Winter. Cold winter. On those kinds of days, when the cold and damp seem to seep into the bones, it’s nice to sit in front of a fireplace with a roaring fire, sipping a cup of hot cocoa. But on the night of December 30, 1862, as 83,000 soldiers dressed in blue and butternut were filing into the fields northwest of the Tennessee town of Murfreesboro, there was not going to be that kind of comfort.
The distance that separated the men of the Union Army of the Cumberland and the Confederate Army of Tennessee as they went into bivouac that night was negligible. At some points on the line, only 300 feet separated the men of the opposing armies. Up and down both lines, veterans--men who had "seen the elephant"--understood that they were on the eve of a great attack. Union Brigadier General Henry M. Cist wrote, “Every soldier on that field knew when the sun went down on the 30th that on the following day he would be engaged in a struggle unto death, and the air was full of tokens that one of the most desperate of battles was to be fought.”
Up and down the line the tension grew in anticipation of what was to happen when the sun next came up. And then, one of the regimental bands began to play. The calm, crisp night air allowed the tune to carry across the No Man’s Land between the armies, and all up and down the line, Union regimental bands would pay a song and Confederate regimental bands would answer. A rousing “Hail Columbia!” was countered by a rollicking “Bonnie Blue Flag.” “Dixie” would be answered by “Yankee Doodle.” Finally, one regimental band broke the cheerful competition and began to play the song “Home Sweet Home,” and regimental bands all over the field, Union and Confederate alike, picked up the refrain and soldiers, North and South, began to join their voices to the chorus of brass echoing “Be it ever so humble, there is no place like home.”
No matter which side of the Mason-Dixon they were from, or what color uniform they wore, they shared a deep longing for the comforts of home and family.
The camaraderie was short-lived. The Battle of Stones River began at dawn the next day and by battle’s end on the evening of January 2, 1863, 24,645 soldiers had been killed, wounded or were missing. Stones River would go down in history as the Civil War battle which had the highest percentage of those engaged become casualties...and for the remarkable experience that for a short time bonded enemies over the sweet strains of nostalgia played by regimental brass bands.
Sources and Suggested Reading
Battle of Stones River; The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture v. 2.0
God Rest Ye Merry, Soldiers: A True Civil War Christmas Story by James McIvor
Toni is a wife, mom and history buff who loves bringing the Civil War to life for family members of all ages.