The Winter Campaign of 1862 and the Battle of Murfreesboro

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR

 By Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

The winter campaign of 1862 took place in Tennessee and was unusual because campaigns were rarely carried out in the winter. It culminated with the Battle of Murfreesboro, also known as the Battle of Stone’s River, and even though it witnessed a lot of carnage and bloodshed, the battle did not create any significant ripples in the strategic dynamics of the time. 

A painting entitled 'Battle of Stone's River' depicting William Rosecrans leading his men to the Battle of Murfreesboro, or Stone's River.
William Rosecrans led the Union army in the Battle of Murfreesboro against the Confederates. (Image: Kurz and Allison/Public domain)

The winter campaign saw the Confederate army being led by Braxton Braggs, fighting against the Union leader, William Stark Rosecrans. They met each other after Bragg’s army, having retreated from Tennessee after being defeated by Buell, met with Rosecrans’s army, which had been moving toward Murfreesboro, a little south of Tennessee. The two armies came together about a mile apart. 

After having a battle of bands and overnight band performances, the armies began planning their offense the very next day. 

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Beginning the Battle

The situation at this front was very similar to that which had been when Beauregard and McDowell had been planning to launch attacks on each other, during the Battle of First Manassas. In both situations, each of the sides had planned to attack the other’s flanks—the left flank in Manassas, and the right flank here. No frontal assault was planned. 

Here, the Confederates launched their assaults first. Bragg’s men began moving at dawn on December 31, 1862, hoping to pin Rosecrans’s army against Stone’s River and cut Rosecrans off from his direct route to Nashville. The Confederate assaults went well at first. Two Federal divisions were essentially swept from the field. 

Chromolithograph of the Battle of Bull Run, or the Battle of First Manassas.
The Battle of Murfreesboro was often compared to the Battle of First Manassas, although its strategic impact was far less than the latter. (Image: Kurz & Allison/Public domain)

Rosecrans, however, displayed exemplary behavior during the fight, moving up toward the fight and taking an extremely active role in trying to keep his troops together.

There was a point where he was riding with his chief of staff near him, and a Confederate cannonball decapitated his chief of staff, splattering blood and gray matter all over Rosecrans, who was so focused on what needed to be done to keep the Union lines intact that he was oblivious to what had happened to his officer.

Learn more about the Battle of First Manassas.

The Role of Sheridan in the Battle

The young soldier, Philip H. Sheridan, played a significant role in the war. His Union division also made key impacts during the Battle of Murfreesboro. Sheridan would end up as one of the great Union soldiers of the war. He would end up moving east with Grant when Grant went east in 1864 and would become the commander of all of Grant’s cavalry during the Overland campaign and eventually would be an army commander in the Shenandoah Valley. 

In this battle, Sheridan held his division together in the face of massive Confederate attacks. Three of his brigade commanders were killed, and a third of his men were shot down, but he helped keep the Union line intact. The fighting was in fact so fierce that a little piece of the landscape, a four-acre piece of forest, became known as Hell’s Half Acre. 

Learn more about Union triumphs in the west.

Different Opinions of the Fight

Bragg, in this fight, was unable to defeat Rosecrans’s army, though he pushed back and made Rosecrans reconfigure his lines. Still, Bragg thought he had a victory, similar to what had happened at Perryville, where he was quite certain of his victory. In Murfreesboro, he sent a telegram to Richmond announcing his success right after the first day of fighting. 

On the Union side, some officers suggested that the Army of Cumberland should retreat, thinking that they had been beaten. Rosecrans, however, held fast, and the next day each side shifted some troops to the east side across Stone’s River. This was New Year’s day, and while some realignment took place, not a lot of fighting did. 

Advancing into the Battle

Portrait of Braxton Bragg.
Braxton Bragg was notorious for his aggressive behavior, and he had infamously, in the heat of the moment, declared success, only to retreat later on. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

After the first bout, Bragg expected Rosecrans to retreat. This did not happen though, and on January 2, Bragg decided to renew his assaults. After speaking to his subordinates, he decided that he wanted to attack a part of Rosecrans’s line on the east side of Stone’s River that had considerable artillery support.

Given the clear artillery support afforded by this place, his lieutenants were against this attack. It looked like too strong a position to attack, but Bragg overruled them. Unknown to them at the time, this decision was going to cause tension that would linger long after the battle. After this battle, recriminations were directed toward Bragg by his lieutenants, who had been opposing the launch of the attack from the beginning. 

The attack was indeed launched, and it turned out to be an abysmal failure. The Southern forces opened an attack on a strong Union position. In return, 58 Union cannons raked the attackers at one time or another, resulting in piles and piles of Confederate casualties.

This was an instance of Bragg’s aggressive behavior, and there were, in fact, many more such instances. Unfortunately, his aggressive behavior did not seem to be the kind that yielded any significant results on the battlefield except for huge casualties. 

Learn more about Confederate leadership.

Retreat of the Confederates

On January 2, after the second day of hard fighting, Bragg drew back, deciding that his position near Murfreesboro was no longer a feasible one. Worried about his supplies and the number of casualties he had raked up, Bragg was not left with any confidence from his principal subordinates or the men in his ranks.

Left with an army without much faith in its commander, Bragg decided to retreat. The Army of Tennessee fell back about 35 miles to the south on January 3 and 4. This became another instance of Bragg announcing success and then having to retreat. 

Outcome of the Battle

The battle left behind it massive bloodshed. This battle was the bloodiest one of the Civil War, in terms of percentages of armies lost as casualties—12,000 Confederate casualties, making up a third of Bragg’s army, and 13,000 Federal casualties, another third of Rosecrans’s army, were lost in this battle. Even worse was the fact that the battle ended without a decisive result. 

After the battle, while Bragg was still in Middle Tennessee, simply falling back to a position closer to the Georgia border, Rosecrans did not pursue him.

Given that this was a much better outcome than a defeat would have been, Lincoln was quite pleased with the Confederate retreat, which could at least be construed as a Union victory, though not as decisive as it should have been.

Common Questions about the Battle of Murfreesboro

Q: What was the result of the Battle of Murfreesboro?

The Battle of Murfreesboro resulted in huge casualties on both the sides. This is regarded as the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. In terms of percentages of armies lost as casualties—12,000 Confederate casualties, making up a third of Bragg’s army, and 13,000 Federal casualties, another third of Rosecrans’s army, were lost in this battle.

Q: At the turn of the New Year, how did Bragg react to Rosecrans’s strategy?

After the arduous fighting that had already taken place during the Battle of Murfreesboro, Braxton Bragg expected Rosecrans to retreat. When this did not happen, Bragg decided to renew his assaults and attack a part of Rosecrans’s line on the east side of Stone’s River that had considerable artillery support. Given the clear artillery strength of this position, his lieutenants were against this attack. When this attack finally went through, it backfired abysmally.

Q: Why did Bragg have to retreat on January 2, 1863?

After his attacks on the strong artillery position did not work, Bragg decided to retreat from Murfreesboro. He was worried about dwindling supplies and the increasing casualties on his side. Further, he realized that neither his subordinates nor his men had any confidence in him now.

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