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12423Re: OR's - Breckinridge's Report for Stones River

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  • aot1952
    Jul 2, 2002
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      Mr. Joe-
      Not sure I can do much of a job but I will try to answer your various
      questions and observations point by point.
      First you observed-
      "Yes, Van Cleve was roughly handled and in fact routed. But he, too,
      fought a hard fight on Dec 31st against Cleburne's division. So how
      much did HE suffer the first day?"
      The quick answer is I do not know. Van Cleve and Sam Beaty who
      assumed command on Jan.1, 1863 neither attempted to break out their
      losses between Dec 31st and Jan 2nd.
      True, two of Van Cleve's three brigades were brought back over
      Stone's River late on December 31st to help stem the tide against
      Cleburne's CS Division. These two brigades (Beaty's and Fyfee's)
      participated in the final repulse of Cleburne's division. Certainly
      this constituted rough work however the after action reports do not
      indicate that the two brigades were roughly handled nor do they
      report that they were broken in their defense. At any rate I would
      think that it would be a fair guess that certainly Van Cleve's
      Division was probably not anymore seriously depleted by having 2/3s
      of its strength fighting on the 31st than Breckenridge which had 3 of
      its four brigades or 3/4ths of its strength being thrown against the
      Round Forest on the 31st. In short just my rough guess but it seems
      that any losses suffered on the 31st where pretty much a 'wash'.
      Next you stated-
      "At any rate, Breckinridge had
      considered the assualt doomed because of the massed artillery the
      Yankees had on the west side of the river, and he had 1,000 yards of
      open ground to cover in his attack (Pickett, Pettigrew & Trimble
      could relate!)"

      According to Union Left Wing artillery chief Mendenhall's post-battle
      report if Breckenridge opposed the assault at 2 p.m. when he received
      his orders because the federals had massed artillery on the west side
      of the river, then Breckenridge was clairvoyant. Mendenhall indicates
      in his report that only 15 guns were in fact in position west of the
      River at 4 p.m. when Breckenridge's assault actually started. How
      Breckenridge could have anticipated that Mendenhall would assemble
      nearly 50 guns in the hour between the start of Breckenridges assault
      and its cresting of the objective Hill is truly something to ponder.
      As far as the estimate of 1000 yards of open ground approach there
      seems to be quite a bit of conflicting testimony. Although
      Breckenridge gives some various differing distances in his report
      the following I think is at least one estimate of how far he
      thought the distance to be covered was- "To reach him it was
      necessary to cross an open space 600 or 700 yards in width, with a
      gentle ascent. The river was several hundred yards in rear of his
      position, but departed from it considerably as it flowed toward his
      left. " At another place in the report Breckenridge states the
      distance to be travelled was 1600 yards. At any rate most reports
      seem to agree that a significant part of the approach was through
      heavy woods. So maybe Breckenridge `s reference to the 600 or 700
      yards was the final approach.


      Next you state-
      "Breckinridge actually got lucky at first, because the
      Union infantry was not concentrated as it should have been (and was
      expected to be). And once the Yankees were pushed back, Mendenhall's
      guns could not fire without hitting their own men. This is what
      enabled the Confederates to get as far as they did. And yes, you are
      correct that they then overshot the mark, pursuing the fleeing
      Federals toward the ford. But once they topped the hill, they became
      exposed to the enemy artillery, not to mention infantry fire, from
      the west bank. The hill was untenable to begin with. "

      The only way I know to respond is to use Breckenridge's own words
      again where he seems to imply ( at least to me) is that the reason he
      could not hold the position was because of massive union forces
      flanking him on the right ( that area which the cavalry should have
      been covering) and directly counter- attacking.--
      "The second line had halted when the first engaged the enemy's
      infantry, and laid down under orders; but very soon the casualties in
      the first line, the fact that the artillery on the opposite bank was
      more fatal to the second line than the first, and the eagerness of
      the troops, impelled them forward, and at the decisive moment, when
      the opposing infantry was routed, the two lines had mingled into one,
      the only practical inconvenience of which was that at several points
      the ranks were deeper than is allowed by a proper military formation.
      A strong force of the enemy beyond our extreme right yet remained on
      the east side of the river. Presently a new line of battle appeared
      on the west bank directly opposite our troops and opened fire, while
      at the same time large masses crossed in front of our right and
      advanced to the attack. We were compelled to fall back. "

      Later Breckenridge talks about the artillery fire which he says made
      the crest of the hill untenable but once again he does not seem to
      say that it was the artillery which forced him to retire-
      "It now appeared that the ground we had won was commanded by the
      enemy's batteries, within easy range, on better ground, upon the
      other side of the river. I know not how many guns he had. He had
      enough to sweep the whole position from the front, the left, and the
      right, and to render it wholly untenable by our force present of
      artillery and infantry. The infantry, after passing the crest and
      descending the slope toward the river, were in some measure
      protected, and suffered less at this period of the action than the
      artillery."

