Saturday, July 9, 2011

Stones River National Battlefield

If you've ever driven through Tennessee on I-24 from Nashville to Chattanooga, you've been to Stones River National Battlefield -- you just didn't realize you were driving right over it. It's a little hard to visualize Civil War combat when all you're seeing is strip development and fast food chains.

At one time this battlefield was listed as one of the most endangered historic sites in the country. Not anymore. It got taken off the list because it went from endangered to mostly obliterated. Looking at all the hideous, stucco over styrofoam cornices on the buildings in the strip malls on steroids lining the roads around the park, I'm guessing the development happened within the past decade. The original battlefield was several thousand acres in size; the remnant that got preserved is about 700 -- not bad, but definitely a case of just barely better than nothing. What's left is interesting, but it was really hard to resist making snarky jokes to the interpretive rangers about "Well, at least the guys here didn't have to worry much about eating moldy hardtack, not with a Red Robin on the corner."

I've said before I'm not a big fan of the cannonball parks. Battlefields are always incredibly depressing, and Stones  River is no exception. It's another one where there's a really high body count and not much to show for it. Like Antietam, it gets labelled as "tactically indecisive." It got described in the north as a victory because Lincoln really needed one so that's how the story was fed to the press (some things never change), but realistically it falls into the "just barely" category.

I'm not also not real keen on reenactors, mostly because almost all of the ones I've encountered have been busy channeling the spirit of J.E.B. Stuart, Stonewall Jackson, or some other traitor. I've never gotten the attraction of wanting to glorify the guys who were serving as cannon fodder for rich white guys trying to hang on to their exploitative lifestyle by preserving chattel slavery. Stones River, however, had reenactors dressed in blue. Amazing.
Several of the reenactors were definitely on the portly side, which reminded me both of a cartoon I saw recently (caption: "Reenacting: an excuse for fat middleaged men to wear uniforms") and, less humorously, a section of a book I read not long ago on infectious disease. Compared to men of fighting age today, the typical Civil War era soldier was undernourished, undersized, and wracked with disease. When you see actual uniforms from the war, quite a few look like they were worn by children. Huge numbers of potential recruits in the North had to be rejected because they were too sickly: they were obviously consumptive or worse (the South was desperate enough for cannon fodder that their standards were a little looser). It's no wonder infectious diseases like typhus killed thousands and so many more died of septicemia when wounds became infected: they were already immunocompromised.

The Visitor Center at Stones River is quite nice with an interesting little museum, a small theater where they show a film explaining the battle, and a good bookstore. I was thrilled to see that Eastern National has relaxed its stance on souvenir spoons -- they used to be considered too tacky -- so I was able to get a magnet, a lapel pin, a hiking staff medallion, and a first: a souvenir spoon from an Eastern National store in a national park. (Eastern National is a nonprofit that works with the Park Service, and everything that goes into their stores is supposed to have park approval -- so no tacky stuff allowed.) Also stocked up on postcards and bookmarks, of course, and, believe it or not, actually bought a book -- "My Brave Mechanics": The First Michigan Engineers and Their Civil War. Park staff, both in the bookstore and at the front desk, were knowledgeable and helpful, although I don't think the VIP at the front desk was too thrilled with my effusive praise for a specific Michigan engineer -- Orlando Poe. I got the distinct impression his personal sympathies lay with the gallant lads in gray fighting for the Lost Cause.

I, on the other hand, don't have a whole lot of use for that Lost Cause when this was the result:

Stones River National Cemetery is across the road from the Visitor Center. It was part of the battlefield.
The cemtery was established in 1865; all the burials are Union soldiers. Many had been buried where they fell on the battlefield so digging them up for re-interment didn't require moving them very far. Union dead from other battles were also disinterred and moved to the cemetery. Confederate dead were buried elsewhere.

Stones River NB also has the oldest Civil War memorial, the Hazen Brigade Monument. It was erected in 1863, well before the war ended. It has an oddly unfinished feel to it -- it looks almost like they wanted to do an obelisk but ran out of time and/or materials.

If a person likes to walk, Stones River does have trails that loop around through the woods and fields and take you past points of interest, like the Slaughter Pen (a natural rock formation where Sheridan's men dug in to hold off the Confederates) and some remnant earthworks. One of the nice things about Stones River is that it doesn't appear to have turned into a mecca for dog walkers like Kennesaw Mountain (Kennesaw supposedly has one of the highest visitor counts in the country; I figure 99% of those "visitors" are local suburbanites looking for a convenient place for Fido to piss). You can do a nice little hike, enjoy some history mixed with nature, and not have to worry much about stepping in dog crap.


  1. beautiful pictures..sad story..and there are still schmucks that say the south shall rise again and love waving the starts and bars..sigh*

  2. In every country on this rock is the cry, "Support our troops." I don't see how this is going to help end the wars on this rock.

    It's just a bunch of fucking monkeys killing each other, try to stay out of the way.

  3. Ooh, that rock formation is so neat. I'd love to play around on rocks like that.

    Because I don't live in the east and have never visited a battlefield park, the concept of preserving as many of them as possible kind of escapes me. But I do acknowledge that I have only the most minimal grasp of the issues involved. One huge positive I see is that the area gains a significant amount of green space. I don't think the positives of that can be emphasized enough.


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