Remembering Rutherford: Remains of the dead still underfoot

Greg Tucker, Murfreesboro Post, October 20, 2015

Are we treading on the remains of the dead on Middle Tennessee Boulevard, State Street and the Rover terminal in Murfreesboro?  Most likely.

Murfreesboro's City Cemetery, East Vine Street (Cat Murphy, The Murfreesboro Post)

Murfreesboro’s City Cemetery, East Vine Street (Cat Murphy, The Murfreesboro Post)

The first Methodist Church was built in 1823 near the northwest corner of what is today the intersection of North Maple and West Burton Streets. One of the first graveyards in Murfreesboro was established on the grounds behind the church.

Twenty years later, when the church moved to a new location on East College Street, relatives of those buried in the graveyard were asked to relocate the remains of their family members. A number of the bodies were “disinterred and reburied in the (new) city cemetery,” according to C.C. Henderson in “The Story of Murfreesboro” (1929).  Those remaining were abandoned.

Today the city’s Rover bus terminal sits on the remains left behind in the old Methodist graveyard.

Land for the “new” City Cemetery on East Vine Street was sold to the city in 1832 by Mary Moore Murfree Hilliard, daughter of Hardy Murfree and widow of Isaac Hilliard.  Fronting on Vine and adjoining the east and south boundaries of the First Presbyterian Church site, the city-owned cemetery extended approximately three blocks south to the W.A. Ransom property on East Castle Street.

East Sevier and State Streets ended at the west boundary of the cemetery.  For the following four decades the City Cemetery was the final resting place for those who died in Murfreesboro.  The wealthy and prominent placed often ornate stone markers.  Others marked graves with simple wooden crosses or scratched stones. Black families used the southern portion of the cemetery.

During the Civil War, the City Cemetery received the remains of a number of combat-related casualties. Notably, the 26 cavalrymen who died during the July 13, 1862 raid led by Nathan Bedford Forrest were buried there by the grateful citizens who had been freed from an oppressive Union occupation. Wooden crosses marked each grave.

Confederate soldiers killed in the Battle of Stones River and in other skirmishes about the county were often left where they fell. Some were buried by local residents on private property without identification. Soon after war’s end, the ladies of the community took on the task of locating and reburying the Confederate dead with proper respect and honor. Calling themselves the “Memorial Society of Murfreesboro,” they raised funds sufficient to purchase property for a Confederate Cemetery “one mile south of town, lying between the (railroad) and Shelbyville pike.” See Spence, “Annals of Rutherford” (1873), page 258.

Confederate Army veteran and building contractor Edward Arnold was employed to collect Confederate remains and place them in the cemetery. “The grounds well enclosed, and handsomely laid off in squares, with graded and graveled walks, ornamented with evergreen shrubbery. The graves laid in regular order in each square, well-painted head and foot boards, names of such as are known, others marked ‘unknown.'” The Confederate Cemetery was dedicated with appropriate fanfare and due respect, and there lay at peace the lamented southern soldiers–for about twenty years.

In 1872 Murfreesboro purchased 20 acres from the Maney family for a new city-owned cemetery. Originally named Oaklands Cemetery, the name was changed to Evergreen Cemetery when the first cemetery trustees were appointed in 1873.

The city ordinance establishing the new cemetery also directed that “no additional burials will be had in the old city cemetery” and requested that “all of the dead be transferred from the old cemetery to the new one.” The rationale was that “by force of circumstances the old cemetery will be neglected and unprotected whilst the new one, under a thoroughly organized Board of Trustees, with powers and means to protect it, will be preserved and protected.”

Despite the city’s intent and encouragement, relatively few graves were moved from the old to the new cemetery. As predicted, the old cemetery with its many marked and unmarked graves was soon neglected.

On Feb. 1, 1890, the officers of the Palmer Bivouac, United Confederate Veterans, voted to accept an offer from the Trustees of Evergreen Cemetery. Through its president, former Confederate major James D. Richardson, the cemetery “tendered” to the Bivouac “a sufficient quantity of ground…to reinter the remains of Confederate soldiers now lying in the Confederate Cemetery.” See “Minutes, J. Palmer Bivouac No. 10 CV” (February 1, 1890). This “kind offer” was accepted “with the thanks of the Bivouac.”

Although the record does not explain the reason for moving the bodies and abandoning the Confederate Cemetery, it appears that the aging local veterans recognized that the resources and commitment to future maintenance and preservation of the original cemetery were uncertain. The city-owned Evergreen Cemetery, organized and endowed for “perpetual care,” was an attractive alternative.

Over the next few years volunteers worked to move the Confederate remains to what became the “Confederate Circle” near the center of Evergreen Cemetery. Finding mostly skeletal fragments, a conscientious and reasonable effort was made to transfer whatever could be identified as human remains. Today’s Middle Tennessee Boulevard, between the railroad and South Church Street, covers whatever remained in the original Confederate Cemetery.

In or about 1905 the City of Murfreesboro extended East State Street through the southern portion of the old City Cemetery, leaving about a quarter of the original burial ground south of the new pavement. In 1912, the “Southern Portion of what is known as the old city cemetery” was sold to private investors and subsequently subdivided for development. See Deed Book 54, page 592, “Rutherford County Register of Deeds” (1912).

C. C. Henderson wrote some years later that while the street work was being done along State Street “some portions of human skeletons were unearthed.” William “Pumpkin” Crockett remembers his great uncle talking about street workers finding Civil War buttons and buckles when the street was being extended. “I guess back then folks just didn’t have much respect for the dead and buried,” observed Crockett.

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