Stones’ River: Bloody Winter in Tennessee

One-hundred and fifty years ago today the eyes of the nation turned

Hazen Brigade Monument & cemetery, the oldest CW monument in the US

Hazen Brigade Monument & cemetery, the oldest CW monument in the US

upon the tiny Southern town of Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  There two great armies were engaged in a titanic struggle for the control of Middle Tennessee and the fate of the Southern Confederacy. The battle opened early in the morning of December 31, 1862 and wasn’t concluded until late in the day, three days later, Jan. 2, 1863. At the end of the first day of the battle the outcome seemed clear: the Confederate army was going to win.  And the formerly unknown town of Murfreesboro, regardless of the outcome, would find a place in the American history books.

It wasn’t  Murfreesboro’s first CW battle.  Earlier in the year, after occupying the town for several months, unsuspecting Union forces from far away Michigan and Minnesota awakened the morning of July 13 to the sound of gunfire to the East. A cavalry force under the command of General Nathan Bedford Forrest had fallen upon them.  They put up a good fight but after a few hours the Union forces surrendered to that man destined to become one of the great military legends of the war and the town returned to Southern control. Forrest and his men paroled their prisoners and moved on, but soon after other Southern units began arriving and more and more until by mid December, a major army of nearly forty thousand under the command of General Braxton Bragg was encamped in and around Murfreesboro.

It was a significant enough development to draw the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis away from Richmond to make the long journey by rail to Murfreesboro. Arriving in mid-December he was “wined and dined” and celebrated at one ball and celebration after another each evening after spending his daylight hours reviewing troops, meeting with the generals and giving speeches and pep talks to prepare the army for the big battle to come.  He left town with his entourage hoping to arrive back in Richmond before Christmas.

Thirty miles away in Nashville Union authorities, being well aware of all this, finished up their preparations for a renewed  Southern offensive. The army that had gathered there was christened the Army of the Cumberland, a force forty-thousand strong (mostly stout Midwesterners) under the command of General William S. Rosecrans.  Just after Christmas the great blue beast got moving.  Though their wagon train was harassed by the cavalry of the energetic, youthful General Joseph Wheeler, the Union army arrived in the Murfreesboro area on December 29-30 and went into camp with it’s adversary only a short distance away. The stage was set.

Unlike so many other Civil War battles that occurred when armies simply stumbled into one another bringing on a big fight (as at Gettysburg) or when one army made a surprise attack upon the other (as at Shiloh earlier in the year) this battle, both as to time and place, was anticipated by the men of both sides. On December 30, each army was well aware of the other. All eighty-thousand or so men knew that they would soon be locked in mortal combat. That night the brass bands of both sides played  a strange and unprecedented pre-battle concert, trading songs back and forth through the frosty night air, until  all joined in playing the familiar tune : “Home Sweet Home” drawing tears to the eyes of thousands of homesick men. Then it was silent and the men lay down on the cold hard ground to get what sleep they could knowing that  it might be their last night on earth. And for several thousand, it was.

The majority of the soldiers in both armies knew what was coming. The happy confidence of 1861, the innocent illusion that the war would be short and relatively bloodless was long gone, drowned in the bloodbaths of Shiloh and Antietam and Perryville. By late 1862 the “butcher’s bill” had already far exceeded even the most pessimistic expectations. With the  war now well into it’s second year,  the majority of the soldiers in both armies were grim veterans, men who had “seen the elephant”, men who would go into yet another battle hopeful against hope that this next fight would be the last, that it would settle things once and for all, at least things in the Western theatre, and that the outcome of this next big fight would make it possible to march in one last happy review,  get their discharges and return to home sweet home.

In the early morning of December 31, just before daybreak, Southerners under the command of William Hardee attacked  and drove in the Union pickets to their front not far from the spot along Highway 96 where , interestingly enough,  a Hardee’s restaurant now stands. Throughout the morning  Union forces, caught off balance by the furious Southern onslaught, stepped backwards, leaving dead, wounded, and a great deal of camp equipment baggage and wagons behind. Today this part of the battlefield is now largely obliterated by development. One can now drive, shop, and eat where thousands of men fought and died.

