Civil War Profiles — A Civil War trip of a lifetime: Part 8


Our amazing trip continued in October 1995, blessed with near-perfect weather. Leaving the Dover area of Tennessee, we drove southeast about 110 miles to Murfreesboro, with a stop in Clarksville to visit the antebellum Smith-Trayhern Mansion.

Built in 1858 by tobacco exporter Christopher Smith, this Greek Revival- and Italianate-style home overlooks the Cumberland River. Along the way, the smoke rising from tobacco barns was not a cause for alarm, we learned, but rather a curing process that employs smoldering wood fires to produce “dark-fired tobacco.”

From Clarksville, our route turned southeast through Nashville to Murfreesboro, site of the hard-fought battle of Stones River. It involved the forces of Union Gen. William S. Rosecrans and Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg.

According to Ezra J. Warner’s “Generals in Blue,” Ohio native Rosecrans, an 1842 graduate of West Point, had taken command of the Army of the Cumberland in October 1862. North Carolinian Bragg, whose command of the Army of Tennessee dated from June 1862, was a graduate of West Point’s class of 1837 — as related in Warner’s “Generals in Gray.”

After Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s victories in Western Tennessee, as noted in the previous article in this series, Bragg had to withdraw his command out of Kentucky to Middle Tennessee to protect farms and railroads in the area. Rosecrans’ 41,000 troops pursued Bragg’s 35,000-man force and located them at their Murfreesboro winter quarters.

The Rebels initiated fighting on Dec. 31, 1862, but the determined Union line held in fierce fighting. When the battle resumed two days later, neither side was able to subdue the other, while both took heavy casualties — a combined total of nearly 25,000.

Although he had won a tactical victory, Bragg did not have a strong enough force to drive the larger Union army from the field. He decided to withdraw farther south, which resulted in the Confederate cause suffering another strategic loss at Murfreesboro.

Bragg and his army began their retreat on Jan. 3, 1862, about 40 miles to Tullahoma, while Rosecrans fortified the city of Murfreesboro as a base for a future attack on the Confederate rail center in Chattanooga.

Although sizable in its own right, only a small segment of the Stones River battlefield is enclosed in the national park area. A visitor-center brochure focuses on action within the park confines and lists nine stops on an auto tour, including Sheridan’s Stand (where Union Gen. Philip H. Sheridan warded off a Confederate assault) and Breckinridge’s Attack (where Rebel Gen. John Breckinridge’s brigades suffered 1,800 casualties and were driven back).

Also on the tour is a spacious National Cemetery where more than 6,000 disinterred Union bodies from the battlefield were reburied — more than 2,500 unidentified. The Confederate dead were buried in mass graves on the battlefield, or taken to their home towns or nearest Southern community.

A useful supplement for visiting this national park is “The General’s Battlefield Guide: The Battle of Stones River” published by Blue & Gray Magazine. It provides detailed descriptions of events in the surrounding countryside outside the park area.

Even so, it requires ingenuity to pinpoint landmarks and some imagination to discern events that took place. Malls and fast-food restaurants line the roads along the route, and sprawling suburbia now obscures areas of the battlefield.

One tour stop is located in a residential neighborhood where graves of Confederate soldiers sit adjacent to the back yard of one of the homes. This sad commentary points out the need to preserve Civil War battlefields and sites for future generations to understand their historical significance.

Time spent in the bookstore added to a growing collection, including “No Better Place to Die: The Battle of Stones River” by Peter Cozzens and “Eyewitnesses at the Battle of Stones River,” compiled and edited by David R. Logsdon.

Before leaving the Stones River National Battlefield area, we stopped at the antebellum courthouse in Murfreesboro. On display was a collage painting of Tennessee notables, including Andrew Jackson and Andrew Johnson, both of whom served as president of the United States — the latter succeeding Abraham Lincoln following his assassination.

Next on the scheduled tour was the town of Franklin, in mid-Tennessee. In November 1864, residents there witnessed a tragic battle that surpassed the bloodletting during Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg and cost the lives of five Confederate generals.

Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books and at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.