Battle destroyed Giles Harding’s dream of grandeur

As published in the Murfreesboro Post, Managing Editor Mike West, July 13, 2008

The Harding house was in the midst of Stones River.
The Harding house was in the midst of Stones River.

Giles Scales Harding had big dreams.

He wanted to build a bigger and better home than his first cousin, William Giles Harding, had constructed in 1853 outside of Nashville on a plantation developed by his father John Harding.

At the time, Giles and his wife, Mary Hollowell Blackman, lived in a large two-story log home near Wilkinson Pike. Her father was “Squire” Alfred Blackman, a member of the Rutherford County Court. Blackman community was named in his honor.

Giles’ dream was quite ambitious because few, if any mansions in Tennessee exceeded the Greek revival home built by his cousin William. His fancy, brick home was called “Belle Meade.”

In the late 19th century, Belle Meade encompassed 5,400 acres and was one of the largest private estates in Nashville. The farm was a thoroughbred stable famous for breeding and training championship race horses. Recent Kentucky derby winners like Funny Cide and Barbarro, even racing legends like Secretariat, can trace their bloodlines back to the breeding stock at Belle Meade.

Yet, Giles and Mary persevered.

They build a kiln for firing bricks formed from clay soil on site. The clay was mined, hand molded into bricks, which were sun dried, and then stacked into a kiln where they were burned until rock hard.

Making sufficient bricks for a huge mansion was time consuming since the walls were two to three feet thick requiring many courses of brick. Until the Hardings had accumulated enough bricks for their project, they were storing them at the kiln on the backside of their property on Harding Lane off of Wilkinson Pike.

Secession and the Civil War brought the Harding’s project to a halt and the Battle of Stones River brought it to an end.

Their plantation was between Union and Confederate lines when the armies lined up outside of Murfreesboro. By the ending of Dec. 29, 1862, Confederate pickets were lined up near the brick kiln.

On the morning of Dec. 30, 1862, the 19th Illinois moved onto the Harding place and drove the Confederate troops back. The 18th Ohio and the 21st Michigan were also moved into the area as the Union right wing formed its battle line that covered the triangle of roadways formed by Franklin Road, Gresham Lane and Wilkinson Pike.

The Harding’s bricks were quickly commandeered for use in building breastworks for Union troops.

As Union Brig. Gen. Philip Sheridan aligned his Third Division, Brig. Gen. Joshua Sill’s brigade was moved into Harding house area.

Sill and Sheridan were close friends who had been classmates at the U.S. Military Academy. Sill was third in the class of 1853; Sheridan was 34th in his class of 52 cadets.

Sill convinced Sheridan that the Confederates were massing for an attack early on the morning of Dec. 31.

“At 2 o’clock on the morning of the 31st General Sill came back to me to report that on his front a continuous movement of infantry and artillery had been going on all night within the Confederate lines, and that he was convinced that Bragg was massing on our right with the purpose of making an attack from that direction early in the morning,” Sheridan wrote.

While the rest of the Union right was unprepared, Sheridan’s division was ready for battle. That may have saved the day for Gen. William S. Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland.

“Long before dawn my division breakfasted, and was assembled under arms, the infantry in line, the cannoneers at their pieces, but while we were thus preparing, all the recent signs of activity in the enemy’s camp were hushed, a death-like stillness prevailing in the cedars to our front. Shortly after daylight General Hardee opened the engagement, just as Sill had predicted, by a fierce attack on Johnson’s division, the extreme right of the Union line,” Sheridan wrote.

While most of the Union right turned and ran toward the Gresham house, Sheridan’s division held but had to reposition, pivoting to the north to keep a line of retreat intact.

“In the meantime the enemy had also attacked me, advancing across an old cotton-field in Sill’s front in heavy masses, which were furiously opened upon by Bush’s battery from Sill’s line, and by Hescock’s and Houghtaling’s batteries, which had an oblique fire on the field from a commanding position in rear of my centre,” Sheridan wrote.

“The effect of this fire on the advancing column was terrible, but it continued on till it reached the edge of the timber where Sill’s right lay, when my infantry opened at a range of not over fifty yards. For a short time the Confederates withstood the fire, but then wavered, broke and fell back toward their original line,” he said.

Then came the fateful moment.

Sill ordered his brigade to charge at the retreating Confederates.

“In this charge the gallant Sill was killed; a rifle ball passing through his upper lip and penetrating the brain,” Sheridan said.

