As published in the Murfreesboro Post, Dan Whittle, Post Columnist, April 14, 2011
On April 12, 1861, shots rang out across the harbor at Charleston, S.C., signaling the official start of the Civil War when the Confederacy fired on Ft. Sumter.
It was almost year before the war reached Rutherford County on March 10, 1862.
And when it reached the county’s soil, no one was spared.
“I was shocked by the amount of violence, lawlessness and destruction during the war,” said Dr. Brenden Martin, a professor of public history at MTSU. “Aside from the battles, all Rutherford County residents – rich and poor, black and white, male and female – endured desperate times and deprivations as a result of foraging, scarcity of food and other goods, and violence at the hands of soldiers and marauders.”
There were many skirmishes and battles across the county throughout the war with Murfreesboro changing hands between Union and Confederate forces until the Battle of Stones River, which put its land and people firmly in Union control.
When the Union first took control of the county in March 1862, Murfreesboro Mayor John Easter Dromgoole, Confederate sympathizer, refused to meet with Union officers who wanted to discuss terms of the town’s surrender.
“After he shunned a Union general saying he’d rather go fishing, the Union Army designated Murfreesboro a ‘captured town,’ giving soldiers the authority to confiscate property, arrest civilians, search houses and treat local people as hostiles,” Martin explained.
According to the diary of John Spence, Union soldiers paraded around town and foraged in the county, taking guns, food and livestock wherever they could.
“It appears they came to destroy, it matter[s] not which way …” Spence wrote in his diary. “Some of the boys, as they call themselves, are troublesome, slipping round citizens’ gardens and stealing vegetables as they get of any size, onions in particular. They will go to any length to obtain a few onions.”
These cruel and desperate times have now been documented and turned into a traveling exhibit developed by Martin and his graduate students.
“This Cruel War: The Civil War in Rutherford County” is a nine-panel exhibit, which features civilian life in Rutherford County during the war, highlighting the many struggles and hardships individuals and families faced while combat happened literally in their backyards.
The MTSU students focused on the backyards and home front of Rutherford County because, in part, Martin didn’t want to rehash well-known stories like those found at the Sam Davis Home, the Stones River National Battlefield and other important preserved sites.
“Also since the county was occupied for most of the war, it was often difficult to separate civilian and military experiences,” Martin said, “but we nonetheless were striving to offer a balanced interpretation that voices multiple perspectives of Rutherford County residents during the war.”
The exhibit premiers at a grand opening ceremony from 5-7 p.m. Thursday, April 28 at Oaklands Historic House Museum.
A reception will be held from 5-7 p.m. with short remarks about the exhibit, the Sesquicentennial, and creators from 5:30-6 p.m. in Maney Hall.
The exhibition grand opening ceremony will be a community-focused and interactive storytelling event comprised of the exhibit, a short program, an optional driving tour, educational components and light refreshments.
The exhibition opening is free to the public, and all ages and interest levels are encouraged to attend. During the ceremony, Oaklands will allow limited downstairs tours.
The panel exhibit will be house at Oaklands for the six weeks following the grand opening ceremony before traveling around the county to the Sam Dais Home, Rutherford County Courthouse, Walker Library at MTSU, Rutherford County Archives and other places for the next four years.
One of Martin’s favorite stories from the exhibit is about Sophia Ridgely Lytle Harrison.
Harrison was the third wife of William Franklin Pitt Lytle, the youngest son of Murfreesboro’s founder Capt. William Lytle.
“More than 20 years younger that Lytle, Sophia became a widow when Lytle died at the age of 57 in March 1863,” Martin explained.
The Union was in firm control of Rutherford County, being just months after the Battle of Stones River, which took place over New Year’s 1863. The Union was also right in Harrison’s backyard, building Fortress Rosecrans on the Lytle Plantation.
“She began to consort with Union officers who stayed at the Lytle House,” Martin said. “One Union soldier wrote in his diary that she looked ‘worth a half million dollars.'”
Lytle family lore even contends she turned her Confederate stepson over to Union officers to gain their favor.
“In 1864, she married Union Captain Carter Bassett Harrison, who was a brother of future President Benjamin Harrison,” he continued.
The couple lived in Murfreesboro for more than 40 years after the war’s end and raised four children.
She lived more than 100 years and is buried in a tomb at Evergreen Cemetery with her husband and one son.
Rutherford County saw much suffering during the Civil War, which turned it into a dark and bloody land after the Union occupation and Battle of Stones River.
“Yet despite the hardships and bloodshed, it was also time of hope and promise as the burden of slavery was lifted from half the county’s residents as a result of the war,” Martin said.
This Cruel War: The Civil War in Rutherford County
Exhibit Opening Ceremony Program
5 p.m. – Exhibit Opens to the Public
5:30 p.m. – Speaker: Opening Remarks Regarding Kickoff of Civil War Sesquicentennial
5:40 p.m. – Introduction of Developers: MTSU Public History Graduate Students
5:50 p.m. – Speaker: Dr. Brenden Martin, director of the Exhibit
6-7 p.m. – Enjoy the Exhibit
*During this event, Oaklands will allow one or two limited downstairs tours