Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Murfreesboro and the ghosts of Stones River...

The battle at Stones River, one of the bloodiest campaigns of America's Civil War, took over 23,000 estimated casualties in four days time. This horrific battle began the 31st of December 1862 and finally ended January 2nd, 1863.

Cannon at Stones River National Battlefield  by Hal Jespersen  

With the Union army controlling Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, and Nashville, they were ready to take command of the Mississippi River and the railroads. In order to achieve this goal,  General William Rosecrans would have to battle General Braxton Bragg  and his Confederate army. Striking first, the Confederates had the Union on the run, driving them back to Nashville Pike. However, the Union forces vastly outnumbered the Confederates and as time went on, the boys in gray grew weary. The tide began to change in favor of the Union.

An interesting thing happened during the Battle of Stones River.  As one might expect during this holiday time of year, the soldiers' thoughts meandered toward family and home.  One evening, most unexpectedly, a song cut through the stillness of the night.  The battle lines were so close that both sides couldn't help but hear the music.  The confederates sang "Dixie," while the Union soldiers volleyed with "Yankee Doodle."  Then, when one of the bands started playing "Home, Sweet, Home," the other side joined in.   While the soldiers sang, they ignored the horror of the battle, and perceived enemies. Amid tears, toasts, and cheers, the spirit of Christmas filled their souls.  The respite didn't last though, for the bloody battle began again at dawn. General Bragg commanded Major General John C. Breckinridge's brigade to attack the Union center. The troops arrived much too late to do any good. On January 1, 1863, no one celebrated the New Year.

And even though the battle took place one hundred and fifty years ago, ghostly reminders of that day remain behind.

In a rocky, wooded area known as "the slaughter pen," a tremendous number of soldiers lost their lives, including three brigade commanders and a third of General Sheridan's Union division. Days after the battle ended many of them still awaited discovery and burial.  In this spot, visitors report vast drops in temperature,  and the sound of phantom footsteps that trail behind each of their own. Civil War re-enactors have reported seeing a mysterious soldier in this area. At times he simply leans against a tree or lingers near the campfire. He keeps his distance as he keeps them company—or at least he does until someone speaks to him and then he'll fade away.

And then we have a headless horseman, usually seen near the railway.  Many believe this specter to be Lieutenant Colonel Julius Garesche. Prior to the battle, Garesche told his brother, a Catholic Priest, that he had experienced several premonitions of his death in battle.  In light of this vision, and believing that he would die a martyr for the Union cause he approached Rosecrans, and applied for field duty. His good friend and Westpoint classmate, obliged the request and appointed him Chief-of-Staff.  Without going into the gory details, On December 31, 1862, Garesche met his demise by decapitation.

A park ranger once had an encounter with an otherworldly soldier. The story is that while camping with some of his fellow re-enactors, he found he needed to refill his canteen. While on this errand he encountered a man "dressed in period clothing," lurking behind the bushes.  Thinking his companions had arranged a practical joke, he called for the man to come on out. The man, raising his arms to surrender, complied with the order.  Something didn't feel right. The Ranger then told the man that he had a gun and would shoot... In response to the threat, the man dropped to the ground as if he had indeed been shot, and then disappeared into the darkness.  Horrified, the Ranger hastened to the spot. Yet, he couldn't find a single piece of evidence to mark the experience. No footprints, no broken twigs, no body...nothing. 

The sounds of distant guns and marching soldiers are common—so are feelings of oppressiveness. So you might want to prepare yourself to experience them should you decide to visit Stones River National Battlefield.  Oh, and mind the rocks. They say they are launched by unseen hands, deep in the woods...

J. Percy Priest Lake by Brian Stansberry

On a personal note, David K Newhouse, my first cousin (five generations removed,) died fighting this battle on December 31, 1862. We are lucky enough to have a number of letters that David wrote to his wife.  I thought I'd share a few snippets of his final letter, exactly as written, mistakes and all:

Near Nashville       Dec. 25, 1862

Dear Companion,
I wish you a happy Christmas.  This is from the heart of a soldier and a true love a Companion. True to you and his Country far frome home and friends in a foreign land full of enemies, a land of troubles.  but notwithstanding all this there is still hope. If this is not a place of joy and mirth there is none for the circumstances in which we are placed.  for we have the liveliest lot of boys this morning you ever seen. It is now Christmas and it seems but a few Days Since we left home.  Time flies swiftly to the Soldier, we can hardly keep the days of the week. We have now bin out over four months and it seems but a vary short time.

