Harding ‘evidence’ bolsters Stones River battlefield accounts

As published in the Murfreesboro Post, Mike West , Managing Editor, July 20, 2008

Artifacts found last weekend near the site of the Harding House attest to some of the key moments of the Battle of Stones River.

Dr. Tom Nolan, director of MTSU’s Laboratory for Spatial Technology, along with archaeologist Zada Law, led the all-volunteer team on its first day of the survey at the Harding House site off Wilkinson Pike. The site, which is near Medical Center Parkway, is scheduled for development.

Among the 40 to 50 discoveries included lead shot, minie balls, canister shot and a Civil War-era horseshoe.

Many of the Confederate troops with the Army of Tennessee were armed with inaccurate, outmoded muskets that fired lead balls. Union troops, in many instances, were using state-of-the-art rifled muskets that fired minie balls.

Fighting near the Harding House was an artillery battle with Confederate Capt. David D. Water’s Alabama Battery trying to suppress the fire of Union cannons including Capt. Asahel Bush’s 4th Indiana Battery.

Water’s unit was placed a few hundred yards east of the Harding’s brick kiln.

Bush’s unit was supporting Brig. Gen. Joshua Sill’s Brigade. Sill had just been shot dead in the fighting on a ridge near the Harding family’s brick kiln. He had led a charge in an attempt to break the Confederate advance.

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

It was a rifle ball not unlike the one discovered last weekend by the archeological team.

With the Union infantry running low on .69-caliber minie ammunition, artillery was key at this point of the battle.

Waters, firing 12-pound Napoleon cannons, tried to knock out the Union armaments by firing spherical case rounds. If correctly placed, the rounds exploded in the air, showering the enemy with rifle balls and shrapnel. The rounds were often very effective against artillery emplacements.

The Napoleon, cast in bronze, was the most popular smoothbore cannon used during the Civil War. It was a safe, reliable artillery piece that was especially effective at close range.

Bush was equipped with more powerful Parrott rifled cannon. Cast from iron, the Parrotts were extremely accurate, but had a tendency to explode, killing or maiming its gun crew.

The Indiana artillery was firing the deadliest round used during the Civil War, canister shot, which transformed cannon into giant shotguns that would cause a wide swath of destruction.

The canister fire drove one section of Water’s guns from the field, wounding several Confederate gunners, wrecking a caisson and disemboweling some artillery horses.

Rebel Private Sam Watkins, who was troops making the final Confederate charge against Sheridan, counted some 80 dead horses in the area between the Harding house and across Wilkinson Pike.

Weather permitting, the historic survey of the Harding house site is expected to continue this weekend.

“I think what we found the first day was gratifying,” said archeologist Law. “I had no expectations, but I had hopes, so I was so gratified that we found some Civil War artifacts.

“I think what we did locate demonstrates our methods worked well,” she added, “and that our approach to this project is one that will yield results … and help identify where the troop locations were.”

We are so appreciative of everyone who came out to help and support this survey,” survey leader Nolan said. “Dr. Hugh Berryman of MTSU anthropology department and his daughter, along with Gib Backlund and Jim Lewis from the National Park Service showed up on their day off. Everyone was very enthusiastic and seemed to have fun in spite of the intense heat.”

Because the Civil War artifacts were “buried pretty deep and the ground was so dry and hard, the volunteers definitely had to work hard,” Nolan said. “But their efforts were time and energy well spent.”

Law said finding the artifacts was thrilling.

“And I am just so glad so many people gave up their time to come help us with this work on behalf of historic preservation,” she said.

“Just like all of us, I think the volunteers were grateful to the developer, Stonegate Commercial and its president, Tommy Smith, to let us be out there and excited to be part of a systematic study of the property … (where what they find) will be synthesized and added to our understanding of this long-ago battle,” Law said.

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