Preparations are under way for 2014 Jazzfest!
Schedule for 2014 JazzFest
By Bryan Brooks / Staff Reporter of The Daily News Journal
Work to restore and preserve the venerable Rutherford County Courthouse for future generations has revealed signs of the building’s colorful past. Workers found a Civil War bullet resting on top of one of the Courthouse’s columns. It was behind the column’s capital, or the ornate molding that surrounds its top. A foreman with MPACT Construction, the Nashville company in charge of the restoration work, turned the lead bullet over to the county maintenance director, Ben Mankin. Mankin said the one-time projectile was discovered on the west side of the Courthouse, above the third column from the left.
“It wasn’t embedded,” he said. “It was laying in behind the capital. “It might have hit a piece of wood, but it didn’t hit anything real solid because it’s in really good shape.”
As far as Mankin knows, it’s the first time an artifact has been found at the 143-year-old Courthouse. “They also found a whiskey bottle up there in that same column,” he said. “It was an empty bottle and I don’t think it was from the Civil War era. It could have been from the last crew of painters that came through.” Mankin showed the bullet to Murfreesboro doctor James Garner Jr, who has a collection of Civil War bullets in his office on Highland Terrace.
“There’s not doubt it’s from the Civil War,” said Garner, who identified the grooved bullet as being a .58-caliber that was probably fired from an Enfield rifle. (The 1861 Springfield was another Civil War area weapon that used a .58-caliber bullet.) “The bullet actually has a gash on the side that suggests it was a projectile and that it did hit something,” Garner said. Whatever it did hit could have disrupted the bullet’s flight and sent it tumbling toward the capital, he said. Garner said it is impossible to tell which side, Confederate or Union, fired the shot. “It was pretty well the most common bullet used, and the Federals had tons of them,” he said.
When the bullet was fired is also pure speculation, but historians and history buffs agree the most likely event was Confederate cavalry General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Murfreesboro raid. During the raid on July 13, 1862, Forrest’s forces galloped straight down East Main Street to capture the Courthouse and liberate Confederate prisoners held inside, according to history books. Fighting also occurred where Oaklands Mansion still stands, and where both Evergreen Cemetery and the National Guard Armory is located. “My first guess is it would have been the Murfreesboro raid by Forrest,” said Wayne Wilson, a Civil War enthusiast and U.S. history teacher at Eagleville School. “They stormed the Courthouse.” Garner likewise said Forrest’s raid is the leading candidate for the bullet’s firing. But he said it also could have come from a drunken soldier taking target practice at the Courthouse. Gib Backlund, a park ranger at Stones River National Battlefield on Old Nashville Highway, also said the bullet most likely came from Forrest’s raid. Jim Lewis, another park ranger who lives at the battlefield, agreed. “If the bullet is specifically linked to any true battle action — other than a drunk soldier firing off a shot — your best bet would be Forrest’s cavalry raid,” he said. “One thing is safe to say. It didn’t come from the Battle of Stones River.” The battle was too far northwest of town for a bullet to reach the Courthouse. The recent Courthouse restoration work has revealed other surprises about the sturdy structure. The Courthouse columns are actually made out of cast mettle, which was poured into molds with the resulting sections stacked on top of each other to form the pillars. “We thought they might be concrete until we stripped them, and it’s a cast mettle,” Mankin said. The paint was removed from the columns and other parts of the Courthouse exterior because it contained lead. Removing the several coats of paint also revealed one of the columns had been patched — possibly to repair damage from the Civil War. “There was supposed to be a place on one of the columns on the east side where a cannon ball hit,” Mankin said, recalling stories other citizens have told him. “We found a place that had been patched, but we couldn’t say for sure that is what happened.” The patched column is the second one from the left on the east side of the building. Horse artillery was used by Forrest’s troopers during their raid, said park ranger Lewis.
As for the bullet itself, Mankin wants to display it in the Courthouse lobby for the public to see. He intends to get a reproduction of a picture from Shacklett’s Photography that shows a Union encampment on the Courthouse lawn during the Civil War. The picture will be the background of a display box, with the bullet in the foreground. Mankin said he is “tickled” that the workers decided to give him the bullet instead of pocketing it.