Dr. Tom Nolan, director of MTSU’s Laboratory for Spatial Technology, along with archaeologist Zada Law, led the all-volunteer team on its first day of the survey, which yielded Civil War-era artifact finds such as lead shot, a minie ball and a canister shot, among other battle-related discoveries.
Some 25 selected volunteers, including MTSU anthropology and history students, as well as members of Middle Tennessee Metal Detectors, used metal detectors and GPS equipment to survey and map 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.
“I think what we found the first day was gratifying,” remarked Law. “I had no expectations, but I had hopes, so I was so gratified that we found some Civil War artifacts.
“I think what we did locate demonstrates our (research) methods worked well,” she added, “and that our approach to this project is one that will yield results … and help identify where the troop locations were.”
Although the team’s second planned survey day was rained out, Nolan said the “good volunteer turnout” on its first day set the project on a successful course.
“We are so appreciative of everyone who came out to help and support this survey,” he said. “Dr. Hugh Berryman of MTSU anthropology department and his daughter, along with Gib Backlund and Jim Lewis from the National Park Service showed up on their day off. Everyone was very enthusiastic and seemed to have fun in spite of the intense heat.”
Because the Civil War artifacts were “buried pretty deep and the ground was so dry and hard, the volunteers definitely had to work hard,” Nolan said. “But their efforts were time and energy well spent.”
Heat, hard work and rain aside, “Anytime you find anything that takes you back to the past, it's just a real thrill,” added Law, who said she was inspired during the search when a lead shot was recovered.
“To pick up that lead shot that came out of the guns so long ago just really took me back in time,” she remarked. “And I am just so glad so many people gave up their time
to come help us with this work on behalf of historic preservation.”
An adjunct professor for MTSU’s geosciences department, Law said the volunteers—like the survey’s leaders—also seemed gratified by the initial finds.
“Just like all of us, I think the volunteers were grateful to the developer, Stonegate Commercial and its president, Tommy Smith, to let us be out there and excited to be part of a systematic study of the property ... (where what they find) will be synthesized and added to our understanding of this long-ago battle.”
Nolan and Law plan to continue the project, known as the Harding House Civil War History Survey, this month and hope their volunteer turnout stays high.
“We are going to continue our same methods and hope we will have as many, if not more volunteers, as before,” Law said. “ The park service has been so helpful and cooperative to us, as has the developer, and we are so, so grateful for this chance to recover pieces of the past (before the land is commercially developed).”
According to 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. In fact, 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.
“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 observed.