previous next

The Union left at Stone's River.

by Thomas L. Crittenden, Major-General, U. S. V.
The battle of Stone's River, Tennessee, on the 31st of December, 1862, and the 2d of January, 1863, was one of the most fiercely contested and bloody conflicts of the war. The two armies that met in this conflict were made up of soldiers who, for the most part, had been disciplined by capable instructors and hardened by service in the field, both having made many long marches, and neither having been strangers to the perils of the battle-field. Moreover, these armies were ably commanded by graduates of the Military Academy at West Point — a military school, I think, not surpassed, if equaled, anywhere else. The duration of the battle, and the long list of the killed and wounded, show the stuff of which the two armies were composed. I do not think that two better armies, as numerous and so nearly matched in strength, ever met in battle.

I had the good fortune to command the left wing of our army, and, thanks to the skill and bravery of the officers and men of my command, the enemy were not able to drive them from our first line of battle. On the 31st of December my extreme left was strongly posted, but my right was in an open field back from the stream. Still it was a fairly strong position by reason of the railroad and the railroad cut and the woods. Thomas's position in the center was not so strong as mine; of McCook's, on our right, I knew nothing; that it was less strong than ours, I presume from the fact that in spite of the most stubborn resistance McCook was driven back two miles or more, the whole right of the [633] army hinging on its center, while the left held its ground. Thomas, with Rousseau's division, including a brigade of regulars (Lieutenant-Colonel O. L. Shepherd's), undertook to support McCook, but they were all driven along. Every time the right was driven in I thought (and I now think) that nothing but a most extraordinary blunder on the part of a soldier of the experience of Bragg hindered him from breaking Rosecrans's army in two and leaving me standing with my troops looking at Murfreesboro‘. It is a pretty well-established maxim in military tactics that you should always press your advantage. Bragg had the advantage; all that he had to do (it seems to me) was to pursue it, and leave me alone with my success. Instead of that, he attempted to drive the left; but he could not drive us; and meanwhile our right was reorganized. I did not know on the 31st when they would come right upon our rear. I was facing Murfreesboro‘. My right division under Palmer changed its place somewhat, to conform to our movements on the right, but that line was maintained by stubborn fighting. Thomas was then not far back, and that helped me more. (McCook was too far away for any protection to my flank.) Rousseau's men were driven out of the woods, a regular dense thicket, and Shepherd's regu lars suffered fearfully in there. They moved in by the head of column. There was no fighting of consequence on the 1st of January.

The last attack made by the enemy was upon my extreme left, on the 2d of January, and it was disastrous to them. Van Cleve's division, under Colonel Samuel Beatty, had crossed the river on the 1st, and Grose and Hazen had followed with their brigades on the 2d. The fight opened on Colonel Beatty's line and lasted about twenty minutes. Before this battle I had been inclined to underrate the importance of artillery in our war, but I never knew that arm to render such important service as at this point. The sound judgment, bravery, and skill of Major John Mendenhall, who was my chief-of-artillery, enabled me to open 58 guns almost simultaneously on Breckinridge's men and to turn a dashing charge into a sudden retreat and rout, in which the enemy lost 1700 or 1800 men in a few moments. I witnessed the effect of this cannonade upon the Confederate advance. Mendenhall's guns were about 100 yards back from the river. Van Cleve's division of my command was retiring down the opposite slope, before overwhelming numbers of the enemy, when the guns, the fire of which had been held till our men should no longer be exposed to it, opened upon the swarming enemy. The very forest seemed to fall before our fire, and rot a Confederate reached the river.1 Mendenhall did not receive adequate recognition in the report of General Rosecrans.2

As to our general's plan of battle, I don't remember that I was ever advised of it. The battle was fought according to the plan of General Bragg. Indeed, our uniform experience was — at Perry-ville, at Stone's River, at Chickamauga — that whenever we went to attack Bragg we were attacked by him, and so our plan had to be extemporized. I knew Bragg. His reputation was that of a martinet. He was a severe disciplinarian, a good soldier, and a hard fighter.

During the fight I had the experience of eating a horse-steak, the only one I ever tasted; it was simply because although we had supplies there we couldn't get at them. I had to go to sleep without my wagon, and as I said something about being hungry, one of the men said: “General, I will get you a first-rate beefsteak.” Next morning I found that the steak had been cut from a horse that had been killed. I didn't know this at the time I ate it.

