Murfreesboro Murfreesboro — Which Side won?

gjpratt

Private
Joined
Apr 14, 2019
Per T. Harry Williams, in an early 1865 cabinet meeting, President Lincoln recounted a number of Union victories including Stones River. Grant interjected “Stones River was not a victory.” Lincoln replied “On that we will have to disagree.”

Who was right?
 

Georgia Sixth

Sergeant Major
Joined
Dec 14, 2011
Location
Texas
Bragg had the worst luck and it was called George Thomas. What Bragg's troops did on the first day was astounding. A surprise almost as great as Shiloh. The Union line was nearly folded back on itself. A smashing success....except Thomas convinced the others in a war council that night to stay put and not get the heck out. Then Bragg became his own worst enemy and threw away a few thousand men on a futile attack two days later, so he withdrew. The Union army was fortunate to have survived. (That's how I see it.)

The aftermath? Bragg pulled back to a defensive position. Nobody pursued him. Then Rosecrans pulled back to his base. Nobody pursued him. That sounds like a draw if there ever was one. Strategically, I'd actually give the nod to the CSA as the battle halted the Union move out of Nashville and battered the USA army so badly it didn't move out again for about six months.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Official Atlas - Plate XXX - Map 2-2 copy.jpg

Official Military Atlas of the Civil War plate XXX
This map tells a lot about what the Battle of Stones River was actually all about. Because of the topography of Middle Tenneseee, the Nashville, Readyville, Murfreesboro, Franklin triangle was all but unassailable from the south. The high limestone bluffs of Stones River guard the eastern leg of the triangle. The good road leading from Readyville to Franklin was the base of the triangle. The Harpeth River serves to set the western side of triangle Running across the apex of the triangle, the Cumberland River effectively blocks any route to out flank Nashville. The four rail roads that converge on Nashville link the city to the outside world. Internal lines of communication within the triangle link all areas together & provide jumping off points for a movement southward. Defending Murfreesboro against a movement from Nashville was a very different proposition.

As you can see, Murfreesboro was easily flanked east & west. As Braxton Bragg's engineers had told him, there simply are no defensible positions between Nashville & Murfreesboro that could not be easily flanked. The six square blocks of the town & the evenly divided 2,000 population represented nothing strategic that either side had to have. When both the U.S. 14th Army Corps & the CSA Army of Tennessee stumbled into Nashville & Murfreesboro from Perryville KY in the late fall of 1862, both were exhausted. Bragg & the newly appointed Rosecrans arrived at their respective HQ's at about the same time at the end of October. At that point two very different things happened.

Bragg, as was his habit, created a vision of what he wanted the situation to be & proceeded to act from that premise. Due to the incompetence of General Wheeler, the commander of the A or TN's cavalry, no reports crossed Bragg's desk that contradicted his preconceived construct. He believed his cavalry raider's claims of having cut Nashville off from its supply line via the L&NRR from Louisville KY. The garrison was on the verge of starvation & would give up the city in a Napoleonic retreat. Bragg literally was not sure that Rosecrans still held Nashville in strength. He ordered Nathan Bedford Forrest to make an armed reconnaissance to ascertain whether the 14th Army Corps was still holding Nashville. A 40 mile wide picket line of cavalry vedettes was the trip wire in case Rosecrans did order a probe toward Murfreesboro.

The string of vedettes ran from Franklin through Nolensville to Old Jefferson. What is not obvious on this map is that the terrain is a series of roughly parallel ridges, much like the fingers of a hand with outstretched fingers. Communication across the knuckles tips was not easy. It was not until the civilian telegraph operator at Stewartsburg, ten mile from Murfreesboro, notified Bragg's HQ in Murfreesboro that he could hear heavy cannonading that he knew that Rosecrans had left Nashville & was advancing. Rationally, of course, one would expect Bragg's HQ to send out orders to subordinate commanders something to the effect that they should execute Plan A. That could not happen for the simple reason that there was no plan of any kind in place that spelled out how Breckeknridge, Hardee & Polk were to act. General Hardee, for one, was at a party that did not break up until nearly dawn. For lack of a better idea, Bragg's army was ordered to break winter camp & concentrate at Murfreesboro.

In contrast to Bragg's obliviousness, Rosecrans has timely detailed intel on the A of TN. He knew that President Davis had sent Carter Stephen's fine division to Vicksburg. He knew that 2/3rds of Bragg's cavalry would be crossing the Cumberland River & like Stephen's infantry were too far away to rejoin in time to affect the upcoming battle. Far from starving, the 14th Army Corps had ample supplies built up in Nashville & was free to make the 30 mile advance toward Murfreesboro. Rosecrans knew with great certainty where Bragg's army was in winter quarters. What he could not know, for the simple reason that nobody knew, was where Bragg intended to fight.

