The Advance To Murfreesboro
On December 22d, General Thomas moved his headquarters from Gallatin to Nashville, and there concentrated the divisions of Rousseau and Negley, and Walker's brigade of Fry's division. Of the five divisions composing the Centre, that of J. J. Reynolds was guarding the Louisville and Nashville Railroad; and on the same duty were the remaining two brigades of Fry's division. R. B. Mitchell was assigned to the command of Nashville with his division as the garrison. This left, under the immediate command of Thomas, the two divisions and the brigade as above, as his only available force. McCook with three divisions under Johnson, Davis, and Sheridan, and Crittenden, also with three divisions under Wood, Palmer, and Van Cleve, were in camp in front of Nashville, on the Franklin, Nolinsville, and Murfreesboro turnpikes.
The position of the enemy under Bragg was fully known to Rosecrans. Two corps under Polk and Kirby Smith were at Murfreesboro with strong outposts at Stewart's Creek and Lavergne. The corps under Hardee was on the Shelbyville and Nolinsville pike, between Triune and Eaglesville, with an advance guard at Nolinsville. Rosecrans, on the morning of the 26th, directed the advance movement to commence in the following order. McCook was to move his command of three divisions direct on the Nolinsville pike to Triune. Thomas was to advance his command of two divisions and a brigade on McCook's right by the Franklin and Wilson pikes, threatening Hardee's left, and on his falling back was then to cross over on country roads and occupy Nolinsville. Crittenden was ordered to move his command direct on the Murfreesboro pike. On the arrival of Thomas at Nolinsville, and being in a position to support, McCook was to attack Hardee at Triune, and if the latter was reinforced and McCook's advance resisted, Thomas was to go to his aid. If Hardee fell back to Stewart's Creek, five miles south of Lavergne, and the enemy made a stand there, then Crittenden was to attack him at once, and Thomas was to come in on his left flank, while McCook was to bring his forces in supporting distance of Thomas and Crittenden as needed, after sending a division to watch Hardee and to pursue him if retreating.
Davis took the advance of the Right Wing with the First Division. He moved from camp at 6 A.M. on the Edmonson pike, on which he was ordered to move to Prim's blacksmith shop, from whence he was to march direct on a country road to Nolinsville. The Third Division under Sheridan moved on the Nolinsville pike, followed by the Second under Johnson. The advance of both these columns encountered the cavalry pickets of the enemy, within two miles of the Federal picket line. As these commands advanced, there was constant skirmishing until the heads of each of these columns reached Nolinsville. About one mile south of the town the enemy made a determined stand in a defile, and upon the hills through which the pike ran at this place, known as Knob's Gap. This was a favorable position for the rebels, well guarded by their artillery, which opened fire at long range upon Carlin's lines. Davis then brought up two batteries and opened fire upon the enemy, while Carlin charged their position, capturing two guns and several prisoners. Davis's other brigades carried the enemy's position on the right and left. His division then bivouacked for the night. McCook's loss that day was about seventy-five killed and wounded.
Early on the morning of the 27th, McCook's command pressing forward, encountered the enemy in force. A dense fog prevailed at the time, rendering it hazardous in the extreme to open an engagement at that time, as McCook's troops could not distinguish friend from foe at one hundred and fifty yards, and his cavalry had been fired on by his infantry. On learning that Hardee was in position and had been in line of battle since the night before, McCook ordered a halt until the fog lifted. This it did about noon, when Johnson's division was pushed rapidly forward, followed by that of Sheridan. As the command approached Triune they found the enemy had burned the bridge across Wilson's Creek and retired, leaving a battery of six pieces with cavalry supports to hold the crossing. As the skirmishers of Johnson's command advanced, the battery withdrew, and with the cavalry moved off rapidly on the Eaglesville road. Johnson's division then repaired the bridge, crossed and went into camp beyond Wilson's Creek.
On Sunday the 28th, there was no general movement of the troops. McCook, however, sent Willich's brigade out on a reconnoissance, to learn whether the enemy had retired to Murfreesboro or Shelbyville. Willich went several miles on the Shelbyville road and found that the force in his front had turned to the left and moved toward the former place. Stanley with the cavalry also made a reconnoissance, and re ported that Hardee had retreated to Murfreesboro.