      Finally Breckenridge's addendum to his report sums up why
      Breckenridge believes the assault failed-
      "And in regard to the action of Friday, the 2d of January, upon which
      the commanding general heaps so much criticism, I have to say, with
      the utmost confidence, that the failure of my troops to hold the
      position which they carried on that occasion was due to no fault of
      theirs or of mine, but to the fact that we were commanded to do an
      impossible thing. My force was about 4,500 men. Of these, 1,700
      heroic spirits stretched upon that bloody field, in an unequal
      struggle against three divisions, a brigade, and an overwhelming
      concentration of artillery, attested our efforts to obey the order."

      Not to be unduly critical of Breckenridge but where did he come up
      with THREE divisions of Union infantry? I can not help but wonder
      about the rest of his assessment when he so clearly missed the mark
      on this item and also it seems to be somewhat at odds with
      Breckenridges earlier statements that stated the flank movement was
      the cause for his withdrawal.



      You next stated-"Also, Bragg
      could have easily taken the hill the previous day without an attack.
      It was not manned until later by Union troops, although I think it
      still would have been untenable by the Confederates. If Bragg
      thought the hill so important, why did he wait until the enemy
      occupied it to try taking it?"

      I believe that Rosecrans in his report states that he ordered Van
      Cleve's Division to occupy the high ground east of McFadden's Ford at
      3 am on January 1st and this order was immediately executed. It
      appears then from the records that the hill in question was in fact
      occupied by the Federals by dawn on January 1st. I do not believe
      that three of Breckenridge's brigades returned to the west side of
      the river until well after sun up on January 1st. Thus while Bragg
      certainly could have attempted the assault one day earlier it would
      not have been against an undefended hill. Also the reports seem to
      indicate that Breckenridge did not report the federals occupation of
      the high ground to headquarters on January 1st.

      Finally you observe-
      "As far as the question of believing Breckinridge over Bragg, I can
      only say that I make my decision based on the characters of the two
      men, Bragg's history of bad (or no) decisions, and an intuition that
      tells me a hands-on division commander knows his losses much better
      than an army commander notorious for his ignorance of the front-line
      situation."
      I certainly find John C. Breckenridge to be an interesting character
      but I also find him to be the ultimate POLITICAL appointee. I confess
      that there was nothing in his prior command performance at Shiloh
      that would lead me to refer to him as a 'noted hands on' Division
      commander. In fact this was arguably his first time ever commanding a
      Division in combat. From all confederate accounts of the January 2nd
      assault it seems that a very cogent and believable story can be made
      that he failed to properly coordinate with his cavalry flanking force
      and that Breckenridge simply lost control of his Division. The
      brigade reports (even good friend and fellow Kentuckian Preston)
      acknowledge that the two lines of assault became jumbled and
      disorganized as the division swept over the hill and went beyond its
      stated objective. Heck even Breckenridge seems to grudgingly admit
      this although he minimizes the importance.
      Further it appears that Breckenridge and yes maybe even Bragg failed
      to coordinate with available cavalry units to help protect the right
      flank of the assault column. Breckenridge nowhere explains why he did
      not coordinate better with Pegram's available cavalry force. The
      closest he comes is stating he sent staff officers to make contact
      and they never did. Pillow in his report (a story in itself) clearly
      states that when he asked Breckenridge whether he had talked to the
      cavalry Pillow was told that Breckenridge had not and apparently that
      Breckenridge had not even thought to make contact. As friend Gideon
      states- "General Bragg asked, "Why did not General Breckin-ridge
      protect you from the flanking force by the large body of cavalry I
      had placed under his orders?" I replied I did not know he had any
      cavalry under his orders. General Bragg then said that he had a large
      force of cavalry placed under his orders for the express purpose of
      providing for such a contingency. I remarked to him that I saw a
      large body of cavalry on the heights to my right and below the ford
      when Negley crossed the river, but that it did not make any attempt
      to arrest the advance of the flanking force, and I felt certain it
      could not have received orders to do so."

      Once again I really do not want to be overly petty and I do hope that
      you do not think I am splitting too many hairs. But as I indicated
      initially the "infamous" January 2nd suicide assault upon closer
      examination does not appear to me to have been a totally hopeless
      attempt by Bragg just to kill off Kentucky people. Apparently people
      ( at least the Kentucky folks) tend to forget that only one of
      Breckenridge's brigades were Kentuckians. Gibson's Louisianans and
      Pillows Tennessee's as well as Preston's troops are not too often
      mentioned. The Hill was over run. Breckenridge's opposition to the
      charge based upon the artillery concentration that was not there at
      the time of his alleged opposition seems problematic. The story goes
      on but it seems to me that it is pretty fair to say that Breckenridge
      certainly contributed his fair share to the failure of the assault,
      by losing control of his assault column and also by failing to
      protect his right flank which he , himself seems to say at the time
      was the actual cause for his withdrawal. All the blame does not fall
      upon Bragg.
      Now of course the fact that the Hill was not an essential objective
      is a whole different kettle of fish and just like real source for
      this animosity between Bragg and the Kentucky folks is probably a
      topic for a whole new post.

      I apologize for going on and hope I have not tried too many people's
      patience. Of course as always I could be totally wrong-
      Wakefield
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