Stones River Battlefield

Murfreesboro, Tennessee

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Walk the fields in Tennessee where ancient cannons mark the ground.  A river runs through, clean and pure, now, but it wasn’t so long ago that the river ran crimson with the blood of more than a thousand men.  Deep in the night, through the dense trees, gunshots are heard.  Footsteps follow visitors, their sources men in old uniforms who vanish before startled eyes.  And occasionally, amid the tortured moans and cries of pain, another startling sound gently settles over the field:  music. 

There is no doubt that, if hauntings are caused by high emotions and untimely deaths, battlegrounds are prime places for restless souls.  America is dotted with places where the dead whisper and echoes of the past still resonate.  Even entering the site of such battles is enough to give visitors pause, as the pain lingers and the land bears the scars.  Some enter such sites with reverence, others with fascination.  And while all agree that impressions remain, some have experiences far beyond those of mere historical interest.  Some encounter those voices from the past and truly believe the place to be haunted.

1862 was not such a great year for President Abraham Lincoln.  Toward the end his army suffered a huge defeat at Fredericksberg, threatening the morale of the entire Union.  He learned of a Confederate regiment camped in Musfreesboro, Tennessee, a mere thirty-mile distance from Union soldiers, led by General William Rosecrans.  The Confederate regiment, led by General Braxton Bragg, were positioned to thwart Union soldiers from getting any closer to Chattanooga and to protect the farms that were their food source.  The Union General-in-Chief, on orders from Lincoln, gave Rosecras an ultimatum by telegraph:  …The Government demands action, and if you cannot respond to that demand, someone else will be tried. 

Taking the telegraph to heart, the Union Army of the Cumberland departed Nashville on December 26 to engage the Confederates.

What followed was one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, tallying more than 23,500 deaths from both sides.  Stymied by adverse weather conditions and fierce resistance by the Confederates, the Union army split into three teams and made their way from separate directions toward the Confederates.  During the next four days, the battle raged, soaking the ground in blood.

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During the evenings, to raise the spirits of their men, both sides brought military bands to play music.  During one evening a different sort of battle broke out as the Union band began playing "Yankee Doodle."  Not to be outdone, the Confederate band answered with a rendition of "Dixie."  The battle went back and forth until one band, no one is sure from which side, began playing a song called "Home Sweet Home."  According to written eyewitness accounts, both bands stopped their war and joined together for the song.  The soldiers on both sides began singing along with the words they knew, and for that brief interlude, the war was forgotten.  The next morning, however, the fighting began anew.

By the battle’s end more than 3,000 lay dead on the field with 16,000 more critically wounded.  They lay in the blood-soaked mud for as long as seven days in agony waiting for someone to reach them.  When it was all over, nearly a third of the 81,000 men involved in the battle were dead.  The Confederates lost the battle, losing their food source and a sizable chunk of land.  General Rosecrans directed what was left of his army, as well as the slaves freed by the battle, to construct a fortress that served as an occupation base and supply port for the remainder of the war.

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Many visitors to the Stones River battlefield have reported a wide range of phenomena, but none so chilling as the sightings of the soldiers who can still be seen walking where they fell.  They wear uniforms of both sides, Union and Confederate, and appear, according to witnesses, as solid as the next person.  However, these soldiers are not re-enactors.  They will interact with visitors, just before vanishing into thin air.

One such encounter has been told and retold for nearly thirty years.  Re-enactors often camp near the area called “Slaughter Pen” (so named because, after the battle, there was so much blood on the ground that it looked like a barnyard slaughter pen) and report seeing a lone soldier lingering around the campfires.  He seems aware of the people around him but disappears should anyone try to talk to him.

In 1978 another strange encounter took place in which a ranger named Jeffery Leathers, himself a Civil War re-enactor, spotted what he mistook for another re-enactor.  Staying in character, he raised his rifle (which did not, it should be noted, fire actual bullets) and pointed it at the man.  The man dropped to the ground as if he’d been shot.  When Leathers went to find him, the man was gone.  There were no footprints in the soft mud or grass leading to or from the site at which the man fell.  It was as if he never existed. 

Other phenomena include the sounds of gunshots echoing through the field when none are present as well as the muffled groans and screams of those who died on the field.  However, it is the sound of music that often has the greatest effect on those who hear it.  Not often, but occasionally reports filter in about the sounds of two bands playing the same tune, identified as "Home Sweet Home," coming from opposite sides of the battlefield.

Present Day:
The Stones River National Battlefield is now a 600-acre monument that includes the Stones River National Cemetery and the Hazen Brigade Monument.  There is no charge to go on the grounds, which are open from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm year-round.  There are guided tours offered, and portions of the fortress built by General Rosecras are still visible.  So too are the soldiers who refuse to lay down, even in death. 

Best Places/Times:
There is little doubt as to the most haunted area of the Stones River National Park.  It is, on the driving tour, stop number four:  The Slaughter Pen, the site of the bloodiest fighting in the battle.  Park rangers state that the area is usually close to twenty degrees cooler than the rest of the park, and much reported paranormal activity originates from there. 

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Another hot spot is stop number six, where Leathers met the strange disappearing soldier. 

As for best times, most paranormal reports occur during the anniversary of the battle, between December 26 and January 1.  The phantom bands are most often heard on the nights of December 27 or 28.

See you in two weeks!

Scott A. Johnson

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