By Jim Burran Dalton Civil War 150th Commission
Following the October, 1862, Battle of Perryville, Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg was anxious to silence his critics. Though the battle itself was a tactical Confederate victory, Bragg’s Kentucky Campaign had stalled and his Army of the Mississippi was now on its way back to East Tennessee.
A number of factors contributed to this reversal of fortunes, but among the most significant of these was that Bragg had run out of ammunition and provisions. Cold and dispirited, his soldiers straggled south until they reached the railroad at Morristown, Tenn. There they boarded the cars for Chattanooga.
Instead of giving his men time to rest and refit upon arrival, Bragg issued orders for the army to continue by rail to Bridgeport, Ala., where it crossed the Tennessee River by ferry boat and moved north to Tullahoma, arriving toward the end of November. This was the staging point Bragg had chosen for an advance on Nashville.
Burning with desire to restore his reputation, Bragg wanted to mount an immediate thrust on the Union supply depot at Nashville and destroy the army garrisoned there. This was the same force that he had engaged in Kentucky, but the Army of the Cumberland was now commanded by Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans. Significantly reinforced, Rosecrans had 80,000 men at his disposal.
During the first week in December, Bragg put his newly renamed Army of Tennessee in motion for Murfreesboro. Most of his 37,000 soldiers had no winter clothing, yet snow covered the ground. One of these soldiers, Pvt. Sam Watkins of the 1st Tennessee Infantry Regiment, commented after the war that Bragg “loved to crush the spirit of his men. The more of a hang-dog look they had about them the better was General Bragg pleased.”
By mid-December the Confederates were deployed just north of Murfreesboro in a line that stretched almost 50 miles to guard the major roads leading down from Nashville. Rosecrans accepted the invitation thus presented and put his columns in motion on the day after Christmas. Leaving almost half of his available force at Nashville, the Federal commander marched south with 47,000 men. Skirmishing began almost immediately.
Apparently surprised by Rosecrans’s aggressive intentions, Bragg hurriedly consolidated his forces into a battle line running southwest to northeast with Stones River dividing it into two parts. On the night of Dec. 30, with the two armies now in range of each other, regimental bands on each side began a back-and-forth concert that could be heard by everyone on the field. This spontaneous musical interlude concluded with all of the bands joining together in “Home, Sweet Home.”
Battle begins at dawn
Determined to strike the first blow, Bragg gave orders for a dawn assault against the Federal right flank. Early on the morning of Dec. 31, two divisions from Lt. Gen. William Hardee’s corps struck Maj. Gen. Alexander McCook’s Union corps, catching it by surprise and rolling it up at a 90 degree angle. Stunned, Rosecrans was not able to mount much of a response. That afternoon, Southern troops assaulted the other end of the Union line but the attack was poorly coordinated and gained nothing. The day ended with a Confederate victory all but assured, and Bragg predicted that Rosecrans would retreat that night.
But Rosecrans did not retreat. Instead, he spent Jan. 1 fortifying the Army of the Cumberland’s lines. Caught off balance by this unexpected response, Bragg did nothing until the afternoon of Jan. 2 when he launched another attack against the Union left. Too few troops were thrown into the effort and it failed.
On Jan. 3, Bragg held a council of war with his subordinate field commanders. Casualties had reduced the Army of Tennessee’s strength by 30 percent and it no longer packed much of a punch. Everyone present agreed that Bragg must retreat to save the army for another day, and that night the withdrawal began.
The Confederate army limped back to Tullahoma and went into winter quarters. Rosecrans, having lost 25 percent of his soldiers as casualties in the recent battle, was in no position to pursue. Even when spring came, the Union commander resisted all efforts to get moving, despite the Lincoln Administration’s repeated entreaties. It would be June before the Army of the Cumberland could be stirred into action.
In the meantime, trouble was brewing for Bragg. Since being elevated to command of the Army of Tennessee in June 1862, Bragg had planned and executed two major offensives: one into Kentucky and the other toward Nashville. In both cases his army had won tactical victories only to retreat immediately thereafter. This pattern spawned internal dissention among Bragg’s subordinate commanders and severely tested the morale of his soldiers.
War front near Dalton
Six months after the Battle of Stones River, Rosecrans finally launched an offensive toward Chattanooga. Flanking Bragg out of Tullahoma and then Chattanooga with barely a shot fired, the Army of the Cumberland edged into the northwestern corner of Georgia in early September. Rosecrans, by this time flushed with success, assumed that Bragg’s army had fallen back to Rome or perhaps even Atlanta. Little did the Union commander know that the Army of Tennessee was preparing for his destruction along the banks of Chickamauga Creek.
Meanwhile, residents in Dalton anxiously awaited news from the front as Federal columns crept closer. Unless Bragg could find a way to stop the bluecoats, everyone knew that the Dalton area and the Western & Atlantic Railroad would be Rosecrans’s next target.
This article is part of a series of stories about Dalton and life in Dalton during the Civil War. The stories run on Sunday and are provided by the Dalton Civil War 150th Commission. To find out more about the commission go to www.dalton150th.com. If you have material that you would like to contribute for a future article contact Robert Jenkins at (706) 259-4626 or email@example.com.