Friday, September 23, 2016

Stones River National Battlefield

Tucked away outside of Murfreesboro, TN, an hour outside of Nashville, is Stones River National Battlefield.  On New Year's Day, 1863, Union troops tenaciously refused to leave the field of battle, despite being pummeled by the Confederate army all day long.  As a result, in the Western Theater, the Confederates were forced to continue the retreat that began in Kentucky two months earlier and continued throughout the remainder of the Civil War.

As with many battlefields, visiting requires imagining.  Imagine still being groggy from just waking up.  You haven't had your coffee yet, and you're in the middle of fixing breakfast, perhaps thinking that the new year could bring an end to this war, when the enemy suddenly comes rushing out of the adjacent woods with a rebel yell loud enough to send you into a panic.  That's how the battle of Stones River started.

The surprised Union troops dug in inside a thickly overgrown thicket with large boulders and shallow gullies.  Ordinarily such a place would be perfect to fend off attackers, but the Confederates thundered into the thicket in force with a shower of lead.  The scared Union soldiers began retreating through the woods.  The boulders and gullies that would have been their defense instead turned into obstacles that severely hampered their retreat rather than helping it.  As a result, the thicket turned into a slaughter pen.

The Slaughter Pen

As the battle raged on for the next four hours, the Confederates continued to roll up the Union line, pushing them back 3 miles, capturing 3000 prisoners, and defeating them in detail.

The only part of the Union line that held that first day was in what came to be known as "Hell's Half-Acre".  Hazen's Brigade fought off attack after attack until bodies littered the field in front of them.

Site of Hazen's Stand:  Hell's Half-Acre

Despite their certain defeat, the Union army refused to leave the field.  Gen Rosecrans even ordered his left flank to move further left to reinforce the heights to the east of Stones River.  The next day, Gen Bragg ordered an assault on the Union left flank, but his troops were decimated by enfilading fire (shooting into their side) from 58 cannons.  The Union seized the initiative with a counter-attack, pushing Bragg's army back to where it started from.  Union reinforcements arrived that evening, and Bragg, realizing he was out-numbered retreated farther south toward Chattanooga.

Stones River is not one of the more famous battlefields, but the Park Service has done a good job with it (as always, viewing a simulation, such as from historyanimated, of the battle beforehand is very helpful).  The auto tour takes you around to the various parts of the battlefield in chronological order to help preserve the story, and the cell phone tour does an adequate job of describing the action at each part.  There is a short trail through the Slaughter Pen (the overgrown thicket) that gives a great appreciation for what fighting must have been like on that morning as Confederates rushed in and Union troops tried to escape.  Metal silhouettes placed around the battlefield help with visualizing the opposing lines.  The highlight of the tour was the monument to Hazen's Brigade.  Established mere months after the battle, it was the first battlefield monument constructed.  It sits right beside the railroad tracks, so troops being moved along those tracks later in the Civil War would have seen it, producing undoubtedly sober reminders of the realities of war.

Hazen's Brigade Monument

The only disappointment was traveling to the heights where the Confederates were destroyed by cannon fire.  Directions to the area aren't great, there are no storyboards to orient you, and I'm relatively certain the cannons placed up there are facing the wrong direction.  Touring the battlefield only takes a couple of hours and provides yet another sobering reminder of the sacrifice required to preserve freedom.

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