The untold story of Sgt. William Holland

Mike West, The Murfreesboro Post, February 18, 2007

Kevin Greene portraying Sgt. Holland

Ever visit Hazen’s Monument at Stones River National Battlefield?

In case you didn’t know, it is the oldest intact Civil War monument in the nation. Located off the Old Nashville Pike adjacent to the CSX Railroad line, it is a couple of hundred feet away from the little parking lot provided by the National Park Service.

“The Veterans of Shiloh have left a Deathless Heritage of Fame Upon the Field of Stones River,” proclaims the monument which shelters the graves of 45 men from Col. William Hazen’s Union brigade.  A stacked stone wall that’s 4 feet high and 2 feet wide surrounds the small cemetery.

A dirt path leads from the main walkway behind the right side of the wall.  There in the shade of a few trees are two government-issue grave markers. The first reads in abbreviated form:


The Sgt. William Holland grave rests next to the Hazen Monument on the Old Nashville Highway, just south of the Stones River National Battlefield Visitor Center.

When you “decode” the inscription, Holland’s story immediately becomes more interesting.
Holland was a sergeant with Company I of the 111 Regiment of the U.S. Colored Infantry. He was a freed slave who served with the Union Army of the Cumberland during and after the Civil War.

So why wasn’t he buried inside the National Cemetery? Was he denied because he was black?

No, he wasn’t excluded. Holland picked his own burial plot and it was on a small farm he owned next to Hazen’s Monument.  Just that little fact shows how life had changed in Murfreesboro since the war. Some 186 black Union soldiers are buried at Stones River’s cemetery.

Little is known about Holland (sometimes spelled Harlan), leaving much to conjecture. His life and his existence is little more than a footnote. Miranda L. Fraley, who is curator of education at the Tennessee State Museum, has done the most extensive research. Her article “The Legacies of Freedom and Victory Besieged: Stones River National Cemetery, 1865-1920” told the detailed story of the cemetery’s development in Summer 2005 Tennessee Historical Quarterly. Fraley will be speaking at an upcoming battlefield symposium.

The frequently asked question (FAQ) section on the battlefield’s Web site provides some basic information: (

“What are the two graves outside of the Hazen Brigade Cemetery wall?

The two graves located outside of the Hazen Brigade Monument wall are those of William Holland (1834-1909) and William Harlan (1895-1979). They have no connection to Hazen’s Brigade or the monument.

William Holland was a former slave who joined the 111th United States Colored Infantry, Company I on March 1, 1864. He became one of the cemetery caretakers after his discharge and purchased the small tract of land adjacent to the Hazen Brigade Monument. When he died, Holland’s preference was to be buried on his property. The government honored his wishes and provided a national cemetery headstone in accordance with regulations.

The second grave is William Holland’s descendant, William Harlan. Harlan served as a corporal in the United States Army during World War I.”

So what is the historic significance of Holland, other than the obvious?

The 111th USCT was responsible for the building of the cemetery at the battlefield. The black troops built part of the stone wall surrounding the graveyard and more importantly they disinterred the bodies of Union soldiers from around Middle Tennessee and reburied them at the cemetery.

Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas, “The Rock of Chickamauga,” established the cemetery in 1864 after he was named to replace William S. Rosecrans as commander of the Army of the Cumberland. Capt. John A. Means of the 115th Ohio picked the location and laid out what was to be the final resting place for 6,000 Union soldiers. Men from Mean’s regiment did the early work.

Union Chaplain William Earnshaw was named the first superintendent of the new national cemetery. Earnshaw and the black troops of the 111th USCT did the hard, horrible work.

Originally, the regiment was delegated to protect railroad blockhouses along the Nashville & Chattanooga railroad from Confederate raiders including Brig. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. Following Stones River, the Union began to recruit and organize black soldiers in early 1863. By war’s end, some 20,133 black Union army soldiers served in Tennessee. That number doesn’t include the tens of thousands of freed slaves who became the labor force for the federal army.

Kevin Greene as Sgt. William Holland during the celebration of the community once known as Cemetery (February, 2016)

The 1860 Census indicated Tennessee had 275,719 slaves, who represented 25 percent of the population. Tennessee also had 7,300 free blacks in 1860, who were at best second-class citizens. The slaves were owned by 36,894 persons or less than 20 percent of the state’s white population.

When the Union army moved into Tennessee, thousands of slaves fled and sought refuge with the Yankees. Termed “contrabands of war,” under the Confiscation Act of 1861, the fugitives were organized into camps with the first one organized by Gen. U.S. Grant at Grand Junction, Tenn.

Despite the presence of Federal troops, the new black regiments had much to fear from Confederates like Forrest, whose troops participated in the Battle of Fort Pillow in April 1864, where only 62 of the 260-plus U.S. Colored Troops survived the fight. Many accused the Confederates of perpetrating a massacre and that controversy continues today. “Remember Fort Pillow” became a rallying cry for black soldiers.

Some of the men of the 111th USCT faced Forrest after Fort Pillow in the defense of Sulphur Branch Trestle Fort, in Northern Alabama. Forrest defeated the union garrison, capturing several hundred troops and two artillery pieces. The fort, its two blockhouses, and the trestle bridge were burned.

Black prisoners of war often faced execution on the spot or a return to slavery if captured by Confederates. Ultimately, they received a modicum of revenge at the Battle of Nashville in December 1864 where almost 13,000 USCT troops help defeat the Army of Tennessee, including Forrest’s men.
Within two months of Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Thomas told Chaplain Earnshaw to begin disinterment of the Union dead with reburial at the new cemetery near Murfreesboro.

Earnshaw and the black troops started with three known mass gravesites on the battlefield and extended their search eastward through Murfreesboro to Union University (current site of Central Middle School). After the actual battlefield dead were recovered, the search moved to the burial sites and general and field hospitals with some 3,000 soldiers recovered and reburied.

The recovery effort then moved to Hoover’s, Liberty and Guy’s gaps with the number of dead tallying exactly with the figures in Rosecrans’ official reports. Search operations then followed the Union path to the Tennessee River while another group retraced the Nashville and Chattanooga railroad collecting bodies between Murfreesboro and Florence and back to Tullahoma. The total distance of search north and south through Murfreesboro was about 85 miles and yielded some 600 more remains.

Earnshaw and his men kept busy “searching the entire country and tracing obscure byways, feeling it our solemn duty to find every solitary Union soldier’s grave that marked the victorious path of our men in pursuit of the enemy.

“I am free to say, that within these limits not more than 50 Union soldiers still sleep outside our beautiful cemetery,” Earnshaw reported. The search “gathered hundreds who fell in skirmishes, were murdered by bushwhackers and some who were poisoned by eating food purchased of citizens ….”

The gruesome job continued through 1865 and 1866.  The 111th USCT mustered out of the army in April 1866.

Earnshaw praised the work of Holland and the other black troops who faced civilian resistance in their effort.

“Many persons who have dear friends buried here will be deeply interested to know whether the work of removal was done with that care actually demanded in such a holy cause. I can only replay that all that true men could do was done.

“All my assistants were brave soldiers who had served throughout the war — men would could sympathize with those far away who mourn the loss of their loved ones, but who could not be present to perform for them this last sad office.

“Long as I live I shall remember how tenderly they performed this work amid untold difficulties; how cheerfully they set out on long and toilsome journeys through rain and storm in search of fallen comrades, and the proud satisfaction expressed by them when the precious remains were laid in the new made grave,” he wrote.

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