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The Battle of Stones River was not the largest or most decisive battle of the American Civil War but it was significant in terms of morale and territory. Braxton Bragg's army was repelled from Middle Tennessee and the Union received some much needed good news following their decisive defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg. The battle was fought between December 31, 1862 and January 2, 1863, just to the South of Nashville. The commander of the Union forces was Major General William Rosecrans while the Confederates were lead by General Braxton Bragg. To understand why this seemingly indecisive battle is now considered a Union victory it is important to analyse the events of the battle itself.
The battle resulted from Rosecrans' need to prove himself as a commander. His predecessor had been fired for being overly cautious so Rosecrans knew that he needed to go on the aggressive in order to justify his promotion. When Union forces arrived just outside the town of Murfreesboro on December 30th both sides were equally matched, the Union advantage in terms of infantry was counterbalanced by the Confederate cavalry. Even the two general's strategies were similar, attack the enemy's right flank and get behind them to cut off supplies. However on the morning of December 31st when the fighting began it was the Confederates who held the element of surprise, they launched an early attack on the right flank of the Union lines before the Yankee soldiers were prepared. Rosecrans' army suffered heavy losses and the right flank of the Union army was driven back three miles. It was only the stalwart defense of one particular division of the Union army, commanded by Philip Sheridan, which stabilized the situation and allowed for an orderly retreat. With the right flank of the Union forces pushed back General Bragg began to concentrate his attack on an area known as Round Forest, but throughout the rest of the day Union forces held firm while the Confederates suffered severe casualties. During the night Bragg wrote back to his commanding officers in Richmond that Union forces were falling back, in reality Rosecrans was re-consolidating his forces.
The following day there were no significant developments in the fighting, however Rosecrans did make the decision to send one division to occupy a hill to the east of Stones River. This would prove vital on the following day, January 2nd which was the final day of the battle, when Bragg ordered some of his forces to recapture the hill. The attack proved disastrous as Confederate forces were gunned down by Union artillery from the other side of the river. In one hour Bragg lost 1,500 men. Bragg could think of nothing else to break the Union lines and when he realized on the morning of January 3rd that Rosecrans was receiving reinforcements from Nashville, Bragg decided to call for a retreat.
In conclusion neither side was really able to break the back of opposing forces but in the end it was the Confederates who were forced to withdraw. Bragg had seemed so certain of victory following the first day of fighting but Union forces had held firm and turned the battle around. This granted the North control of Middle Tennessee and enabled the Union to claim the Battle of Stones River as a victory for the North. It was a victory that was sorely needed, granting a boost to morale which was vital in maintaining support for the war effort throughout the northern United States.
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