Bragg's map.jpg

Bragg’s Map
Rosecrans' map.jpg

Rosecrans’ Map
Bragg's left flank.jpg

Detail of Bragg’s Map
Rosecrans right flank.jpg

Detail of Rosecrans’ Map
Take a look at the maps above. Each of them is the map that the respective commanders included with their reports on the Battle of Stones River. In each the detail maps, look for the Widow Smith's house, roughly on the right center. Everything that happened on the first day of Stones River is explained by the position of Ms Smith's place.

Rosecran's map very accurately marks the position of his forces at just before dawn on Dec 31, 1862. Bragg's map shows where, even after the battle, he THOUGHT Rosecran's flank was. The flank attack that takes up all the bandwidth in the story of the battle was a profound tactical blunder. Cleburne was almost immediately hit with enfilading fire that did great damage. Regiments on the left of the line advanced off to the west into a void & did not participate further in the battle. It is no wonder that the Union line was flanked flanked for the simple reason that Rosecrans' flank was not where Bragg thought it was.

Ask yourself, what, if anything, was there in that void that Cleburne advanced into that was vital for either army? That be your void for a reason. All those little green blobs are cedar breaks, all but impassible obstacles for men on foot, let alone artillery. The actual end of the Union line was almost three miles from the only thing that mattered on that battle line, the point where both the Nashville Pike & N&C RR crossed Stones River. Cleburne was almost as far away from that point or the parallel Pike & RR crossed Overall Creek, the next choke point as it was possible to post him. In very real terms, the famous flank attack at Stones River was a fiasco from the very start.

What passed for a plan on Bragg's part was an ad hoc set of orders to attack in the morning. Neither Bragg nor his subordinates in Hardee's Corps knew where Rosecrans' forces really were. Because of that profound ignorance, the attackers took punishing losses almost from the first shot that was fired. Indeed, quite by accident, Rosecrans' right was lapped & collapsed into the cedar breaks. It was an unintended, unsupportable tactical victory. Just look at the maps, no wonder Cleburne's men were absolutely physically & mentally exhausted by 4:00 when their attack on Rosecran's Nashville Pike position collapsed into a howling retreat?

In contrast, the Union forces that had been fighting against Cleburne's advance were able to concentrate along the Nashville Pike & N&CRR line. To use a football analogy, from their point of view it was a bend don't break defense that held on the 10 yard line. Nothing they had left in their wake was of any significance. Their definition of victory was the deny Cleburne his goal of crossing the Pike & the RR. That is exactly what they did. Holding Cleburne short was a strategic victory that made the tactical victories of earlier in the day costly & without substance. Hardee's Corps was fought out.

So to directly answer the question posed for this thread, the Battle of Stones River was a Union victory. The only tactical success achieved by Bragg's army was a fiasco without strategic success. Taking Murfreesboro solidified a triangle that protected Nashville & made it possible to take all of Middle Tennessee in July. That is the essence of a strategic victory.

Why did Grant not consider Stones River a success? In Grant's terms, it was the third time that Rosecrans had let a dispirited, broken CSA force retreat without molestation. At Iuka, Corinth & Stones River, the retreating CSA forces were disorganized & vulnerable to destruction if pursued closely. In every case, Rosecrans paused to rest his force & did not press his advantage. Rosecrans simply did not understand the principle of tempo in successful advances. Those were Grant's orders to Rosecrans in Mississippi & what he thought should have been done in Middle Tennessee. Bragg had retreated south of the Shelbyville line, the last tenable position north of Monteagle Mountain. Even a token force that maintained contact could have forced Bragg to concentrate far to the south of where he did. The brilliant Tullahoma Campaign won back territory that was there for the taking in January 1863. Unlike almost any other CW general, Grant's idea of victory did not include merely driving off CSA attackers.
 
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Belfoured

Sergeant Major
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
In addition to the excellent detailed analysis above, I'd offer the (over)simplified analysis - Bragg attacked on January 2 pm, suffered a bloody repulse at the hands of Mendenhall and his 57 "friends", followed by Negley's counterattack, and ultimately retreated. Sounds an awful lot like a battle in Pennsylvania that everybody considers a Union victory.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
A fun study to study Grant and see why he came to that conclusion.

