Headless Horseman haunts Stones River Battlefield

Headless Horseman haunts Stones River Battlefield | Looking Back, Mike West, Stones River National Battlefield, Civil War, Halloween

Stones River Battlefield is said to be the most haunted place in Murfreesboro.

Does the ghost of a headless horseman still haunt Stones River Battlefield?

Yes, if you believe anonymous witnesses to the sight and postings on the Internet.

The rider in question is said to be the ghost of Lt. Col. Julius P. Garesche, who died near the railroad line just past the current site of Stones River National Cemetery. A sign marks the site where Garesche fell from his mount.

On the afternoon of Dec. 31, 1862, Gen. William S. Rosecrans was riding along Union Army lines near the Round Forest. Accompanying him was his popular, but humble chief of staff Garesche.

Capt. Henry Semple of Semple’s Alabama Battery spotted the officers and told a gunner to fire at them. A round of solid shot missed Rosecrans, but struck Garesche, decapitating him. Garesche’s blood and brains covered the commanding general.

Garesche's horse galloped another 20 yards before his body fell off near the tracks of the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad.

After dusk, Garesche’s West Point classmate, Brig. Gen. William S. Hazen searched for his body. Hazen discovered it and recovered his West Point ring and his well-read Catholic devotional, “Imitation of Christ.”

“I chanced to pass the spot where he lay. He was alone, no soldier – dead nor living – near him. I saw but a headless trunk: an eddy of crimson foam had issued where his head should be,” Hazen wrote.

“I at once recognized his figure, it lay so naturally, his right hand across his breast. As I approached, dismounted, and bent over him, the contraction of a muscle extended the hand slowly and slightly towards me,” Hazen said.

His classmate found Garesche’s hand still warm and lifelike.

Hazen took the West Point class ring from Garesche’s finger and his devotional from his pocket.

“There was no time for tears,” the general wrote.

Hazen and a group of volunteers then buried Garesche in a temporary battlefield grave. The rare nighttime burial became fodder for newspaper stories in Union states.

A marker near the railroad tracks not far from Stones River National Cemetery memorializes his death site.

While it was not rare for soldiers to be decapitated by cannon fire, Garesche’s story won national attention due to a series of strange omens that preceded his fall moments into his first battle.

Some 21 years earlier, Garesche had just graduated from West Point and was visiting his father in St. Louis. His father, as the tale goes, had just come into possession of 2,000 acres of land lying at the junction of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.

Woodcutters and squatters beset the land so the elder Garesche dispatched his son and two other armed men to patrol the area. After a long search to find a camping site, Julius discovered a cabin on the banks of the Missouri.

Settling in for the night, Julius was awakened by the sudden collapse of the cabin into the mighty river. He and his compatriots barely escaped disaster. When told the story, Julius’ brother Frederick interpreted the near death experience as an omen of disaster.

The comments of Frederick, who was training for the priesthood, made a strong impression on his brother. A series of life-ending “near misses” compounded Julius’ fears and as the years past, he became more and more involved in mysticism.

Seeking relief from his worries, Garesche became involved in the Society of St. Vincent of Paul, an organization aimed at relieving the suffering among the poor. But as the outbreak of war approached, Julius found himself on the opposite side from many of his Southern relatives. During a heated discussion with an associate, Garesche called his Confederate relatives turncoats and damned them to a living hell.

This out-of-character performance caused Julius to seek out the advice of his brother once again. By this point, his brother Frederick was now a Catholic priest of some prominence.

This sin caused his brother, Father Frederick, to predict Julius’ death in his first battle. Frederick set an 18-month timetable for his brother’s demise.

At first, Julius refused to accept his brother’s prediction. He was, after all, a staff officer who would not be called into combat. But by April of 1862, he began to seek a field commission. His attempts were foiled until his West Point friend, Rosecrans, was appointed to lead the Army of the Cumberland.

On Nov. 5, 1862, Garesche was appointed chief of staff, Army of the Cumberland. He quickly became Rosecrans’ closest confidant.

