Success and failure on the battlefield is measured by a lot of small increments. Sometimes it is hours… or minutes… or seconds. Other times the measure is yards … feet … inches. Such was the case 150 years ago on December 31st at the battle of Stones River.
As Confederate troops neared the Nashville Pike around noon, General William Rosecrans deployed what reserves he had. For about two miles from Overall Creek to the Round Forest, the Federal lines bent back to the pike. The pike was not just a terrain feature on the map, rather it was the army’s supply lines. Losing that road meant retreat, route, or worse. The nation could ill afford a second major military disaster in the month of December 1862. We often use the cliche “last ditch defense” to describe a position. This was truly a last ditch defense.
On the far right of the defense, cavalry fought cavalry as Brigadier General John Wharton’s Confederates arguably missed the greatest opportunity of the battle. Blue troopers from Colonel Lewis Zahn’s and Colonel Robert Minty’s brigades held their end of the line.
To their left, infantry from different divisions made a stand in the cotton fields around the Widow Burris’ house. (Recalling yesterday’s post on preservation, those fields are outside the park boundaries.)
The blue line fell back, disorganized at some points, but ultimately held – some two hundred yards short of the pike.
To the center of the line defending the pike, General Rosecrans committed his reserves. That reserve was the Pioneer Brigade, some men with just twenty rounds. Supporting them was the Chicago Board of Trade Battery and Battery B, 26th Pennsylvania. Their lines formed barely 150 to 200 yards to the southwest of the pike.
That part of the line held.
To their left, more infantry and artillery – a “grand battery” with over two dozen guns – anchored the defense of the high ground that is today the National Cemetery. Lieutenant Francis L. Guenther, commanding Battery H, 5th US Artillery, held his fire as the Confederate infantry approached. When urged to action by his commander, Guenther responded, “I see them sir. They are not near enough.” When the Confederates marched closer, Guenther’s guns unleashed a rain of canister into their ranks.
And that part of the line held.
At the Round Forest, Colonel William Hazen’s brigade was the core around which a stout defense formed.
The blue troops held the position against all the Confederates threw at the Round Forest.
Later that evening, some two hundred wagons arrived on the pike from Nashville bringing much needed ammunition and other supplies to the Army of the Cumberland. The day’s fighting was at an end, and the results were inconclusive at best for either side. But the arrival of those supplies ensured the Federals could stand their ground the next day.
And what did that next day bring?
Think not of the battlefield, but off the battlefield – the Emancipation Proclamation. As the wagons rolled into the army’s perimeter, an important executive order took effect. Slavery would be abolished. Of course, as politics would play into the actions, the order didn’t directly apply to those within sound of the guns that day. But in time, slavery in the United States would be abolished.
The Army of the Cumberland held that day. A few days later they moved into nearby Murfreesboro as the Confederates retreated. Long months passed before the army again moved forward, this time reaching the hills of northern Georgia. But where the army went, it now carried emancipation as if an unfurled standard.
Those last few hundred yards beside the Nashville Pike were more than just grass, dirt, and trees. It meant survival for an army and by extension the freedom of thousands well away from the battlefield. One-hundred and fifty years later, we cannot disassociate the actions along the Nashville Pike from where we are, as a nation.