Is Stones River Battlefield important?

As published in the Murfreesboro Post, October 8, 2006

For many people, these broken cannon symbolize the Stones River Battlefield in Murfreesboro, Tenn. (Laura Leigh Smith/TMP)

For many people, these broken cannon symbolize the Stones River Battlefield in Murfreesboro, Tenn. (Laura Leigh Smith/TMP)

By Mike West, Managing Editor

Have you ever visited Stones River National Battlefield?

Maybe, it’s just on your to-do list? Perhaps you wonder why you should even bother?

Experts say the park is a major resource for Murfreesboro, the state of Tennessee and the nation.

“I believe that Murfreesboro and Rutherford County need to seriously consider the wonderful asset that is Stones River National Battlefield,” said David Brown, executive vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Brown, as chief operating officer of the National Trust, travels the nation as the organization strives to save historic places and revitalize communities with much less to offer than Murfreesboro.

Stones River Battlefield is the county’s biggest tourism draw, pulling in more than 200,000 visitors annually.

David Brown, executive vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation

David Brown, executive vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation

“Heritage visitors stay longer, visit twice as many places and on a per trip basis spend 2½ times as much money as other visitors,” Brown said. “That’s important for a community that has a major Civil War battlefield at its doorstep, among other historical sites.”

But many area residents don’t know the historic significance of Stones River.

About 10,500 major and minor battles were fought during the Civil War, and it is listed among 45 other sites that are considered of major national significance. Some experts rank the battle among the top 10 in importance.

It is one of only 32 military parks or national monuments in the nation preserving aspects of Civil War history and is an important tourist resource because of that.

“But much more important than economics is what Stones River Battlefield tells us about our country,” Brown said.

“Historian David McCullough – who served nine years on the Board of the National Trust – speaks eloquently about the epidemic of what he calls historical illiteracy. David describes historical illiteracy as a great danger to our democracy,” he continued. “Being an American is not based on a common ancestry, a common religion, even a common culture – it’s based on accepting an uncommon set of ideas — ideas that were contested at places like Stones River.

“If we don’t understand those ideas, we don’t value them; and if we don’t value them, we don’t protect them. A nation can never be ignorant and free, said Thomas Jefferson.”

Brown, the preservation expert, first learned his love of history in his hometown – Murfreesboro.

His parents bought a simple 1880s-era home on Main Street because it had an apartment where his grandmother could live with the family. Over the course of 20 years, four generations of the Brown family lived under this roof.

“Murfreesboro has a history that was very real and very present to me as a child. I could walk four blocks to the town square, where the 1850s courthouse still had bullet holes in the columns from Gen. Nathan Bedford Forest’s 1862 raid on the city,” he said.

“In a time before Murfreesboro’s streets were given over completely to cars, I often bicycled the five miles out to the Stones River National Battlefield on the edge of town because I was fascinated by the story of that terrible battle around New Years Day in 1863,” Brown said.

The battle was a brutal one.

More than 83,000 troops took part in the campaign in and around Murfreesboro.

There were 23,000 casualties putting the battle right there with the bloodbaths at Shiloh and Antietam. About 6,000 Union troops are buried at the National Cemetery on the Old Nashville Highway.

People who lived here at the time fought and died in the battle. Families’ homes were destroyed. Their livestock killed. Murfreesboro’s economy was ruined for decades to come.

But the Battle of Stones River had special significance for the nation and President Abraham Lincoln.

The late historian Shelby Foote wrote, “New Year’s 1863 was for Abraham Lincoln perhaps the single busiest day of his whole presidential life, and it came moreover at dead center of what was perhaps his period of deepest gloom and perplexity of spirit.”

Why was Lincoln so morose?

There were sharp divisions in his political party and even in his own family.

His brother-in-law fought at Stones River – as a Confederate in a unit that was decimated. His own hand-picked generals were miserable losers who failed to give the Union a much-needed victory, especially after the disastrous loss at Fredericksburg, Va. There was the ongoing debate on whether to admit West Virginia to the union. All would be topics of discussion at a New Year’s reception Lincoln would play host to that day.

But the biggest worry of all was a document awaiting Lincoln’s signature: The Emancipation Proclamation.

The finished document was brought over from the U.S. Department of State. Lincoln looked at the document, dipped his pen and proclaimed: “I never in my life felt more certain that I was doing right than in signing this paper.”

And thus, history was made in the aftermath of the Battle of Stones River, a conflict that recharged some political and military careers while ending others.

For one, Lincoln was pleased by the result.

“I can never forget, if I remember anything, that at the end of last year and the beginning of this, you gave us a hard earned victory, which had there been a defeat instead, the country scarcely could have lived over,” Lincoln later telegraphed Gen. William S. Rosecrans, commander of the Federal Army of the Cumberland.

For people like Brown, Stones River Battlefield has another important meaning.

“From walking the battleground at Stones River and reflecting on the ideas that were contested by 75,000 American men – one third of whom died in that conflict – we can see with our own eyes that this country has been through difficult times in the past and has survived,” he said. “But it is impossible to get that sense when you are constantly distracted by truck and car traffic, or your view is marred by housing developments sitting on parts of the battlefield.

“This is one of the most significant places in Middle Tennessee for our citizens to understand this most important of American wars. Murfreesboro and Rutherford County need to figure out how to keep it a sacred place.”

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