The summer and autumn of 1862 had been disappointing for the Union. By the end of May Federal forces had broken the Confederate line in Tennessee, defeated the Confederate counterstroke at Shiloh, occupied western Tennessee and cleared the Mississippi almost to Memphis, which fell the following month. Henry Halleck had a massive army at Corinth. Over the next few months that army was broken up. Confederate counterattacks had been launched in west Tennessee and east Kentucky. The Tennessee attack had come to nothing after defeats at Iuka (19 September 1862) and Corinth (3-4 October 1862), but the main attack, into Kentucky under General Braxton Bragg, had reached far into the north of that state, before coming to grief at Perryville (8 October).
After that battle, Bragg had retreated back into Tennessee, and then taken up a defensive position at Murfreesborough, Tennessee, where he blocked the route of any Federal advance towards Chattanooga, a crucial rail junction.
While Bragg remained in command of the Confederate army despite the failure of his invasion of Kentucky and widespread discontent amongst his senior officers, his Federal opponent at Perryville, General Don Carlos Buell, was not so lucky. His slow advance from Corinth towards Chattanooga had given Bragg the chance to launch that invasion in the first place, so when after Perryville he retired to Nashville Lincoln lost patience with him. On 30 October Buell was replaced by General Rosecrans in command of what became known as the Army of the Cumberland.
Rosecrans had played a significant part in the victories at Iuka and Corinth. Once in command at Nashville it became clear that he was not much faster than Buell. However, although he wasn’t moving, he was preparing. Finally, on 26 December he was ready. Four days later, on 30 December, he took up a position two miles north west of Murfreesboro and prepared to attack the Confederate lines.
The two armies were comparatively similar in size. On 31 December Rosecrans had 43,400 effectives, Bragg 37,712. Compared to most Civil War battles, this was very favourable for the Confederates, especially as they might be expected to be on the defensive. However, Bragg was not ready to stand on the defensive.
Both Bragg and Rosecrans had essentially the same plan in mind for 31 December. Both men had decided to launch an attack on their opponent’s right flank, and positioned their troops with this in mind. The advantage would go to whoever launched their attack first.
It was Bragg who moved quickest on 31 December. His left wing under General Hardee crumpled up Rosecran’s right wing, under General McCook. The Federal right was forced back three miles. Bragg came very close to cutting Rosecran’s lines of communication back to Nashville.
Rosecrans responded well to the crisis. He rushed reinforcements from his own left wing, no longer needed for the cancelled attack. He was also fortunate to have two of the most determined Union generals of the war in the centre of his line. Commanding the centre was General Thomas, later to find fame for another determined stand at Chickamauga. Just to his right, McCook’s leftmost division was commanded by Philip Sheridan. Sheridan’s three brigades each lost their commander, and suffered heavy losses, but they managed to delay the Confederate advance. Even he was forced back, until by midday the Union line had been turned round by ninety degrees and pushed back up against the Nashville Turnpike. Only on the far left were Rosecran’s men able to hold their original line.
Bragg now focused his attacks on the hinge where the old Federal line met the new one, at a point known as the Round Forest. Here Bragg’s right wing, under General John C. Breckinridge, was repulsed. The new Federal line held.
Despite this, that night Bragg sent a telegraph to Richmond announcing a victory and reporting that Rosecrans was retreating. At about the same time Rosecrans was holding a council of war, at which he decided to stand his ground.
New Years Day saw relatively little action. The main event of the day saw Rosecrans move a force onto a hill east of the Stone’s River, from where they threatened part of Bragg’s line. The next day, Bragg launched an attack on this position, driving the Federal force off the hill. However, the attacking force was now dangerously exposed to Federal fire from the other side of the river, and was forced to retreat after suffering heavy losses.
Having reported a victory after the first day of the battle, after two further days of fighting Bragg was still faced by a Union army in substantially the same positions that it had held after the first days fighting. Worse, Rosecrans was being reinforced. On 3 January Bragg decided to retreat.
Both sides suffered heavy losses at Murfreesborough. Rosecrans suffered 13,249 casualties (1,730 killed, 7,802 wounded and 3,717 missing or captured). Bragg lost 10,266 men (1,294 killed, 7,945 wounded and 1,207 missing or captured). Rosecrans’s victory came at crucial moment. Two weeks earlier the Army of the Potomac had suffered a humiliating defeat at Fredericksburg. On 29 December General Sherman had suffered a similar reverse at Chickasaw Bluffs. President Lincoln considered the victory at Murfreesborough as one of the most important of the war, coming at such a low moment.
Its local results were somewhat disappointing. Rosecrans’s army had suffered too heavily to follow up their victory. Once again he settled down to prepare carefully for his next campaign. It would be six months before Rosecrans made his next move, and nearly nine months before he would finally capture Chattanooga.