We are now under marching orders ever since last tuesday.  We packed up everything yesterday morning, tents and all, and started south with three days rations in our haversacks.  the teems was ordered back to Nashville innside the entrenchments with our tents and cooking utencils on them.  and when we started we expected to be gon three days on a scout to see if we could find any large body of armed rebels about here.  but when we went about 2 miles we was ordered back to our old camp without the sight of a rebel and now we are laying in our camp 6 miles south of Nashville without tents and cooking utencils as usual.  Some say we are going back to Nashville some of these days but I doubt it for my part.  The report is that the Burnside is thrashed on the potomac and old Abes Cabinet is resigning.  Bad news.  if the rebels gained another victory or two.  the Southern confederacy will be recognized I  am afraid.  but I doubt whether they will gain any more victories or not for they are run too easy by our troops.


And if you've stayed with me this long. Allow me to share the letter Susanna Ebersole received pertaining to his death...

Murfresboro, Tenn., Feb. 2 1863

                 Mrs. D.H. Newhouse
I feel it my duty to write you a few lines concerning your Husband. He nobly fell on the battlefield near this place  on the 31st day of Dec. 1862. He was one of the best men in my Company. He was all ways ready and willing to do his duty when ever called upon to the last. He was well liked by all of the Company and will be long remembered by  his associates. His absence from the company is very much lamented over.
I have here six letters that was sent to him. I will remail them to you. My Sympathy to you for your noble and much respected Husband. May the time be when you can meet him again where parting is no more.
                                                             Yours Truly
                                                      Lieut. T.H. Cline

I hope my cousin found his rest, and that he was there to greet his companion in a place where "parting is no more..."

It was these letters that inspired the fictional letter found In Spirit of the Rebellion

Have you ever visited a battlefield, or know of an ancestor that fought for his country?  I'd love you to share...


  1. Wow! So many unique stories of this battle and battlefield, especially given the time of year it occurred. But what really made an impression on me were the letters you included at the end, especially the one David wrote to his wife, Susanna. I loved that you shared it exactly as it was written. What a treasure to have in your family!

  2. Hello Mae! Yes, I loved getting a copy of these letters and was so grateful when the cousin that had them copied them verbatim and then shared them. The letters are sweet and it was using the language and tone from these that I created the "letter" I wrote in "Spirit of the Rebellion."

    Thanks for stopping by! I love it when you visit...

  3. Quote; Have you ever visited a battlefield, or know of an ancestor that fought for his country?

    My youth was colored due WWII, with more than 11 uncle's, aunts, grandmothers&fathers in it. Grandmother was war-nurse and helping resistance, husband fought with Americans. When i was in army myself, i served in medical unit. Here we did 'medical support 'for veterans. From ww II, Indonesie, korea, libanon etc. until now. So many stories, one common factor.

    Nightmares. Also during the day...

  4. Bless you Jeroen! I have a very special place in my heart for all of our veterans.

  5. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

    1. Thanks for stopping by and taking time to leave a comment Gerald! I love history, especially when it involves an ancestor!

  6. Debbie. Good info on how the unseen residents of Stones River Battle Field come and go. The Slaughter Pen can be quite a depressing place on early Jan. days of the year. I like your story and would like to point out that the two armies were more or less evenly matched. The Union forces fought as a single unit which brought them Victory while the South fought as independent units. Their downfall in trying to defeat the Union Army. 23,000 dead , MIA and wounded. A great loss of life on the last day of the battle at MacFadden's Ford. 1800 men dead , MIA or wounded in 45 minutes thanks to Braggs inept command and short sighted view of what faced him. More or less 40 men a minute were killed , wounded or MIA in a meat grinder of 57 Union Cannon on the knoll above the Stones River. The very last action of the 3 day battle. This area is a great place to ghost hunt. Distance bugle calls can be heard from time to time from Wayne Hill's across the river. Severed limbs caught on film floating among the trees. Foot steps heard behind you after dark following you up the Green Way. Paranormal overload can be found in this bloody corner of the Stones River Battle Field.

    T. Lynn Anderson

    1. Ah bless you T. Lynn Anderson for your comments! I love hearing from those who know far more than I do. Thanks for sharing the history and the ghostly phenomenon. I enjoyed it!