Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A bloody New Year in middle Tennessee

By 1st Lt. William Carraway
Media Relations Officer, Public Affairs Office
Dec. 16, 2012

Following his October 8, 1862 defeat at Perryville, Ky., Maj. Gen. Braxton Bragg, commander of the Army of Mississippi, withdrew leaving Kentucky in control of the Union. Facing a lack of supplies and dwindling prospects for success, Bragg’s army fell back through Cumberland Gap eventually reaching the town of Murfreesboro, Tenn. in late November 1862. Bragg’s army was reorganized and redesignated as the Army of Tennessee, a sobriquet it would carry until its tattered remnants disintegrated at the Siege of Nashville two years later.

Ordered to send reinforcements to bolster Confederate defenses at Vicksburg, Miss., Bragg’s army had dwindled to just two corps under command of Maj. Gens. William Hardee and Leonidas Polk. Author of Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics, Hardee had literally written the book of tactics by which the Civil War was largely fought. Polk meanwhile was a political appointee who had served as a Bishop in the Episcopal Church prior to the War. While Hardee and Polk had widely dissimilar backgrounds they were united in their contempt and distrust of Bragg – a sentiment shared by most of their division commanders.

Whereas Bragg dealt with a divided command, Union Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans faced pressure of a different kind. Rosecrans was Abraham Lincoln’s choice to replace Don Carlos Buell who, like previous Union generals, had failed to move with the alacrity the chief executive demanded. As Rosecrans set out from Nashville in pursuit of Bragg, the memory of the Battle of Fredericksburg, not two weeks old, hung over the North with a thick melancholy. The Union needed victories, and Lincoln made it clear, if Rosecrans did not deliver them the President would find someone who would.

Bragg’s defense of Murfreesboro was dual purposed. Strategically, he hoped to place himself in a position to challenge a Union drive against Chattanooga. At the same time, Murfreesboro, an early capitol of Tennessee was a political prize. Choosing a line based not on tactical defensibility but on political expediency, Bragg went into position amidst the rocky outcroppings and dense cedar forests near the banks of the Stones River outside of Murfreesboro.

(Click to enlarge)
Rosecrans’ 41,000 Soldiers gradually approached Bragg’s 35,000 man force. Rosecrans moved cautiously, probing for the enemy which had been hidden from him by effective cavalry screening operations. 

Confederate Cavalry, including the 1st Georgia, had harried the Union’s approach, striking isolated elements, disrupting supply lines, and forcing Rosecrans to commit resources. By the time Rosecrans’ army went into bivouac on the evening of December 30, 1862, the two armies were within rifle range of each other, yet Rosecrans was not aware of the numbers he faced.

In the chill December night, Soldiers of both armies regarded each other from distant campfires. Union and Confederate bands struck up airs and the Soldiers were united in song and dread. As the bands played, the rival commanders devised essentially the same battle plan – strike the other on the right flank with the coming of dawn.

In the predawn hours of December 31st, Soldiers of Maj. Gen. Richard Johnson’s division were cooking their breakfast in camp on the Union right. As coffee simmered, Union Soldiers were puzzled to see deer and rabbits bound from the woods to their south. These were followed by 10,000 Confederates of Hardee’s Corps who smashed into their camps with a fury. Two Georgia battalions, the 3rd and 9th, were part of this initial assault.

In the center of Hardee’s line, the division of Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne fell upon the Union lines capturing several artillery pieces. Cleburne, already famed as “The Stonewall of the West” was known North and South for his ferocity in battle. His regiments carried distinctive battle flags composed of a blue field with a white moon rather than the traditional Confederate Battle Flags. These standards now pursued the shattered remains of Johnson’s Division which had lost 50% of its strength in the brief rout. The Union Division of the improbably named Jefferson Davis attempted to make a stand but was also swept aside. Over the course of four hours the Union right would be driven three miles. Ultimately the Union line was shaped like a V with Hardee to the left and Polk to the right.

As Hardee’s attack was reaching maximum effect, Polk launched his offensive. Two corps level assaults converged on the division of Maj. Gen. Phillip Sheridan. Unlike Johnson, Sheridan had prepared his troops for a morning assault, but their fight in what was to be known as the Slaughter Pen defied expectation. Two divisions of Polk’s corps struck Sheridan. Cleburne’s division then fell upon Sheridan’s flank. Pressed on three sides, Sheridan’s Soldiers paid dearly for the time purchased for Rosecrans to establish a second line of defense. The fury of the Slaughter Pen claimed one third of Sheridan’s men and the lives of his three brigade commanders.

5th Georgia, 1861
The effect of the actions of December 3st1 was to concentrate Union forces into a compact perimeter. During a council of war on the morning of the New Year, Rosecrans determined to continue the fight but deferred attack in order to shift forces. He ordered the troops of Maj. Gen. Thomas Crittenden to cross to the east side of Stones River and occupy favorable terrain. Bragg too resolved to fight but did not order an assault as he believed that Rosecrans would withdraw. January 1st passed with no general engagement.

By the afternoon of January 2nd, Bragg resolved to dislodge the isolated elements of Crittenden’s wing. He ordered Maj. Gen. and former vice president John C. Breckinridge to attack with his division among which was the 5th Georgia whose men were from nine different counties.

Breckenridge smashed into the Union positions and met with initial success; however, the Union had placed more than 45 artillery pieces hub-to-hub in a flanking position on the west bank of the river. These pieces were perfectly positioned to wipe Breckenridge’s men from the field and more than a third of Breckenridge’s division was killed in about an hour on that field.

With Breckenridge’s advance blunted Bragg realized that the Union was not going to retreat. Indeed, it would soon receive reinforcement. In light of his losses and the coming threat of winter, Bragg retreated to more favorable positions near Tullahoma, Tenn.

Of the 76,000 men who fought at Murfreesboro nearly 25,000 became casualties – the highest per capita casualty rate of the war. The 5th Georgia’s colors were captured and the regiment suffered 37% casualties including their Colonel. The unit would be even more sorely pressed at the Battle of Chickamauga where more than 55% of its men would fall. The events of this battle will be covered in a subsequent article.

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