Thursday, August 29, 2019

'God's acre' and cotton fields: An 1882 visit to Stones River

A photograph, probably post-Civil War, of the Hazen Brigade monument at Stones River.
 (Library of Congress | CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)
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In August 1882, reporter George Morgan saw a Stones River (Tenn.) battlefield landscape that's almost impossible to imagine today: mostly farmland planted with cotton and corn, bordered by belts of cedar and oak. "... white cotton blossoms of the morning had turned to pink in the sun and his last rays were upon the silk tufts in the corn," the Philadelphia Times  correspondent eloquently wrote about a field in Murfreesboro.

George Morgan's Stones River account
appeared on Page 1 of the Philadelphia Times
on Aug. 28, 1882.
On a Sunday afternoon, Morgan -- on a tour of Southern battlefields -- rode with the guide over the hallowed ground where the contending armies suffered nearly 25,000 casualties in late December 1862 and early January 1863. Unlike his visit to Franklin days earlier, Morgan surprisingly didn't see much evidence of a battle during his Stones River sojourn.

"I looked in vain," he wrote, "for traces of earthworks and scarred timber. All that one could see were trees of scrubby growth, worm fences, narrow fields and a few cabins with a little darkey and a big dog at the door of each."

Today, modern development encroaches on the Stones River National Battlefield, which comprises a fraction of ground fought over in 1862. A swath of once-open land near the infamous Slaughter Pen is now occupied by a hospital. Ground where Union General Joshua Sill was killed is the parking lot for a bank. Developers have obliterated the site of opening action on Dec. 31, 1862. In its place, we find a fast-food restaurant, a service station and other urban schlock.

Thus this descriptive account by Morgan, published on Page 1 of the Philadelphia Times on Aug. 28, 1882, fills in gaps in the imagination of modern-day battlefield visitors:

Special Correspondence of The Times.
Murfreesboro, Tenn., August 20

When General Alexander Ogle served Somerset's "frosty sons of thunder" in the Pennsylvania Legislature, it fell to him to write, in behalf of the Democratic members, a letter to General [Andrew] Jackson, then stepping across the Presidential threshold. Such work of the scribe was a labor of love, and in submitting to the caucus what he had written General Ogle said: "Gentlemen and members of the Democratic party, I hold in my hand a letter addressed by General Alexander Ogle to General Andrew Jackson, and I have no hesitation in saying that it's a damned able paper."

The members, gathering around, agreed that the letter was just the thing to make Old Hickory's heart thump with satisfaction, and all except one, a dapper little Philadelphian, spoke words of praise. This dandy of the House, fixing his glasses and scanning the page with the critic's smirk, ventured to remark: "Pardon me, General, I do not wish to assume to make a suggestion to so distinguished a gentleman as yourself, but I cannot refrain from saying that it is customary in the East, and I may say in almost all the civilized countries of Europe, to write with the capital 'I' instead of the little 'i ' in using the personal pronoun in epistolary correspondence."

General Ogle drew down his heavy brows, piercing the dandy's marrow with the fierce shaft of scorn that shot from his eye. "Sir," he said, beginning with a hiss and ending with a roar, "when I write to such a great, such a towerin' man as General Andrew Jackson, Democratic President of the United States, I abase myself, I abase myself, sir. I use as small an 'i ' as I can put on paper; but, sir, if I should ever get to such a low-down pitch as to have to write to a damned little snipe as you, I'd use an 'I,' sir, that would fill two sheets of foolscap, so help me God!"

So with this place. In writing of the terrific battle of Murfreesboro the biggest kind of a big "M " must be handled, but I admit at the start that having gone over Murfreesboro battle-field, the most unsatisfactory ground of combat I have yet visited, a very little "m" suggests itself.

A funny old town, indeed

Circa-1891 Kirz & Allison illustration of the Battle of Stones River.
Towards the close of a ride of thirty miles, from Nashville hither, I saw flash by the car-window a stretch of sward thickly dotted with headstones, a close cedar brake, a monument in a cotton patch and then for two miles a succession of tilled fields, until the train shot over Stone's river and rumbled into town. All Murfreesboro seemed to be at the station. Such a gauntlet of tugging, crowding, shouting darkies I hope never to have to run again. Nor was it much better riding from the station to a tavern on the Court House hill. Darkies as plentiful and as black as merry-go-rounds in a mud puddle swarmed along the streets. Behind a boy beating a drum crowded dozens of his dusky fellows, and similar parties moved towards the railroad from other points.

It soon became clear that a jollification was going on, and when one hackman shouted to another "I doan 'spec' dat bulljine kin tote dis heah crowd on dat 'skurshun," the reason for the excitement was plain. Even when shorn of the excursionists Murfreesboro was lively enough. The four rows of stores, shops and jug-booths around the square, in the centre of which stands the Court House, seemed to be overflowing with country people, while lounging along the sidewalks was here a pretty girl, there a dowdv, now a cigarette - smoker, and again a knot of clodhoppers come to town for a day s fun. The like of black people I had never seen. They sat on the dry-goods boxes, stood elbow to elbow at the bars, and kicked across the common toe to heel.

