“There has been an unprecedented destruction of property both private and public, and even the resting-places of the dead, where the remains of many dear, loved ones were deposited and the sanctuary itself, where we & many of the venerated dead had been accustomed to meet for the worship of God, have been and still are desolated and desecrated!” wrote the Rev. William Eagleton, who served more than 40 years as pastor.
The church site and the Old City Cemetery earned a spot on the Tennessee Preservation Trust’s “Ten Most Endangered Historic Sites” for 2008.
Ranking No. 4 on the list, the preservation group said, “Dating to the early 1820s, this was the first cemetery in the city of Murfreesboro and the site of the original First Presbyterian Church, which also served as the state capitol building during the 1822 legislative session. The graves and architectural elements in the historic burying ground are suffering from neglect and improper care, and professional conservation work is needed to maintain this hallowed landscape.”
The cemetery is located in the 300 block of Vine Street just east of the intersection of Vine and Maney Avenue. State Street borders it on the back.
Capt. William Lytle donated the land for First Presbyterian in 1818 and by 1820 the congregation had completed what was the first church building in Murfreesboro. Previously, the church met in a log schoolhouse near Murfree Springs (Children’s Discovery Center.)
Prolific diarist John Spence wrote the church was “A brick building forty by sixty ft, two storys, windows, painted shutters, three doors in front, two leading to the gallery, finishing off with a cupaloe, about seventy feet high, neatly finished with painted shutters, a large golden ball on the top, a hundred and twenty five pounds bell. The inside work, a gallery on two sides and end, pannel work all round, also three rows seats round the gallery. The whole supported above and below with turned pillars, standing at proper distance apart. The lower story, all pewed, closed with doors. An elevated pulpit, about three feet from the floor, stair way either side for entrance with doors, seating three men. All well finished and neatly painted. Pews all numbered on the doors. This, the general appearance. The work of the whole building was undertaken by Benj. Goldson, at a cost of about four thousand dollars.”
It was an appropriately designed church for what was then Tennessee’s state capital, a distinction Murfreesboro held from 1818 to 1826. At the time, it was the largest building in Murfreesboro with the exception of the courthouse, where the Tennessee General Assembly met.
Just before the 1822 legislative session began, the courthouse burned. First Presbyterian Church was quickly remodeled to house the legislature. The state House met on the second floor and the Senate convened on the ground level.
The 1822 session was an important one historically. It marked the beginning of Andrew Jackson’s rise to the presidency with the Tennessee legislature, meeting in Murfreesboro, nominating Jackson for the post. Future President James K. Polk was clerk of the Senate. Sam Houston was adjutant-general and frontiersman David Crockett was a member of the House.
With the completion of a new Courthouse, the Presbyterian Church returned to its original use and Murfreesboro continued to grow. By 1830, the town had 786 residents. The 1834 Tennessee Gazette profiled the community:
“It is well laid out and handsomely situated near the West Branch of Stone’s River; surrounded by a body of rich farming land under a high stage of cultivation.
“It has an Academy and two schools, three churches, four clergymen, ten lawyers, four physicians, a printing office, two cotton gins, one carding machine, one gristmill, four blacksmiths, four bricklayers, three haters, one painter, three saddlers, five shoemakers, one silversmith, four tailors, one tinner, two taverns and ten or 12 stores.”
In 1837, Murfreesboro officials purchased the land adjacent to First Presbyterian with the idea of expanding the church’s burial ground into a community cemetery. Many of the town’s prominent leaders would be buried there.
That would all change with the Civil War.
The last church service held there was in October 1862 with the Confederate Army of Tennessee establishing a hospital in the building. Confederate surgeons would care for wounded from both sides during and after the Battle of Stones River, using, in some cases, supplies provided by the U.S. Commissariat.
C. Lewis Diehl, 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry, wrote on Jan. 7, 1863:
“The hospital in which we are is an old Presbyterian Church and might be made very comfortable, but as it is we have nothing except straw ticks to lay on and a thin blanket for cover, with corn fodder for a pillow. The surgeons - rebel - treat us very kindly and are doing as much for us as they do for their own men. The ladies - rebel - who visit this hospital generally slight us. Some few will attend to our wants. There was a general apprehension by the rebels that our men would not treat them kindly; but since they have received our stores, with permission to help themselves to whatever they need, they think differently.”
With the Confederate wounded moved to Chattanooga and other points, the hospital became a Federal operation. More than 500 Union and Confederate dead were temporarily buried at the cemetery and were later relocated to Stones River National Cemetery or Evergreen Cemetery.
No longer needed for a field hospital, the church was converted into a stable and supply warehouse for Union cavalry.
The following winter (1863-1864) Union troops completely demolished the church. Wooden fixtures were used for firewood and the brick was converted into ovens and fireplaces for campgrounds. There was nothing left of the structure by March 1864.
“Our town & county have been greately darnaged by the two Armies, they distroed all the tember for miles a round burnt all the rails for 3 or 4 miles in all directions burnt & pulled down at least 50 houses in town & of the number was the Old Presbyterian Church, destroed the fence a round the graves broke toombstones & desscerated the grave yard generally,” Joseph W. Nelson wrote in 1866.
While the cemetery was still used, the Presbyterian Church decided to relocate, purchasing a lot at the corner of College and Spring streets in 1868. That church was leveled by the March 21, 1913 tornado, but was rebuilt on the same spot.
By the early 1870s, Murfreesboro officials were rethinking the use of the City Cemetery as well with many families wanting to relocate their loved ones.
On June 18, 1872, Murfreesboro’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen passed an ordinance calling for the purchase of 20 acres of land from James Maney for “Oakland” Cemetery. On April 3, 1873 a second ordinance was approved changing the name from “Oakland” to “Evergreen.”
“It has been made known to the Mayor and Board of Aldermen that a large number of persons who have relatives and friends buried in the old City cemetery intend to soon move them to the said new cemetery,” the ordinance read.
“It is not only desired that no additional burials will be had in the old city cemetery, but it is hoped that all of the dead will be transferred from the old cemetery to the new one, as early as may be feasible and convenient,” the ordinance said, predicting that the old burial site would become neglected.
Many of the dead were moved, but many more remained in the old cemetery.
A long period of neglect followed up to the 1920s.
In the early 1930s, the Daughters of the American Revolution took a renewed interest in the cemetery, erecting markers to the memory of Rutherford countians who fought in the Revolution. The DAR also erected a tablet recalling First Presbyterian Church in September 1933. There is also a State Historic Marker and a large marker dedicated to the memory of Joseph Dickson, who played a role in the Battle of King’s Mountain. Dickson settled in Murfreesboro after the Revolution and was a Presbyterian elder.