Harber’s History Lesson: Slaughter Pen was preeminent in Civil War history at Stones River

Susan Harber, The Daily News Journal, June 19, 2017

The ‘Slaughter Pen’ is located on the south side of the Stones River National Battlefield.

The term “slaughter” emanates cold chills down the spine of any individual in Rutherford County.  Yet, slaughter was unending on December 31, 1862, with the perilous, bloodiest encounter of Union and Confederate troops in a heavy forest near the Stones River.

In a rally on the battlefield, a soldier’s cry rang loud and clear “show how a man can die.”  Amid cursing and misery, young men died in a senseless encounter.

Federal Major Gen. William Rosecrans had great intentions to surprise the Rebel right flank and move their troops quickly down present-day Old Nashville Highway.  Rosecrans directed soldiers under Major Gen. Thomas Crittenden across the Stones River to trick Gen. Braxton Bragg, who would certainly realize that most of his men were lined along to his left flank near Franklin Road.

On December 30, Rosecrans burned pseudo campfires in that region.  In turn Bragg expected a definite encounter there and positioned his men away from center and right to strengthen the left.

In a twist of fate, Rosecrans’ orders turned in favor of Bragg, who attacked first in the morning of December 31.  Bragg directed his left flank against Rosecrans’ over-exaggerated right, and Confederate troops quickly took control, while the Yankees were still having breakfast.  Crittenden’s men had no chance to carry out the ruse.

From 6 to 10 a.m., Confederate soldiers forced the Federal right flank back toward Nashville Pike.  At 10 a.m., Confederates captured 28 guns and 3,000 Union soldiers, yet the engagement was not over.  By noon, Rosecrans realized the Rebels were dominating the right flank of his army, and his defense must be organized.  He was not eager to be pushed beyond Nashville Pike with no escape route to Nashville.

Brigadier Gen. Philip Sheridan commanded the right-center division, while Gen. James Negley was in charge of a center line division.  With good cover, concealment in the woods and strong artillery, Negley’s men became strong, forcing the Confederates into a frontal assault.  These combined soldiers of Negley and Sheridan held on for two hours under heavy fighting, giving Rosecrans the time needed.

Initially, Sheridan’s brigades gave ground to the Confederates on the south.  The Rebels positioned artillery within 200 yards of Sheridan.  Negley faced east, and the V-shaped formation doomed their efforts.

With the Rebels near and surrounding the Federals, Rosecrans sent stubborn orders “stand your ground and hold the line.”  Outnumbered three soldiers to one, the Union held tight, while Rosecrans prepared a new line of defense on Nashville Pike.  The Union ran out of ammunition and fought by hand with bayonets, knives and knuckles.

In the end, both Confederates and Union had lost 40 percent in casualties.  All three of Sheridan’s commanders were killed, and several Union units lost more than one third of their soldiers.

The Slaughter Pen site was comprised of large rocks and sinkholes.  This limestone outcropping and slate bedrock is identified as karst topography and is an unusual setting for Civil War combat.

These rocks formed natural waist-high trenches that were extraordinary.

After the massive Confederate attack at the end, Union soldiers retreated, while the Rebel infantry shot men dead, leaving bodies piled in these rocks. Blood ran thick in the cracks of unforgiving stones.  Federal soldiers stated the scene of carnage reminded them of the cattle pens of Chicago where these animals were held in confinement as they awaited slaughter.

Ghosts of soldiers in the Slaughter Pen are said to have been seen since the fateful day of battle.  Reported sitings of these phantoms recently are quite stirring for re-enactors within this cedar thicket.  Slaughter Pen has been said to be 10 to 20 degrees colder than the surrounding park. There is no warmth remaining in the devastation of war.

The Slaughter Pen is pivotal within the story of Stones River.

The thick, cedar forest was surrounded on three sides that collapsed with no Southern victory.  When the battles concluded on January 2, 1863, there were 12,900 casualties for the Union and 11,700 for the Confederates.

The Civil War was uncivil in Murfreesboro with no winners or losers.  Many of these Union and Confederate soldiers were not yet 20 years old.  The bloodshed of the Slaughter Pen is engraved on our Stones River Battlefield in hallowed ground forevermore.

Contact Susan Harber at susanharber@hotmail.com.