This is Flashback Frank of the Rutherford County Historical Society.
Have you ever visited the Hazen Monument at the Stones River National Battlefield on the Old Nashville Highway? Get this – the Hazen Monument is the oldest Civil War monument in America.
Just off to the right of the Hazen Monument are two government-issue grave markers. The first reads ‘WILLIAM HOLLAND, Sergeant, Company I, 111 Regiment, USCT, 1834-1909.
William Holland, was born a slave. Holland escaped slavery, joined the Federal Army only to be recaptured. Holland escaped again and rejoined the USCT.
Stones River National Battlefield Chief Ranger Jim Lewis says “Holland came into this world in 1834 as someone else’s property and he left this world as a property owner.” Very cool.
William Holland was a sergeant with Company I of the 111th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Infantry. He served with the Federal Army of the Cumberland during and after the American Civil War.
So why wasn’t he buried inside the Stones River National Cemetery? Was he denied because he was a black man?
Well, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Let me share a bit of Rutherford County history about Sergeant William Holland…
Little is known about Holland except that he was an escaped slave who joined the 111th United States Colored Infantry, also known as USCT, Company I on March 1, 1864. After the War, he became one of the caretakers of the National Cemetery and purchased the small tract of land to adjacent to the Hazen Monument. Upon his death, he simply wanted to be buried on his property. The Federal government respected his wishes and provided a national cemetery headstone in accordance with National Cemetery regulations.
But there are two graves located outside of the Hazen Monument: Sergeant William Holland and William Holland’s descendant, William Harlan. Harlan served as a corporal in the United States Army during World War I. Neither have a connection to Hazen’s Brigade or the monument.
The 111th United States Colored Troops were responsible for the building the Stones River National Cemetery at the end of the Civil War. They built part of the huge stone wall surrounding the cemetery. But they also disinterred more than 3,000 bodies of fallen Federal soldiers then reinterred at the new National Cemetery. Yuck.
Federal Chaplain William Earnshaw was named the first superintendent of the new national cemetery. Earnshaw and the black troops of the 111th USCT did the hard, unspeakable work.
Originally, the 111th USCT was to protect railroad blockhouses along the Nashville & Chattanooga railroad from Confederate raiders.
Within two months of the end of the Civil War, Chaplain Earnshaw and the 111th USCT began the grisly job of disinterment of the Federal dead for reburial at the new cemetery near Murfreesboro.
Chaplain Earnshaw and the black troops started with three known mass gravesites on the Battlefield and extended their search eastward through Murfreesboro to the old Union University, current site of Central Magnet School. After the bodies were recovered, the search moved to the burial sites and field hospitals with some 3,000 Federal soldiers recovered and reburied.
The recovery effort then moved to Hoover’s Gap, Liberty Gap and Guy’s Gap all located near Beech Grove southeast of Murfreesboro. This search yielded another 600 bodies to be dug up then reburied. Wow.
The gruesome job continued throughout 1865 and 1866. The 111th USCT mustered out of army service in April 1866.
Earnshaw praised the work of Holland and the other black troops.
Earnshaw stated, “Long as I live I shall remember how tenderly they performed this work amid untold difficulties; how cheerfully they set out on long and toilsome journeys through rain and storm in search of fallen comrades, and the proud satisfaction expressed by them when the precious remains were laid in the new made grave.”
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