On the 29th, McCook, leaving Baldwin's brigade at Triune to cover the extreme right, moved forward with the remainder of his command on a country road known as the Bole Jack road toward Murfreesboro. The command did not reach their encampment until late in the evening, when from the movements of the enemy it was concluded that he intended to give battle at Murfreesboro, and every disposition of the troops was made with reference to this. That night McCook's command was encamped in line of battle with two brigades of Johnson's division watching the right, Woodruff's brigade guarding the bridge at Overall's Creek, Davis on the right of the Wilkinson pike, with Sheridan on the left of that road. The brigade that McCook had left at Triune was ordered up and assumed its position with the troops on the 30th. McCook's entire command on the morning of that day advanced down the Wilkinson turnpike until the head of the column encountered the enemy's pickets. The line of battle was at once formed with the divisions deployed in a line running to the right in a southeast direction with the left of Sheridan upon the Wilkinson pike immediately on Negley's right. Davis's division was at once thrown into line of battle with his left resting on Sheridan's right, and Johnson's held in reserve. Covering the front with a strong line of skirmishers, McCook moved his line slowly forward, the enemy stubbornly contesting every foot of ground. McCook's skirmishers soon became sharply engaged with those of the rebels. The ground was very favorable to the enemy, they being under cover of heavy woods and cedar thickets. At 12 o'clock part of the enemy's line of battle was determined, McCook's skirmishers being then about five hundred yards from it. The resistance to Davis's advance was especially stubborn, and the losses of the day footed up seventy-five in Sheridan's division and some two hundred in Davis's. Shortly before sunset the rebel position was plainly discernible from Davis's front, and was formed running diagonally across the old Murfreesboro and Franklin road. In the afternoon, McCook learned from a citizen who had seen the enemy's line of battle and the position of his troops, that they were posted with the right of Cheatham's division resting on the Wilkinson pike; Withers's division on Cheatham's left, with his left resting on the Franklin road; the entire of Hardee's corps to the left of that road extending toward the Salem pike. This formation of the enemy's line placed the right of McCook's line as then formed directly in front of the enemy's centre. Information was at once sent to Rosecrans, and McCook informed his three division commanders of this fact and then placed two brigades of the reserve division under Willich and Kirk--two of the best and most experienced brigade commanders in the army--on the right of Davis, to protect the right flank and guard against surprise--that of Kirk with his left resting on Davis's right, with his right refused, Willich on Kirk's right and in a line nearly perpendicular to the main line, thus covering the right flank. The third brigade of Johnson's division was held as reserve. McCook's line of battle as thus formed was broken in several points. The general direction of Sheridan's line was to the cast and south, facing nearly at right angles with Negley, that of Davis was to the west, facing south, nearly at right angles to Sheridan, Kirk's brigade to Davis's right faced more to the east, while Willich's faced due south. The general direction of McCook's line, however, conformed to the line of the enemy in its front, except the latter had no breaks in the line and that its left division under McCown had its left extended due south. The main portion of the enemy's battle-line faced northwest. Breckinridge on the right of the line was facing nearly north while McCown on the left faced due west. The enemy awaiting attack--acting on the defensive--had as far as practicable located its line in the cedars, with open ground in the front. McCook considered his line a strong one, with "open ground in the front for a short distance." Rosecrans, on being informed by McCook of the location of his line of battle, expressed himself against it, saying: "I don't like the facing so much to the east, but must confide that to you, who know the ground. If you don't think your present the best position, change it." At six o'clock in the evening McCook received an order from Rosecrans to have large and extended camp-fires made on the right, extending far beyond the right of the line, to deceive the enemy and make him believe that troops were being massed there. Fires were built extending nearly a mile beyond the right of McCook's line. In this position the right wing rested in the cedars the night before the battle. The troops, cutting cedar boughs for beds, and officers and men, wrapping themselves in their blankets, slept in the frosty night air with the silent stars looking down.
