Irish-born Confederate States Army General Patrick Cleburne commands a division in the Battle of Stones River, also known as the Second Battle of Murfreesboro, one of the fiercest battles of the Western theater of the American Civil War. The battle takes place in Middle Tennessee from December 31, 1862 to January 2, 1863.
In early December 1862, the transfer of Confederate General Simon Bolivar Buckner creates a vacancy for a division command in General Braxton Bragg‘s Army of Tennessee. There is no man in that Army who can breathe a word against the promotion of Patrick Ronayne Cleburne to that post, nor the promotion to major general that goes with it. Usually the months of December and January are quiet times, with soldiers in winter camps, but Union Major General William S. Rosecrans intends to drive Bragg’s army from Tennessee, winter or not.
Rosecrans’s Army of the Cumberland marches from Nashville, Tennessee, on December 26, 1862, to challenge Bragg’s Army of Tennessee at Murfreesboro. Bragg awaits his advance along Stones River, just west of Murfreesboro.
On December 31, each army commander plans to attack his opponent’s right flank, but Bragg has a shorter distance to go and thus strikes first. Cleburne’s division is on the Confederate left. A massive assault by the corps of Major General William J. Hardee, followed by that of Leonidas Polk, overruns the wing commanded by Major General Alexander M. McCook and drives the corps from the field. Union General Thomas Crittenden, observing from a distance, says it is the first time the Army of the Cumberland has ever seen such panic.
A stout defense by the division of Brigadier General Philip Sheridan in the right center of the line prevents a total collapse, and the Union assumes a tight defensive position backing up to the Nashville Turnpike. Repeated Confederate attacks are repulsed from this concentrated line, most notably in the cedar “Round Forest” salient against the brigade of Colonel William B. Hazen. Bragg attempts to continue the assault with the division of Major General John C. Breckinridge, but the troops are slow in arriving and their multiple piecemeal attacks fail.
Later, Confederate Corps commander William Hardee expresses his belief that had a fresh division followed up Cleburne’s, Rosecrans entire army would have been routed. Night falls, however, and the two armies bring in the New Year sleeping on their arms. Rosecran’s army is badly whipped, but it stays put on January 1st.
Bragg is cautious and only probes to discover if the Union army is still there. The Union army has fortified their position to the west of the river, in front of Cleburne. Bragg decides to attack them east of the river. Fighting resumes on January 2, 1863, when Bragg orders Breckinridge to assault a lightly defended Union position on a hill to the east of the Stones River. Chasing the retreating Union forces, this attack is successful at first, but they are led into a deadly trap. Faced with overwhelming artillery, the Confederates are repulsed with heavy losses. Bragg chooses to withdraw his army on January 3 to Tullahoma, Tennessee. Though his army has abandoned the field, Cleburne’s performance in his first battle as a major general has been outstanding. His eventual rise to corps command seems certain, but factors away from the battlefield prevent that.
The battle ends in a victory for the Union army following the Confederate army’s withdrawal on January 3, largely due to a series of tactical miscalculations by Confederate General Braxton Bragg, but the victory is costly for the Union army. Nevertheless, it is an important victory for the Union because it provides a much-needed boost in morale after the Union’s recent defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg and also reinforces President Abraham Lincoln‘s foundation for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, which ultimately discourages European powers from intervening on the Confederacy’s behalf.