The wedding of Martha Ready and John Hunt Morgan in December 1862 in Murfreesboro was often referred to as the social highlight of the Confederacy.
As Thanksgiving Day approached and the good folks of Murfreesboro began their preparations, they had much to celebrate and more to be thankful for than they might have imagined just a few months prior.
Deep down, most Confederate sympathizers knew their moment of glory would be short-lived, but they were determined to enjoy it to the fullest.
It had been an interesting year for our little town, just slightly more than half a century old. With the coming of the Federals in early March, Murfreesboro suddenly found herself a “town captured.” Life was hard for Confederate supporters living in the area.
Then, Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s birthday raid on July 13 provided a brief reprieve and by early September most Yankee soldiers were gone from the town. Both Capt. John Hunt Morgan and Forrest were back in the area, harassing the retreating Yankees.
Most of the townspeople had stayed and endured enemy occupation, and some who had left came home. How many of the 3,861 citizens shown in the 1860 Census were still residing within the city limits before, after, and during Yankee occupation is not known.
The first of November had shown the return of Confederate soldiers to the area, beginning with small forces.
“A regiment or two, said to be from North Carolina, have the appearance of being healthy, stout men,” observed Murfreesboro citizen John Cedric Spence. And by Nov. 10, soldiers from Gen. Braxton Bragg’s Army, returning from the Kentucky Campaign, were arriving on a regular basis.
“Every train from the South brings quite a number in,” Spence further commented, and quite a force of cavalry had also arrived in the area.
It also was noted “the soldiers were very deficient in camp equipage, did not have half the articles that was actually necessary for their comfort and convenience. Yet they appeared cheerful under these difficulties. Scarcely ever would be heard a complaint. … Their clothing was warm and substantial, but not much uniformity in appearance – some gray, butternut or brown, and others of rather a dirt colour, which on parade gave a raged look as to uniform. Hats and caps of various forms, colours and shapes … Under this homely garb … an easy manner, a warm friendship, social feeling, strong attachments for friends, and the ingredience that constitute the southern gentleman.”
They were eager to purchase articles from the local stores and were said to have “had quite a variety of money” to do so, some of which was considered to be of very little value, and “had not much better look than a picture out of a newspaper.”
By mid-November, “things was moving on in a quiet and easy manner, considering the war times. No one is molested in doing business of any sort.”
Communication had more or less been cut off from Nashville, with only a few people being granted a pass to cross the Federal lines.
“There were some that would run the blockade … with a few goods to sell. Goods are selling high south of the Federal lines,” Spence noted.
By the end of the month, goods were becoming more scarce and selling for higher prices. Yet a pseudo-sense of well-being among the townspeople seemed to prevail.
By early December, all of Bragg’s Army had arrived and was encamped northwest of town along the Stones River. In a town now occupied by friendly Confederate troops, the month of December was a time of much gaiety and social activity.
Leading citizens were eager to entertain Confederate officers and their wives with dinners and dancing. And, the town was really in a tizzy when President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis arrived on Friday, Dec. 12, 1862.
Accompanying Davis as his aide was none other than Gen. George Washington Custis Lee, the son of Gen. Robert E. Lee, so this was a cause for double celebration and lavish entertainment. Both men were housed at Oaklands, and Dr. and Mrs. Lewis Maney were wonderful hosts, providing their distinguished visitors with large rooms at the front of a new wing of the house.
In all probability, Murfreesboro had never seen a more exciting time.
Davis’ visit, however, was more than just a social calling upon our town and people. It was a must from the standpoint of military necessity. First of all, Davis had a meeting with Bragg early on Saturday morning to drive home the point of sending 8,000 troops from Tennessee to Mississippi to defend that state; Bragg did not favor this idea as he knew he was already outnumbered by the Federal forces under Rosecrans, who commanded 43,000 men with another 15,000 standing ready. Bragg had only 45,000 troops on hand total.
Davis’ idea was to use the cavalry to raid Union supply lines thus hampering their advance.