On the 26th, Thomas's command, "the Centre," with Negley's division in the advance, moved out promptly to Brentwood on the Franklin pike, and from there turned to the left and advanced on the Wilson pike to Owen's store, where the troops were to encamp for the night. But on arriving here, Negley left his train and pushed on at once with his troops to Nolinsville, from whence the sound of Davis's guns had reached him, to his support. Negley en camped at Nolinsville, Rousseau at Owen's store, and Walker's brigade at Brentwood. A very heavy rain during the night rendered the country roads almost impassable, and it was not until the night of the 27th that Rousseau's command reached Nolinsville. On the morning of the 27th, Negley's train coming up, his division moved to the east, over an extremely rough by-road, to the right of Crittenden on the Murfreesboro pike, taking position at Stewartsboro. Walker was sent back by Thomas from Brentwood, to take the direct Nolinsville pike. On the 28th, Rousseau, under orders, marched to Stewartsboro, where he joined Negley's division. On the 29th Negley crossed Stewart's Creek at the ford southwest of, and two miles above the turnpike bridge, and marched in supporting distance of the head of Crittenden's command on the Murfreesboro pike. Rousseau was ordered to remain in camp at Stewartsboro, detaching Starkweather's brigades with a section of artillery to the Jefferson pike, to watch the movements of the enemy. Negley's division moved eight miles that day and took position within three miles of Murfreesboro. Walker reached Stewartsboro from the Nolinsville pike about dark. Early in the morning, Crittenden's command moved into line of battle on the left, under a brisk fire, while Negley's division, by an oblique movement to the right, took position on the right of Palmer's division, and was then advanced through a dense cedar thicket several hundred yards in width to the Wilkinson cross roads, driving the enemy's skirmishers steadily, and with considerable loss. Rousseau's division, with the exception of Starkweather's brigade, was ordered up from Stewartsboro, reached the front, and bivouacked on the Murfreesboro pike in the rear of the centre. Thomas during the night ordered Walker's brigade to take a strong position near the bridge over Stewart's Creek, and to defend it against any attempt of the enemy's cavalry to destroy it. Rousseau was ordered to take position in rear of Negley's division, with his left on the Murfreesboro pike, and his right extending into the cedar thicket through which Negley had marched to take position. The troops held every foot of ground that had been won from the enemy, and remained in line of battle during the night.
The "Left Wing" under Crittenden advanced on the 26th to Lavergne, Palmer's division in the front. He was engaged in a short time with heavy skirmishing, which increased as the command moved south. The advance of this column was over a rough country, intersected with forests and cedar thickets. Crittenden was ordered to delay his movements until McCook reached Triune, in order to determine the direction in which Thomas should move as support; Crittenden's command encamped that night four miles north of Lavergne. On the 27th Wood's division was placed in the advance of Crittenden's column. Hascall's brigade drove the enemy from Lavergne with a loss of twenty men wounded, and pushing rapidly on, forced them south of Stewart's Creek, five miles beyond. At this place the enemy set fire to the bridge, which Hascall's advance reached in time to save. Hazen's brigade of Palmer's division was sent down the Jefferson pike to seize the bridge over Stewart's Creek at the crossing of that road. That night the "Left Wing" went into camp at Stewartsboro, and remained there over the next day, Sunday. On the 29th, Crittenden's command crossed Stewart's Creek by the Smyrna bridge, and the main Murfreesboro pike, and advanced that day--Palmer's division leading--to within two miles of Murfreesboro, driving back the enemy after several severe skirmishes, saving two bridges on the route, and forcing the enemy into his intrenchments.
Rosecrans, about three o'clock in the afternoon, received a signal message from Palmer at the front, that he was in sight of Murfreesboro, and that the enemy was running. Rosecrans then sent an order to Crittenden to send a division to occupy Murfreesboro, camping the other two outside. Crittenden received this order as he reached the head of his command, where Wood and Palmer were gathering up their troops preparatory to encamping for the night. These divisions were in line of battle,--Wood on the left and Palmer on the right,--with the rebels in sight in such heavy force that it was evident that they intended to dispute the passage of the river, and to fight a battle at or near Murfreesboro. On receipt of the order, Crittenden gave the command to advance. Wood was ordered to occupy the place, and Palmer to advance in line of battle until the passage of the river had been forced. Wood on receiving the order objected greatly to carrying it out, saying that it was hazarding a great deal for very little, to move over unknown ground in the night, instead of waiting for daylight, and that Crittenden ought to take the responsibility of disobeying the order. This the latter refused to do. After Wood and Palmer had issued their orders to advance, they both insisted that the order should not be carried out. The order was then suspended for an hour, so that Rosecrans could be heard from. During this interval the general himself came to this portion of the front, and approved of the action of Crittenden, as the order had been issued on the report that the enemy had evacuated Murfreesboro. Under the order, before it was suspended, Harker with his brigade had crossed the river at a ford on his left, where he surprised a regiment of Breckinridge's division, and drove it back on its main lines, not more than five hundred yards distant, in considerable confusion. He held this position until it was dark, with Breckinridge in force on his front, when Crittenden ordered his return. Hascall's command was fording the river, advancing, when the order was suspended. Harker succeeded in recrossing the river in the face of this strong force of the enemy without any serious loss. Crittenden placed Van Cleve's division, which had reported marching from the Jefferson turnpike to the Murfreesboro road, in reserve behind Wood. During the 30th there was but little change in the position of the Left Wing, while the other troops were moving into position on the line of battle. Palmer's division was advanced a short distance, the enemy contesting stubbornly.