His last day on earth came soon after with the Army of Cumberland marching from Nashville to Murfreesboro. On the morning of Dec. 31, 1862, Garesche joined in the celebration of High Mass with the Rev. Father Cooney of the 55th Indiana Regiment officiating.

All to soon, it became obvious that the Confederates had beaten Rosecrans to the punch on a surprise attack and the Union Army was quickly falling back. As Rosecrans paused to determine a course of action, Garesche took a moment for prayer in a small grove of trees. He quickly rejoined Rosecrans and quickly rode off to his fate 15 months after his brother’s pronouncement.



Civil War: Did a knight's sacrifice win the battle?

Civil War: Did a knight's sacrifice win the battle? | Garesch�, Garesche, Stones River, Civil War

The site where Julius P. Garesché fell.

Did the sacrifice of one knight win the day for the Union at the Battle of Stones River?

Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans apparently believed it did.

The knight in question was Col. Julius P. Garesché, Rosecrans' chief of staff, whose life had been haunted by premonitions of death.

"The general later superstitiously expressed that Garesché had served as a Christlike sacrifice to win the day's battle," wrote Larry Daniel in his book "Days of Glory."

And indeed, Garesché was more of a priest than a warrior despite his grisly end on the battlefield.

Extremely nearsighted, he was born in Cuba of American parents. Garesché was appointed to the U.S. Military Academy when he was 16. While he was at West Point, he befriended Rosecrans, becoming a religious mentor to the younger classmate and was later responsible for his conversion to Catholicism.

For his work with the church, Pope Pius IX named Garesché a Knight of St. Sylvester for his service, which included organizing the first conference of the Vincent de Paul Society in Washington, D.C. A fervent writer, he penned countless letters to his wife, Marquitta, and other friends and family members in addition to contributing to the Freeman's Journal and other publications on topical issues of the day.

A Mexican War veteran, he was assistant adjutant general in Washington prior to the Civil War. That position helped him win a brigadier general commission in the regular army for his friend, Rosecrans.
When Rosecrans was named commander in October 1862 of what was to become the Army of the Cumberland, Garesché was named his chief of staff. Garesché accepted the field post despite his own premonitions and his brother's forewarnings.

Garesché was a second lieutenant serving with the 4th U.S. Artillery in Texas when he had the first dream forecasting his violent death. That portent followed an incident on family land near the junction of the Missouri and Mississippi River in which the cabin he was sleeping washed away into the Missouri River.

In his article, "The Strange Death of Julius Garesché," the late Dr. Homer Pittard said Garesché's brother, who was training to be a priest, interpreted the incident as an omen of disaster.

"This pronouncement made an indelible impression on Julius and thereafter every act involving physical danger and personal reverses became a piece of the mosaic fulfilling his destined violent end," Pittard wrote.

And Garesché continued to have brushes with death, including a near miss with a locomotive in St. Louis.

Then came the final straw.

Garesché like his friend, William Rosecrans, was a fervent abolitionist. However, many of his relatives sided with the Southern cause. With an outburst of profanity, Garesché damned his secessionist relatives to hell, which caused him to again seek counsel from his brother, Frederick.

His brother, now a Catholic priest, revealed to Garesché he had received a revelation from heaven that Julius would die during his first battle. Furthermore, it was revealed to Father Frederick that his death would come within the next 18 months.

That pronouncement of doom was made Sept. 14, 1861, Dr. Pittard reported, but it did not stop Garesché from agreeing to join his friend, Rosecrans, in Tennessee.

His duties with the Army of the Cumberland were chiefly administrative, handling legal questions and penning orders for the army. Following Rosecrans' instruction, Garesché issued the General Orders for the opening of Stones River:

General Orders: Headquarters Department of the Cumberland

In front of Murfreesborough, Dec. 31, 1862

"Soldiers, the eyes of the whole nation are upon you; the very faith of the nation may be said to hang on the issue of this day's battle. Be true, then, to yourselves, true to your own manly character and soldierly reputation, true to the love of your dear ones at home, whose prayers ascend to God this day for your success.

