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Building Fortress Rosecrans was ‘Un-Civil’

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Editor’s note: Shirley Jones’ series on the “Un-Civil War” continues with the destruction of Murfreesboro to build Fortress Rosecrans during 1863.

Following the Battle of Stones River, Dec. 31, 1862 – Jan. 2, 1863, Union Gen. William S. Rosecrans ordered the construction of an earthen fort on the outskirts of Murfreesboro to support the Union army in its drive into the Southern heartland.

The bloody Union victory at Stones River brought destruction and death to Murfreesboro, a captured town under Federal occupation, for the duration of the war. The North gained a much needed boost to its morale and Gen. Rosecrans planned to press the Confederates south to Chattanooga, gain control of the vital rail link and drive a Union wedge through Tennessee. The Union army was far from its supply base at Louisville, and this was quite problematic. Gen. Rosecrans' troops constructed a depot, along with a fort to defend it, to distribute arms, food and equipment.

From January to June of 1863, the soldiers labored to complete this earthen fort, which Rosecrans named in honor of himself. The fort encircled parts of the Nashville Turnpike, the railroad and Stones River. It had a perimeter of approximately three and a half miles and stretched from the present site of the Old Fort Park to the former Chromalox (Boys and Girls Club) site. The Nashville Pike ran through the fort and came out near the current location of Jennings Tire Co. on Broad Street, north of Lunette McCook. This was one of numerous gaps in the fortress walls since it was made up of a series of semi-independent earthworks, rather than being one continuous wall.

In June 1863, after five months of toilsome labor, the troops completed the nearly three miles of earthen walls enclosing more than 200 acres, the largest fort of its kind constructed during the Civil War. Warehouses, sawmills and interiors forts, called redoubts, were constructed inside the fort.

Murfreesboro's own good citizen, John Cedric Spence, whose son, W.I. Spence, rode with Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan, kept a diary of what was happening with the town and its people during Federal occupation. In a diary entry of Feb. 15, 1863, he observed, “About this time, preparation is being made for building fortifications and rifle pits near this place. Large quantities of timber trees are cut and hauled to the grounds. The work is commenced and pushed on rigorously – digging and blasting rocks. A great number of Negros are employed at this kind of work, under pay, of course. The works lie over a large tract of land, owned by Lytle and Murfree, bordering on Stones River at the R. Road crossing. They are also constructing what they call field hospitals. For materials of this, go to town and when find one story houses, without further ceremony commence pulling it down and haul off before the owners face, never once saying 'with your leave', but on the contrary, a little impudance. Such as, he is a d-d 'sesesh' and ought not have a house. Such is power – it can tyranize over weakness.”

It was most definitely a very uncivil time in Middle Tennessee! Next to killing or wounding a fellow, tearing down his house was most likely the worst thing that could befall him. Not to mention stealing his outhouse!

On Feb. 22, Spence noted, “ ... the Forts, being now far advanced in construction, guns were mounted at their proper places and things began to assume the appearance of defence. This being Washington's birthday was thought proper to celebrate the day by firing thirty-four guns, one for each state, whether in or out of the Union.”

In March, Federal occupation of Fortress Rosecrans is begun as Spence observed, “The fortifications having now been so far advanced toward completion that the soldiers can occupy. Quite a move of soldiers and army stores at this time is taking place to the new fortifications. Artillery and every thing of the kind. This move causes the vacation of many of the business houses round the public square which has been filled to overflowing. ... Among other buildings at the forts – a large Deport at the river. This is for storage of army materials, and stores. Are also busy hauling in the farmers out houses and stables to put up at the forts, but most likely to burn and destroy. In this way, as it seems, that their bent is more on destruction than any thing else.”

An April 25, 1863 diary entry gives “a further report of the completion of the fortification works and occupation. The next thing to be done is to clear out the timber for some distance all around the works. Now in the immediate vicinity of Murfreesboro, the land is covered with large bodies of fine timber. The owners sustained great loss by the destruction of the woodland. The fortifications lie about half to three fourths of a mile north of Murfreesboro on the road leading to Nashville ... principally on the land of W. F. Lytle. ... We can now see for miles in some direction from town. ... Things are so changed that in the course of time it will be a hard matter to trace out the original land marks. A wilderness of timber has disappeared and in its place a large prairie waste.”