Lincoln didn’t agree with him.
Both Lincoln & Grant were correct. The Emancipation Proclamation came into effect on January 1st 1863. For political purposes, a military victory had to accompany the Proclamation. As my coach used to say, it’s a win, not this kind or that kind, it’s a win.

What Grant understood is that your opponent is just as tired & scared as you are. There is nothing more vulnerable than a defeated force in retreat. As Forrest said, once you get a skeer on ‘em... All the men & land that Rosecrans did not take when he could had to be fought & fought at great cost later.

Lincoln & Grant understood the other’s point of view & acted accordingly.
 

Belfoured

Sergeant Major
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
Both Lincoln & Grant were correct. The Emancipation Proclamation came into effect on January 1st 1863. For political purposes, a military victory had to accompany the Proclamation. As my coach used to say, it’s a win, not this kind or that kind, it’s a win.

What Grant understood is that your opponent is just as tired & scared as you are. There is nothing more vulnerable than a defeated force in retreat. As Forrest said, once you get a skeer on ‘em... All the men & land that Rosecrans did not take when he could had to be fought & fought at great cost later.

Lincoln & Grant understood the other’s point of view & acted accordingly.
To your point, my favorite passage in Grant's Memoirs has always been this one regarding his attack on an enemy encampment in 1861:

"As we approached the brow of the hill from which it was expected we could see Harris’s camp, and possibly find his men ready formed to meet us, my heart kept getting higher and higher until it felt to me as though it was in my throat. I would have given anything then to have been back in Illinois, but I had not the moral courage to halt and consider what to do; I kept right on.
When we reached a point from which the valley below was in full view, I halted. The place where Harris had been encamped a few days before was still there and the marks of a recent encampment were plainly visible, but the troops were gone. My heart resumed its place. It occurred to me at once that Harris had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him. This was a view of the question I had never taken before, but it was one I never forgot afterwards. From that event to the close of the war I never experienced trepidation upon confronting an enemy, though I always felt more or less anxiety. I never forgot that he had as much reason to fear my forces as I had his."
 

gjpratt

Private
Joined
Apr 14, 2019
I have always thought it was revealing that Burnside caved to the pressure from Washington to attack at Fredericksburg; Rosecrans resisted until he was satisfied with his logistics supplies.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
I have always thought it was revealing that Burnside caved to the pressure from Washington to attack at Fredericksburg; Rosecrans resisted until he was satisfied with his logistics supplies.
Rosecrans had very accurate intel. The man who ran the A of TN telegraphic office was a spy. He not only developed Bragg’s codes, he gave them to Rosecrans. The false CSA’s doctrine of cavalry raiding was also a great boon. The illusionary belief in cavalry’s ability to deprive the 14th Army Corps of vital supplies & force Rosecrans to retreat stripped Bragg of 2/3rds of his cavalry. Wheeler then compounded the error by riding his cavalry out of the battle on a foolish raid.

The one overwhelming advantage that Bragg had was his cavalry. Wheeler, the A of TN’s cavalry commander failed report the enormous piles of supplies that overwhelmed the warehouses in Nashville. The A of the C’s advance was a complete surprise. Rosecrans could not know that Wheeler would remove his remaining cavalry at the critical moment, but he did know that Forrest & Morgan were gone. It was as if a chess player had removed both knights & bishops before the first move. No wonder Rosecrans attacked when he did.
 
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Coonewah Creek

First Sergeant
Joined
Jun 1, 2018
Location
Northern Alabama
Another point is that Stevenson's Division (about 7,500 men) might have made a difference at Stone's River had not Davis ordered Bragg to send them to Vicksburg and IIRC also included an "unreliable" East Tennessee brigade which brought the number up to almost 10,000 men. But with Bragg, it's hard to say one way or another...
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
McFadden Ford flooded.jpeg

McFadden's Ford March 28, 2021, Stones River NB
The weekend of March 26-27 2021 was punctuated by violent thunderstorms & tornados marching across Middle Tennessee. On both General Bragg & General Rosecrans' maps 3/4th of the Army of Tennessee was deployed on the northern bank of Stones River. There are only a small number of places where the river could be forded or was bridged. Most any day of the year, you can wade across McFadden's Ford. Middle Tennessee is a karst area, i.e., the entire region is one vast slab of limestone with a thin layer of dirt sprinkled over it. Hard rains run right off & creeks that are normally ankle deep to small wading children turn into raging torrents.

Bragg knew this when he deployed his army on the night of December 30, 1862. Whatever the tactical outcome, he risked isolating the bulk of his army on the wrong bank of Stones River where it would face Rosecrans' army unsupported. His army would, at the best of times, be forced to withdraw across the few bridges. After the defeat of Breckenridge's attack, which took place beneath the water in this photo, Bragg was in real danger of having his army trapped by rising water & forces Rosecrans had sent across McFadden's Ford. Bragg's position was untenable.