The pioneer brigade had prepared the banks at three places for the fording of the river. Wood's division covered two, and the pioneer brigade, under Captain St. Clair Morton, covered the lower one. At night Crittenden's corps with Negley's division bivouacked in order of battle, being only seven hundred yards from the enemy's intrenchments. The left of Crittenden's command extended down the river some five hundred yards.
The first movement of Rosecrans's advance was made known to Bragg as soon as it had reached a point two miles beyond the Federal picket-line, where the heads of the several columns encountered the rebel cavalry pickets. For all Bragg had placed his army in winter quarters, and presumed that Rosecrans had done the same, his experience in the matter of a surprise to an army led him to be well prepared to know and take advantage of the slightest change in his immediate front. By the night of the 26th Bragg knew that Rosecrans's entire army was moving out to force him to fight or compel his retreat. He at once selected his line of battle at Stone's River, and directed his three cavalry brigades, under Wheeler, Wharton, and Pegram, supported by three brigades of infantry with artillery, to check the advance of the several columns until he could unite his army. He then gave the necessary orders for the concentration of his command and the formation of his line of battle.
Murfreesboro is situated on the railroad to Chattanooga, thirty miles southeast of Nashville, in the midst of the great plain stretching from the base of the Cumberland Mountains toward the Cumberland River, and is surrounded by a gently undulating country, exceedingly fertile and highly cultivated. Leading in every direction from the town are numerous excellent turnpikes. Stone's River--named after an early settler--is formed here by the middle and south branches of the stream uniting, and flows in a northerly direction between low banks of limestone, generally steep and difficult to cross, emptying into the Cumberland. At the time of the battle the stream was so low that it could be crossed by infantry everywhere. The Nashville Railroad crosses the river about two hundred yards above the turnpike bridge. At some five hundred yards beyond, it intersects the Nashville turnpike at a sharp angle, then runs some eight hundred yards between the pike and the river, when the stream turns abruptly to the east and passes to the north. Open fields surrounded the town, fringed with dense cedar brakes. These afforded excellent cover for approaching infantry, but were almost impervious to artillery.
The centre of Bragg's army was at Murfreesboro, under Polk. The right was at Readyville, under McCown, and the left at Triune and Eaglesville, under Hardee. Polk's command consisted of Cheatham's and Withers's divisions. These divisions and three brigades of Breckinridge's division of Hardee's corps were at Murfreesboro. Cleburne's division said Adams's brigade of Breckinridge's division were under the immediate command of Hardee, near Eaglesville, about twenty miles west of Murfreesboro. McCown's division of Kirby Smith's corps was at Readyville, twelve miles east of Murfreesboro. Each of the two divisions of Hardee corps consisted of four brigades of infantry. To this corps Wheeler's brigade of cavalry was attached. The brigade of T. R. Jackson--which was in the rear, guarding the railroad from Bridgeport to the mountains--Bragg also ordered up. On Sunday, the 28th, Bragg formed his line of battle, placing Breckinridge's division on his extreme right, across Stone's River, to protect that flank and cover the town. Adams's brigade rested on the Lebanon road, about a mile and a half from town. Breckinridge's division formed the first line, facing north, and was posted in the edge of the forest, with Cleburne's division in the second line, 800 yards to the rear. To the left of Adams the line was broken by an intervening field, about three hundred yards in width, which was apparently left unoccupied, but was covered by the Twentieth Tennessee and Wright's battery, of Preston's brigade, which swept it and the fields in front. The remainder of Preston's brigade rested with its right in the woods, and extended along the edge with its left toward the river. On the left of Preston, Palmer's brigade was formed, and on his left Hanson's completed that portion of the line. Jackson's brigade reported to Breckinridge, and was placed on the east side of the Lebanon road, on commanding ground, a little in the advance of the right of Adams. On the other side of the river the right of Withers's division rested at the bank, near the intersection of the turnpike with the railroad, and was slightly in advance of Hanson's right. It extended southwardly across the Wilkinson pike to the Triune or Franklin road, in an irregular line adapted to the topography of the country. In the rear of Withers's division that of Cheatham was posted as a supporting force. McCown's division was placed in the rear of these divisions as the reserve. This was Bragg's first disposition of his troops for battle. On Monday, the 29th, no change of importance was made, the troops remaining in line of battle. In the evening, when Harker's brigade crossed the river, Bragg thought this was a movement to occupy a hill situated about six hundred yards in front of Hanson's centre. This commanded the ground sloping to the river south and west, and from it the right of Withers's division across the river could be enfiladed. Hanson's brigade was sent out, and, on Harker's return, the hill was occupied by the batteries of the enemy. On Monday Bragg, finding that Rosecrans was extending his line on his right,--as Bragg supposed to operate on that flank--threw his reserve division under McCown on Withers's left. Hardee was ordered to take command of McCown's division, and to move Cleburne from the second line in the rear of Breckinridge, and place him on the left as support to McCown. Cleburne was brought forward and placed five hundred yards in rear of the latter. Bragg's main line of battle was in the edge of the woods, with open ground to the front. His troops were formed in two lines, the first line protected by intrenchments, and his second line formed some six hundred yards to the rear. He awaited the attack of Rosecrans on the 30th, and not receiving it, on Tuesday made his arrangements for an advance and attack in force on the morning of the 31st. His troops remained in line of battle, ready to move with the early dawn of the coming day. The two armies were now arrayed only some five hundred yards apart, facing each other, and eager for the conflict of the morrow.