On the night of the 31st a wagon-train arrived from Nashville escorted by a thousand men, and these men, I learned, were sent back. I won't say whom they were under, but I know I felt and thought it was unwise that a thousand men who hadn't been in the fight at all should be sent away. All the wagons in the world wouldn't have made me send back a thousand fresh men. They could have staid there and eaten horse for a while until they had won the fight.

I regard Rosecrans as of the first order of military mind. He was both brave and generous, impulsively so; in fact, in his impulsiveness lay a military defect, which was to issue too many orders while his men were fighting. When I met him on the field on the 31st I saw the stains of blood on his breast, and exclaimed: “Are you wounded, General?” “Oh, no” said he, “that is the blood of poor Garesche, who has just been killed.” 3

After the fight on the night of the 31st a number of general officers were assembled by Rosecrans's order, including McCook, Thomas, Stanley, and myself. There was some talk of falling back. I do not remember who started the subject, but I do remember that I expressed the opinion that my men would be very much discouraged to have to abandon the field after their good fight of the day, during which they had uniformly held their position. I spoke of the proposition as resembling the suggestion of General Wool to General Taylor at Buena Vista, when Taylor responded: “My wounded are behind me, and I will never pass them alive.” Rosecrans called McCook to accompany him on a ride, [634]

Brigadier-General John H. Morgan, C. S. A. From a photograph.

directing us to remain until their return. McCook has since told me that the purpose of this ride was to find a position beyond Overall's Creek to which the army might retire. Upon approaching the creek Rosecrans, perceiving mounted men moving up and down with torches, said to McCook: “They have got entirely in our rear and are forming a line of battle by torchlight.” They returned then to where we were, and Rosecrans told us to go to our commands and prepare to fight or die. The explanation of the torches is that the men were making fires, and the torches were firing-brands being carried from one point to another by cavalrymen. I had received an order from General Rosecrans not to allow the men to make fires; but upon looking out of my quarters I discovered that the fires were already made from one end of my line to the other. I sent Rosecrans word that as the men were cold and were not being disturbed by the enemy, and as it would take all night to put out the fires, we had better leave them. The men would have suffered very much if they had staid there all night without fire.

The battle was fought for the possession of middle Tennessee. We went down to drive the Confederates out of Murfreesboro‘, and we drove them out. They went off a few miles and camped again. And we, although we were the victors, virtually went into hospital for six months before we could march after them again. Whether we would take Murfreesboro' or go back to Nashville was doubtful until the last moment. As in most of our battles, very meager fruits resulted to either side from such partial victories as were for the most part won. Yet it was a triumph. It showed that in the long run the big purse and the big battalions — both on our side — must win; and it proved that there were no better soldiers than ours.

The results of the battle were not what we had hoped, and yet there was a general feeling of elation. One day, after we had gone into Murfreesboro‘, I accompanied General Rosecrans in a ride about our camp. We had come across some regiment or brigade that was being drilled, and they raised a shout, and as he rode along he took off his cap and said: “All right, boys, all right; Bragg's a good dog, but Hold Fast's a better.” This well expressed my feeling as to the kind of victory we had won.

1 General Breckinridge says in his report:

It now appeared that the ground we had won was commanded by the enemy's batteries, within easy range, on better ground, upon the other side of the river. I do not know how many guns he had. He had enough to sweep the whole position from the front, the left, and the right, and to render it wholly untenable by our force present of artillery and infantry.


2 The fact being that the enemy were repulsed and flying in confusion before the terrific guns of my chief-of-artillery, Major John Mendenhall, and were only pursued by Negley and Morton, as they were also pursued by portions of my command under Cruft, Hazen, Grose, and a part of General Jefferson C. Davis's command.--T. L. C.

3 Lieutenant-Colonel Julius P. Garesche, assistant adjutant-general, U S. A., and since November 13th chief-of-staff of the Army of the Cumberland, was killed on the afternoon of the 31st of December, by a shell which carried off his head after narrowly missing General Rosecrans.--editors.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
December 31st (2)
January 2nd, 1863 AD (1)
December 31st, 1862 AD (1)
1800 AD (1)
1700 AD (1)
November 13th (1)
January 2nd (1)
January 1st (1)
2nd (1)
1st (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: