Saturday, May 16, 2009

A Brief(ish) History of Stones River National Battlefield

I figure if I am going to keep mentioning parts of my thesis research, it might help to set up an idea of what my thesis will be about. I think I have already mentioned that I am writing a history of Stones River National Battlefield from the end of the battle until the present, focusing on the change in landscape. And by "landscape," I mean "cultural landscape." I will look at the change that the land had on the humans living on it, the effects that the humans had on the land, and how the humans used and viewed the landscape over the course of approximately 150 years. So, for the ease of future posts by not having to explain with each post why certain elements of research excite me, (and because wikipedia's entry is kind of lame) I thought I would briefly share the history of Stones River National Battlefield.

Part 1: An Introduction By Way of an End and a Beginning

81,000 men met and fought at the Battle of Stones River, December 31st, 1862 to January 2nd, 1863. The battle ended with Bragg's withdrawal of Confederate troops, giving the Union army the victory it needed to help boost the moral in the North. This victory also gave weight to the Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1st, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in states of rebellion and allows for African Americans to join the ranks of soldiers in the Union army. In order to create a more solid Union presence after the battle, the Union army built Fortress Rosecrans, a forward supply base on the Northwest side of Murfreesboro. That Union presence also drew thousands of African Americans, mostly former slaves who have freed themselves, to the area. The Union troops called these African Americans "Contrabands," as they were formerly property belonging to somebody else (a hard concept to wrap our minds around). The Union army began pulling able-bodied men from the Contraband camps to help build Fortress Rosecrans. While the men selected don't have much choice in whether or not they get to work, they will be paid for their efforts; $10 a month will be the first paycheck many of these men have ever received in their lifetimes. Out of Fortress Rosecrans the Union army raised a regiment of African American soldiers, the 111th Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry (USCT).

The men of the 111th USCT would be assigned to build Stones River National Cemetery under the direction of Chaplain Cpt. William Earnshaw in 1865. We believe it is these men and their families who settle the devastated landscape to form the community called "Cemetery." This community will be just like any other, containing houses, schools, stores, and churches. What we (as historians) do not know is how these folks got the land. Was it distributed as part of the Abandoned Lands Act? Did the 111th get some sort of compensation for working for the Cemetery? Did the families just move in an claim the land? Research continues to reveal the early part of Cemetery's story in pieces. We do know that the community will thrive until "asked" to leave in the 1920s.

Part 2: Commemoration in Many Forms

We know that the 111th built the national cemetery. But why did the African Americans chose to stay on the battlefield remains a bit of a mystery. Arguably, few, if any, Murfreesboro citizens wanted the land that represented a loss. The land was also not very good for farming because of the abundance of limestone rocks. And for the African Americans, it is likely the battle land represented a victory for them. Not only was it a war that eradicated the institution of slavery, but it the battle was linked to the Emancipation Proclamation. As I continue to research, maybe I will be able to solidify some answers.

Commemoration efforts continued after the War. The first effort happens in the form of a monument that soldiers build to themselves. The Hazen Brigade Monument remains the oldest, intact Civil War monument to this day. Later, around the 1880s veterans returned to the battlefield to build the U.S. Regulars monument in the National Cemetery. Commemoration ceremonies continued throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, as the country began to neglect to remember why the war was fought and started focusing on other things (like shared experiences of soldiers, the "Lost Cause" mythology, etc). Memorial services were very popular, as soldiers from both sides could just focus on their shared experiences in order to move forward. At the national cemetery, a train depot sat between the Hazen Brigade Monument and the cemetery to let folks get on and off at that site (a train station of which I ONLY just found apicture of the other day... woo!). An association formed in the 1890s to help preserve the battlefield as battlefield. Chattanooga had just been saved under the War Department; two battlefields in the state of Tennessee seemed like a little much and nothing came out of it until the 1920s.

In 1927, legislation finally passed allowing for the establishment of Stones River National Military Park. How the government tells the members of Cemetery to leave and how those members handle the news gets a little fuzzy. Were they just asked to leave and politely left? They had made their homes on that land for decades at that point. And it was the 1920s. Racism ran deep and wide during this time. I have conducted oral histories of African Americans who lived in Cemetery, but this time still is a little fuzzy. We know that the government paid for the land, but I can't imagine anybody being happy about leaving (you just don't put up a fuss if you are black during Jim Crow in the south). The battlefield won't open as Stone River NMP until 1932. In 1933, the national military parks will be signed over by Roosevelt to the National Park Service (and the name will change from Stones River NMP to Stones River National Battlefield). And in 1934 and 1935, the park gets New Deal monies under the CCC for road building and other maintenance projects. A number of people visit the battlefield, but the visitors were generally either visiting the land in commemoration (the last few veterans before they died out) or as a teaching/learning tool (it was a hands-on military training site). It wouldn't be until the post-World War II years that Stones River NB would get its influx of visitors.

Part 3: Change Remains the Only Constant

In 1956, The National Park Service began a ten-year initiative, called "Mission-66," in which they began a complete overhaul of their parks. These parks would get new visitor centers, roads, museums, and various other forms of interpretation. The idea behind the initiative: get Americans to connect to their parks. This came at a time when this new idea of traveling by car on the interstate started to become popular. And the federal government did not want that new interstate to go to waste. In 1962, Stones River NB began construction of a new visitor center. And in 1964 the visitor center officially opened, welcoming the public. The new museum featured a slideshow about the battle, but the focus of the museum remained strictly about the battle. No discussion about the causes of effects of the battle. No discussion on a soldier's life in the battle. And heaven forbid discussion about slavery or the roles women played filtered into the interpretation.

As different secretaries of the interior came and left, so did various visions of the NPS change. Sometimes the focus shifted from education to environmental issues to social issues. They shared the same basic principals, but the other agendas influenced how parks changed. Stones River went through a variety of changes in programs over the years after the new visitor center opened. The battle story remained the center focus, but the interpretation began to branch out. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a push came from the National Park Service for its Civil War sites to include discussions about slavery. The symposium, "Rally on the High Ground," became the doctrine for these sites to follow as they began to evaluate their interpretation and shift their focus from only the battle(s) to the bigger picture and look for ways to discussion the context of these battles in the War and the War within American history. While the discussion content changed, so did the relationship with the park with greater Murfreesboro. The connection of Murreesboro's Greenway system helped local citizens come out and appreciate their cultural and historical resource available in their own hometown. Different changes on the landscape help influence change of perception about the battlefield and even American history.

Stones River National Battlefield opened a new visitor center in 2004 with a new museum that talks about the causes and effects of the war. The battlefield also began giving programs helping to better place itself within the context of American history.

Because I am getting a slight headache from the bright screen of my computer in my dark room, and because I am tired (I won't lie), I will draw the brief(ish) history to a close. Obviously, this is not an extensive history of the battlefield (if you want that you can read my thesis come December!), but enough of a backstory to help support my future writings (maybe). On a final note, the most recent change on the battlefield's land occurred on April 13th, 2009, when the F4 tornado tore through the battlefield. Many hiking trails remain closed and the park has much work to do to clean up the "mess." That will play a role in my research as I want to investigate the active changes of people as they deal with changes on the landscape.

1 comment:

Bethany Hall said...

Good stuff and keep it up. You'll do fine.

If you need maps, give me a call. We have an extensive digital archive on SRNB and the changing landscape of Murfreesboro and Rutherford County through aerial photography, city limit boundaries, structures, etc.