the army pushed back, its victories either too costly and barren, such as Chickamauga, or at best skillful defensive actions, such as Pickett’s Mill.

For the Union, Stones River had the opposite effect, being hailed as a victory across the North. Given the other Federal military defeats, as well as political setbacks in 1862, the news from Stones River buoyed hopes, particularly in the Mid-west. Newspapers gushed with praise and Secretary of the Army Edwin Stanton wrote Rosecrans a particularly positive note of thanks. Stanton despised Rosecrans but he was genuinely happy for a victory and was a Rosecrans ally for a time. More importantly, the best part of middle Tennessee was now in Union hands. Lincoln, ever grateful for Stones River, kept Rosecrans in command, despite Stanton’s and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck’s  growing antagonism for that commander as 1863 wore on.

Rosecrans had won over his men and subordinates, becoming one of the most popular generals in the army. The Army of the Cumberland’s morale rose. They had fought a savage fight and had nearly been defeated, but survived. In late 1863 the veterans of William B. Hazen’s brigade erected a monument at Hell’s Half-Acre, scene of some the battle’s hardest fighting. It was dedicated to the dead they left at Shiloh, Stones River, and Chickamauga. It still stands today, a reminder of their commitment to win the war for the union. Around the Hazen Brigade Monument, George Thomas had a cemetery established in 1864.

Although few in 1863 doubted the battle’s importance, it is something of a forgotten battle today. Ken Burns did not even mention it in his documentary. This is mostly because Grant, Sherman, Lee, and “Stonewall” Jackson were not present. For the Lost Cause, Stones River was just another in a long list of defeats suffered by Bragg. The Lost Cause adherents preferred to stick to the exploits in Virginia, where the Confederates won most of the battles. Rosecrans, after his hard-won victory, saw his star fall and then be eclipsed by Grant and Sherman. By being both a prominent Democrat and quarrelsome with Washington authorities, he undermined his position. The result was that his victories at Iuka, Corinth, Stones River, and Tullahoma were overshadowed by Chickamauga. Gordon Granger, himself in Grant’s disfavor, summed it up in a letter he wrote to Rosecrans on June 6, 1864. Granger lamented that Grant and Sherman received every soldier and supply asked for, and that they, unlike the other generals before (mostly Democrats such as McClellan, Buell, and Rosecrans), had the full support of the government. Granger then concluded: “The battle is neither to the swift nor to the strong but to him that holds on to the end. If Grant and Sherman squelch out the rebellion they will be heroes and we will be forgotten. So let it be, provided we are once more a happy, united people.”

Granger’s parting line was echoed and upheld by the men who fought at Stones River. The Hazen monument remains in place, one of the oldest Civil War monuments in the country. Efforts to preserve the battlefield were delayed as funds went to more celebrated battles. By the time it was established in 1926 most of the veterans were dead and much of the battlefield was absorbed as Murfreesboro grew. Still, Rosecrans’ last line, the Slaughter Pen, Hell’s Half-Acre, and the site of the Orphan Brigade’s fatal charge remain intact, a testament to an awful and sometimes forgotten battle.

Stones River – Slaughter Pen


8 Responses to Stones River and Civil War Memory

  1. Thank you for starting the New Year with this great article about Stones River. I agree with your points about Rosecrans and Grant. I became a Rosecrans’ fan after reading “William S. Rosecrans and the Union Victory: a Civil War Biography” by David G. Moore.

  2. Rosecrans Civil War career is a tragedy. Very smart man with a good character, but not the right politics and religion. The first time he loses a big battle, Chickamauga, the Lincoln government cans him. They do this despite Rosecrans haven taking Chattanooga almost bloodlessly. Taking Chattanooga had been the chief objective of the campaign, as Vicksburg had been the chief objective of Grant’s campaign, the previous spring and summer. Rosecrans taking Chattanooga, was a couple of months tardy to Grant taking Vicksburg. Then ironically Rosecrans plunged forward as Washington always demanded and was promptly confronted and defeated, by a reinforced Bragg. Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

  3. This post makes a great point that I’ll wager most of us have never thought about. Imagine if the same interest in preserving this battlefield had existed in the 1890’s when the crucial first steps were taken at Gettysburg, Antietam, Shiloh, and Chickamauga.

  4. This is a good article and raises good points. Rosecrans is overlooked and the Tullahoma campaign was brilliant. One thing I will say, though, is that Rosecrans left the field at Chickamauga. It was a rout and could have led to the complete destruction of his army but for Thomas’ stand along the Snodgrass ridgeline. It’s hard to bounce back from a catastrophe like that.

  5. This excellent article is an eye-opener – at least for me! I didn’t have this larger view of Rosecrans and his accomplishments. You’re opening up a fresh area of interest and study for me, and I’ll be considering the Western Theater in an entirely new light from this point on. Thank you!

  6. I remember Ed Bearss stating that he was on a committee in the 1960’s, when there was money available to buy battlefield land, they looked at the Stone’s River Jan. 2 battlefield. It was all farmland then and the consensus was: It was farmland 100 years ago, it’s farmland now, and it will be farmland forever. What a terrible error. Now all upper-middle class housing whose residents watch you suspiciously if you look like you’re studying the battle.

  7. It’s also good to remember that this engagement carries different names North and South, Stone’s River and Murfreesboro, respectively. It is a poorly-remembered encounter, and, as I recall, each commander’s tactical plan was the mirror image of his opponent’s.

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