Cycling at Stones River Battlefield.

New Perspectives on the Civil War

This is part 1 in a series about visits to Civil War sites in what is known as the “Western Theater,” or battle sites I’ve visited in Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama. I don’t claim to be a historian and the stats and facts mentioned in my post have been taken from numerous sources such as Wikipedia and the National Park Service, as well as storytelling by park rangers and living historians.

Mom suggested I write some stories about my battlefield excursions and adventures. I like that idea. After all, I’ve had enjoyable trips to off-the-beaten-path places. I’ve eaten good food. I’ve met friendly people. I’ve learned some things. And of course, it has given me perspective. I can’t complain. You may say I’ve been privileged to have these experiences.

Years ago, when I found myself single and in an empty home, I pledged to see the civil war battlefields of the “West.” I was living near Stones River National Battlefield Park in Murfreesboro, and the Park Rangers there had opened up an entirely new perspective about the war – the importance of the Western Campaign and their characters.

Reputations of men like Grant, Sherman, Sheridan were born in the Western Theatre. They whipped the Rebels good in the West before finishing off the rebellion in the East. It is in the West, where we understand the cost and the time, the time of war. Once Grant got to Virginia, death to the Confederacy was quick. The men in the West bled the rebels long before the final victory.

If you haven’t gotten up to speed on Stones River, I encourage you to check it out. Here in 2020, maybe we would characterize this as the battle lost in the “southern narrative.” In middle Tennessee, most tourists and locals have come to know the civil war battle in Franklin more than Murfreesboro.

At Franklin, towards the end of the war in 1864, Confederate General John Bell Hood had been racing a Union army to Nashville from Georgia. It was believed that if he could capture Nashville, it would extend the war and increase the odds of a negotiated peace.

Hood and his 39k or so troops were winning the race, too, although pursuing Hood wasn’t crucial to the Union. Union General William T. Sherman had his eyes on Atlanta’s destruction and his “March to the Sea.” Never the less Sherman had ordered General John Schofield to keep Hood busy and destroy the rebel army if possible. Schofield wanted to get to Nashville first to reinforce the garrison there.

In Spring Hill, TN, Hood’s army set up camp to get a good night’s sleep after a few small skirmishes with Union troops had him convinced there was little resistance. In the middle of the night, Schofield’s entire force of about 27,000 men marched right by the rebels literally within a stone’s throw of the rebel picket lines while they slept.

The next morning, Hood realizing he had been outmaneuvered, was embarrassed and angry. He ordered a forced march in pursuit of Schofield, and at Franklin, he found Schofield’s army pinned by the Harpeth River. Rather than maneuver around the Union army and continue to Nashville, Hood went all in and planned an assault on the Union positions.

You may know Hood’s name. It’s been in the news this year — US Army base Ft. Hood in Texas is named after him. He was a West Point graduate and served in the US Army before siding with Texas and succession. He was injured at Gettysburg and lost use of his left arm due to injuries he sustained there. At the Battle of Chickamauga, he lost his right leg.

Because of these injuries, it is believed he may have been addicted to opiates as he consumed the medication for constant pain. Whether it contributed to his decision to strike Schofield at Franklin, is unknown.

The rebel charge on the Union troops at Franklin would become known as the “Pickett’s Charge of the West.” Schofield’s troops were dug in, ready, well-armed, fed, and supplied. They had moved so quickly that they had time to build two lines of defenses in addition to using natural barriers of thicket brush the rebels would have to climb through while under fire.

Most of the rebels weren’t even wearing shoes. Their clothes were in shreds. Their weapons were obsolete. They were hungry. They had lost every major battle they had been in for two years. They were losing the war, and they knew it.

But away they went rebel yells and all.

Of the over 6200 rebel casualties, 14 generals and 55 regimental commanders were among them. My ancestor’s unit, the 31st Alabama, was held in reserve and spared. But Hood had wiped out his leadership and nearly a quarter of his force in less than a day.

Schofield’s losses were a third of those of Hood with fewer than 200 killed. The Union army quickly collected itself, continued to Nashville, and dug in for round two. And it came. And Hood lost again, and it was the end of his army.

Visit the battle sites in Franklin, which are privately owned and well-promoted, you won’t find stories of Union heroism, or the brilliant strategy Schofield and his leaders executed. There are no monuments erected to the preservation of the Union. There are only stories of gallantry and honor, of sons of the south who died coming home – stories of the lost cause.

Of the nearly 200 dead Union troops at Franklin, you won’t find any buried in Franklin either. Union leadership feared the local townspeople would vandalize their graves, so they sent the bodies nearly 30 miles to the east to be buried in the National Cemetery at Stones River. The cemetery in Murfreesboro has an estimated 4900 Union men who died in Tennessee’s battles, including 1,700 at Stones River New Year’s Eve 1862/1863.

At Stones River, nearly a total of 80,000 troops were engaged in battle. Its casualty total of near 23,000 is second to only Gettysburg during the Civil War. There were approximately 13,000 Union casualties in total at Stones River, and yet Franklin gets all the publicity to tourists.

Aside from the carnage, the battle in Murfreesboro was the first Union victory after the Emancipation Proclamation. It sent a signal to the Confederacy that Lincoln intended to enforce the proclamation and strike at Dixie’s heart. And it was a big win, a much-needed win for the Union. Earlier in December, the battle at Fredericksburg, Virginia, had been a disaster at best.

There were “celebrities” at Murfreesboro too.

Union General Philip Sheridan began his meteoric rise up the command ladder at Murfreesboro. On the first day of battle, he rallied his troops and held off the rebel advance until running out of ammunition, buying time for retreating Union units to organize behind him. Some historians credit Sheridan’s quick thinking to saving the Union from a defeat that afternoon.

Rather than provide a play-by-play of the battle in Murfreesboro, I encourage you to check out the National Parks site dedicated to it. The American Battlefield Trust also is a good resource to understand the battle and its importance.

The original battlefield was spread across thousands of acres. The preserved site is around 300 acres today. Surrounded by neighborhoods, commercial centers, and hospitals, it’s hard to visualize the landscape. Aside from hiking the park many times, one of my favorite things was to cycle the back roads leading to and from the battlefield. The terrain is typical middle Tennessee – rolling hills and hardwood trees.

But this site is also interesting for what happened after the battle and the civil war:

To guard and maintain the national cemetery, the Army assigned a colored regiment to the area, the 111th Colored Infantry. Their role was to provide security to the cemetery and maintain it. After the war, many of the colored troops stayed in the area and founded a community called “Cemetery” on the battlefield itself. And they continued to maintain the cemetery and yes, safeguard the gravesites despite local animosity by the citizenry.

When Congress passed legislation to protect the Stones River battlefield site in the late 1920s, the Cemetery residents were forced from their lands and homes, their livelihoods. Remarkably, descendants of those colored troops and their families remain in the Murfreesboro area today. Each year on “Decoration Day” those descendants decorate the graves of Union soldiers in the National Cemetery to honor their memory and sacrifice.

But again, visit Nashville or Franklin and you’ll never know that the battle at Murfreesboro was the first battle – won – to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. That thousands of soldiers were killed and wounded to preserve the Union. The descendants of a US Army Colored Regiment still today protect and safeguard fallen soldiers.

In middle TN, like so many parts of the South, there is only the losing cause.

Coming up in the series are trips to Ft. Donelson, Shiloh, Corinth, Kennesaw Mountain, and Vicksburg.

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