Was victory possible at Stones River for Confederate forces?

Rhea Cole

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The first thing we have to do is define the strategic purpose behind the Army of Tennessee's presence in Murfreesboro in the winter of 1862. Apart from it being a nexus for local roads & the vital Nashville & Chattanooga RR, there was nothing in the six square blocks of the Rutherford County seat worth fighting for or defending. Why was Bragg's army there?

As his army suffered the wretched frozen retreat from Perryville, Bragg left it & went to Richmond. He reported to Davis that he did not how many men he still had or exactly where they were. On the strength of that inspiring revelation, Davis ordered Bragg to concentrate the AofT at Murfreesboro, the jumping off position for retaking Nashville. Both Rosecrans & Bragg arrived at their HQ's, only 30 miles apart, in October 1862.

The reports that Bragg had received form commerce raiders John Hunt Morgan, et al, convinced him that Rosecrans's 14th Army Corps was starving & would have to retreat to Louisville. Bragg & his staff dedicated untold hours to planing the triumphant entry into Nashville after the Yankee's had skulked away without a fight. In order to subsist his men & feed his animals, Bragg had spread his army over a front fifty miles wide. He sent Nathan Bedford Forrest on a recon in force to Nashville to see if Rosecrans was still there or not. On Christmas night, Bragg & his officers celebrated the joy of the season secure in the knowledge that the 14th Army Corps was safely locked behind their strong earthworks in Nashville. Morgan & Nathan Bedford Forrest were somewhere north of the Cumberland River cutting the Louisville & Nashville RR, sealing the fate of the starving Yankees in Nashville.

On Christmas night, Rosecrans announced to his wing commanders that they would be marching toward Murfreesboro on Boxing Day. Three days later, the alarmed report of heavy artillery fire tapped out by the telegrapher at Stewart's Creek, ten miles from Murfreesboro, alerted Bragg to fact that Rosecrans had ordered a sally & was on the move. Bragg's response was to order his corps commanders to rally to him at Murfreesboro. It wasn't until December 30th that he formulated his ad hoc plan & ordered his forces into their jumping off positions. The left wing of his army under Hardee arrived at 1:00 am.

Bragg's announced goal for the December 31st attack was to beak Rosecrans' hold on his Nashville Pike/Nashville & Chattanooga RR lifeline & retake Nashville. Defeating Rosecrans at Murfreesboro & not cutting him off from a retreat to would have been a tactical victory without strategic advantage. There were 60 days supplies in Nashville. Stretching his already tenuous supply lines another 30 miles would have accomplished nothing. Bragg's draft animals & wagons could not have supported a crossing of the Cumberland in an attempt to flank Rosecrans out of Nashville. His only way to retake Nashville was to defeat the 14th Army Corps & cut it off.

Bragg was not going to defeat the 14th Army Corps & cut it off from Nashville because there was no plan, absolutely no plan in place to do so. The delusional thinking that caused Bragg to believe that the Yankee's were starving at Christmastime is a direct result of Joseph Wheeler's incompetence. As Commander of the AofT's cavalry, it was Wheeler's duty to scout Rosecrans' army & send back accurate reports on its dispositions. Wheeler's reports to Bragg during December 1862 provided Bragg with no actionable intelligence. The warehouses in Nashville were full to over flowing. In plain sight, gigantic stacks of supplies filled all available space at the L&N rail yard. Any small child in Nashville knew more about the supply status of Rosecrans' army than Bragg did.

Rosecrans wasn't the only one surprised by the success of Hardee's attack on the morning of December 31st. What is perceived as a great Confederate victory was, in fact, a case of the right wing of the army chasing off in the wrong direction. The Nashville Pike/N&CRR were not on the far western side of the cedar forrest. It was the slaughter of Polk & Breckenridge's men in repeated attacks on the Round Forrest where the Battle of Stones River was decided. As darkness shrouded the ground where attacks literally left bodies so thick that you could have walked on them all the way back to Bragg's HQ tents, any chance of defeating Rosecrans & taking Nashville was gone.

