Battle of Stones River:
The Forgotten Conflict between the
Confederate Army of Tennessee
and the Union Army of the Cumberland

Larry J. Daniel
LSU Press, 2012, 344 pp., $38.50

Review by Gordon Berg

Three book-length studies of the battle have been written since 1980.  Nevertheless, Larry Daniel contends “that the mention of Stones River frequently brings puzzled expressions to those beyond the region” and that a new analysis of the battle is needed. Indeed, a comparison of the various bibliographies indicates that he made extensive use of letters, diaries, and manuscripts not previously examined.  Using his considerable experience with Western campaigns, Daniel meticulously documents what was the war's bloodiest battle in relation to the number of combatants involved.

A good battle narrative is difficult to write.  It weaves precise information about individual actions, unit movements, and anecdotal accounts into an evocative story that provides both expert and generalist with a clear understanding of the battle's pivotal events. Daniel meets all these criteria.  Sometimes, however, he lets his enthusiasm for the trees obscure the forest. Daniel's specificity regarding the location of the battle's many units, the precise distance between so many places, and the exact time events occurred, can overwhelm the non-expert. This is especially true when he narrates the actual fighting.  The book's thirteen maps help, but not enough.

            The plans of each commander were mirror images of the other's.  Union Major General William S. Rosecrans and Confederate General Braxton Bragg each planned to attack the right wing of the other while holding firm on the left.  Bragg struck first at dawn on Dec. 31, 1862.  The Union lines broke and swung back like a gate on a rusty hinge.  But the hinge was held by the brigade of Colonel William Babcock Hazen and it held the end of the Union line at a place that came to be known as “Hell's Half Acre” with uncommon valor.  Hazen's heroic stand in the face of repeated Confederate attacks allowed broken units to reform and probably saved the Army of the Cumberland from an ignoble rout.  A perfunctory Confederate attack on Jan. 2, 1863 across Stones River against the Federal left was broken up by massed artillery superbly directed by Captain John Mendenhall.

The fight was a tactical draw but Rosecrans held the battlefield and Bragg retreated.  The Emancipation Proclamation thus went into effect with news of a Union “victory” rather than under the cloud of the decisive Union defeat at Fredericksburg earlier in the month..  Daniel concludes that “the battle proved to be the first step in a drive that would lead the Federal Army toward Tullahoma, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and ultimately Atlanta.”  The carnage at Stones River, like that at Shiloh, convinced New Yorker George Templeton Strong that the North was willing to engage in a prolonged war of attrition to preserve the Union.  He concluded that “The South could not win such a war.”

Gordon Berg is a past President and member of the Civil War Round Table of the District of Columbia (  His reviews and articles appear in the Civil War Times and America's Civil War, among other publications.

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