A Day at Stones River Battlefield
On Saturday March 30, 2019, I became an official National Park Service living history volunteer at Stones River National Battlefield. On paper, it was our training day for the season, but we also had three public demonstrations throughout the day. Two of those are on the Stones River Facebook page if you'd like to check them out.
For the first couple of hours we drilled in some of the basics, like the manual of arms and some simple marching maneuvers. It was really nice to knock the rust off since the last event I participated in was back in June. The best part of the training was actually loading in Nine Times. For my 16 years in reenacting, I have never loaded my musket in the movements prescribed in the manual, as we typically are not allowed to draw rammers during the "battle" part of events. On Saturday we drilled this to the point of all of us being able to perform the steps in a proficient manner, and be able to do it quickly. I don't know what it's like doing this with a Springfield Musket, but my Enfield rammer put a few cuts and scrapes on my right hand. The Enfield rammer, has a "button hole" on the ramming portion of the rod, and is "threaded" all the way around. When you are constantly gripping it to draw the rammer, and then returning the rammer with the outside of your pinky finger, it tends to not treat your skin too kindly. So a big realization for me after doing this all day was that the men that fired these weapons must have had hands calloused to no end, or were bleeding and cut significantly after a hard fight.
Another aspect of loading this way, is that it is amazing at how quickly your weapon can become fouled. When reenacting and not using your rammer, it is something you just never think about. You just pour down the powder and fire. When I used the rammer on Saturday, it occurred to me that the powder builds up on the inside of the barrel fairly fast, and it became more difficult to ram the paper down, much less draw it out again.
During our lunch break, I took a little bit of time to visit the National Cemetery and the Hazen Brigade Monument. In the National Cemetery, I took a good look at the monument to the US Regulars, and saw some interesting headstones. Down the Nashville Pike a short ways is the monument erected by, and to, the men of Hazen's Brigade in 1863. It is the oldest Civil War monument that still stands in its original location. Buried on this small plot are several soldiers of the 6th Kentucky Infantry.
When the day was over at the park, I stopped at a few other spots before heading home. The first was the Slaughter Pen, famous for its large boulders that Union soldiers used to shield themselves from Confederate fire. At this spot, remnants of Sheridan's Division held out in the rocky terrain until their ammunition was depleted, repulsing numerous Confederate attacks throughout the day. When they tried to retreat from their rocky defenses, countless Union soldiers were cut down, their bodies piling up and their blood filling the ground between the rocks. The Chicago soldiers who remembered this area said it reminded them of the drains in a slaughter house, and so the Slaughter Pen name stuck.
The location I spent the longest time at was McFadden's Ford, the site of the Orphan Brigade's attack across Stones River. I also visited the Artillery Monument, where Captain Mendenhall, Chief of Artillery, amassed some 57 guns to oppose Breckinridge's attack. The fire decimated the Kentuckians as they struggled across the river, killing their brigade commander, Roger Hanson. There are few battlefields I have visited where I just sit there and reflect on what men from my state suffered. All you can do is just sit on the rocks on the river and imagine the gray wave with the blue flag splashing across the frigid waters into the jaws of death.
I can't visit a battlefield without getting something at the book store. I purchased the Blue and Gray Magazine Battle of Stones River issue, which has excellent maps and a fantastic write up about the battle from Ranger Jim Lewis. I also picked up 10 Months in the Orphan Brigade by Conrad Wise Chapman, the famous painter of the Confederacy. He didn't participate at Stones River, but I had never seen this book for sale except online, and it was a great price. With much of the original battlefield forever gone due to development, I bought a folding map that shows the locations of the regiments and brigades at different moments of the battle. This is very helpful when visiting the different sites that you can still get to, as the NPS brochure does not offer much in the way of this information.
Speaking of development, it really is sad to see what has happened to so much of the ground that was fought over during those freezing days. It makes me appreciate sites like Shiloh, Perryville, and Chickamauga that much more, as they are pristine examples of preservation. If you have never visited Stones River Battlefield, you may be disappointed at the lack of original ground that is left, and the absence of regimental markers and maps displaying troop movements. The entire Confederate Left/Union Right is mostly lost, as is the ground the Confederates launched their attacks on the areas that are preserved. But don't let this stop you from visiting. If anything, this just shows how important it is that we as Americans visit these endangered places. The grounds where so much blood was spilled can benefit a community exponentially more than a hundred little strip malls and fast food restaurants ever could. Maybe I'm just being biased, just a little, but I am hopeful that Stones River can be a wake up call for those of us Civil War enthusiasts who might be uninformed about the state of some of our local battlefields, or even the ground outside of National Park boundaries. Take Fort Donelson for instance. The fort itself is wonderfully preserved, as are some of the outlying entrenchments and rifle pits, but most of the fighting took place further south east, where homes and businesses have cropped up over the years. Thankfully the Trust has purchased and saved some of this area recently, and hopefully even more can be added. I think that we sometimes assume that a battlefield is protected if it's part of a National or state park system, but in some cases, only a small portion is actually under their control. If you can join a local preservation or friends group, do it. Round Tables can also do great work in raising funds and educating people on these endangered sites. But most importantly, visit these places. Without visitors, others will doubt its importance.
With all of this said, I'm excited to continue volunteering at Stones River. The people there are great, and what is preserved should be regarded as a treasure. I can't wait to get back!