"Be cool! I need not ask you to be brave. Keep ranks. Do not throw away your fire. Fire slowly, deliberately; above all, fire low, and be always sure of your aim. Close steadily in upon the enemy, and, when you get within charging distance, rush on him with the bayonet. Do this, and the victory will certainly be yours. Recollect that there are hardly any troops in the world that will stand a bayonet charge, and that those who make it, therefore, are sure to win.

By command of Maj. Gen. W.S. Rosecrans:

J.P. Garesché,
Assistant Adjutant-General and Chief of Staff.'

In the early morning hours before the start of fighting, Rosecrans, Garesché and other officers celebrated High Mass with the Rev. Father Cooney of the 55th Indiana Infantry officiating.

But the Confederate Army of Tennessee struck first and the Union army began to fold in the morning hours of Dec. 31, 1962. Faced with a disastrous defeat, Rosecrans and his staff saddled up and headed to the field of battle to rally the troops.

Rosecrans and his staff galloped from point to point, repositioning troops, giving orders instead of staying at his headquarters at a log cabin just off the Nashville Pike. Garesché was at his side "during the storm, advising, cheering and executing orders," wrote John Fitch, provost general of the Army of the Cumberland.

"Calm yet courageous of heart, during that day he was observed, at an opportune moment, to retire to a private place, scan a page of his pocket Bible, and to move his lips in prayer. He seemed then, fearless of death; may we not say he was ready and willing to die for his country," Fitch said.

While Rosecrans' presence on the front lines helped the Union army hold its final position, his subordinates said he contributed to the chaos of the morning. Today, we would call it micromanaging.
Late in the morning, it became obvious that the Army of Cumberland must hold the line at the Nashville Pike at the area called the Round Forest by area residents.

Riding with his staff to the crucial spot, Rosecrans was spotted by a Confederate battery on the other side of Stones River. They fired, narrowly missing the commanding general.

Garesché was struck in the head by the cannon ball, decapitating him except for a portion of his bearded chin.

His blood and brains showered his friend, Rosecrans. His headless body rode his horse some 20 paces before falling off. A small sign at Stones River Battlefield still marks "Where Garesché fell" near the railroad tracks.

It was Garesché's first battle and it was slightly more than 15 months since his brother issued his fatal but accurate prediction.

"Garesche's appalling death stunned us all," Gen. Phil Sheridan wrote in his memoirs, "and a momentary expression of horror spread over Rosecrans' face, but at such a time the importance of self-control was vital, and he pursued his course with an appearance of indifference."

Other officers seeing the bloody Rosecrans believed he was seriously wounded. "Alas, it is the blood of poor Garesché," Rosecrans said.

Those who knew him said Rosecrans was deeply impacted by the death of his friend. After the battle, he was seen to cut the brass buttons off his uniform and place them in an envelope labeled: Buttons from the uniform I was wearing the day Garesché was killed.

Col. W.B. Hazen, another close friend of Garesché, was fighting to hold the Round Forest when the chief of staff fell.

"About ten minutes after Colonel Goddard informed me of his death, I chanced to pass the spot where he lay. He was alone, no soldier — dead or living thing — near him. I saw but a headless trunk; an eddy of crimson foam had issued from where his head should be.

"I at once recognized his figure, it lay so naturally, his right hand across his breast. As I approached, dismounted, and bent over him, the contraction of a muscle extended the hand slowly and slightly towards me," Hazen wrote.

Upon his dead finger, was his West Point class ring. Hazen removed it and retrieved his pocket-sized Bible.

"I then parted with all that remained of one who in life was my dearest friend, and possessed of the highest virtues that grace an honest man," he said.

Hazen then sent men to remove Garesché's body from the battlefield. It was given a rare night burial in a small cemetery near the battlefield until it could be recovered and shipped to Cincinnati and then on to Washington, D.C. where his brother officiated at the funeral.

To H.W. Halleck, general in chief

"We have to deplore the loss of Lieutenant-Colonel Garesché, whose capacity and gentlemanly deportment had already endeared him to all the officers of this command, and whose gallantry on the field of battled excited their admiration."

Used with permission from Mike West

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