Nashville is known the world over as the capital of country music; famous for its full-scale replica of the Parthenon, the Grand Ole Opry, Vanderbilt University, and the Tennessee Titans. Over the last decade, the Music City metro area has grown to become one of the largest in the Southeast, now home to more than 1.8 million people. While millions of visitors flock to the Country Music Hall of Fame or the lights and sounds of Broadway, many forget the rich history the area saw long before country music made its debut.
During the Civil War, Tennessee was a crucial territory for both sides to have, with residents divided in their support of the Confederacy as well as the state being home to important transportation corridors. As a result, only Virginia saw more battles fought on its soil. Sites such as Shiloh, Fort Donelson, and Lookout Mountain have been preserved to honor the memory of those who fell to keep our country together. Others such as Campbell’s Station, Blountsville, and Bull’s Gap have faded from memory, preserved only in writing or identified by a roadside marker along a winding country road. Stones River National Battlefield is one those sacred sites which was protected. Located just south of Nashville on the outskirts of Murfreesboro, the peaceful fields and woods which make up the national park were once the scene of one of the bloodiest conflicts of the war.
As you approach the park from either Nashville or Murfreesboro, its easy to see why the battleground needed protection as a unit of the National Park System. Subdivisions, highways, and urban sprawl have closed in on all sides and continue to spread thanks to the area’s rapid growth. Thanks to its establishment in 1927, the tranquil meadows now serve as a habitat for wildlife in addition to protecting the battlefield site and relics.
Entering the park from its main entrance on North Thompson Lane, visitors are directed onto the park’s main loop road. This one-way scenic drive winds through the forests and fields towards the visitor center. This should be every new visitor’s first stop, as it’s hard to truly appreciate what the park has to offer without know the history behind those cold winter days in 1862. The museum is extremely detailed and will probably take the more thorough over an hour to walk through and examine all the historical artifacts preserved here. An educational ten-minute video provides a simplified version of the museum’s content for those with less time.
Be sure to also stop by the information desk to chat with the rangers. They’re more than willing to answer any questions you may still have that weren’t answered in the museum and can also help you best plan how to spend your time at the park. Rangers Jeremy Childs and John McKay were very professional and helped answer several questions we had on our recent visit. Be sure to ask them for a Jr. Ranger book so you can earn your Jr. Ranger badge by the end of your visit. We have found that completing the activities at each park we visit helps to enrich our experience and help us learn even more about the amazing wonders of our national parks.
Outside the museum, there are so many areas to explore that visitors need to plan a whole day or even a weekend in order to see everything. Pick up a pamphlet for the auto tour and set off once again on the main park loop. Numbered stops indicate sites of importance throughout the battle, such as the Slaughter Pen. Here a paved trail as well as smaller footpaths wander through an intricate maze of rocks which served as a hiding spot for Union soldiers during the heat of the battle. Unfortunately, they also served to hinder their escape when the Confederates charged, thus giving rise to its morbid name. Other stops include the Hazen Brigade Monument as well as the Artillery Monument on the McFadden Farm portion of the battlefield.
If you are tired of riding in the car, over seven miles of hiking and biking trails crisscross almost the entirety of the park’s five hundred and thirty acres. The Murfreesboro greenway system links with these to provide additional opportunities for exploration. In addition, the open fields provide great areas to search for wildflowers or stop for a picnic. The park is also home to Stones River National Cemetery, which makes for a somber area to walk and contemplate the lives which were given to secure the Union victory here.
Perhaps the best time to visit the park is during one of the battle reenactments. Several are offered throughout the year, with the largest of these occurring at the end of each December to commemorate the anniversary of the battle. During this time, the park offers a plethora of walks and tours to complement the already extensive list of activities already provided. Throughout the rest of the year, other interpretive programs such as ranger-led bicycle rides are offered on a regular basis. Perhaps some of the most interesting are the ranger-led lantern walks through the national cemetery, where the stories of those who lie here come to life through the letters they wrote during their time before and throughout the battle.
Photo: Walking around the grounds, visitors will find themselves face to face with cannons giving an unnerving reminder of what events took place here.