BATTLE AT STONE'S RIVER
January 2, 1863
After Confederate and Federal forces struggled to a draw at Perryville, Kentucky on October 8, 1862, General Braxton Bragg pulled his weary army back into East Tennessee to regroup. While at Murfreesboro in November, the army was renamed “The Army of Tennessee.” This southern army with its new designation would leave its proud mark on American military history.
A scant 30 miles north lay its opponent, the newly created Army of the Cumberland under its equally new commander Major General William S. Rosecrans. Urged on by President Lincoln and the administration in Washington to engage the Confederates, Rosecrans marched from Nashville on December the 26th toward what would become the “bloodiest single day of the war in Tennessee”.
Ferocious fighting on the 31st of December had ended in an apparent Southern victory. The Federal’s right and center lines lay crushed, and only the left had held on. Casualties had been unbelievable, with approximately 17,000 combined for this last day of 1862. But the battle wasn’t over yet.
On January 2nd at about 12:30 pm Breckinridge met with Bragg and received orders for an attack. Bragg wanted to occupy the hill opposite Breckinridge’s division and wanted to place artillery there.
Precisely at 4:00PM Breckinridge yelled “Up, my men and charge!” The line leaped forward, and the Kentuckians immediately came under fire. For nine hundred yards they maintained their “perfect line of battle”. Ordered to deliver just one volley then close with the bayonet, they kept coming. Under such determination the Federal front line collapsed, throwing the second line into confusion. The 1st Kentucky carried the hill Bragg had wanted, but the advance didn’t stop there. In the smoke and confusion, order and discipline were lost. Portions of the Second and Sixth Kentucky splashed across Stone’s River and began to scramble across the bank, when the Federals unleashed their massive artillery. None would advance further. The forty-five Union guns were more than enough to drive the Confederates back from the exposed hill above the ford. The destruction was terrible. “A more terrific fire of artillery I have never been under,” reflected one Rebel.
Of the 1,852 Kentuckians that moved out of the protection of the woods, 431 would not return including General Hanson. As General Breckinridge watched his beloved countrymen struggling back to safety with tears in his eyes he cried, “My poor Orphans! My poor Orphans!” And so they shall ever be known, in the memory of their country and their descendants, as “The Orphan Brigade”.
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