Stories from the Stones River National Battlefield look back at wartime 159 years ago

January 3, 2022, Tayla Courage, The Murfreesboro Post

National Park Service Rangers make it a point to share the stories of the everyday people who found themselves battling through the Civil War in the heart of Tennessee 159 years ago.

On a drizzly afternoon last week, Ranger Jim Lewis led a group of about 15 people the short distance to the cannons that decorate the lawn of the Stones River National Battlefield just outside of the visitors center. There, he told the story of the Chicago Board of Trade Battery, a group of 100 men who fought at the Battle of Stones River over a century ago.

“It’s important to remember that they didn’t just magically beam in here like ‘Star Trek’, fight a battle and then leave,” said Lewis, who’s been working at the Stones River historical site for 25 years. “They were 30 miles apart. They had to figure out how to ultimately come together, and a lot of what happens in those first four or five days determines how the actual battle will turn out too.”

Each December the park puts together a series of program to inform anyone with a piqued interest in the events of the Civil War soldiers who once stood on the same ground. More than 6,0000 from the Union are buried in the national cemetery just across the street.

“Our most important thing is for people to remember that this is a story about people. Yes, it’s armies and divisions and brigades, and we have to obviously tell that story for people to understand what happened here, but we always like to we’ve into that, stories of individuals or small groups of people like we did here,” said Lewis.

His intentional choice of venue out by the cannons was one made with the historical lens in mind. Drawn to artillery, Lewis likes telling the story of this particular battery because it has a name unlike any other combat group in the Civil War. He said that Union batteries were typically named after the location, whereas Confederate batteries often carried the name of their respective commanders.

“This unit here, is the only group of soldiers that is named after a commercial business,” said Lewis, referring to the now defunct company that was eventually purchased by its competitor the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

Before the battle began, both companies struck a deal to which one could bring in the most men to put on their Union-blue uniforms by offering money and equipment for agreeing to fight in the war.

“Each of those companies fielded an entire 1,000-man regimen of infantry, a full-six-gun battery of artillery and the Board of Trade actually funded an eight-company battalion of cavalry,” said Lewis. “That’s some serious money back in the Civil War days.”

He credits this Union battery for being “prolific writers” who documented day-to-day happenings in journals and letters sent home. They were new soldiers in unfamiliar territory preparing to enter battle after training at Camp Douglas just outside Chicago.

They made their four-day journey from Nashville to Stones River on Dec. 26, 1822, about a week before the battle began, according to Lewis.

“As that’s happening the men in the Chicago Board of Trade in part begin to feel a little less anxious because when you’re rolling a cannon on a dirt road, there’s one thing on your mind and one thing only: don’t get stuck,” said Lewis with a laugh.

He said it was the gunfire and scenes of wounded soldiers that made the war a reality for the battery. It was no longer a drill but an open combat zone in which they would have to rely on each other and their training to be successful.

Eventually they received assignments to support the Pioneer Brigade.

“They were made up of men pulled from every single company of the army because of certain skills they had in civilian life to serve as engineers, building bridges, roads, things like that,” Lewis explained.

They were pulled into the brigade in pairs, with the intention that they would return to their parent companies and regiments upon battlefield arrival. This wasn’t realistic due to each company being spread out far and wide from the next.

When the Union began to struggle against the Confederates, these engineers were called upon to join the fight with no formal combat training.

At the end of the battle, the CBOT battery fared well, experiencing about 20 casualties and five or six deaths. About 25 horses had been taken down. More deaths were a result of disease than actual fighting.

Despite the bloodshed, Lewis said the men celebrated their New Year’s Eve victory before returning to battle two days later, mistakenly firing at an Ohio battery.

When these issues were resolved, the CBOT was assigned to take their guns and get in line with the 51 other cannons on the battlefield.

“As the command came to cease firing, and the guns died down, they could see the Confederates rolling back to their positions with Union infantry hot on their heels in the counterattack, and they’ve done it again,” said Lewis. “Twice in one battle, they had been at a key point on the battlefield where they had helped turn the tide and secure a Union victory.

Lewis hopes to paint a picture for visitors to see how the war impacted smaller groups fighting within the larger body of 81,000 who were on the Union’s side.

“We’ve got all kinds of people from all kinds of places with all kinds of backgrounds and experiences. You all are going to have a different experience here. It’s personal, and so we want those two things to come together,” he said.

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