The answer to the question posed for this thread is no. The complete lack of accurate intelligence & total absence of any planning for the capture of Nashville meant that there was no chance of a Confederate victory at Stones River.
 
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James N.

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Was victory possible at stones river for CS forces?
Yes, if a number of things had only played out a bit differently. One somewhat controversial possibility has Rosecrans ready to retreat the night of Dec. 31 - Jan. 1 but discouraged from doing so, either by his subordinates, or more likely by an unfounded belief that his retreat route had been cut by Wheeler's cavalry making retreat impossible.
 

Rhea Cole

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Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Yes, if a number of things had only played out a bit differently. One somewhat controversial possibility has Rosecrans ready to retreat the night of Dec. 31 - Jan. 1 but discouraged from doing so, either by his subordinates, or more likely by an unfounded belief that his retreat route had been cut by Wheeler's cavalry making retreat impossible.
Rosecrans ordered his wounded evacuated to Nashville & supplies sent in return, so he knew that the Nashville Pike was not blocked. In any case, when he ordered the advance over the Stones River & took the high ground at McFadden Ford, Rosecrans had won the battle.
 

Rhea Cole

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Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Thanks guys this clears up some questions for me, I think Davis was correct to order the army to concentrate at Murfreesboro but a new army commander was needed the question being who.
You are welcome. The consensus of the military historians I have discussed this with is that Bragg should have made Shelbyville, 20 miles south of Murfreesboro, his rally point. There are only three gaps through which to access the Highland Plateau. The reason Bragg ordered Forrest to occupy Murfreesboro was that a rival general had sent a few troops there to claim it. The territorial squabbles between Confederate commanders plagued the Western Theater & distorted military decisions. While Bragg was in Kentucky, Chattanooga was absorbed into the territory of a different commander. As a result, the supplies that Bragg ordered forwarded to Knoxville were not sent. The real reasons why decisions were made by Confederate leaders often beggars belief.
 

uaskme

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Bragg waited a day. Took New Years Day off. Then sent Breckinridge on his assault on Jan 2. Bragg didn’t anticipate what Rosecrans would do during the suspension of fighting. He fortified that position. One of the biggest problems Bragg had during his career. A good plan today might not be a good plan tomorrow. McCook folded, #2 of his #3. So, yes Bragg could of and probably should of won. Ended up being a draw and Bragg fell back.

There were many reasons for the Confederates to hold Middle Tennessee. Nashville basin was the breadbasket of Tennessee. Federals has a tentative hold on Nashville. Nashville and the area were loyal to the Confederacy.

Another could of should of for Bragg.
 

Rhea Cole

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Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Bragg's victory telegram.jpeg

Bragg's victory telegram. Stones River National Battlefield
This telegram is why the first day at Stones River is perceived as a Confederate victory. Objectively speaking, because neither the Nashville Pike or the Nashville & Chattanooga RR were cut, Bragg's attack was a failure. There was nothing in the swath of territory that Hardee's Corps had advanced over at such great cost that Rosecrans had to have. Had Bragg sent a telegram that truthfully announced that the Army of Tennessee's attacks on 31 December 1862 had failed to break the 14th Army Corps' grip on its lifeline to Nashville, how very different the narrative of this battle would have been.

The attack on the position that Rosecrans absolutely had to have was an absolute disaster. The repulse of repeated assaults on the Round Forrest by Polk's Corps were a very costly defeat for Bragg & a clear victory for Rosecrans. Bodies covered the ground from in front of Union General Hazen's line almost all the way back to Bragg's HQ tents. By all accounts, Bragg never left those tents until he ordered the retreat. Would he have sent this telegram if he had seen the acres of bodies that haunt so many personal accounts of the battle? That is, of course, unknowable.

 
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