Our National Cemeteries: Stones River National Cemetery

In the battle’s aftermath in early January, 1863, Union troops buried their dead in three mass graves on the battlefield of Stones River in Middle Tennessee. The work was not pleasant, for the slain had been unburied for several days. There were a few smaller burials as well, containing a handful or dozens of men, concentrated in areas of heavy fighting in the woods and cedars. For example, near the railroad were eleven graves from the 74th Ohio and 45th Mississippi; nearby were burials from the U.S. Regulars; and another thirty-one graves from the 19th Illinois and 41st Alabama were nearby.

Original headboard from the Stones River battlefield. These markers did not survive long and often information was lost before permanent headstones arrived. Author Photo.

General George H. Thomas established Stones River National Cemetery in 1864. It was in the center of the battlefield, bounded by the Nashville Pike and the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad. As at other National Cemeteries, the Stones River site became a central burying ground for Union dead within the immediate area, and burial parties scoured the countryside at old campsites and battlefields within a ninety-mile radius of Murfreesboro.

Entrance to Stones River National Cemetery. Author Photo.

The cemetery was laid out in a rectangle, consisting of 20 acres featuring a central square with avenues radiating out. The burials are not organized by state or unit. Wooden headboards marked the burials, and workers planted bluegrass in the cemetery. The entrance from the Nashville Pike had stone pillars and an iron gate. One pillar had a metal shield with “US National Cemetery.” Ornamental trees enhanced the grounds.

Shield on the gate at the cemetery entrance. Author Photo.

New York Times reporter Fred Brigance visited in October 1865, and wrote, “A wall four and a half feet high by two and a half feet thick, built of granite, will surround the cemetery, while the two main entrances fronting the railroad and the pike, will be under high arches finished with suitable emblematic devices.” Members of the 111th United States Colored troops, “working in squads of twenty five each  . . with masons . . .” built the wall. Brigance also noted that “each state having a suitable lot appropriated to it.”

Two months later Hartford reporter John Trowbridge described the scene:

A stone wall encloses a space of modest size, covered with neatly heaped mounds side by           side, in such precise order that one might imagine the dead who slept beneath them to      have formed their ghostly ranks there after the battle, and carefully laid themselves down   to rest beneath those small green tents. The tents were not green when I visited the spot,          but I trust they are green today, and that birds are singing over them.

During its first few decades, the cemetery hosted picnics, band concerts, G.A.R. (Union veterans) services, and Dedication Day services (which evolved into Memorial Day). The fact that the cemetery was established along the railroad was not unintentional, as many early battlefield visitors arrived on railroad excursions.

Wisconsin/Ohio monument in the cemetery. Author photo.

Veterans placed the earliest monument at the Stones River battlefield in the cemetery in 1865. The Wisconsin/Ohio Monument faced the railroad, not the highway, and honored the 43rd Wisconsin and 180th Ohio. Veterans who returned went first to the cemeteries to visit their fallen comrades. The cemeteries were the focal point of reunions and tours in the early decades of battlefield preservation. It was only later that the battlefield itself was persevered.

In 1882 veterans from the Regular Brigade placed an impressive monument with an eagle near the center of the cemetery. About that time a flagstaff and a standing cannon marker were also added near the center of the site.

Regulars monument in the center of the cemetery. Author Photo.

Thus the only monuments placed by veterans, the Wisconsin/Ohio Monument, Regulars Monument, and the nearby Hazen Monument, were all positioned either in the cemetery or at a burial site.

A decade after the war the cemetery’s basic design was in place. By then it had 6,124 graves, with 3,818 known and 2,307 unknown. In 1873 granite headstones replaced the wooden headboards and a few years later over two hundred trees and shrubs were planted. Benches, and ornamental cannons and a cannonball pyramid were also added.

Plaque mounted on a cannon which lists the number of internments. Author Photo.

Aside from properly burying and honoring the dead, the first National Cemeteries became the basis for later battlefield preservation. Several battlefield parks were established following the creation of cemeteries. Those cemeteries were the first places where veterans held reunions and placed markers and monuments. Gradually the focus shifted to the fields of battle themselves.

Today Stones River National Cemetery has unique features such as the early monuments and orientation to the railroad.

Chaplain William Earnshaw, first superintendent of the cemetery, wrote in 1865 as the work neared completion, “[These were] men who had given their lives for the country …, and now sleep beneath the green sod of our beautiful cemetery, on the immortal field of Stone’s River.”

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