I Shall Drive Them to the Wall: Rosecrans’ Decision to March on Murfreesboro

 During General William S. Rosecrans’ first month in command of what would become the Army of the Cumberland, he delighted his subordinates with his energy and drive in reorganizing and re-equipping his command. But as November dragged into December 1862, pressures from Washington began to mount that it was time for the army to move against Braxton Bragg’s army camped around Murfreesboro in middle Tennessee.

Major General William Starke Rosecrans assumed command of the Army of Ohio from Don Carlos Buell on October 30, 1862 in Louisville, Kentucky. Rosecrans later wrote that when he arrived in Louisville, he "felt more like a constable bearing a writ for the ejection of a tenant than like a general on his way to relieve a brother officer." Buell had experienced great difficulties with the War Department during his tenure as commander, and it wasn't long before Rosecrans, too, was in the War Department's doghouse. 

President Lincoln, already exasperated by previous army commanders like George McClellan who seemed always preparing to fight the enemy but never moving, quickly lost patience with Rosecrans’ incessant requests for troops and equipment and by the early December he was already asking Halleck about a new commander for Tennessee. “The President is very impatient at your long stay in Nashville,” Halleck warned on December 4th. “The favorable season for your campaign will soon be over. You give Bragg time to supply himself by plundering the very country your army should have occupied. Twice I have been asked to designate someone else to command. As I wrote you when you took the command, the Government demands action and if you cannot respond to that demand, someone else will be tried. If you remain one more week in Nashville, I cannot prevent your removal.” Rosy, with fresh memories of how Buell was treated in his final days, called Halleck’s bluff that same evening in “few but earnest words. Everything I have done was necessary and has been done as rapidly as possible. If the government which ordered me here confides in my judgment, it may rely on my continuing to do what I have been trying to- my whole duty. If my superiors have lost confidence in me, they had better at once put someone in my place and let the future test the propriety of the change. To threats of removal or the like I must be permitted to say that I am insensible.”

Halleck responded with a lengthy explanation that what was troubling Lincoln’s mind was that the British Parliament would be going into session in January and it was feared that they, in conjunction with France, would intervene to stop the war. “If the enemy be left in possession of middle Tennessee, which we held last July, it will be said that they have gained on us,” he stated. After pointing out that the Union had regained all the territory it lost over the summer, Halleck wrote that “Tennessee is the only state which can be used as an argument in favor of intervention by England. You will thus perceive that your movements have an importance beyond mere military success.  It may be and perhaps is the turning point in our foreign relations. A victory or the retreat of the enemy before the 10th of this month would have been of more value to us than ten times the success at a later date.”

The British Parliament may have been on Lincoln’s mind, but what troubled the President’s heart was the imperative need for a victory to coincide with the effective date of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st. Lincoln wrestled with the question of emancipation for months, a question that “haunted the entire Union, military and civilian alike,” historian William C. Davis observed. The act provoked the entire gamut of response from Union soldiers ranging from lauding Lincoln’s genius to one soldier stating, “I hope to sink in hell if I ever draw my sword to fight for the Negroes.” The country was torn over the changing direction of the war. Democrats already were sharpening their knives with the 1864 Presidential election in mind and whispers made the rounds in Washington that McClellan, the darling of the Democratic press, would be his opponent. Lincoln feared that without a victory, he would lose the country, and with it, the cause itself.


The George W. Cunningham House in downtown Nashville, Tennessee served as Rosecrans' headquarters prior to the Stones River campaign, and it was here that the Ohioan made the decision to march south to Murfreesboro. Rosecrans made his headquarters a beehive of activity; a telegraph office was set up and Rosecrans frequently visited his code clerks keeping abreast of developments throughout his vast command. A usual day for Rosecrans started at 10 a.m. and ran well past midnight, exhausting his young subordinates who could barely keep pace with their energetic chief.  

Rosecrans had set a few preconditions in place with his staff as to what would trigger a sortie from Nashville and by December 20th, the first and most important condition was met: the army had built up enough rations and supplies to keep itself in the field until February 1st. It was a remarkable logistical feat, considering that the entire force of Federals in the department numbered roughly 90,000 men present and was still being supplied by a single-track railroad as the Cumberland River was not yet fully navigable due to low water from the summer drought. The weather remained fair and dry, meaning the dirt roads of the region would still be passable to the tens of thousands of feet which would soon pass over them. Rosecrans’ apparent inactivity had indicated to Bragg that Rosecrans intended to spend the winter in Nashville, which prompted Bragg to also send his men into winter quarters. Much of the army believed this as well. Colonel Hans C. Heg of the 15th Wisconsin thought that Rosecrans was trying to entice Bragg into attacking the Federals in their Nashville defenses, thus offering an opportunity to give them “a real threshing.” But having lulled Bragg into relative inactivity by his own inactivity, Rosecrans now planned to spring his army southward.