When the Union forces left for the Tullahoma campaign in June 1863, Spence noted that Rosecrans was “scarcely leaving forces sufficient to man the forts.” The new recruits and convalescents who stayed behind reportedly had orders to shell the town and burn it in the event of a Confederate raid. One gun at the fort was trained on the Court House on the town square. Confederate cavalry threatened Murfreesboro and Fortress Rosecrans in October 1863. Deterred by the fort's strength, the horsemen turned south of town, burned a bridge, and tore up railroad track before moving toward Shelbyville.

John A. Means was serving as captain of Company C, 115 Ohio Volunteer Infantry, when in a letter to his nephew on March 7, 1864, he wrote: “ ... I must ... tell you about our Fortress. It is principally on the South side of Stones River. It is composed of Redouts and Lunetts – a redout is a square enclosed by a heavy embankment generally higher and inside the outer lines being Lunette – these last are of different angles or shapes but always have two fronts ... and are generally so constructed that the guns of one will rake the ditch out side of the other as a gun placed in the N. E. corner of No. l would command the ditch of the N W angle of No. 2 and so all round – the recouts inside are mounted with heavy seige guns and Morters effective at 5 miles and can be used without endangering the men in the Lunetts – out side of the embankment there is a ditch 10 or 12 ft. wide & from 4 to 6 deep – there is a plataform inside for sharp shooters to stand on when the enemy comes within range of small arms. We are encamped inside of these Fortifications and of course feel secure while we remain in our present position; there are 150 acres inside for us to maneuver upon.”

In late 1864, the Confederates hoped to recapture Tennessee and push on into Kentucky. After a desperate fight at Franklin in November, in which six Confederate generals died, the Southern army followed the Federals' retreat north toward Nashville. Meanwhile, Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest rode southeast toward Murfreesboro and proceeded to destroy the railroad and blockhouses and to disrupt the supply depot. The Union forces retreated to the fort. The next day, Dec. 7, 1864, Union General Robert H. Milroy, with two brigades, faced the Confederates on the field about a mile from the fort in the Battle of the Cedars. After spirited fighting, the Confederates retreated and Milroy's troops retired to the fortress. Fortress Rosecrans remained unscathed.

Although it was never attacked, by war's end Fortress Rosecrans had fallen into disrepair. During its two-year existence, the fort had deteriorated despite the garrison's efforts to maintain the works. The rains of winter and the heat of summer conspired to wear away the sod covering the earthworks. In April 1866, the Union army abandoned Fortress Rosecrans.

Following the war, this giant fortress remained relatively intact until Murfreesboro began to expand into the area. When the federal government established Stones River National Battlefield in 1932, a small portion of the fort was included. Since then, most of the earthworks have been lost. Of the original 14,000 feet of earthworks, only 3,000 feet remain. Of the four interior forts within Fortress Rosecrans, only Redoubt Brannan survived.

In 1987 Rep. Bart Gordon, recognizing the importance of the works, shepherded a bill through Congress to ensure the long-term preservation of the fort. As authorized by Congress, the remains of the fort were transferred by the city of Murfreesboro to the National Park Service in November of 1993. Since then, citizens, city officials, National Park Service employees, and contractors have worked in partnership to ensure preservation and visitor enjoyment of Fortress Rosecrans. On Oct. 31, 1994 a dedication ceremony officially opened Fortress Rosecrans to the public. It was the writer's privilege to have been a part of that event. What more appropriate means is there to recognize and honor the sacrifices of everyone who lived and died during this saddest time of our nation's history than by us today linking the past, with the present, for the generations of the future.


“Fortress Rosecrans,” Interpretive Guide, published 1994 by Stones River National Battlefield, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior.

Personal letter from Captain J. A. Means to his nephew, Melancthon B. Chapin, dated March 7, 1864, Murfreesboro, TN. On file at Stones River National Battlefield.

Pittard, Mabel. RUTHERFORD COUNTY. Tennessee County History Series. Memphis State University Press, Memphis, TN, 1984.

Spence, John C. A DIARY OF THE CIVIL WAR. Williams Printing Co., Nashville, TN., 1993.

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