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.


6 thoughts on “Stones River: The Preservation Story

  1. Craig, when we first initiated preservation efforts at Chantilly, then again at Brandy Station in the late 80’s, we were met with sadly predictable counterattacks by developers and their political bedfellows, all of whom advanced the ignorant assertion that “nothing happened out there as it is just farmland.” They added, “If something happened there, where are the monuments and the markers?” (I could be missing something, but I don’t see a monument situated at Gersham lane and Franklin Road–above.)

    This type of specious argument by developers of course reveals ignorance so base and vile that one is essentially left speechless in response, but those of us who have banged around in the preservation arena are too well aware that facts do not matter to those who seek profit over heritage. In fact, their tenacity to ignore facts is staggering.

    What is the answer? Well, it is rather straightforward: One must either document the resource ahead of time; or, prepare to wage a war to save that precious resource when the bulldozers inevitably arrive.

    And by the way, the NPS has never done us a favor when they erect signs that announce. “You are entering such-and-such battlefield,” and “You are departing such-and such battlefield.”

    As we all know, battles did not stop or end at the edge of a pretty park boundary..

    Clark B. Hall

  2. Bud, actually there is a marker at the intersection of Gersham lane and Franklin Road. With Tennessee’s original highway marking system, a monopole marker stood there with the narrative, large enough to be read from a parked car, saying “the battle started here.” However, with recent improvements to Franklin Road, the marker was temporarily removed. When it was replaced, someone didn’t pay attention… it was the wrong marker! Now instead of reading about the battle, visitors see that Murfreesboro was the state’s capital for about eight years. I’m told the state is moving to correct the error. (Been about two years now, but who’s counting…)

  3. I took a drive out to Stones River a couple of months ago to revisit the ground, this time with Jim Lewis’ recent Blue & Gray article and Winter Lightning, a very thorough battlefield guide by Matt and Lee Spruill. I had been to the park before, but had never taken such an in-depth look at the entire battle.

    No doubt, there are subdivisions and shopping malls scattered throughout much of the battlefield. However, I was surprised that I saw as much open space as I did, and I actually think there’s some potential there. Much of the area over which the Federals were driven back toward the pike on Dec. 31 is still farmland or open meadow.

    While it’s true that there are few battlefield landmarks remaining, there don’t seem to have been that many to begin with, except for a few houses (and many of these are even still around, though privately owned). I hope the NPS, Civil War Trust, etc.haven’t written off the unprotected portion of Stones River as “lost”, because I don’t think that’s accurate. I still see some work to be done.

    Like most other places, though, the clock is ticking… When I had last visited, the site of the December 1864 Battle of the Cedars was mostly intact. One of the rangers informed me that the field is now a Dick’s Sporting Goods.

  4. I think someone really missed the boat at Stones River. It’s been thoroughly decimated. I remember before the hospital was built, the, then CWPT, stated that the $20 million price tag for that land was beyond their reach. But I have to wonder if an arrangement could have been made to at least preserve some of that land, like what was done for the 1st Day’s Battlefield at Chancellorsville. Sadly, as bad as this battlefield was in 2007, it’s in even worse shape today. I just went there on 1/5/13 and I’ve never been more disappointed in a battlefield visit. And now I hear that even one more historic house is endangered to go along with the 3 we’ve lost in the past decade or so. If there are any complications, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear about another “unrelated” accident befalling this home. Unfortunately I cannot share Michael’s optimism here as my last visit there was markedly different from my first visit back in 1999. I hope the residents that live there enjoy the hours long drives just to go from one end of town to the other.

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