At nine o'clock on the evening of the 30th, the corps commanders met at Rosecrans's headquarters, in the cedars near the Murfreesboro pike, to receive their final instructions and to learn the details of the plan of battle for the next day. McCook was directed with his three divisions to occupy the most advantageous position, refusing his right as much as practicable and necessary to secure it, to await the attack of the enemy, and in the event of that not being made, to himself engage and hold the force on his front. Johnson's division held the extreme right of his line; on Johnson's left was Davis's division, and on Davis's left Sheridan's was posted. Thomas was instructed to open with skirmishing and engage the enemy's centre with Negley's division of his command and Palmer's of Crittenden's corps, Negley's right resting on Sheridan's left, and Palmer's right on the left of Negley, Rousseau being in reserve. Crittenden was ordered to move Van Cleve's division across the river at the lower ford, covered and supported by the pioneer brigade and at once advance on Breckinridge. Wood's division was to follow--crossing at the upper ford and joining Van Cleve's right--when they were to press everything before them into Murfreesboro. This gave a strong attack from two divisions of Federal troops on the one of Breckinridge's, which was known to be the only one of the enemy's on the east of the river. As soon as Breckinridge had been dislodged from his position, the artillery of Wood's division was to take position on the heights east of the river and open fire on the enemy's lines on the other side, which could here be seen in reverse, and dislodge them, when Palmer was to drive them southward across the river or through the wood. Sustained by the advance of the Centre under Thomas crushing their right, Crittenden was to keep advancing, take Murfreesboro, move rapidly westward on the Franklin pike, get on their flank and rear and drive them into the country toward Salem, with the prospect of cutting off their retreat and probably destroying their army. Rosecrans called the attention of the corps commanders to the fact that this combination, which gave to him such a superiority on the left, depended for its success upon McCook's maintaining his position on the right for at least three hours, and if compelled to fall back that he should do so in the same manner he had advanced the day before, slowly and steadily, refusing his right. McCook was asked if he could hold his position for three hours, and replied that he thought he could. The importance of doing so was again impressed upon him, and the officers then separated.
As will be seen, the plan of battle its formed by Rosecrans contemplated a feint attack by his right, which in the event of a repulse was to fall back slowly, contesting the ground stubbornly, while the main attack was to be made by the forces on the left, followed up by the advance of the centre, the right to be temporarily sacrificed for the success of the general plan. Rosecrans knew that Bragg had weakened his right to support his left, looking to offensive movements on his part., and that the vital point in his own plan was the ability of McCook to hold the enemy in check on his front.
During the 30th, Bragg formed his plan of battle, which, singular as it appears, was the exact counterpart of that of the Federal commander. Hardee on the left, with McCown's and Cleburne's divisions, was to advance against the Federal right, which being forced back, Polk with Withers's and Cheatham's divisions were then to push the centre. The movement to be made 17 a steady wheel to the right on the right of Polk's command as a pivot. Bragg's plan was to drive our right and centre back against our left on Stone's River, seize our line of communication with Nashville, thus cutting us off from our base of operations and supplies, and ultimately securing the objective of his campaign, Nashville. Bragg's plan was equally as bold as that of his opponent--whose command was slightly inferior in strength to the rebel force--and the success of either depended very largely on the degree of diligence in opening the engagement. Rosecrans's orders were for the troops to breakfast before daylight and attack at seven o'clock. Bragg issued orders to attack at daylight.
Source: "The Army Of The Cumberland" (Chapter VII) By Henry M. Cist, Brevet Brigadier-General U. S. V.; A. A. G. On The Staff Of Major General Rosecrans, And The Staff Of Major-General Thomas; Secretary Of The Society Of The, Army Of The Cumberland
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