Every Rutherford County citizen is familiar with McFadden’s Ford, a shallow Stones River crossing in Murfreesboro that was the site of a crucial Civil War battle. Yet, it is intriguing to revisit this story and seek new discovery. Jim Lewis, longtime park ranger of Stones River, is an ultimate expert in the narrative for an audience, as he continually delivers an electrifying account of this stirring day. The seminal engagement was complicated and quite descriptive in historical text; but we will revisit some highlights of this travesty and make some sense of an encounter that proved quite senseless.
On December 30, 1862, just four days before the critical engagement, both Union and Rebel bands played in unison “Home Sweet Home” with 83,000 soldiers reflecting on the comfort of home, while their mortality was dangling on a thin line. However, no harmony would continue beyond that moment.
The decisive Stones River Battle of McFadden’s Ford occurred on the chilled winter day of January 2, 1863, at 4PM. The conflict could have either turned into Confederate victory or defeat, changing American history forever. No soldier was prepared for life or death.
Major General John C. Breckinridge, a former U.S. vice president, was ordered by Lieutenant General Braxton Bragg to strike at Brigadier General Horatio Van Cleve on a hill by McFadden’s Ford on the east side of Stones River. Bragg was actually surprised to see the Union still intact and ready to fight. In reality, Col. Samuel Beatty’s Union soldiers on the ridge held the leveraged position. Thus, in a hard rain, Breckinridge pursued this command with his five brigades of 4,500 men to push the enemy across the river; but he was uncomfortable with the directive. Breckenridge had postponed the attack as late as possible with impending dread on this winter day.
Initially, Confederates captured the hill and assertively pursued the ford. The Confederates assailed the Federals down the ridge’s rear slope into an open area opposite McFadden’s Ford. However, in the heat of the attack, Rebel soldiers were positioned upon 57 Federal cannons lined up for 700 yards and mounted on a rise on the west side of Stones River. Capt. John Mendenhall, left wing chief of artillery, deployed the Union guns in rapid fire with devastating results as Confederates pursued the Federals across the river. Not one Confederate reached the river. In less than one hour, 1,800 Confederates were killed or wounded, as the ground was shaking. A counterattack at 4:45 p.m. under Brigadier General James Negley of the Pioneer Brigade then shoved the remainder of Breckinridge’s forces back to Wayne’s Hill into quick retreat. In the end, Breckinridge lost one-third of Hanson’s Brigade (Kentucky troops).
Mitchell’s Cabin sat several hundred yards above Stones River northeast of McFadden’s Ford and was used as a field hospital after the skirmishes of the day. Following Bragg’s painful retreat from Murfreesboro, Major General William Starke Rosecrans asserted triumph. This win was critical to the North, who had suffered defeat at Fredericksburg just three weeks earlier. Abraham Lincoln praised Rosecrans “for your skill, endurance and dauntless courage.” Stones River Cemetery began reburials in October 1865 with completion in 1867. There are 6,100 Union soldiers buried here, including 2,562 with no identifiable name.
During the 1863 encounter, Hollie Posey McFadden (age 61), a widow, was living on the farm with her younger children; and her property and livelihood was entangled in the throes of fighting. She married Samuel McFadden, son of Guy and Jane McFadden, when she was 14 years old. In all, she would bear 14 children who lived to adulthood. Samuel purchased the land in 1818 on the west side of the West Fork of Stones River. He was a thriving farmer and trustee of the New School Presbyterian Church at Sulphur Spring. When he died in 1848, Hollie continued to reside on the farm and provide for her family. During Stones River, Union Major General Thomas Crittenden’s corps occupied her farm in a destructive manner. Devastation of her home was near complete in an aftermath of terror and unspeakable loss.
McFadden’s Ford is a symbol of an opprobrious collapse in the final combat of Stones River. Confederates entered the battle with elevated expectations. In the end, these men were merely fathers, brothers and sons of a divided nation, who only desired the war to seek closure and allow their return to mere normalcy in their respective homes. Nevertheless, the war would linger for two more agonizing years decaying a country already buried in mass devastation. Many of the surviving soldiers of McFadden’s Ford moved on to serve within major battles over the next two years of the war. When I view McFadden’s Ford’s serenity and peaceful abode today, the memories of this engagement are fresh on my mind symbolizing the great desire that Americans never repeat similar devastation within our own country and our own county … man against man.
Contact Susan Harber at susanharber@hotmail. com.