Part one in a three-part series on the Battle of Stones River and its aftermath.
The total number of horses and mules killed during the Civil War has been determined to have been more than one million. Photo courtesy of Stones River National Battlefield
Whether you’re engaged directly in hand-to-hand combat or dealing with the hardships of indirect warfare, the fight for survival is a battle in and of itself.
The Battle of Stones River was no exception.
The suffering extended far beyond the lines of battle and virtually every man, woman and child was affected; in fact, very few living creatures were fortunate enough to escape its wrath.
Battles finally reach conclusion – somebody wins and somebody looses – and armies move on to start the process all over again, another day, in another locale, until final resolution is determined.
But what about the site just vacated?
Unfortunately, the occupants of a town can’t just pack up and take off to a new and cleaner environment – one free from dead and dying men and animals, one that does not still smell strongly of gun powder, one that has not been decimated by the shells of opposing armies.
They are left to deal with the aftermath of battle, which in many ways was worse than the battle itself.
This is what faced the residents of Murfreesboro as Dec. 31, 1862, came to an end.
After the first day of fighting closed, a prematurely exultant Gen. Braxton Bragg wired Confederate President Jefferson Davis, “The field is ours and the enemy is falling back. God has granted us a happy New Year.”
But the coming dawn would prove that not to be the case for the Confederate Army and the blood that had been shed during the previous day’s battle and that which was yet to flow brought the citizens of Murfreesboro into action, and they were ready to do what they could to relieve the suffering.
On Jan. 1, 1863, the Daily Rebel Banner newspaper carried a list of hospitals and the commands with which they were associated:
• Wither’s Division, Baptist Female Institute
• Cheatham’s Division, Soule Female College
• McCown’s Division, Old Academy
• Wood’s Brigade, Methodist Church
• Johnson’s Brigade, Presbyterian Church
• Polk’s Brigade, Baptist Church
• Liddel’s Brigade, Old Presbyterian Church
• Hanson’s Brigade, City Hotel
• Palmer’s Brigade, Dr. January’s
• Adam’s Brigade, On Liberty Pike
Each hospital served men from the division or brigade listed, information urgently desired by the people of Murfreesboro because every one of the Confederate units raised in the town were present on the battlefield. The men and boys of the town were fighting in the shadow of their own homes.
Oddly, the second day of battle was strangely quiet, both on the field and in the town.
The news of a Yankee retreat was expected momentarily, but no such news came. Instead, the wounded continued to arrive at the hospitals. Across the river, those who could get high enough to view the scene could see long lines of wagons carrying the U.S. wounded to hospitals in Nashville.
The third day of conflict, Jan. 2, 1863, brought a short but deadly burst of fighting that taxed the hospitals of the town to their capacity and beyond.
In what would be the battle’s final hour, the deadly charge at McFadden’s Ford resulted in the loss of more than 1,800 Confederate soldiers, the majority of which belonged to Major Gen. John C. Breckenridge’s Orphan Brigade.
Breckinridge had initially protested Bragg’s orders, which were for him to “take the high ground occupied by the Yankees in his front,” feeling very strongly the attack would be suicidal.
Breckinridge, after observing the position with his own staff, argued the high ground west of McFadden’s Ford commanded the hill on the east bank, thereby allowing Yankee artillery to rip apart the Rebel flank as they advanced.
Bragg, apparently did not want advice from any of his army’s high-ranking officers, including Gens. William Hardee, Leonidas Polk, and in particular, Breckinridge himself. After making the decision Breckinridge “must attack with his division and take the high ground occupied by the Yankees in his front,” Bragg was not open to discussion, and was known to “characteristically bristle whenever his judgment was question or even examined.”
When Breckinridge offered his opinion as to the hopelessness of the situation, having observed the lay of the land first-hand, which Bragg had not done, Bragg replied with a curt arrogance, “Sir, my information is different. I have given the order to attack the enemy in your front and expect it to be obeyed.”
Sadly, 1,800 Confederate soldiers killed or wounded within less than an hour proved Breckinridge was right, and, once again, Bragg was wrong.
It took Bragg some time to admit that the Southern Army had little chance of winning the battle after this disastrous assault.
Finally, when the last Confederate soldier had dragged himself from under the range of the Yankee guns, the Battle of Stones River was over, although sporadic firing would continue throughout the night and next morning.
Very early in the morning hours of Saturday, Jan. 3, 1863, at approximately 2 a.m., an unproductive council was held at Bragg’s headquarters.
After being awakened and strongly urged by Gens. Cheatham and Withers to retreat, Bragg did nothing.
However, with rain still steadily falling the next morning and the rising river threatening to isolate two wings of the army, Bragg saw the precarious situation he was in and became alarmed. By 10 a.m., he sent for Polk and Hardee and all three were in complete agreement that the army must withdraw.
Thus, as the townsfolk began their preparations to retire to their beds for the evening, the Confederate Army began their own preparations to retire from the field of battle.
But it was nearly midnight when their retreat got underway in a pouring rain. The army was leaving; the dead, dying, and severely wounded would remain.
The townsfolk awakened on Sunday, Jan. 4, 1863, to a cold and sunny morning.
The smells of gunpowder were still strong in the air. The groans of the wounded could be heard all around. And the cries of the pitifully wounded horses and mules added to the horror.
At least the dead were quiet.
But their bodies would have to be decently buried and cared for as well.
There were family members who came from good distances, going house to house, trying to find their loved ones.
The 28,000 dead and wounded men and hundreds of animals caused quite a change in the ordinary day-to-day lives of the townspeople.
Bragg’s Army had begun its retreat and Murfreesboro was once again about to be under Federal rule.
“By Sunday morning the town having the appearance of entire desertion,” Murfreesboro’s own man about town, John C. Spence, wrote. “Scarcely a person seen in the streets. ... The Confederates all gone with the exception of a small force of Confederate cavalry remaining behind to watch the movements of Rosecrans army. The wounded had been gathered up ... The surgeons were quite busy dressing the wounds of soldiers brought in from the battlefield.”
So, the great battle was over, the Confederate Army had departed, and our previously quiet little town was now crowded with wounded men and those who cared for them.
The Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect, and although Tennessee was not included in its coverage, a new age had dawned for the African American population of Murfreesboro and the nation.
All of these changes would have social as well as military and political implications.
The coming days would be challenging ones indeed for Murfreesboro and her citizens.