Stone's River in dry time

It was under lively circumstances that we left this swarming centre of Saturday life in a Southern town, for at the start our skittish horse upset a darkey with a basket of eggs, and while from one small boy came the advice, "Look behind, yer boss is blind," three other urchins clung to the axletree. Down the Court House hill we went, however, and passed out from the western skirts of Murfreesboro, aiming to reach by way of Franklin road that part of the field whence [Braxton] Bragg, at daybreak on the last day of 1862, rolled his columns in resistless waves upon the Federal right.

The jerks and jolts of that rule over a road of rocks were about as bad for the backbone as were the accompanying baptisms of red mud for our coats. When less than a mile from the Court House we made abrupt descent of the river bank, fording the branch in yellow water up to the hubs, and while the horse drank I had a good look at the famous stream into which the animal had thrust his nose. So narrow is it that Hanlan with a twist of his wrist could shoot his shell across from one high bank of limestone to the other, and though there might be water enough to drown a bagful of kittens I fancy tho old cat would survive.

Grass grows in matted rankness along one shore and in places boulders show their brown heads. Nor was there lack of life in the picture, for just as we started seven girls of a party on a picnic, gathering their skirts in their fingers, tripped interestingly in Indian file over the foot-ford.

Where Bragg struck his blow

"Hell's Half Acre," where a brigade of Federals under William Hazen held off waves of enemy assaults
on Dec. 31, 1862. The Nashville Pike is at right. 
Even after we had jolted on a mile further and were well on historic ground, there was no hint in the rocky road, nor in the cotton fields and stretches of black-jack by its side, of the beginning of the fight. I looked in vain for traces of earthworks and scarred timber. All that one could see were trees of scrubby growth, worm fences, narrow fields and a few cabins with a little darkey and a big dog at the door of each. Nevertheless, twenty years ago, when the frost looked in the dawn like a shroud upon the dead grass of December, ten thousand men swept by this spot, moving at the quick-step, shoulder to shoulder and arms a-trail.

Edward Kirk: Union
general was mortally
wounded at Stones River.
In his flight the rabbit scattered the furze and the partridge dashed the hollyberry from the thorn. The thud of the footfall, the snap of the twig, the rustle of the cedar-branch caused no tell-tale wave in the air. Tecumseh's moccasins would have made as much noise as did [William] Hardee that midwinter morning when, passing the Franklin road, he struck [Alexander] McCook the terrific blow. Along they dashed, without drum tap -- [Matthew] Ector, [James] Rains, [Evander] McNair and [Patrick] Cleburne's brigadiers -- over Federal pickets, by camp-fires, into whole companies, still breakfasting, until the heroic [Union general] Edward Kirk, advancing to grasp death's hand, woke the still woods with a warning that roared along the line from flank to flank.

In the track of the storm

As we turned from the Franklin road into the thicket in order to follow the track of the Confederate advance, I noticed a large stone that had been set upon end, seemingly to mark some spot of interest. Tho stone was roughly scrawled over with the words "J. E. Wright, Ninth Texas," but whether that follower of McCown fell here or afterwards visited and marked the place of his triumph there was nothing to indicate. This led me to look around for the spot where General Kirk fell -- time, as well as love's labor, lost. Indeed, we had gone a little ways only when the guide backed and filled so, hee-hawing over his tobacco-quid like a mule at a camp meeting, that I suspected he had lost his bearings.

"Gee-up, gee-up, thar!" The horse was snorting and plunging among chincapin bushes, trembling at the flanks and champing at the bit.

"I say, you seem to be in need of a compass?"

"Wall, it's kind o' funny furr a fac'. I 'low I'm aleetlo flurried."

Though the old guide was lost within two miles of Murfreesboro, where he had jerked the gurgling jug aloft for at least half a century. I did not blame him. We were in the thick of a wilderness of cedar and scrub oak, which are characteristic of the battle-field.

A place to see ghosts in

                PANORAMA: Where Union General Philip Sheridan's soldiers held the line
               for two hours on Dec. 31, 1862 -- battling until they had no more bullets.
                                     (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

The face of the level land here is hidden in undergrowth of briars and stunted timber. When [John] McCown, Cleburne and [Benjamin] Cheatham passed over it, constantly circling in heavy masses round the Federal right, there were more clearings, and winter had stripped bare both bush and ground, leaving the evergreen cedars as the only screen for the frightened foe. Now the density of the brake shut us in on every side. The old driver tried first this path, then that, striking against rocks, scraping the buggy top and swearing as though he would scorch the roof of his mouth. At last we got out of the wilderness, emerging by a rough road that took us past the Harding farm house.

