Battlefield draws history-lovers, birds, Pokemon

Nancy De Gennaro, the Daily News Journal

MURFREESBORO — For the 100th birthday of the National Park Service, Stones River National Battlefield will offer what every good celebration has: cake.

Stones River National Battlefield Park Ranger Jim Lewis stands by some of the gravestones.(Photo: Nancy De Gennaro/DNJ)

At 1 p.m. Aug. 25, you can help blow out 100 candles on the Founders’ Day cake at the Visitors Center, 3501 Old Nashville Highway.

“We are proud and excited to share this special moment in our agency’s history with our community and those who visit our park from all around the world,” said Brenda Waters, park superintendent.

On Sunday, Aug. 14, the park’s cannon crew will offer an explosive celebration at the Nashville Sounds game, which is set to start at 6:35 p.m. The park’s cannon crew will fire a shot from the outfield of First Tennessee Park in Nashville.

But those events are just the icing on the cake, so to speak.

“Even though the birthday is Aug. 25, there will be things going on through the end of the year,” said Park Ranger Jim Lewis, who has been at the battlefield nearly 20 years.

The Daily News Journal recently visited the Stones River National Cemetery for a walk with Lewis, who shared some little-known tidbits of history regarding Murfreesboro’s own national park.

(Photo: Nancy De Gennaro/DNJ)

As I understand, the Battle of Stones River was the first after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Is that true?

Yes. The reason they are fighting this battle is Lincoln wanted a victory to support the Emancipation Proclamation.

How pertinent was the battle?

I think a lot of people don’t realize that in a lot of ways, this battle is the Confederates’ last best chance in the western theater to kind of turn the war around. If they’d won the battle, they might have changed the course of the war. But they don’t. As we say, we are the beginning of the end.

How big was the casualty rate?

With both sides losing about 30 percent of their men, this is the highest combined rate of casualties from any battle of the Civil War. You stand the worst odds ever as a solider of coming out of this thing free and clear.

What else is interesting?

The Hazen Brigade Monument located at Tour Stop 5 is the oldest intact Civil War monument that’s on a battlefield in the nation. It was built by the soldiers themselves. When we did repairs to it, we found this little time capsule that the soldiers left behind. Those objects we found are on display in our museum

What was in the time capsule?

Three musket or rifle barrels, they probably put the muskets in but the wood rotted away. Three round cannonball projectiles, three rifle projectiles for cannons and a cedar staff. There’s a story floating around … of some Confederate soldiers who didn’t have guns and crossed Hell’s Half Acre with sticks. Seeing as the men of Hazen’s Brigade decided to leave this little stick in with everything else … and remember they are the ones who did the burying after the battle, if they were running across dead Confederate soldiers clutching sticks, that probably made a pretty big impression on them.

When were these headstones erected? 

The orders to create the cemetery were created in June of 1864. It took about a year to do about 6,100 Union soldiers who are buried here. They were originally wooden boards. Then in the 1880s, the war department started purchasing and shipping out all these marble stones that have become the standard stones, with some changes as time goes by.

I think a lot of people don’t know about the Cemetery Community. Tell me about that.

It’s a pretty well-hidden story. … The reason it’s not here anymore is because they created the park. Following the war, with the end of slavery, you had all these freed people, 4 million of them, who are citizens of the United States. What do you do? In Murfreesboro, a lot of them coalesced around the cemetery grounds, many of them men who served in the 111th United States Colored Infantry, and their families. They were the original guys who did the burials here and built the stone wall surrounding the cemetery.

What happened to the community?

(Cemetery) remained relatively intact and strong up until the 1920s when the National Military Park was created and fully half of the community’s population was removed from their properties. They were paid for their property. But they couldn’t live here anymore.

Was that a commonplace way the park service created the parks — to buy people’s land?

Pretty much so. The early ones like Chickamauga and Antietam, they did huge tracts — thousands of acres.

What about Stones River Battlefield?

We started small with the cemetery and the Hazen Brigade Monument. Then they added about 250 acres … just across here on Old Nashville Highway. … We’ve slowly but surely grown to be about 700 acres … which is still barely 15 percent of the size of the place where the battle was fought.

What’s something else people don’t know?

When they’re driving around Murfreesboro, they’re actually driving on battlefield. They’re going up and down Thompson Lane from Broad Street all the way down to Route 96. That’s basically driving right down the line between the two armies on the morning of Dec. 31, 1862.

The Mapco station on the corner of 96 and Gresham Lane, that’s where the battle started. You go to The Avenue, that’s the battlefield, every lick of it. It was about 4,000 acres, just counting the infantry and artillery fought. But some Confederate cavalry got within sight of Nashville. And there were battles in places like (what is now) La Vergne and Smyrna, Old Jefferson. That was all part of the campaign, the Union Army coming here.

National parks are known for the scenery. What about the natural environment here?

We have a Tennessee state natural area inside the park, that is the area in and around our cedar glade complex. Where the limestone is close to the ground, there are dozens of very specialized plants that only grow in cedar glades, and some of them, only in cedar glades in Middle Tennessee. One of them is an endangered species, the Pyne’s ground plum that we’ve been trying to grow in our cedar glade. The Tennessee purple coneflower was an endangered species … but one of the reasons it’s no longer on the list was because of how many are growing out in our cedar glade.

What about the park’s natural resources?

I think people are surprised about the natural beauty. That’s what a battlefield is: fields and rocks and woods and in our case, river.

A lot of people ask why all the grass around the battlefield isn’t mowed. All the fields are managed in warm-season grasses, which, in my 19 years here, we have more than doubled the regularly seen species of birds in the park. We’re now a bird-watching place. People will now see coyotes, foxes, bobcats.

Have you seen some of the newest critters, the Pokemon?

It’s pretty cool. It’s brought in people who would have never, ever come into the park. We do try to keep it out of the national cemetery … which is by regulation … no geolocation games. We’re always trying to connect with younger people. The way you connect with younger people is through these devices.

Reach reporter Nancy De Gennaro at 615-278-5148 and follow her on Twitter @DNJMama