The story of Stones River is the story of a continuing conflict between two great
Armies and two men. It started a long way from Tennessee. Early in
this tragic war, Union planners designed the destruction of the Southern forces
in three major campaigns. The Battle for Richmond in Virginia, the
battle for the Mississippi River which ended with the fall of Vicksburg and the campaign
to split the Confederacy in half by driving a large Union Army through Kentucky
and into Tennessee along the major rail routs that supplied the South. To
accomplish this, the Union sent General William S.
Rosecrans and the 14th Army Corps, later named the Army of the Cumberland. The Confederacy,
realizing the peril it was in, sent General Braxton Bragg and the Army of the
Tennessee to repel him. After some minor contacts in Kentucky, the
two massive Armies camped for the fall of 1862, with Bragg's 38,000 men setting
up winter quarters in Murfreesboro and Rosecrans 43,000 men settled into
Nashville, just 30 miles away.
Today the battlefield is a National Park. We arrived at the visitors' center a little before noon. The on-duty ranger told us a little about the park and informed us that there was a small group of locals out in the front yard that had re-created life in Murfreesboro when rations and supplies had nearly run out and people had to resort to getting by on what they could make and invent. He suggested that we go through the museum before going outside as the museum was closing. We took his advice and passed through the mostly static rooms of the small building. There were a few life size dioramas. and some old period pictures. It was sufficient to set the feeling for what we were about to see. We were soon outside joining the group who had pitched a military style canvas tent and started a small fire. It was here that I saw something I had never encountered before: a field candle. Now I had, on many occasions visited candle makers of all descriptions. From huge factories to colonial drippings, but this one had escaped me. The process was quick, simple and relatively effective, requiring no special molds or tools. Take one large frying pan and some wax. Heat over the fire until the wax is liquefied. Remove the frying pan and place on high stump. Drag a 2 to 3 foot wick back and forth, through the wax until you have around a 1/2 in build up. Now this makeshift candle is far too thin to stand up by itself so, and here is the genius, wrap the still warm candle around a corn cob in a spiraling pattern ( see insert). Let dry and then set the corn cob up as you would a full candle. Apparently there is not sufficient heat from the candle to set the cob on fire. I learn something new on every story.
In the last week of December, Rosecrans left Nashville in search of Bragg and the Confederate force. One hundred-twenty five miles south near Murfreesboro the Union camped, not knowing that right over the hill was the entire Confederate army. In drawing up the battle plan for the coming day, both generals decided to attack the other's right flank. The Rebels were first out and on the attack with a sound charge that sent the Union forces reeling back the way they came. It had all the makings of a route but was saved in the final hours of the day by a stubborn and costly stand by General Sheridan. Bragg tried a last minute maneuver, sending a young Kentucky General named John C. Breckinridge to punch a hole in the Union lines. The charge was so disorganized and haphazard that Union forces beat it off without ammunition, using only rifle butts and bayonets. Breckinridge's 4300 man "orphan" brigades were so called because they were Kentucky volunteers and Kentucky had not withdrawn from the Union, but remained a "Natural" state. The day ended with both sides retiring from the field to regroup. The next day brought a day of rest for the most part. Bragg was surprised the next morning to find that the Union was not only, still on the east side of Stones River, but had taken the high ground commanding excellent firing positions down on advancing Confederate troops. Bragg ordered Breckinridge to clear the ridge. Again, Breckinridge and Bragg came in conflict as Breckenridge argued that the attack was a suicide charge in which Bragg intended to eliminate the Orphan Brigades. With fury and determination, Breckenridge sent his men up the slopes and directly into the guns of the hilltop defenders. To his surprise, the Union folded after only a short fight and the Union soldiers fled in a full route down the back side of the hill and across the shallows of the Stones River with the Orphan brigades biting at their heels. Just as the battle for the hill was about to commence, Capt John Mendenhall, commander of the Union artillery was ordered to relocate his guns forward to point blank range over the back slope of the hill. In almost record time, 58 cannons were moved within range but out of sight. At exactly the right moment, all 58 guns fired in a near simultaneous roar. When the smoke cleared 1800 Confederate troops lay dead and dying. The carnage would continue until the last Rebel made it back over the hill. With 23,000 casualties both sides had had enough. Although militarily a draw, Bragg withdrew to Chattanooga to fight again. Rosecrans claimed victory in Northern newspapers, and the war went on.
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