The key trigger for Rosecrans’ decision to march from Nashville at this precise juncture was the well-known departures of Forrest’s and Morgan’s cavalry commands from Bragg’s army. “In the absence of these forces, and with adequate supplies in Nashville, the moment was judged opportune for an advance on the Rebels,” Rosecrans later reported. Colonel Truesdail’s extensive and active spy network throughout the region provided Rosecrans with a firm grasp of how Bragg had dispositioned his army throughout middle Tennessee. “Polk’s and Kirby Smith’s forces were at Murfreesboro while Hardee’s corps on the Shelbyville and Nolensville pike between Triune and Eagleville, with an advance guard at Nolensville,” he noted. With Bragg’s numerical superiority in cavalry reduced, Rosecrans believed that he would be able to come to grips with Bragg’s infantry with less risk to his army’s supply wagons and supply lines to the rear.

Lieutenant Colonel Julius P. Garesche, the most trusted and able member of Rosecrans' staff, shared Rosecrans' Catholic faith and served as the Ohioan's chief of staff. The two men worked marvelously together; Garesche possessed a unique talent for turning Rosecrans' stream of consciousness style of talking into detailed instructions that his commanders could understand. His loss on the first day of Stones River was not only a hefty blow to Rosecrans personally, but to the army as a whole as Garesche's steadying influence was sorely missed in future campaigns. Garesche was born in Cuba, but is buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

To that end, adequate provision had been made to secure the Louisville & Nashville Railroad as numerous detachments had been made to guard the trestles, bridges, and tunnels stretching north 183 miles to Louisville. General Joseph J. Reynolds’ division also was based north of Nashville tasked with protecting the railroad line. Further, it was decided to leave one of Thomas’ divisions under General Robert B. Mitchell behind to secure Nashville itself which would dissuade Forrest or Morgan from doubling back to take the city in a surprise raid. With his line of supply thus rendered reasonably secure, Rosecrans could concentrate his energies to his front. The detachment and departure of General Carter Stevenson’s infantry division to reinforce Pemberton’s army in Mississippi is not specifically cited by Rosecrans as a factor in his determination to move, but the fact was known and if anything cemented his determination to advance on Bragg. [1]

Rosecrans’ strategic intention was to turn Bragg’s left while pinning him in place at Stewart’s Creek along the Nashville Pike, allowing his flanking column to swoop in and threaten Bragg’s rear. He arrayed his forces thus: “McCook, with three divisions, to advance by the Nolensville pike to Triune. Thomas, with two divisions (Negley’s and Rousseau’s), to advance on his right, by the Franklin and Wilson pikes, threatening Hardee’s left, and then to fall in by the crossroads to Nolensville. Crittenden, with Wood’s, Palmer’s, and Van Cleve’s divisions, to advance by the Murfreesboro pike to LaVergne. With Thomas’ two divisions at Nolensville, McCook was to attack Hardee at Triune, and, if the enemy reinforced Hardee, Thomas was to support McCook. If McCook beat Hardee, or Hardee retreated, and the enemy met us at Stewart’s Creek, five miles south of La Vergne, Crittenden was to attack him, Thomas was to come in on his left flank, and McCook, after detaching a division to pursue or observe Hardee, if retreating south, was to move with the remainder of his force on their rear,” Rosecrans reported.

It was a well-conceived plan that kept the various corps of the army within supporting distance of one another while taking advantage of the macadamized pikes to facilitate rapid movement. By massing five of his eight infantry divisions on his right, Rosecrans aimed to overwhelm Bragg’s left and draw the remainder of Bragg’s army towards a defensive position that Crittenden’s corps would assume along Stewart’s Creek. Once engaged there, Thomas could swing eastwards and strike Bragg’s left while McCook would march from Triune along the Franklin Pike towards Murfreesboro to sever Bragg’s supply line. If Bragg took the bait and attacked at Stewart’s Creek, Rosecrans could flank and pin his opponent against the west bank of Stones River where few fords offered the opportunity of escape. The key play to the plan’s success lay with McCook who was tasked with driving back Bragg’s left wing commanded by his old West Point commandant William J. Hardee and breaking into the Confederate rear aiming to seize the railroad.

Rosecrans' key subordinates during the Stones River campaign included his three corps commanders: Major General Thomas L. Crittenden (Left), Major General George H. Thomas (Center), and Major General Alexander McDowell McCook (Right Wing). Rosecrans' enjoyed good relationships with all three of these men and especially Thomas who Rosecrans consulted with frequently. 

