The Battle of Stones River was fought at Murfreesboro, Tennessee on December 31st, 1862 to January 2nd, 1863. The Union Army of the Cumberland under Major General William Rosecrans fought Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee in the war’s decisive battle for control of middle Tennessee. It was also one of the more costly battles of the war: combined, the two sides suffered 23,500 casualties with a little more than 3000 men killed.
On December 26th, 1862, Rosecrans marched his army south from Nashville. Bragg’s army was encamped about 30 miles south at Murfreesboro. Both sides planned to attack the other, but it was Bragg who attacked first, hitting the Union right flank at dawn on December 31st. The attack caved in the flank, and the Union brigades were in full retreat against the onslaught, pausing in the cedar woods and fence lines to fight, only to be pushed back further. While this was going on, Union General Philip Sheridan had his men in position to defend against the attack. Sheridan was able to slow down the Rebel surge at great cost to both sides in a portion of the battlefield that came to be known as the Slaughter Pen.
The Federals set up a strong defensive line backed with artillery along the Nashville Pike. Bragg attacked the Union left at a place called the Round Forest. This position was defended by a brigade under the command of Colonel William Hazen. Hazen’s men withstood four Confederate attacks, stopping the Rebel offensive. The body strewn field was named Hell’s Half Acre by those who survived.
The two sides spent New Year’s Day 1863 resting and preparing to resume the battle, which they did on the afternoon of January 2nd. Bragg ordered Major General John C. Breckinridge’s division to attack the Union division of Colonel Samuel Beatty on the east side of Stones River. Breckinridge was initially successful, pushing back Beatty’s infantry, but his division was cut to pieces by massed Union artillery. A Federal counterattack drove the surviving Confederates back to their lines. Union reinforcements arrived on January 3rd, and Bragg retreated south that night.
Visiting Stones River Battlefield
Although the railroad that ran through Murfreesboro began offering tourist excursions to the battlefield after the war, the national battlefield itself wasn’t established until 1927. Much of the actual battlefield area is now part of the city, but the park preserves many of the important locations where major fighting occurred.
As with most National Park Service sites, the best place to start your visit is the park’s Visitor Center. There, you will find information about the battlefield and knowledgeable people to answer your questions about the battle. There is also an informative film, exhibits, and a bookstore. There is a driving tour of the battlefield; stops include the Slaughter Pen, the Round Forest, and the Union artillery position that carried the day on January 2nd. At the Round Forest stop, there is a monument dedicated to Hazen’s Brigade that was built by Hazen’s men themselves a few months after the battle in 1863. It is the oldest intact Civil War monument. There is also a small cemetery at the site. Not far from the Visitor Center is Stones River National Cemetery, the final resting place for over 6,100 Union soldiers. About 2000 Confederate dead are buried in Evergreen Cemetery about four miles away from the national battlefield in Murfreesboro. Another site of interest a couple of miles southeast of the park is the remnants of Fortress Rosecrans, a defensive fortification and supply depot built in 1863. At 200 acres, this was the largest earthen fort built during the war.
For more information, see the National Park Service’s Stones River National Battlefield website.