In the yard, where a peacock put himself in fine plume to greet us, once lay hundreds of dying men, because here was a field hospital which [Phil] Sheridan and [James] Negley taxed to the utmost. A rifle shot's flight further along we came out upon Wilkinson's turnpike and stopped at Blanton's farm house, where awful slaughter occurred. Dr. Burrows, the present owner of the mansion, took pains to show us such things as shell marks and rifle pits, but the evidences of the great struggle were few. About two years ago the skeletons of eleven Union soldiers were found in the cellar of an abandoned house on Dr. Burrows' place, a rare occurrence, as the dead of Stone's river have been given Christian burial either at the Confederate Cemetery south of the town or at the National Cemetery, whither we went full tilt on a good by-road.

Trotting across to Nashville Pike

The Nashville Pike about 20 years after the battle, probably much as reporter George Morgan saw it.
(National Park Service)
             PANORAMA: Where Union officer Julius Garesche, an aide to commander 
          William Rosecrans, was decapitated by Confederate artillery on Dec. 31, 1862. 
                                   (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

On the way to the cemetery the guide showed me what he said was the place where [Union general George] Thomas had stood, for that hero was the rock of Stone's river as well as " the rock of Chickamauga." More over, the guide amused himself by pointing out the spot where a shell took off [Julius] Garesche's head as he rode by the side of [William] Rosecrans, but so far from believing him I felt like telling him to go off somewhere and hang his feet over. He was as useful a guide as  McCook was a general. I knew, however, from General [Henry] Cist's excellent map in my hand, that we were passing over the new line whereon Rosecrans rallied his men and withstood all further shocks. Soon the open fields were in sight, and then a trot of a few minutes brought us to the cemetery.

A beauty-spot among barrens

                                  PANORAMA: Stones River (Tenn.) National Cemetery. 
                                       (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

This God's acre, set apart for more than six thousand soldiers slain in battle, is between the Nashville railroad and the Nashville turnpike, The turf is as smooth as a tennis plot, and around it passes a hedge so lovely as not to be surpassed by the maples, the vines, and the flowers. It is a garden-spot, offering contrast to the ground immediately without. A pebble could be thrown from the keeper's cosy lodge to a cabin of squalor just beyond the pike. The tiny sweet-william and the snap-dragon grow wild by the cabin, but in the place of the dead are blossoms that tell of years of painstaking.

Just to the north of the cemetery we came to a sort of darkey village, a settlement without a central point and without streets, more of a cluster of cabins than anything else. I was told that the cabins were built during the years of loose ownership in land that followed the battle. The colored people would pass whole days in the fields and brakes roundabout, gathering lead iron, shoes and the what-not scattered by the one hundred thousand men whose bivouacs had been passed therein. Most of the cabins had stone fences around them, for stones thickly strew the surface, and sometimes one may take a dozen steps on the smooth top of boulders level with the soil.

A battle-field monument

A train follows the war-time railroad course past the Hazen Brigade Cemetery.
The object next of interest in that locality is a monument put up in 1863 by [William] Hazen's Brigade of the Army of the Cumberland. It consists of a pile of stone some twelve feet high and bears the names of several officers killed here and at Shiloh. Referring to the brigade, the Nineteenth of [Don Carlos] Buell's old Army of the Ohio, the inscription runs: "The blood of one-third its soldiers, twice spilled in Tennessee, crimsons the battle-flag of the brigade and inspires to greater deeds." Little inspiration could be drawn from the surroundings, though, because a few dozen unkept graves, some rough prickly pears and corners overgrown with weeds were the only marked objects near the shaft. And even had I found food for patriotic reflection there, the mood would have vanished a few moments later, as a fresh bull-dog of yellow hue chased the tired sight-seer headlong through a cotton held to the waiting buggy in the road.

A present-day close-up of the Hazen Brigade monument.

A parting glimpse

As we drove back past the famous "Round Forest," now no longer standing, what we saw was well worth seeing. The white cotton blossoms of the morning had turned to pink in the sun and his last rays were upon the silk tufts in the corn. Coming in sight of the river again the guide pointed out a dozen or more forts, and these proved to be better preserved than any other battle-marks in the vicinity. They are on the southern bluff, having been built after Bragg had retreated. Some are partly covered with bushes, but those near the road are bare and in the gathering twilight they looked as red as the clouds far over by the west. On top of one fort stood a cabin and in an angle of the earthworks its lord and master was penning his ox -- the last thing seen in the last glimpse caught of Murfreesboro field.

G. M.

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  1. Thank you for reminding us of the incredible loss of life and personal sacrifice that was the Civil War. For sure the scars from this cathartic struggle would take a long time to heal and are still with us today. Here we are five generations removed from the bloodiest war in US history and it still influences public discussion.

  2. Good read, thanks for taking the time and care to write it.

  3. Thanks, my cousins were killed or died here. Jacob, John and Aaron Wortman, 15th Ohio

  4. You bring our gallant history to life. Thank you!