GHOSTS OF THE PRAIRIE
STONES RIVER BATTLEFIELD
See the excerpt from Troy Taylor's book, Spirits of the Civil War on the hauntings of the Stones River Battlefield Below!
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The Battle of Stones River, which was fought near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, occurred in late December of 1862 and lasted through January 2, 1863. The Confederate forces took the Union Army by such surprise here that only one division in the Army of the Cumberland, the third division under General Phil Sheridan, was alert and prepared to fight.
Today, the battlefield stands as a monument to the bitter fighting that took place. Nearby the battlefield is the Stones River National Cemetery, one of the oldest national cemeteries in the country. Visitors to the modern battlefield can take a walking, or driving, tour of the area and various stops on the tour are marked with numbers. These designate the sites where major events took place during the battle.
The location known as Stop No. 4 is also known by the more colorful, and graphic, name of the “Slaughter Pen”. It was at this point on the battlefield where Sheridan’s division was able to hold the Confederates back long enough for General Rosecrans to organize a proper defense. Sheridan fought a confusing battle in the heavy forest and the Federals soon found themselves in a tightening pocket which was collapsing on three sides.
The Confederates, headed by troops from Alabama and South Carolina, rushed out of the woods towards Sheridan’s position, only to be met with artillery fire and small arms volleys from the Yankees. However, the defense did not hold and soon, the borders of Sheridan’s defense began to collapse. Only his brigade of men from Illinois and Missouri stood strong.
Sheridan’s three brigade commanders were killed in the “Slaughter Pen” and a third of his division was destroyed. Finally, the Federals ran out of ammunition and turned to fighting hand-to-hand with bayonets, scrambling through the forest and the underbrush.
Sheridan also lost 14 pieces of artillery, but not without a fight. The cannon crews defended their guns with everything they had, turning from guns to knives and even their bare knuckles. Captain Charles Houghtaling had been ordered to hold his artillery at all costs... a command he took literally. Only at the very last moment were his guns abandoned and even then, Houghtaling had to be carried from the field.
In the end, the battle at Stones River was declared a Confederate victory, although casualties were so high there was little cause to celebrate.
One memorable event of the battle took place one night after fighting had ended for the day. It was the holiday season and on both sides of the line, soldiers wished for home and were saddened by a Christmas without their families. In order to keep up morale, a military band played for the soldier’s entertainment. The battle lines were so close together that the sounds of the opposing army’s music carried through the forest. As the night wore on, the troops battled each other in another way.... as one side played a rousing rendition of “Dixie”, the other band would try to drown it out with the equally loud strains of “Yankee Doodle”. Finally, one of the bands struck up the chords to the song “Home, Sweet, Home” and the rival band joined in. Soldiers on both sides began to sing the familiar words and for one brief moment, the war was forgotten and the soldiers shared their mutual longings for the comforts of home.
When dawn came, the battle began once again.
There is no question that Stop No. 4, the Slaughter Pen, was the scene of the bloodiest fighting at Stones River. Today, the area is a wooded section with a number of rocks and sinkholes... and it is regarded as a haunted place.
Civil War re-enactors and living history groups often camp near the Slaughter Pen when they come to Stones River. There is something about the bravery displayed here by Sheridan’s men which seems to appeal to them and to draw them to the place. Visitors often report a strange stillness to the area that should not be found in a wooded area, where birds and wildlife should be active, but are not. Many of them also speak of eerie feelings here... feelings that let them know they are not always among the living in this place.
The legends of the Slaughter Pen tell of a mysterious soldier who often appears here. Re-enactors claim they have seen him around the camp fire, or on the edge of the darkened camp. He is also seen leaning against a tree, or lingering in the shadows, aware of, and yet separate from, the activity around him. His uniform allows him to often blend in with the re-enactors, yet he is known to simply disappear if anyone tries to speak to him.
My wife and I visited Stones River in May of 1997. When we arrived at the battlefield, it was a gloomy and overcast day. Rain had started to fall and we couldn’t help but feel a little depressed to be in a place where such terrible fighting took place.
When we reached the site of the Slaughter Pen on our driving tour, we stopped the car in a small parking area to take a look around. In the woods beyond the open field, I noticed a small light appear and bob along at the edge of the trees. I could see nothing behind it in the gloom and only saw it for a few seconds before it disappeared and did not return. Could it have been a car reflection or another natural explanation.... or does some lone sentry from Sheridan’s brigade still walk near the scene of the battle?
Park rangers, and visitors that I have talked to, often report the Slaughter Pen to be about 10 or 20 degrees colder than the park around it. They also claim that you can sometimes hear the sound of someone following you if you walk there after dark.
We left the Slaughter Pen and drove on to Site No. 6, which is another place on the battlefield where strange incidents have been reported. In 1978, according to an interview given to author Richard Winer, a park ranger named Jeffrey Leathers was involved in a Civil War re-enactment on the battlefield and was encamped near Tour Stop No. 6.
He woke up in the middle of the night and needed a drink. Finding his canteen empty, he walked back to the administration building and along the way, noticed a man lurking in the bushes near the path. Thinking that it was one of his friends waiting to play a prank on him, he yelled for the man to come out of hiding.
The soldier, who like Leathers was dressed in a period uniform, raised a hand and walked out. He appeared to be very serious, but many re-enactors stay in their roles during the mock battles and apparently the mysterious man was pretending to be captured by the enemy. The soldier continued walking toward Leathers, who then ordered him to stop. Still playing his part in the “engagement”, Leathers raised his rifle and just as he did, the man fell to the ground..... and vanished.
Still thinking this was all part of the re-enactment, Leathers looked around in the shadows, but quickly became convinced that the man had actually disappeared. The next morning, he returned to the spot in the company of several friends, but they found no footprints or any other trace of the soldier. In fact, there was nothing to say that he had ever existed at all!
The Stones River Battlefield is located south of Nashville near Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Exit Interstate 24 at the Murfreesboro junction and follow the signs to the battlefield. There is a museum there and the National Cemetery is located close by.
Copyright 2001 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
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