All of Middle Tennessee held its breath when the new year dawned in 1863.
One day earlier on December 31, Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee faced off against William Rosecrans’s Federal Army of the Cumberland just outside Murfreesboro along Stones River. The commanders, who led armies nearly equal in size, had prepared identical attack plans, but Bragg struck first. His morning attack bent the Federal line back upon itself.
The desperate fighting seesawed throughout the day amid rocky outcroppings and cedar groves. The Federals managed to avoid a crushing defeat and hold on until dark as the last hours of the old year slipped away. The cold and exhausted soldiers rang in the New Year surrounded by the pitiful cries of the wounded punctuated by cracks of skirmish fire while the opposing generals contemplated their next moves.
With the fate of Middle Tennessee yet to be determined, President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863. The president had signed the proclamation back in September of 1862, but he needed battlefield victories to bolster its authority. The stakes being gambled outside Murfreesboro were enormous. Determined to win the battle outright, Bragg launched another large-scale assault on January 2. The fate of the Army of the Cumberland and the impact of the Emancipation Proclamation hung in the balance.
In Force of a Cyclone: The Battle of Stones River, December 31, 1862–January 2, 1863, authors Caroline Davis and Bert Dunkerly explore a significant turning point of the Civil War, and one that had the highest percentage of casualties on both sides of any Civil War battle. Lincoln himself would often look back on that fragile New Year’s Day and ponder all that was at stake. “I can never forget whilst I remember anything,” he told Federal commander Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans, “that about the end of last year and the beginning of this, you gave us a hard-earned victory, which, had there been a defeat instead the nation could scarcely have lived over.”