Preserving the Battle of Stone River’s Land

By Zoë A. Haggard 

 

One hundred and fifty six years ago, the blood of the 2,971 men who fought and died in the Battle of Stones River soaked the soil that is now beneath shops, city streets sidewalks and a golf course. 

 

Murfreesboro, now booming with progress that often begins with bulldozers clawing the earth, presents a challenge for preservationists interested in the Stones River National Battlefield.  

 

“It takes a lot of work to orient people to what it is...we’re only able to preserve a fraction of the battlefield,” said Jim Lewis, the Chief Ranger at the Stones River National Battlefield.  

 

The Battle of Stones River—between Dec. 31, 1862 and Jan. 2, 1863—was pivotal in the years of the American Civil War. When the gunfire ended Federal forces had control over Middle Tennessee. However, the victory came with one of the highest casualty percentage, second only to Gettysburg. 

 

Even as growth persists there’s an effort to preserve the hallowed ground—to honor  the 24,645 known casualties from both the North and South.     

The main difficulty of preservation comes from the competing use of the land, according to Lewis. Since Murfreesboro remains one of the fastest growing cities in the state, any land serves as valuable real estate for the economy.  

 

However, the park itself is an “economic engine” as it brings in revenue from tourists and creates hundreds of jobs, according Lewis.  

         

Adding acreage in such an economic boom time has been difficult, but preservationists recently scored a victory.

 

The SRNB sought to purchase 42 acres of privately owned land after receiving a matching grant of almost $2 million.

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The grant gives the American Battlefield Trust—a non-profit agency that raises money for land acquisition—the opportunity to purchase the land, bringing the grant total to $3.6 million.

“To pull this off today...would really be a milestone, but...it’s going to take years,” said Lewis.   

 

Since the battlefield’s only tangible aspect is land, there is more difficulty when preserving the extent of the battlefield. 

 

“Development changes what viewscapes we have,” said Lewis. In other words, to see the battlefield in its full extent has already been lost to development and factors that come with it, such as traffic and pollution.   

 

Preservation for battlefield land began as early as the 1880s and 1890s and a prominent effort reemerged in the 1920s with a surge of patriotism. The technique of preserving today, however, requires finesse along with patience.    

 

“The American Battlefield Trust works with willing sellers and is in a constant race to save our nation’s hallowed grounds,” said Nicole Ryan, the spokeswoman for the Trust. 

 

Today, preserving “core” battlefield land, where the key events of the Stones River battle occurred, remains the goal, according to Lewis. 

 

They preserve land that the National Park Service identifies as most significant while the Trust consults detailed reports commissioned by Congress that examines the more than 13,000 battles and skirmishes of the American Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and the Civil War, according to Ryan. 

 

But ultimately, preservationists want to “engage people to the landscape...and make them connected to the past,” said Lewis. And the preservationists of the SRNB and Trust are willing to do that at a great cost.    

 

“Good things take time and a large number of resources…We are in a race against time to save what’s left,” said Ryan. 

 

In the end, as Suzannah Lessardwrites in her book, The Absent Hand: Reimagining Our American Landscape,“Every place carries meanings that accumulate like sediments over time,” so no one battlefield is more important than another.