Sill’s men, falling back, attempted to retrieve their leader’s body from the battlefield, but had to abandon him. His body was found by Confederate troops who buried him near where he died at age 31.

The devastation at the Harding farm still wasn’t over.

Determined to dislodge the Federals, Confederate Capt. D.D. Waters’ Alabama battery was pulled into the line a few hundred yards east of the brick kiln and opened up in support of Col. A.M. Manigault’s charge.

The 88th Illinois commanded by Col. Francis T. Sherman and the 36th Illinois commanded by Col. Nicholas Greusel took the brunt of the attack at the Harding house.

Greusel, who took control of the brigade when Sill fell, was replaced in the field by Maj. Silas Miller.

On the 88th’s right, the 36th Illinois helped repulse Manigault’s charge, using up nearly all of their ammunition as result. Miller ordered the 36th to retire from the line and fall back toward the Wilkinson Pike in search of the ammunition train. As the regiment fell back, Miller was wounded, and command of the regiment fell on Captain Porter C. Olson. The regiment, Olson informed Sheridan, would be ready for action as soon as he found some .69-caliber ammunition.

Only 140 men of the 36th were ready for duty. The rest lay dead, dying or wounded among the limestone outcroppings east of Harding lane.

Sheridan was forced to withdraw both Greusel’s (Sill’s) brigade and that of Col. Frederick Schaefer.

The 88th Illinois and 21st Michigan pulled back to the outbuildings of the Harding farm. Schaefer finally pulled his command across the Wilkinson Pike and formed a new line of battle.
Bush’s 4th Indiana Battery fought a running battle as it pulled back, firing canister and engaging Water’s Alabama battery in an ongoing duel.
Bush’s battery drove one section of Water’s guns from the field, wounding several Confederate gunners, wrecking a caisson and disemboweling some unfortunate artillery horses.
The Indiana artillery took up a position near the Harding. Meanwhile, Houghtaling took up position on the right of Wilkinson Pike, just at the edge of a cedar grove.

Meanwhile, Manigault reformed and was moving against Sheridan with Brig. Gen. George Maney’s Tennessee brigade in support.

Col. George Roberts, commanding Sheridan’s 3rd Brigade saw the Confederate buildup. He ordered his brigade to unfurl flags and charged with bayonets fixed.

“These regiments,” Col. Luther P. Bradley wrote, “went forward at the double-quick, and cleared the wood in front of our lines, the enemy giving way before we reached him.”

The gallant Roberts was shot and killed, but the charge gave Sheridan time to withdraw his troops to safety.

Even before the start of the battle Harding house was pressed into service by Union trips as a field hospital. A Union chaplain wrote:

“This building, or rather series of buildings, is what we called ‘Hospital Harding,’ and was our place of residence for over a week, where we had the care of upwards of 150 wounded. The house was a third rate frame building, with the log cook-house, &c., attached and surrounded by negro cabins, as is the custom here, while at a little distance was a barn, cotton gin and all the appliances of a cotton plantation.

“The owner was evidently a man of considerable wealth, owning about fifty negroes, and having an extensive plantation. There were evidences on the premises of considerable refinement, a well cultivated garden and good pianoforte being respectively the external and internal representatives of it. Mr. Harding was at home, and two or three negroes.

“At the time we took possession they had sought safety in the cellar. But the rest of the family, white and black, had been removed to the other side of Murfreesborough, the secesh commanders having informed him a few days before that the battle would be fought on his land. He looked with anything but complacency upon the Federal army, and indeed there was nothing peculiarly attractive in a body of men taking forcible possession of a man’s house, covering his floors, carpet, beds and bedding with bleeding men, and appropriating anything within reach that might be made servicable.”

Cannon fire struck the field hospital at one point, killing four of the wounded and breaking the legs of the Harding’s piano. The soldiers quickly dubbed it the “wounded piano.”

Union troops did make off with the Harding’s livestock, chickens and geese. All the horses were taken except for Mrs. Harding’s favorite one.

The family was forced to evacuate the home and didn’t return until the war was over. When they returned, one Union soldier remained because he was still too weak to leave.

Mrs. Harding made her daughter Ellen Amy tend to the recovering man by bringing him food and water. He rewarded her with a 2-½ dollar gold piece that was minted in 1851.

The house did survive the Civil War, but the Harding family continued to be beset by tragedy including the loss of two children. The log house burned in the 1870s during a fire caused by a cedar bucket full of hot ashes. It was replaced with a nice, but modest two-story frame home.

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