Despite Bragg’s objections, the outcome of the meeting was never in doubt, and Bragg accepted the decision with as much grace as he could muster. Both he and Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, whom Davis had met with at Chattanooga before arriving in Murfreesboro, felt that sending these 8,000 troops to Mississippi could ultimately result in the loss of Tennessee. It probably did!
The next task was a more pleasant one for Davis, when he promoted both John Hunt Morgan and Roger W. Hanson to brigadier general and Patrick R. Cleburne to major general.
Finally, a review of the troops was in order, since no presidential visit could be complete without this. The Murfreesboro Daily Rebel covered the event and said the troops were much impressed with Davis, who presented himself with “manly form” and an “unpretending style.”
Returning to Oaklands, a festive dinner was held for Davis and the ranking generals of the army. The finishing touch to the evening was when a crowd of townspeople serenaded Davis, prompting him to respond with a few remarks.
The newly promoted Brig. Gen. Morgan was in fine form for his wedding the next day, often referred to as the social highlight of the Confederacy, when Murfreesboro’s own belle, Martha Ready, became his wife.
Everybody who was anybody and could reach Murfreesboro in time was there. All of the high echelon of the Confederate Army, including Gens. Braxton Bragg, John C. Breckinridge, B. J. Cheatham, W. J. Hardee, and Col. G. St. Leger Grenfell served as groomsmen, and the “Fighting Bishop,” Leonidas Polk, performed the ceremony. A great supper was held in the Ready mansion after the wedding, followed by many toasts to the happy couple, as the Tennessee belles and gallant soldiers danced to their hearts content.
Festivities continued the next day on Monday evening, Dec. 15, 1862, when a grand ball was held at the three-year-old Courthouse in honor of the newly wedded Morgans.
But for Murfreesboro and her people, the good times were about to come to a screeching halt.
Christmas was coming and so were the Federal troops.
The indications were obvious that a battle was imminent.
Preparations were made, sick soldiers were evacuated from hospitals to make room for wounded, and public buildings were cleared of furnishings with straw put on the floor to make ready for casualties.
Troop positions were chosen and fields of fire were cleared. Families living on the anticipated battlefield had to evacuate while their outbuildings were burned or torn down.
The Cowan family watched helplessly as their large brick house was destroyed. Each day sharp clashes between cavalry forces became more intense and skirmishing between the two armies was getting closer to town.
Then, in the pre-dawn hours of Wednesday, Dec. 31, 1862, the first shots were fired and the Battle of Stones River was underway.
The Confederate Army of Tennessee struck first and by the end of the day it appeared that the victory was theirs.
The Federal troops had been driven back some four or five miles and the Confederates held the field at the end of the day.
On the evening of Dec. 31, 1862, as the first day of fighting ended, “a red sun is dropping behind the cedars. Darkness comes. The fighting ceases. Bragg’s scouts hear wagons rumbling away toward Nashville. They mistakenly think it is Rosecrans’ retreating.”
Unwisely, and prematurely exultant, Bragg wired President Davis, “The field is ours and the enemy is falling back. God has granted us a happy New Year.”
In Murfreesboro, it was clear that this had not been achieved without the shedding of much blood and the citizens stood ready to do what they could to relieve the suffering.
Although it seemed to be heaviest on the Federal side, it was said that “they fought bravely, … but not with the same will as the Confederate soldiers” who were “fighting for homes and fire sides, large numbers of soldiers a few miles of home.”
One young man was Fred James, who while on duty, was killed less than a quarter of a mile of his mother’s house.
Another was Col. J. B. Palmer, “who was stationed … in sight of his own house during the battle, … wounded in the defense of his home.”
As John Spence so correctly concluded, “Such things as these will make men fight, no matter whether they may be in the right or wrong cause – home is sacred.”
Thus, the year of 1862 would end. And with the beginning of a new year, a new day would dawn and more men would die.
It was fortunate that the citizens of Murfreesboro could not know of the horrors and hardships awaiting them in the coming days.