Volume XXVIII Issue #6 • An Excerpt From:

The Battle of Stones River

by Jim Lewis

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Note: All Blue & Gray feature articles are annotated.

McFadden’s Ford on Stones River. This crossing was used throughout the battle and bore
witness to the engagement’s final drama.

Union General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck in Washington wrote to Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans on December 4, 1862:

The President is very impatient at your long stay in Nashville. The favorable season for your campaign will soon be over. As I wrote you when you took command, the government demands action, and if you cannot respond to that demand someone else will be tried.

That message reverberated with the desperation felt by a President and a nation in need of a victory. The Union war machine had lost its momentum after Confederate offensives into Maryland and Kentucky during the late summer and fall of 1862. The Northern populace began to feel as though the terrible sacrifices of the past year had come to naught, and they let the Lincoln administration know of their displeasure in November’s congressional elections.

The summer and fall of 1862 had not been kind to the Union. The heady days of seemingly inevitable victory seemed to evaporate as the temperature rose. The Seven Days Battles during the last week of June broke Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s will at the gates of Richmond. The Army of Northern Virginia and its new commander, Gen. Robert E. Lee, followed that with a crushing victory at Manassas and an invasion of Maryland that ended with the bloodiest day of the war at Antietam Creek on September 17, 1862. McClellan had had enough by then and refused to move his army, despite Abraham Lincoln’s pleas and threats for action.

The turning of the tide was even more disconcerting in the West. During the first six months of 1862, Union forces had dealt crushing blows to the Confederacy. Land and naval forces plunged southward through Kentucky and Tennessee into northern Mississippi and Alabama even as other hosts rolled up the Mississippi River from the south. Nashville and New Orleans were in Federal hands as was the Mississippi River north and south of Vicksburg. By late July, Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio was heading slowly but surely toward the key city of Chattanooga. If that city fell, all of Tennessee would fall to the Union and the way into the Deep South would be open.

Then Gen. Braxton Bragg stole the march on Buell, using rivers and rail to transfer his army to Chat-tanooga, then pushed north into Kentucky forcing the Federals to give chase. Bragg’s offensive ended with the bloody Battle of Perryville on October 8, 1862. Buell, like his friend and benefactor McClellan, exerted little or no effort to pursue the disorganized Confederates as they fell back into Tennessee.

Despite Lincoln’s decision to replace both McClellan and Buell, it seemed as though the Union advance had ground to a complete halt. To make matters worse, the President had issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation after the victory at Antietam. He had waited for a victory to announce his intention to make slavery an official target of the Union war effort. The setbacks and ensuing malaise of his armies now threatened to make the proclamation seem like an act of desperation, which would rob it of any power to transform the conflict into something more meaningful. Lincoln needed a victory—and soon!

Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans took command of the Army of the Cumberland on October 30, 1862, while it languished in Bowling Green, Ky. “Old Rosy,” a nickname from his West Point years adopted quickly by his men, immediately began to size up his army, knowing he had inherited Lincoln’s call for action from his predecessor.

Rosecrans began by assembling his staff headed by his friend Lt. Col. Julius P. Garesché, who had been instrumental in the general’s conversion to Catholicism. Rosecrans turned to reorganizing his army into three corps-sized wings and choosing his immediate subordinates. Rosecrans knew and admired Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas from their days at West Point. He hoped Thomas would help him get to know and control his new command. This was despite some early conflict between them over whose appointment to major general had come first. Rosecrans told Thomas: “You, McCook, and Crittenden have all been with [the Army of Ohio] from the beginning. You and I have been friends for many years and I will especially need your support and advice.” Once the issue of seniority was resolved in Rosecrans’ favor, the experienced and reliable Virginian (Thomas) became the commander of the five division Center Wing.

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