Illinois Regiments in the Battle of Stones River
(Murfreesboro, Tennessee)
(December 31, 1862 - January 3, 1863)


In late 1862, the Union war effort was not going well. After initial success at Ft Donelson and Shiloh, Grant’s Army of the Tennessee had bogged down in repeated attempts to capture Vicksburg, Mississippi. In the East, the new Army of the Potomac commander Burnside had suffered a disasterous loss at Fredericksburg, Virginia. As a result, pressure was on Major General William Rosecrans to get some positive results with his 14th Army Corps (soon to be renamed as the Army of the Cumberland).

Rosecrans was based in Nashville where he had returned after Confederate General Braxton Bragg and his Army of Tennessee had pulled out of Kentucky after being defeated at Perryville. Bragg had gone into winter quarters in Murfreesboro, just 30 miles southeast of Nashville along the railroad and an all-weather road (the Nashville Pike).

On December 26, 1862, Rosecrans started his 14th Corps out from Nashville to meet and engage the enemy and drive him from central Tennessee. Rosecrans had divided his army into three wings (Right, Center, and Left) under Major Generals McCook, Thomas, and Crittenden, respectively. The Left Wing kept to the Nashville Pike, while the other two wings took routes to the south of the road. While there was some skirmishing with Confederate units along the way, a general engagement was avoided through the night of December 30. The two armies had aligned themselves in a roughly north-south line astride the railroad and the pike with the bulk of both forces south of the highway. The Stones River ran near to the pike at this point but was north of the road.

Bragg’s Army of Tennessee was divided into two Corps, under Polk and Hardee. The Orphan Brigade of Kentucky under Breckinridge was posted on the north side of the river to defend the army’s flank.

As night fell on December 30, both sides were planning a major attack for the next morning. Coincidently, both commanders were planning an attack on the right of their opponents lines. Rosecrans planned to put a force across the river and push Bragg away from his line of communication on the railroad while his own right held the remaining Confederate forces in place. Bragg planned to sweep up the Union right and push them into a bend in the river and destroy them. Bragg just got his attack started earlier.

At daylight, long lines of Confederate infantry shocked the sleepy Union troops who expected nothing more than a holding action that day. The Union troops hastily formed lines until they were outflanked and retreated back towards the highway to the north. Unfortunately for the Confederates, their pursuit of the retreating Union troops drew them farther west than Bragg’s plan had called for and would cause much confusion between units and spread out the confederate line.

The only Union troops not caught unprepared that morning were in the Division of Brigadier General Phil Sheridan. His brigade commanders were uneasy about their positions and had heard movement in their front throughout the night. To be prepared, Sheridan had his troops awakened early. By the time of the confederate attack, Sheridan’s troops had already been fed and were waiting. The fighting was fierce as wave after wave of Confederates attacked Sheridan’s holdout position. All three of Sheridan’s brigade commanders were killed (Roberts, Sill, and Schaefer). Finally, Sheridan was forced to pull back due to lack of ammunition and the fact that units to his right were falling back. However, the determined stand of his troops had blunted and delayed the progress of the Confederate attack and gave the retreating union troops time to reorganize a defensive line along the pike.

After Sheridan’s withdrawl, the focus of the Confederate attack turned to the Round Forest. This area was a slight wooded rise with clear approaches. It was the southern end of the Union line along the pike and had to be held if the Army of the Cumberland was to survive. The brigade of William Hazen was positioned with clear fields in front and good artillery support. Throughout the fight, new units were fed into the Union line to stop the attack.

By nightfall, the Union army had been pushed back like the blade of a knife until it rested entirely along the railroad and the pike. However, this still meant that they had control of their lines of communications back to their base at Nashville. Bragg expected that when morning dawned the next day that the Union troops would have withdrawn during the night giving him the victory. As such, no plans were made for attack the next day. But as the sun came up the next day, the Union troops were still in place and didn’t look like they were going anywhere. Both sides spent the day resting and looking across the fields at their opponents.

Frustrated that the Union troops would not leave, Bragg noticed that the Union troops held a hill on the north side of the river that commanded some of his lines. Bragg ordered Breckenridge to attack the position late in the day on January 2, so that Union troops would not have enough time to counter-attack in the daylight. While he was unsure about the wisdom of the attack, Breckenridge moved his trooops forward and drove the Union off of the hill, but as his troops pursued, them came into range of massed artillery on the other side of the river that decimated his forces. His troops were decimated and forced to withdraw, drawing the battle to a close. Bragg pulled his forces back to a line south of Murfreesboro, ending the Battle of Stones River. (Link to Map of Region and Battle) Bragg’s subordinates were incensed at him for pulling back, and began a campaign to remove Bragg from command, that would continue to cause difficulties in the Army of Tennessee until Bragg stepped down from command a year later after the battles of Chattanooga.

While tactically indecisive, the Union was left in possession of the battlefield and declared a victory. The battle so weakened both armies, that neither moved out of camp for 6 months. Total casualties for the two days of fighting was over 23,000 for both sides.

One other significant event occurred that had later ramifications. During the battle, Rosecrans’ chief of staff Lt. Colonel Julius Garesche, was decapitated by a cannonball. His replacement after the battle as chief of staff was Brig. General James A. Garfield, later the 20th President of the United States.

The Illinois regiments which took part in the Battle of Stones River are listed below. The links will take you to the regimental pages.

Source: Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Dyer's Compendium

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