Stones River: The Preservation Story

Yesterday morning, we made a few stops prior to reaching Stones River National Battlefield, proper, and the sesquicentennial events.  One of those was a rather typical highway intersection.

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Gersham Lane and Franklin Road

On December 29, 1862, Federal cavalry pressed Confederate skirmishers away from this intersection.  The following day troops from Brigadier General Richard Johnston’s division of Major General Alexander McCook setup positions here.  The position was, for all practical purposes, the right flank of the Army of the Cumberland when the Confederate assault stepped forward on the morning of December 31.  This was the first objective in General Braxton Bragg’s attack plan.

But today this is about two miles, direct line, from the southern boundary of the Stones River National Battlefield.  In between is a school, shopping malls, residences, and a major interstate highway.  All ground contested during the battle.  Indeed many important sections of the battlefield were not included within the park boundaries. That begs the question – why wasn’t this major battlefield better preserved?

Let me offer the short version of that story here, but recommend Stones River National Battlefield Historic Resource Study by Sean Styles for further reading.  The story of the battlefield park starts in during the war.  Like many battlefields, a National Cemetery established during the war was a presence, giving the government at least some interest in the locality.  But a wartime memorial also served to attract visitors and veterans to the battlefield.

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Hazen Monument – the oldest surviving CW battlefield monument

The Hazen Monument, built during the war by veterans of Colonel William B. Hazen’s Brigade at the Round Forrest, where they fought with distinction during the battle.  The proximity of this monument and the national cemetery, just to the northwest, and the railroad line naturally made the site an attraction for travelers along that line.  That also eased logistics for veterans’ reunions.

Working along those lines, in 1906 the Nashville, Chattanooga, & St. Louis Railroad established a memorial on the other side of the railroad.

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Artillery Monument

The railroad also set aside the remains of Redoubt Brannan, visible from a passing train, as an attraction.

During the 1890s, in what historian Timothy Smith calls the “Golden Age of Battlefield Preservation”, Stones River was among the plans for additional reservations beyond the original five (Gettysburg, Shiloh, Chickmauga-Chattanooga, Antietam, and Vicksburg).  The Stones River Battlefield and Park Association secured options on several thousands of acres of land.  Prospects looked good, given the lobbying power of the veterans.  But despite several bills drafted, the proposal never gained traction.  Proponents were checkmated in 1912 with a report from Charles Grosvenor, then Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park commissioner, stating landmarks on the Stones River battlefield were “entirely obliterated.”  Whether that assessment was valid or not, I cannot say.  But given the extant landscape today, I’d say Grosvenor probably overlooked some features.

Not until after World War I did Congress again take up battlefield preservation.  Under the 1927 Act for Study and Investigation of Battlefields was Stones River considered again.  In March of that year, a small section of the battlefield, 300 or so acres, became part of the National Park system.  Small sections of additional acreage, transferred in the 1930s, brought the total to just under 400 acres.  Over the following decades the park benefited from several waves of improvement projects, from the New Deal’s WPA to Project 66.  But no major land acquisitions added to the land preserved within the park.

With the growth of Murfreesboro in the middle of the 20th century, development pressed on the battlefield.  The construction of Interstate 24 bisected the fields over which the action took place on December 31, 1862 (not unlike Monocacy battlefield and I-270 in that respect).  Over time, the land was, as Grosvenor said earlier, “entirely obliterated.”  But in 1992, the park nearly doubled in size with the donation of the last remaining sections of Fortress Rosecrans, opening the total park acreage to 570.  While significant of course, the fortress was a post-battle structure.

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Remains of Fortress Rosecrans

The statistic often cited in regards to preservation of Stones River is one fifth.  That is the fraction of the battlefield which lies within the national park.  As for the remainder, it is indeed “entirely obliterated.”  There is a lot of “what could have been” attached to the preservation of Stones River.  But there’s also much we should be thankful for.  One can still look across the fields and consider the actions of December 31, 1862 through January 2, 1863.