The Battle of Stones River

When your route takes you across Tennessee, you will be offered many opportunities to visit Civil War battlefields. Tennessee was a vital strategic cog in the war. Nashville was a major rail center with railroads supplying Atlanta and points south. By taking Nashville and Chattanooga, the Confederates were cut off from this resource, and the North utilized the lines to supply their own troops. We began to see signs for battlefields as we left Memphis and they became more prevalent toward Chattanooga.

Our travels were influenced by major rainstorms, beginning in Memphis and continuing until Atlanta. We had planned to tour the battlefields at Shiloh, south of Nashville. As we drove through Corinth, Mississippi, the site of the battle’s second day, to Shiloh, we were amazed by miles of downed trees and power lines, and houses without power. Both battle sites were closed because of the damage. It turned out that while we waited out almost two inches of rain in Memphis, a swath of tropical storm remnants and possible tornadoes had swept through this area further east. We had to abandon our day, including a stay at a beautiful B&B near the battle fields, and head into the Nashville area a day earlier.

We stayed south of the city and drove to the Hermitage the following morning. This was reviewed in the last blog entry. On the way back to Murfreesboro, there were signs for a local battle site, Stones River, a mile from our hotel. So we went…

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I had never heard of this particular battle, and this is what I found out. The Union had captured Nashville, but the rail lines had another major junction south of the city in Murfreesboro. Both sides massed troops here and everyone knew a battle was coming. The Confederacy wanted to recapture this junction badly. The battle started when the South suddenly attacked at dawn, and totally surprised the Northern soldiers. They pushed all but a couple brigades off the field, to the point where the South thought they won… BUT, the next day, the North had regrouped and was still on the field. Another attack pushed the North back again, but the Southern troops advanced right into the the Union artillery positions and suffered huge losses. At the end of the two days, about 25,000 soldiers had been killed and the Union held onto the rail lines. Pretty serious fighting for a lesser known battle !!

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While not familiar with the battle, I had heard a couple reference terms. On the first day, a sector of the battle field was held by General Phil Sheridan, who later became one of Grant’s top adjutants.  His troops held ground with narrow rock crevices and thick tree cover against murderous rifle fire. Sheridan slowly withdrew in order to give the surrounding Union troops time to regroup. The soldiers later referred to this battle within the battle as “ Hell’s Half Acre.”  Further up the line, there was another particularly bloody spot that reminded Union troops from Chicago of their slaughter houses. It was difficult  to imagine these masses of men fighting over dense wooded forest land without a lot of room to maneuver. You either advanced or retreated… No room to flank.

The tremendous casualties of this and other Tennessee battles were startling to both sides. It also surprised me that a battle with this number of dead and wounded is not really well known. I included, as a closer, some pics of the cemetery, initially dug immediately after the battle, and formalized a few years later as a commemoration. The pic with the three stones above includes an unknown next to two soldiers from the Illinois 110th Regiment. I was also impressed that visitors had left small stones on top of the gravestones as tributes.

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