Throughout the day the Union army, with it’s headquarters well to the rear on the Nashville Pike was rolled back and bent like a “jackknife.”  Finally, after being forced back nearly two miles and with disaster looming, the men of Hazen’s Brigade made a firm “stonewall” type stand at a place on their left called the “Round Forest” and their line held firm hugging the Nashville road, a lifeline for supply and reinforcement.  The victorious Confederate forces, who had also suffered great losses in killed and wounded, ceased fire when darkness fell, confident that their foe could be finished off the next day. General Bragg dashed off a telegram to President Davis, their recent guest, that God had granted the Confederacy a great victory.

Yet many rebel soldiers were, no doubt, worried. They remembered how months earlier at Shiloh, the Union army, though clearly beaten the first day of the battle, had counterattacked the next day after receiving reinforcements and had then won the battle forcing the Southern army to abandon the field.

Curiously enough, very little happened on the second day of the battle of Murfreesboro, or Stones River. Both armies were exhausted and battered. And though the Nashville Pike remained in Union hands, no reinforcements (to speak of) arrived. The army of the Cumberland was on it’s on. Sporadic firing and occasional artillery rounds erupted but no major attacks occurred.

For most of the third day it appeared much the same. But a division under the command of John Breckenridge gathered on the Confederate right and began moving North toward a place on the Stones’ River called McFadden’s Ford, forces that were relatively fresh having seen little action on December 31  for a major blow against the Union left wing.  At first it went well, scattered Union forces were quickly driven back and forced to flee for their lives across the freezing cold river.

After being informed of what was occurring, Rosecrans, knowing how difficult it would be to get an adequate force of infantry to the spot, ordered every available piece of field artillery to the West side of McFadden’s ford. The efficient and highly mobile Union artillery rushed to where they were needed and fifty-eight guns lined up just in time, hub to hub, we’re told, and along with a brigade of infantry in support, unleashed a hail of fire upon the attacking Confederates that ripped their ranks apart and made the river run red with Southern blood. The handful of rebels who made it to the west side of the river were killed or captured. Breckenridge’s brave survivors, pursued now by victorious Union soldiers, pulled back and retired from the field. The Union pursuit stopped when they regained the ground they had lost two hours before and the battle of Stones’ River, one of the great battles of the American Civil War, and (arguably) the most costly battle to occur in the state of Tennessee, was over.

One of those rebel soldiers who retired from the field and lived to tell the tale was my great-great uncle, Logan Nelson, brother to my great-great grandmother. I have a photo of Logan taken around the turn of the century, an old soldier posing in front of the regimental flag he carried off the field that terrible day. Despite the hail of fire taking down his comrades all around him, he made sure that those colors stayed with his regiment, the 18th Tennessee. They had lost their flag at Fort Donelson the previous February to the enemy and had had to endure that humiliation throughout their months of captivity in Springfield, Ill. Only a few weeks before, the ladies of Murfreesboro had presented this flag to them. Keeping their flag was to them, a small victory in the midst of defeat.

Furthermore, for many of the men in the 18th, including Logan, Murfreesboro was home. A few of these men, mortally wounded that day, were able to take their final breath in their own bed at home surrounded by loved ones and laid in a family cemetery-the preferred way to die, for them another small victory. Surely better than dying far from home among strangers in a field hospital and laid in a mass grave- the fate of  many soldiers in that war, particularly Confederate soldiers.

Today thousands of people visit the Stones River National Battlefield. The park, roughly four hundred acres, covers only a fraction of the actual battlefield. One can visit the national cemetery (Union graves only), a modern visitor center, and tour that part of the battlefield that lies within park boundaries. One of the more interesting sights in the official park tour is the Hazen brigade monument located about a quarter mile East of the visitor center, a limestone monument and small enclosed cemetery established just after the battle by the survivors of the battle. This monument is unique, the oldest CW monument in the nation, as far as we know, and one of the few erected DURING the war.  There is nothing else like it in any battlefield park. Even the much larger Shiloh park in West Tennessee with its hundreds of fine monuments and markers has nothing like it.