Rosecrans' position on the high ground that dominated the road nexus at Murfreesboro was both unassailable & threatening. The map doesn't lie. It was only Rosecrans' inaction on the 3rd of January that allowed Bragg to make a reasonably orderly withdrawal. Victory, for Bragg, was narrowed to successfully withdrawing what remained of his army. The retreat was almost unimaginably awful. Men marched through icy muck reaching mid thigh. They arrived at their assigned camps without any camp equipment of any kind. It was only Rosecrans' typical pause to regroup & reorganize before beginning a tentative advance that saved Bragg's army from a crushing defeat.
 

Belfoured

Sergeant Major
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
View attachment 395882
McFadden's Ford March 28, 2021, Stones River NB
The weekend of March 26-27 2021 was punctuated by violent thunderstorms & tornados marching across Middle Tennessee. On both General Bragg & General Rosecrans' maps 3/4th of the Army of Tennessee was deployed on the northern bank of Stones River. There are only a small number of places where the river could be forded or was bridged. Most any day of the year, you can wade across McFadden's Ford. Middle Tennessee is a karst area, i.e., the entire region is one vast slab of limestone with a thin layer of dirt sprinkled over it. Hard rains run right off & creeks that are normally ankle deep to small wading children turn into raging torrents.

Bragg knew this when he deployed his army on the night of December 30, 1862. Whatever the tactical outcome, he risked isolating the bulk of his army on the wrong bank of Stones River where it would face Rosecrans' army unsupported. His army would, at the best of times, be forced to withdraw across the few bridges. After the defeat of Breckenridge's attack, which took place beneath the water in this photo, Bragg was in real danger of having his army trapped by rising water & forces Rosecrans had sent across McFadden's Ford. Bragg's position was untenable.

Rosecrans' position on the high ground that dominated the road nexus at Murfreesboro was both unassailable & threatening. The map doesn't lie. It was only Rosecrans' inaction on the 3rd of January that allowed Bragg to make a reasonably orderly withdrawal. Victory, for Bragg, was narrowed to successfully withdrawing what remained of his army. The retreat was almost unimaginably awful. Men marched through icy muck reaching mid thigh. They arrived at their assigned camps without any camp equipment of any kind. It was only Rosecrans' typical pause to regroup & reorganize before beginning a tentative advance that saved Bragg's army from a crushing defeat.
Some great information here. In Rosey's defense, I would offer this:

"Men marched through icy muck reaching mid thigh. They arrived at their assigned camps without any camp equipment of any kind. It was only Rosecrans' typical pause to regroup & reorganize before beginning a tentative advance that saved Bragg's army from a crushing defeat."

Those roads were equally bad for Rosecrans' army - especially his field artillery. I also think that people tend to underestimate the effects of a "victory" on the winner in Civil War combat. The Federals had suffered nearly 13,000 casualties - including two division commanders wounded and several brigade commanders KIA/MW. That alone significantly hampers an immediate and effective pursuit. And Civil War armies were notoriously difficult to destroy. Of course, it takes two and it sounds as if Bragg's army may have been unable to put up much in response.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Some great information here. In Rosey's defense, I would offer this:

"Men marched through icy muck reaching mid thigh. They arrived at their assigned camps without any camp equipment of any kind. It was only Rosecrans' typical pause to regroup & reorganize before beginning a tentative advance that saved Bragg's army from a crushing defeat."

Those roads were equally bad for Rosecrans' army - especially his field artillery. I also think that people tend to underestimate the effects of a "victory" on the winner in Civil War combat. The Federals had suffered nearly 13,000 casualties - including two division commanders wounded and several brigade commanders KIA/MW. That alone significantly hampers an immediate and effective pursuit. And Civil War armies were notoriously difficult to destroy. Of course, it takes two and it sounds as if Bragg's army may have been unable to put up much in response.
The point is that if Bragg’s dispirited veterans could make it to Shelbyville, the fresh troops from Lebanon & the Nashville garrison could have as well. Because Bragg had ordered no rally point, the bulk of the army retreated south of Shelbyville. The Elk River was raising as well. Elements of the A of TN could have been overcome in detail, pinned against the Elk. Shelbyville, the key to southern Middle TN was there for the taking. It was only after it became clear that Rosecrsns had stopped short, ten miles away, that Bragg ordered his army to about face & reoccupy Shelbyville.
 

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