Every day, thousands of people pass right through a battlefield in Murfreesboro– most of them with no idea of the carnage that occurred there.
Between December 31, 1862, and January 2, 1863, a fierce battle took place in Rutherford County. When it was over, the Southern army retreated and the Union army took the field. In the process, more than 23,000 Americans were killed, missing or wounded — giving Stones River the highest percentage of casualties of any battle in the Civil War.
Looked at in summary, the Battle of Stones River is similar to the Battle of Shiloh, which took place in Tennessee nine months earlier. Both times, the Southern army attacked first and caught the Union troops eating breakfast. Both times, the Southern army overwhelmed the Union army during the early hours of the battle, forcing back large regiments and capturing men and equipment along the way.
In both battles, Union troops held fast and kept their ground at key locations on the battlefield which later earned horrible nicknames — the “Hell’s Half Acre” at Stones River and the “Hornets Nest” at Shiloh.
On both occasions, the Confederate forces felt as though they had won a spectacular victory at the end of the first day. But both at Shiloh and at Stones River, the Union troops prevailed on either the day after, or two days after, the initial battle, mainly because of their superior weaponry and larger armies.
Like so many Civil War battlefields, it is easy to become overwhelmed by all that there is to learn while you are there. Here are some of the key things we saw and heard while we visited Stones River.
The actual Stones River battlefield is several times larger than the national military park that exists today. Most places where people fought and died have long been converted to people’s yards, highways, shopping areas and other developments. In fact, not long ago a four lane overpass was built adjacent to the battlefield which does more to alter the terrain than anything else that has been done in the century and a half since the battle.
Among the people who took part in this battle were Confederate General Joseph Palmer (who had been the mayor of Murfreesboro), U.S. Army Captain Arthur MacArthur (father of the famous World War II general Douglas MacArthur), and U.S. Army First Lieutenant Tom Custer (who died many years later with his brother George Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn).
The commanding general on the Union side was William Rosecrans. The commanding general on the Confederate side was Braxton Bragg. Although both of these generals were well known at the time, both of these generals would effectively be relieved of duty by their respective governments as a result of things that took place during the Chattanooga campaign (which took place after Stones River).
Bragg chose the terrain of the battle because the cedar thickets in the area were so thick that he knew it would be very difficult for the Union army to move its artillery (cannon) through the area.
Unlike many Civil War battles, both armies anticipated that this one was going to occur on the day before it occurred. The night before the fight took place, bands on both sides of the line were playing music when one band broke into a rendition of the song “Home Sweet Home.” Before long, bands on both sides of the line were playing the same song — and soldiers from both armies were humming and singing the same song together!
Generals Rosecrans and General Bragg had the same general strategy: to surprise attack the opponent on their army’s left side (which was the opposing army’s right side). The reason things went well for the Confederate side early on was simply because they attacked first; thousands of men in the Union army were in the process of crossing the Stones River to attack the Confederate army when the Confederates attacked on the opposite end of the battlefield.
Of the thousands of Union and Confederate deaths in this battle, perhaps the most famous is that of Colonel Julius Garesche, who was the chief of staff to General Rosecrans. The night before the battle, General Garesche gave away his possessions, believing he would not survive the battle. The next day, while General Rosecrans was trying to rally his troops to stop the Confederate onslaught, a cannonball beheaded Garesche while he was riding alongside his commanding general.
During the months after the battle, the Union army remained in Murfreesboro and built an impressive earthworks called Fort Rosencrans to make sure the Confederate army would not try to retake that part of the state. Meanwhile, some of the soldiers built a monument to their fallen comrades in the battle. It is known as Hazen’s Monument; it still stands and is the oldest intact Civil War monument in America.
The river from which this battle gets its name can be found on the northern part of the battlefield, which most visitors never see because it is a short drive from the visitor center. On January 2, 1863 — two days after the first day of fighting — Confederate General John Breckinridge’s infantry division attempted to cross the river here in an attempt to take a hill fortified by no less than 57 union cannon. It was a hopeless suicidal assault; in less than 45 minutes, no less than 1,800 Confederates had been killed or wounded.
Many of the Union dead from this battle are buried at the Stones River National Cemetery, which is just across the old Nashville Pike from the visitor center. Many of the Confederate dead are buried in a mass grave of unknown soldiers at Evergreen Cemetery in Murfreesboro, which is about two miles from the national battlefield.
Here are two tips about visiting Stones River: First of all, wear good walking shoes. There are a couple of easy trails that circumvent the national battlefield, and they are worth walking. This is the best way to explore the site and experience the cedar thickets and the limestone outcroppings that made this such a unique battle.
Secondly, spend a lot of time at the visitor center. It has been expanded in recent years and has some wonderful exhibits and a great film about the Civil War and the Battle of Stones River.
To learn more about the Battle of Stones River, click here to visit the web site of the Stones River National Battlefield.