Preliminary orders issued on the 23rd directed McCook’s and Crittenden’s wings to march out at dawn on the 24th, but delays dogged the army’s start. McCook was to march south to Nolensville along the Edmonson Pike while Crittenden was to drive south along the Murfreesboro Pike as far south as LaVergne, being sure to secure the road to Nolensville by which he would open communication with McCook’s advance. Reveille sounded at 4 a.m. but the suddenness of the order to march led to confusion in the camps, and it wasn’t until noon on the 24th that McCook was able to get his leading brigade, Colonel Philip Sidney Post’s, marching south. The men didn’t know their true objective, and thought they were simply moving out on another foraging expedition. “This morning we got orders to have three days’ rations in haversacks and that we were going after forage,” recalled Lieutenant Fred Boyer of the 59th Illinois. “Laid around until noon then marched out southeast outside the picket lines, then returned to the old camp and stacked arms.” Palmer’s division of Crittenden’s corps started on the Murfreesboro Pike before sunrise and marched out a few miles before halting. Private Oscar Easley serving with the Pioneers remembered the only charging done by his Crittenden’s men that day was “on a pile a walnuts that the Negroes had piled up; we soon made them surrender but got no Butternuts except one and we took him prisoner.”

The news of the offensive spread rapidly through the army and triggered a cacophony of activity. “The camps blazed with excitement,” one observer noted. “The sturdy troops greeted the announcement with a shrill clamor. Thousands were cooking rations for the march. Muskets soon gleamed with a fateful luster. The horseman carefully brushed his equipment, adjusted his last strap, looked well to his holsters, and patted his faithful charger. The cannoneer burnished his trusty piece until it glistened then poised it again and again, sighting it at imaginary foes so soon to assume stern substantial form.” The regimental historian of the 57th Indiana recalled that “all of our sick in the regimental hospital were taken to the city and the convalescents were sent to the barracks. But two wagons were to accompany the regiment and these were used for hauling rations. The men were ordered to carry besides their guns and equipment three days’ rations in haversacks, one wool blanket, an oilcloth, and overcoat. All other baggage was loaded and sent to the rear.”

Rosecrans spent a great deal of time in his first month of command getting to know the men of his command, staging frequent reviews that gave Rosey an opportunity to both see and to be seen himself. By and large, the westerners adored the Ohioan as remembered by Wilbur Hinman of the 65th Ohio. "As the soldiers broke ranks, they appeared to be overcharged with enthusiasm; the boys had 'inspected' General Rosecrans and from the very outset he commanded their fullest confidence. 'Ain't he a daisy!' they shouted in the free and easy army vernacular," Hinman wrote. That confidence would be tested at Stones River. 

Lieutenant Alfred Pirtle had command of General Lovell H. Rousseau’s divisional ordnance train and described how he went about preparing the command to march. After consulting with the chief of artillery, Pirtle drew “fixed artillery ammunition for James’ rifled cannon, ten-pounder Parrott, twelve-pounder smoothbore, and a small supply for six-pounder smoothbore, so that I had 22 wagons loaded with this branch of ammunition. I also drew small-arm ammunition for .69 caliber muskets, .58 Springfield rifles, .57 caliber for Enfield rifles, and .54 caliber for Austrian rifles, making 15 wagon loads of this branch of missiles. My train was fully equipped with six-mule teams and I had a citizen wagon master, his assistant, as well as white and black citizen drivers.” The Ordnance Department was a busy place as the 101st Ohio received an early Christmas present in the form of brand-new Springfield rifle muskets, one of the first regiments in Rosecrans’ army to receive these well-regarded long arms. “We went wild over the exchange and acted much like little boys with new sleds,” Lewis Day recalled. “At once we became anxious to try our new guns on the enemy, nor had we long to wait.”

By 1:20 that afternoon, McCook reported to Rosecrans that he could not reach Nolensville until dark and asked for a one-day delay. Crittenden likewise reported that even though his troops were ready to march by noon, he would not be able to reach LaVergne until nightfall and he would have no way of determining whether he had selected a good defensible position in the darkness. A delay was suggested to which Rosey agreed. “I think the enemy as far committed to stand at Murfreesboro to protect the raid into Kentucky and now having the essential ammunition and 20 days’ rations in Nashville, I shall move on them tomorrow morning at daylight,” Rosecrans messaged Halleck at 5:30 p.m. on the 24th. “If they meet us, we shall fight tomorrow; if they wait for us, next day. If we beat them, I shall try to drive them to the wall.”



Masters, Daniel A. Adrift in a Sea of Blood: A Narrative History of the Stones River Campaign. Publication forthcoming in 2024 from Savas Beatie.

[1] Rosecrans does not cite the departure of Stevenson’s division in his official report, but William Bickham, who accompanied Rosecrans’ headquarters during the campaign, cited intelligence in his December 29th dispatch that “a division of Kirby Smith’s army numbering 5,000” had been sent to reinforce Pemberton’s army. If Bickham knew, it is virtually certain that Rosecrans also knew.


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