On the last day of 1862 one of the bloodiest conflicts in the American Civil War started. By the time the Battle of Stones River ended on 2 January 1863 each side had suffered the highest percentage of casualties. For many reasons this was one of the major battles of the Civil War. The Battlefield is now part of a 570 acre park managed by the National Park Service. Having spent some time there as an intern, William shares his knowledge of visiting the battlefield.

Period style fencing at the Stones River National Battlefield.
Period style fencing and cannon along what was the original Union line.

If you were given the chance to fight at the Battle of Gettysburg – the bloodiest battle of the US Civil War – or to fight at the Battle of Stones River, you would have better odds surviving at Gettysburg. By the end of the three days of fighting there, each side had lost nearly a third of its troops, the highest casualty rate by percentage of the entire war. Stones River National Battlefield preserves much of the land that this battle was fought on, memorialising one of the smaller but no less significant moments of the Civil War.

Located at roughly the geographic centre of Tennessee, the town of Murfreesboro was the setting for the three bloody days of fighting and skirmishing from December 31st, 1862 to January 2nd, 1863 that would determine control over much of the state. Today it is difficult to declare an obvious victor of the battle with both armies barely making it through the fighting, but at the time the Union seized upon its repulsion of the Confederate advance as a much-needed victory following a several harrowing defeats earlier that winter.

What the battle symbolised for its armies and the civilians around it is the real focus of Stones River National Battlefield. Not only the battle happened on preserved land but broader changes in the landscape and in American society. Moments in history such as the trail of tears which passed alongside the battlefield and the Emancipation Proclamation which was signed into law on the second day of the battle are interpreted and explored alongside the incredible cost of life there.

The Stones River Battlefield

Today Murfreesboro where the battle was fought is a bustling University town, a far cry from the small farming town at the time of the Civil War. While the preserved battlefield is less than a fifth of the original size of the land that the battle was fought on, it includes the most important areas of the battle. In the late 1800s the land of the battlefield began to be protected by a local organisation, and officially became recognised as a National Military Park in the 1920s before being transferred to the National Park Service in the 1930s.

Various trails and roads are scattered throughout the battlefield, with interpretive wayside markers sharing snapshots of the battle complete with quotes from soldiers who fought there. Some of the most significant parts of the battle can be reached in this way, either by wandering yourself through the acres of dense forest and open fields or by following the set self-guided tour route that the park has created.

The route follows the battle chronologically beginning by setting the stage along the same road which the Union army formed its original battle formations. Union morale leading up to the battle was at an all time low with a devastating blow having been dealt in early December at the Battle of Fredericksburg in Virginia. In search of a way to bolster spirits the Lincoln Administration began pressuring its generals to pursue the Confederates in search of a victory. The Union Army of the Cumberland responded to the call and on December 26th began their wet and muddy march along the same road that many visitors enter the battlefield from, heading to where the Confederates were encamped at the outskirts of Murfreesboro, TN.

Upon arriving there on December 30th, the two armies formed parallel lines across dark fields awaiting the coming battle of the next morning, sleeping without fires to avoid giving away their exact positions. The only sounds that could be heard that night were the two armies softly singing across the battlefield, but for many there it would be the last song they would ever hear.

As you continue along the path you head towards where the confederates began their attack just before daylight on the morning of December 31st. The Battle of Stones River began there chaotically with the Confederate forces surprising the Union right flank as they were waking up and starting breakfast. The Confederates overwhelmed the Union soldiers, wrapping around their flank and pushing them in on themselves. Some soldiers even reported seeing Union men dead in their tents still clutching their cups of coffee because of how swift the attack was. Within minutes the Union soldiers began to retreat, falling back into the forest and their own lines where they could find cover and hopefully protection.

Trails lead visitors through the Stones River National Battlefield, Tennessee.

A trail running through the dense forests.

Several trails lead into the words where the Union Army’s right flank fled, an area strewn with large rock outcroppings and crevasses – perfect natural defences into which the soldiers could take cover and attempt to hold off Confederate advances. You can easily walk between these rocks today, many taller than the average soldier a natural phenomenon which changed the outcome of the battle. The Union Army managed to make a stand here, holding off the confederates who came from nearly all sides for nearly two hours before they were overwhelmed and forced to retreat. As they attempted to fall back, however, the same rocks which had provided such crucial protection trapped the soldiers, making them sitting ducks for the oncoming confederate onslaught. Blood covered the ground, running through the rocks in small rivers. The only way that the soldiers could think to describe the bloodshed there was with the name 'slaughter pen' after the slaughter pens in the meatpacking district of Chicago where hundreds of cows were butchered daily, a name which the area keeps to this day.

The so-called slaughter pen at Stones River Battlefield.

The so-called 'slaughter pen'.

While today a road and several trails allow easy access through the forest, the thick cedar groves slowed not only the Union retreat but the Confederate pursuit. The stand in the slaughter pen had managed to buy the Union army enough time, however, to recall the troops that it had begun its own attack with on the left flank and to create a new Union line which the retreating soldiers could take cover behind. This would be the final stand of the Union Army on December 31st. After being pushed back and turned nearly 90 degrees, they had amassed nearly 30,000 men and more than 30 cannons behind them on a small ridge to hold off the waves of confederate advances that came across an open cotton field.

The cotton fields at Stones River Battlefield in Tennessee, USA.

The Cotton Field where the Union army made a final stand.

