Dr. Tom Nolan, director of MTSU’s Laboratory for Spatial Technology, will lead the way in conducting a geospatial archaeological survey this month to recover and map artifacts from the Battle of Stones River and create a permanent spatial record of their locations for future study.
Gen. Phillip Sheridan (Library of Congress)
Dubbed the Harding House Civil War History Survey, the project will be conducted two weekends in July, on the area around the Harding House site, where Brig. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan’s Union division held up the Confederate advance during the first day of the Battle of Stones River on Dec. 31, 1862.
According to the findings from a 1999 study prepared for the National Park Service, the Harding House was determined to be among the most significant sites and actions of the Battle of Stones River, coming in at No. 6 of 23 locales on or near the national park’s 570-acre boundary.
Specifically, the Harding House/Brick Kiln Site is cited as being the locale of heavy fighting during the initial Confederate attack as Confederate Col. Arthur M. Manigault and Brig. Gen. J. Patton Anderson attacked the forces of both Union commanders Brig. Gen. Joshua Sill and Col. George Roberts.
A member of MTSU’s geosciences faculty, Nolan will team with Zada Law, archaeologist and geosciences adjunct professor; Gib Backlund and Jim Lewis of the National Park Service; staff from the Stones River National Battlefield; Dr. Bren Martin, MTSU history professor; graduate students in MTSU’s public history program; and members of a local metal detectors club to enact the survey prior to the land’s development by Stonegate Commercial and its president, Tommy Smith.
“Basically, what I’ve proposed is to conduct a surface archaeology survey using metal detectors on the Harding House tract,” Nolan said. “Any artifacts recovered would be mapped using GPS with 50-centimeter accuracy, photographed, catalogued, identified and incorporated into a GIS database.”
As the principal investigator in charge of mapping, Nolan explained, “I have already done a good bit of work on this with historic maps of the battle and incorporating past work by NPS historians, including Edwin Bearss. Also, I think this project provides an excellent opportunity to demonstrate cooperation between MTSU, the NPS and economic developers for the preservation of historically significant information without conflict and for the common good.”
Both Nolan and colleague Law, who will supervise the archaeology side of the study, reported that the survey, which include metal-detector searches and artifact identification by local relic hunters recruited by the NPS, will not interfere with planned construction activities.
“Once the area is developed, this historic record will be gone for good so it’s vital that we work to recover historically significant artifacts and identify the location of the Harding House and any outbuildings to further an existing GIS study on regimental positions and movements during the Battle of Stones River,” Nolan said.
From an archaeological standpoint, Law said, “If it hasn’t yet been torn up by the plow, I think we can find remnants of the brick kiln and I am hoping to find the house’s foundation or some archaeological representation of that. “I hope the metal detector will help us pinpoint on the ground where troop locations were and help validate the veracity of the Ed Bearss map,” she said.
“This (study) will help us anchor down locations on the modern locations and tie them to historic events, actual places. We want to be able to show not that we think this is where something was, but rather, we want to know this is the place—right here.”
Nolan said all of the survey’s participants, including the developer, have pledged to work together and volunteer their time and expertise to achieve a common goal.
“I think the Harding House Civil War History Survey will not only demonstrate the utility of MTSU, the National Park Service and the developer working together for historic preservation,” he said, “but will also show the role of MTSU as catalyst for cooperation on behalf of historic preservation as well as the value of geography as a tool for this process.”
Referring to the upcoming Harding House study, Law said, “Once you destroy things, they are gone, and this is important. We can’t save every place, but we can save information digitally.
“The best history is in our own backyards, and even if this land is developed, I hope that when people drive down the (site’s) road they will think about what activities happened. What I really want to do out of my work,” she confirmed, “is get people to think about what happened in the past. Through our efforts, I want what may now seem like a vacant lot to come alive, because we know its history.”