For some time, Abraham Lincoln had been prodding William S. Rosecrans to march his Army of the Cumberland, with its 43,000 soldiers, from Nashville, Tennessee, and attack Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee at Murfreesboro. Th e idea was for Rosecrans’s army to brush the 38,000 Rebs in Bragg’s army aside, gain control of central Tennessee, and provide a supply base for attacks on Chattanooga and Atlanta. Rosecrans’s army left Nashville on December 26, and four days later his men settled in for the night a few hundred yards from Bragg’s.
Through the night, soldiers from both camps listened as bands from each army took turns playing their favorite tunes into the icy darkness. Northern bands played “Yankee Doodle” and “Hail Columbia,” and then Southern bands countered with “Dixie” and “The Bonnie Blue Flag.” Then one of the bands began to play the sentimental strains of “Home Sweet Home,” a song that expressed a longing that transcended the Mason- Dixon Line. Soon tens of thousands of Confederate and federal soldiers, some of them raised in the same towns and the same families, began to sing the same words into the bitter cold. Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam, Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.
The next morning, New Year’s Eve, the Confederates fired first, catching the federal troops while they were still eating breakfast. In a few hours, the Union forces had been beaten back three miles. Resistance by the division under Philip Sheridan, the compact cavalry man who would later gain fame sweeping through the Shenandoah Valley, prevented a Union disaster. He had awakened his men at four a.m., anticipating the attack, and so they were waiting after Bragg had crumpled two other Union divisions. In less than four hours of fighting, a third of Sheridan’s men were killed, wounded, or missing. Illinois troops called the place they made their stand the “Slaughter Pen,” because they said the blood-covered boulders reminded them of the floors of meat-processing plants back home.
That night, Bragg fully expected the federal troops to retreat, and telegraphed Richmond that “God had granted us a happy New Year.” On January 2, Bragg ordered another attack. This time, the federal troops were waiting, and massed federal artillery destroyed the attacking brigades. On January 3, Bragg’s army retreated, but neither side could claim a clear victory. Both sides had a third of their men killed, wounded,or missing, making it the deadliest battle of the war in proportion to the number of men who fought. From the soldier’s perspective, the future looked bleak. “I see no prospects of peace for a long time,” confessed one sobered Confederate veteran of Stones River. “The Yankees can’t whip us and we can never whip them.”