Battle of Stone River, The
DESCRIPTION: Confederate General Bragg tells his men to hold the line at Stone River. Union Gen. Johnson is prepared to cut and run, but Rosecrans and Van Cleve stand firm. Singer sees the ground red with blood; Sills is killed. They fight until the rebels retreat
EARLIEST DATE: Late 1930s (AFS recording, Oscar Parks)
KEYWORDS: army battle Civilwar fight violence war
Dec 31, 1862-Jan 2, 1863 - Battle of Stones River/Murfreesboro
FOUND IN: US(MW)
Oscar Parks, "The Battle of Stone River" (on AFS 1727, late 1930s) (on FineTimes)
cf. "Ohio" (subject: The Battle of Stones River/Murfreesboro)
NOTES [906 words]: The battle took place along the banks of the Stone River near Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The generals: Braxton Bragg, of the Confederate Army of the Tennessee; William Rosecrans, Richard Johnson, Horatio Van Cleve and Joshua Sills, of the Union Army of the Cumberland. Gen. Sills was killed by one Col. Perry, a rebel in an area with Union sympathies. Parks tells of singing a snatch this song in the woods one day when Col. Perry himself came up and made him sing the whole thing, then said, "I'm the very goddam man that shot him." - PJS
Despite the title of the song, the correct name of the battle was not Stone River but Stones River, or Murfreesboro to the Confederates (according to McDonough, p. 10 n. 15, "The river is properly called "Stone's," named after an early hunter, Uriah Stone, but has been frequently spelled 'Stones,' which has generally been accepted as the proper designation for the name of the battle") -- and it was actually a multi-part battle spread over three days. On the first day, Bragg's Confederate army hit the Union right flank. The division of Brigadier General Richard W. Johnson (1827-1897) was the extreme flank element in the union line, and naturally was driven hardest in the assault in which Hardee's Confederate corps drove McCook's through a 180 degree angle and almost back onto the Union left rear (see the map in Boatner, p. 804),
It's odd to see Van Cleve (Horatio Phillips Van Cleve, 1809-1891) mentioned as one of the key props of the Union line (if we had to name one officer, it would surely be Philip Sheridan, whose division held on under intense pressure before buckling; Catton, p. 40; McPherson, p. 580, notes that Sheridan lost a third of his men and all three of his brigadiers. George H. Thomas, a corps commander, also deserves great credit for anticipating the final Confederate assault and making dispositions to stop it; Catton, p. 41). Van Cleve's troops were on the Union left, intended to attack the Confederate right, and served only to strengthen the final Union line (Harpers, p. 322, or see the map in Randall/Donald, p. 408) -- and Van Cleve was wounded anyway (Boatner, p. 866). When Van Cleve's men were briefly involved in the fight, McDonough, p. 120, reports that they retreated before the assault of Confederate General Cleburne.
To speculate wildly: Van Cleve had been colonel of the 2nd Minnesota Regiment, which he had led at the Battle of Mill Springs (for which see "The Battle of Mill Springs [Laws A13]). This regiment was one of the most heavily involved in that battle (Carley, p. 36). Van Cleve became fairly famous in the Midwest as a result. The songwriter was probably a Midwesterner -- perhaps a Minnesotan -- who wanted to celebrate a favorite son. It is to be noted that the song was preserved by Oscar Parks, also a Midwesterner (from Illinois).
The other possibility is that the reference is to the fighting on January 2, when Van Cleve's division was heavily involved in the fighting. However, Van Cleve had been wounded by then and passed command of his division to Col. Samuel Beatty (McDonough, p. 169).
"Sills" is properly Joshua Woodrow Sill (1831-1862), a brigadier killed on December 31 (Boatner, p. 762) Fort Sill, Oklahoma was named for him. He led the first brigade of Sheridan's division (McDonough, p. 235), so he was at the center of the fighting. He had worried before the battle about his position -- a worry that proved well-founded (McDonough, p. 81, who describes him as "a vigilant, competent Ohioan"; he had graduated third in the West Point class on 1853 -- a class which also included his division commander Sheridan). Sheridan himself called Sill "modest, courageous, and a practical military leader" (McDonough, p. 82). He had talked to Sheridan before the battle, and they had agreed to have their men ready at their positions on the morning of the battle (McDonough, p. 83) -- a decision which may have saved the Union army. Sill was shot in the head while organizing a counter-attack during the battle; he died instantly (McDonough, p. 101).
December 31 was the big day at Stones River, but Bragg did mount a minor second assault on January 2, 1863, which failed. The Confederates had achieved a significant tactical victory, having driven the Union troops badly, but they could not exploit the win, either because Bragg wasn't aggressive enough or because his army was too badly damaged (according to Randall/Donald, p. 409, Bragg had about 8200 casualties out of 34,000 engaged; Rosecrans lost 9200 out of 41,000 engaged; McPherson, p. 582, says that Bragg lost over a third of his men and Rosecrans 31%, making Stones River, in terms of percentage casualties, the deadliest battle of the war).
Bragg apparently expected Rosecrans's army to retreat (Catton, p. 42), but when it failed to do so, he retreated himself (McPherson, p. 582; according to McDonough, p. 216, the Confederates had fewer than 30,000 effectives, and had heard that Rosecrans was getting reinforcements, so both Bragg and his corps commanders Polk and Hardee felt they could not stay where they were), making the battle at least look like a Union strategic victory. On the other hand, Rosecrans and his army had been so stunned that they spent six months licking their wounds (Catton, p. 44; McPherson, p. 583) -- a lull that the Confederates could have made good use of had they had a true central command to coordinate their efforts. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.1
- Boatner: Mark M. Boatner III, The Civil War Dictionary, 1959 (there are many editions of this very popular work; mine is a Knopf hardcover)
- Carley: Kenneth Carley, Minnestoa in the Civil War: An Illustrated History, Ross & Haines, 1961; reissued 2000 by the Minnesota Historical Society with a new introduction by Richard Moe
- Catton: Bruce Catton, Never Call Retreat (being the third volume of The Centennial History of the Civil War), Doubleday, 1965 (I use the 1976 Pocket Books edition)
- Harpers: Alfred H. Guernsey and Henry M. Alden, Harper's Pictorial History of the Great Rebellion in the United States, 1866 (I use the facsimile published by The Fairfax Press as Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War; this is undated but was printed in the late Twentieth Century)
- McDonough: James Lee McDonough, Stones River -- Bloody Winter in Tennessee, University of Tennessee Press, 1980(I use the 2000 paperback printing)
- McPherson: James M. McPherson, The Battle Cry of Freedom (The Oxford History of the United States: The Civil War Era), Oxford, 1988
- Randall/Donald: J. G. Randall, The Civil War and Reconstruction, second edition by David Donald, Heath, 1961
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