After Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg's Army of the Mississippi was defeated on October 8, 1862, at Perryville, Kentucky, his men were reorganized as the Army of Tennessee and they advanced to Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Bragg took a defensive position in the vicinity of the Stones River, and posted a detached division under John C. Breckinridge, on the low hills to the east of the River.
In early November of 1862, William S. Rosecrans, who had replaced Don Carlos Buell as commander of the Union Army of the Cumberland, was on his way to Nashville, Tennessee. On December 26, after two months of preparation, on December 26, he sent his army in three columns southeast towards Murfreesbruro. By the time that Rosecrans had arrived in Murfreesburo on the evening of December 29, the Army of Tennesee had been encamped in the area for a month. By nightfall, two thirds of Rosecrans' army was in position along the Nashville Turnpike, less than 700 yards in front of Bragg's position, and by the next day Roscrans army numbered almost 44,000 and Braggs numbered only 38,000.
At dawn on the 31st, Confederate General William J. Hardee attacked the Unions right flank, before some of the Yankees had even finished their breakfast.