Remarkable Confluence of Events Yields a Preservation 'Miracle' at Stones River
(Murfreesboro, Tenn.) – Once considered lost to the forces of development, a 42-acre property at the heart of the Stones River Battlefield will be preserved forever, thanks to the efforts of the American Battlefield Trust, federal and state agencies and a generous corporate entity. Appreciating the incredible historic significance of the site, which was previously home to a major industrial facility, O’Reilly Auto Parts sold the land to the Trust. Private donations were multiplied by landmark matching grants from the federal American Battlefield Protection Program and the Tennessee Civil War Sites Preservation Fund to ensure that the land will be protected forever.
“Five years ago, the protection of this site seemed an unachievable dream,” said Trust President David Duncan. “It was atop virtually every preservationist’s priority list, but we had little realistic hope of saving the largest remaining portion of the Stones River Battlefield. But sometimes miracles do happen — and we celebrate one today!”
The Trust made its first inquiries into acquiring the site along Interstate 41 in 2014, when it was owned by General Electric. After the manufacturing plant was badly damaged in a storm, GE relocated its operations, tore down the structure, and put the property up for sale for potential industrial or commercial use. The Trust attempted to negotiate purchase at that time, but the requested price was far outside the nonprofit’s range.
After languishing on the market, the site was purchased by O’Reilly Auto Parts in 2016 and the Trust approached the new owner to explain the site’s incredible historic significance. The Battle of Stones River was one of the most important struggles of the entire American Civil War, witnessing more than 23,500 casualties over three days of fighting. Not only did the O’Reilly parcel connect two sections of Stones River National Battlefield, but the land witnessed fierce fighting on December 31, 1862, as the final Confederate assault against the Union left spilled out of the famous Hell’s Half Acre. During this deadly contest, Chaplain John Whitehead of the 15th Indiana moved up and down the lines providing spiritual and physical aid to the dead and dying, earning the Medal of Honor.
“Having it within our power to see that such a piece of truly hallowed ground was protected forever, we decided to work with the Trust to find a win-win solution,” said O’Reilly Senior Vice President of Real Estate & Expansion Scott Kraus. “As a proud American company, it is our honor and our duty to be a good corporate citizen and work for the betterment of our communities.”
But a willing and generous seller did not negate that industrial land in a highly developed area carries a high price tag, and the Trust faced a daunting challenge to meet the $4 million negotiated purchase price. Eligible for both federal and state matching grants for historic preservation, the Trust prepared application packages for both the American Battlefield Protection Program (ABPP), administered by the National Park Service, and the Tennessee Civil War Sites Preservation Fund (TCWSPF), administered by the Tennessee Wars Commission under the auspices of the Tennessee Historical Commission. Since the grant program debuted in 2013, the Tennessee Wars Commission, the entity devoted to preserving the state’s significant military history, has overseen the allocation of nearly $5 million toward the protection of significant battlefield landscapes.
“After reviewing the O’Reilly Auto Parts project, our board decided to award it the single largest grant in the history of the TCWSPF,” said State Historic Preservation Officer Patrick McIntyre, who serves as executive director of the Tennessee Historical Commission. “The reclamation of this remarkable site — once thought lost forever to industrial development — is a boon to the people of the Volunteer State and the entire nation.”
Protection of the parcel creates significant interpretive opportunities by uniting two previously separated wings of Stones River National Battlefield. “Protection of this parcel stands as one of the most significant historic preservation successes for our community in decades,” said Stones River National Battlefield Superintendent Brenda Pennington. “The American Battlefield Trust's bold action has created opportunities for interpreting a site where significant events that shaped the Battle of Stones River's outcome took place. We look forward to working with American Battlefield Trust, the Friends of Stones River National Battlefield and our community to take the next steps in making this tract a place where generations of visitors can connect with the landscapes and stories of one of the most important battles of the American Civil War.”
The Trust’s work to protect the O’Reilly property also opened up other preservation opportunities at Stone’s River. During the course of 2020, the organization successfully secured the necessary funds and acquired an adjacent six-acre parcel — another project supported by a TCWSPF grant. All told the Trust has now protected 80 acres at Stones River and 3,652 acres across Tennessee.
“These preservation victories enrich a treasured resource in our community,” said Friends of Stones River National Battlefield President Ed Arning. “We are excited by the opportunities for stewardship and interpretation they present, and thankful for the dynamic partnerships that resulted in this achievement.”
The Battle of Stones River was fought in bitterly cold rain and sleet, from December 31, 1862 through January 2, 1863. Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans’ Union forces met Gen. Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army just north of Murfreesboro, and the inevitable engagement erupted on New Year’s Eve. The heavy fighting continued on both sides for three days and, while a tactical draw, would prove to be a key strategic Union victory. Bragg abandoned the field on January 3 and, with it, Confederate aspirations for control of Middle Tennessee. Of the more than 80,000 soldiers who struggled at Stones River, nearly a third became casualties.
The American Battlefield Trust is dedicated to preserving America’s hallowed battlegrounds and educating the public about what happened there and why it matters today. The nonprofit, nonpartisan organization has protected more than 53,000 acres associated with the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and Civil War. Learn more at www.battlefields.org.