Only one part of the original Union line remained in place from that morning, based in the area known as the round forest. This regiment never lost a single foot of ground over the course of the day and within the weeks following the battle erected a monument to their fallen commander, Col. Hazen, and their fellow soldiers. The Hazen Brigade Monument is still standing and easily visible today, making it the oldest intact Civil War monument in the US.

Across the field from where visitors walk across the field the Confederates charged across at the Union army, cut off from their artillery which was trapped on the far side of the dense forest. The confederates led several waves of attacks with neither side gaining any further ground and as the sun began to set the tired armies collected their wounded and settled in for another long cold night.

The Confederate Army thought that they had all but guaranteed victory and expected the Union army to withdraw overnight. So sure of this was their General Braxton Bragg that he sent a telegram to Confederate President Jefferson Davis declaring victory, saying “God has granted us a happy New Year”.

When daylight came on January 1st, 1863, however, the Confederates were shocked to see the Union army where they had been the night before. Neither army was in any shape to fight and both began to bunker down, digging trenches and collecting their dead while occasional skirmishes went on intermittently throughout the day. Neither side was able to gain any ground over the course of the first of January, merely engaging in an early version of trench warfare across a bare cotton field.

On January 2nd, the Confederates made a final attempt to gain some kind of ground from the Union army, targeting a small hill nearby from which they could force the Union back. They began their charge as the sun began to set, using the cover of the approaching darkness to limit the ability of the Union artillery to differentiate between the Union blue and the Confederate grey. Their charge was incredibly successful and saw the Confederates breaking through several lines of Union men in quick succession causing the Union army to retreat off the hill. However, as the Confederates took the hill sixty Union cannons opened on them from a nearby farm. Within 30 minutes nearly 1800 confederates had fallen as a result of the artillery barrage and the rest had turned and retreated with the Union soldiers hot on their heels.

The farmland where the artillery was mounted is still part of the preserved battlefield. Standing at the top of the hill alongside several cannons from the period is a tall monument dedicated to the artillery. This piece is not the work of the soldiers who fought there like others at the battlefield, but rather erected by a railroad company in the early 20th century to promote their Civil War tours.

After their retreat at the hands of this artillery, the Confederates pulled out of Murfreesboro and began to retreat further south into Tennessee. By January 5th the city was fully under Union control. By no means a great victory, the Union army had only barely made it out of the battle, but had managed to push forward into the south, giving the Union the victory it so desperately needed. Even President Lincoln wrote to the Union General Rosecrans thanking him and his men for a "hard earned victory, which had there been a defeat instead, the country could hardly have lived over."

Beyond the Battle

The battle paved the way for several of the western front’s most notable campaigns including the Tullahoma campaign to Chattanooga/Chickamauga, and from there into Georgia. Within a matter of weeks following the battle construction began on Fortress Rosecrans, an enormous earthen works fortress that was nearly 400 acres in size which would serve as a major supply station for the remainder of the war. Walking alongside the walls of this fortress helps to give a send of scale of the project. Only two small sections remain of the original fortress, but the walls are still an impressive feat, 10-15 feet (3-5 metres) high with a steep grade.

Shortly after the end of the war in 1865, a Union regiment returned to the battlefield with a new mission. These soldiers were not the same ones who had fought at the Battle of Stones River, rather, they were a black battalion all of whom had been freed from slavery on the second day of the battle with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. These soldiers were there to rebury the dead from Stones River and other smaller battles in the area all of whom had initially been buried in mass graves. The National Cemetery which stands today is the result of these efforts and the resting place of over 6,000 Union soldiers (the Confederates have chosen to bury their dead elsewhere) nearly a third of whom are unknown. The men who built the cemetery remained in the area following its completion, raising their families and creating their own community there, aptly named Cemetery.

Rosecrans Fortress at the Stones River National Battlefield in Tennessee, USA.

The earthen works walls of Fortress Rosecrans (today grown over with grasses).

Visiting Stones River National Battlefield

The horrors of slavery and its inherent ties to the Civil War are thoroughly explored inside the Visitor Center across the street from the Cemetery. Inside a small museum walks you through a more detailed history of the battle and the Civil War itself, starting with its outbreak and causes and moving through to the post war period and the ramifications of reunification and emancipation. A short film is shown in the Visitor Center which features a vivid telling of the battle. Park Rangers are also stationed inside the centre at all times to help any kind of further questions you might have.

Throughout the summer a number of interpretive programs are led including daily guided “caravan tours” of the battlefield, programs on individual stories of soldiers who fought at the battle, and even occasional bike tours. If you are lucky you might be there on one of the battlefield’s 'living history' days, which feature staff in full Civil War period uniforms and costumes demonstrating 19th century artillery, rifles, and communication techniques.

One of the most moving experiences that happens every month at the battlefield is their Hallowed Ground lantern tour of the cemetery. As the sun begins to set you walk through the cemetery with a guide stopping at actors in period costume reading letters and journal entries from soldiers who fought at the battle as well as their families and loved ones. Hardly a dry eye is left in the audience following several of these monologues as they speak of the loss that came about through the war.

Every part of the battlefield is entirely free to visit including the interpretive programs and Visitor Center. For a schedule of events or to reserve spots on the Hallowed Ground tour visit the Official Website. All programs and signs are in English, however, the rangers at the Visitor Center have descriptions of the battle and the sites in a variety of different languages. The Visitor Center is open 9-5 every day and the battlefield is accessible to be walked through from sunrise to sunset.

Living History re-enactments at the Stones River National Battlefield.

Testing out Civil War communication methods at a living history demonstration.