From the standpoint of battlefield  preservation however, the Shiloh battlefield is the clear victor. Encompassing nearly four thousand acres, nearly all of the area where fighting occurred at Shiloh is now safely protected and preserved by the national park service. On the other hand, experts now assert that the Stones River battlefield is the most endangered major CW battlefield in the nation. The battlefield land surrounding the park is being developed and lost even as I write and the people of Murfreesboro have done almost nothing to stop it. It’s a shame.

Down the road in Franklin, interestingly enough, just the opposite is occurring; the battlefield of the 11/30/64 battle that happened there is being reclaimed. Money is being raised to purchase more historic property. Already key parts of the Franklin battlefield have been reclaimed, marked and preserved for future generations by forward-thinking citizens while short-sighted money-hungry citizens and developers thirty miles away, oblivious to the historical significance of the real estate to which they have regrettably been entrusted, have given us more places to shop in Murfreesboro.

There is some reason to be hopeful. In a fairly large area just south of the Stones River Park located between Asbury Lane and the new Medical Center parkway, there remains some, maybe two hundred acres, of undeveloped battlefield land. But this farm land and cedar glades will likely go under asphalt, brick and mortar like the rest. The National Park Service, now feeling the effects of nationwide budget cuts, can do little. It’s up to the people of Murfreesboro and Rutherford county. But I’m not optimistic. Their track record is abysmal.

On January the 3rd, 1863, the Confederate army struck their tents and pulled out of the Murfreesboro area leaving the place once again in Union hands. Most of the Confederate soldiers were angry about this, nearly as angry as they had been months before after the disaster at Fort Donelson, feeling quite sure that they had won the battle and yet again, were being “sold out.” But Braxton Bragg, after a brief consultation with his division commanders, had had enough and ordered the withdrawal. In the months to come the men of the Army of Tennessee would come to despise Bragg and he would be eventually replaced, but it would take another year, another hard year, for that to happen.

Later that year the same would happen to William Rosecrans, the Union commander at Stones River. After the disaster at Chickamauga, he lost his job and was effectively out of the war.

After the battle of Stones River, the war was by no means over. It would go on for another punishing two years and the body count would surpass even the wildest predictions. The South fought on. But, exhausted and, quite simply running out of men to fill the ranks, the South was forced to give up in the Spring of 1865. And our great US war, a war in which more men died than in ALL other US wars combined, was over.

How many died at Stones River? Probably more than died at any other Tennessee battle, so some experts have said, even Shiloh, a battle often compared to Stones River. About three thousand died on the field and in the weeks and months to come, it is safe to assume that about that many died from wounds or complications from wounds suffered at the battle. And for many who survived their wounds, such as those who lost limbs, they would return to their homes and carry for the rest of their days a grim reminder of  the horror of Stones River.

For men like my uncle Logan Nelson, even though he came through it physically unscathed,  the battle of Stones River would be the one that left the deepest scars. For him, it was the big fight seared with fire into his consciousness, even though he would see many other battles and, against all odds, surrender at war’s end with a tiny handful of his comrades of the 18th Tennessee Infantry after which he returned to Murfreesboro and lived out his days there. I’ve often wondered if he would ever wander out to McFadden’s Ford and relive in his mind the terrible sights and sounds of Jan.2. Did he then cross the river and stand again on the spot where he picked up the flag that had dropped to the ground after the last man of the color guard had gone down? Did he see again those faithful comrades dropping in the smoke and noise, men who he had come to love like brothers? Did he feel guilty that he had survived when they had not? I don’t know. But someday, I plan to speak with him about it. Bye and bye.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Stones’ River: Bloody Winter in Tennessee

  1. dave.lavell@gmail.com

    Great post, Jim! Your personal connection to this battle is quite interesting.

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