The autumn of 1862, as the Civil War dragged late into its second year, was a season of Confederate invasions into the border states. In the east, General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia invaded Maryland to take the war onto Northern soil and to encourage Marylanders to join the South. In the west, General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Mississippi and General Edmund Kirby Smith’s Army of Kentucky moved into the Bluegrass State to support pro-Confederate sympathies there. Three weeks after Lee’s defeat at Antietam, Bragg’s campaign in Kentucky ended in failure at the Battle of Perryville.
Meanwhile, in the North, Abraham Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck planned a strategy that would end the bloody struggle as the Confederates reeled from their defeats. They sought to take advantage of Northern materiel and manpower superiority over the South, launching three offensives that would overwhelm the Confederacy's ability to shift reinforcements along its interior lines. As Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside advanced south toward Richmond and Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant moved up the bayous towards Vicksburg, Mississippi, the Union Army of the Cumberland in Tennessee, in the strategic center between the eastern and western theaters, would also advance. Command there fell upon Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans, who had replaced Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell after Perryville. Rosecrans, who had recently defeated the Confederates at Iuka and Corinth in northern Mississippi, set about reorganizing his army before advancing to Nashville which he secured as a supply base for his offensive operations.
Lacking supplies and with winter approaching, Bragg had abandoned Kentucky and retreated into central Tennessee, halting his army near the town of Murfreesboro on November 20 where he deployed his forces in defensive positions along Stones River and hoped for a chance to reorganize his army. However, President Jefferson Davis visited Bragg on December 16 and ordered him to send a division of 7,500 men to assist in the defense of Vicksburg. This left Bragg with a weakened force to confront Federal advances in the area.
Finally resupplied, Rosecrans pressed south toward Murfreesboro on December 26. Opposing cavalry forces skirmished as the Federals drew closer to Bragg’s position. On December 29, Rosecrans reached the north bank of Stones River two miles northwest of the town and prepared to confront Bragg. On December 31, Bragg launched an attack upon Rosecrans’ right flank opening the Battle of Stones River. Following the final repulse of Southern attacks on January 2, Bragg retreated south across the Duck River towards Chattanooga, the last Confederate stronghold in the Volunteer State. Rosecrans advanced after Bragg, building a large forward supply base at Murfreesboro.
The Union three-part offensive had failed in the east (at Fredericksburg) and in the west (at Chickasaw Bayou), but Rosecrans's success along the banks of Stones River reassured the war-weary Northern public and helped legitimize the Emancipation Proclamation, which had gone into effect that January 1st. Bragg’s retreat ended Confederate control of middle Tennessee. When Rosecrans launched his Tullahoma Campaign later that summer, he took Bragg by surprise and forced his army back into Georgia, where they would clash again along Chickamauga Creek in September.