I'm Lindsay Ferrier, a Nashville writer with a passion for family travel, exploring Tennessee, and raising kids without losing my mind in the process. This is where I share my discoveries, along with occasional deep thoughts, pop culture tangents and a sprinkling of snark. Want to get in touch? Use the CONTACT form at the top of the page.
May 23, 2021
I’ve learned over time that what often makes a shop or a tour or even a restaurant really, really special is the owner or guide or chef you interact with while you’re there. When I’m researching a city or town, I sort through hundreds of user reviews, seeking out the bookstore with the charismatic and engaging owner, or the kayak tour with the guide who’s funny and full of fascinating information, or bar with the 85-year-old bartender who also plays an accordion and takes requests from patrons. These are the experiences and interactions we inevitably remember the most on our vacations and they’re always worth the work it takes to find them.
That’s why today, I’m writing an entire post about one of those people. If you live in Middle Tennessee or planning on visiting soon, you have an opportunity to experience something — and someone — extraordinary and you might not have this opportunity long.
But first, let me back up a little bit.
We’ve visited the Stones River National Battlefield several times over the years. Managed by the National Park Service, the battlefield interprets one of the largest, most important, and bloodiest battles of the Civil War. 81,000 Union and Confederate troops battled here over a three-day period. One in three of them were either killed, wounded, taken captive, or declared missing. One. In. Three. The battle was particularly important because it marked a turning point for the Union army and was the victory Lincoln needed to ensure public support when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
My family has taken the self-guided tour here as well as an excellent sunset lantern tour at the Stones River National Cemetery across the street — but I still couldn’t really piece together in my mind how the battle had been fought and won. Head Ranger Jim Lewis told us once that he thought the bicycle tour of the battlefield was the best way to understand the battle’s logistics and it’s been on my bucket list for years — but since it’s only offered a handful of times each spring and reservations have to be made well in advance, I’d never managed to make it out for a ride… until this weekend.
Saturday morning, my husband, 14-year-old son and I headed out to Murfreesboro for the bicycle tour. When we arrived, I have to admit I was a little disappointed to see that our guide wasn’t Jim Lewis. Instead, it was a young lady named Shannon Rowe who had only recently taken a job at the park after working at the national battlefield in Vicksburg. It was to be, she told us, the very first bicycle tour she had ever led. Uh oh.
Along with five others who’d reserved spots on the tour, we got on our bikes and dutifully followed Shannon to the Slaughter Pen, one of the most infamous sites on the battlefield. A natural knee-high maze of limestone outcroppings here had provided cover for Union troops, allowing them to hide between the rocks and hold back thousands of Confederate soldiers for two hours… but they were eventually surrounded and trapped, and so many of them were killed that one soldier remembered streams of blood running between the rocks as those who were still alive tried desperately to escape.
Shannon began telling us the story, describing in detail both sides’ strategies and how they played out. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this was no ordinary park guide. Shannon didn’t just recite to us what happened — She lived it out for us. She might as well have been standing in a spotlight on a stage. The woman was a natural-born storyteller and watching her was like watching a one-woman show, one critics would inevitably describe as ‘a tour de force’ and ‘better than Cats.’ As she spoke, everything else kind of fell away. I laughed. I gasped. I nodded in understanding. I shook my head in disbelief. And by the time she got to the bloodshed, I felt a lump in my throat. I was fighting back tears… on a bicycle tour. Embarrassed, I looked around and was relieved to see everyone else was just as enraptured as I was.
“She’s amazing,” I whispered to my husband as we headed back to our bikes.
“Truly talented,” he agreed. “This is a fantastic tour.”
We rode onward, and at each stop Shannon walked us through the battle as it had happened. I had been wrong to doubt her because while this was Shannon’s first bicycle tour, she actually grew up in here in Middle Tennessee and was a Civil War fanatic — She’d worked at the Stones River Battlefield before and then found jobs at other battlefields and historic sites across the country, but the Stones River Battlefield remained her absolute favorite, so much that she had just taken a one-year internship as a Community Volunteer Ambassardor in order to work here again.
Shannon filled her stories of the battle with personal details about the soldiers and generals on both sides of the conflict, re-enacting conversations between generals and weaving intrigue and emotion and real life decision-making into her descriptions of battle tactics. Typically on any Civil War tour, I tune out during battle descriptions — Start using terms like ‘artillery’ and ‘left flank’ and ‘rear guard’ and you’ve lost me forever. But Shannon made the story as riveting as an HBO series. For the first time, I wanted to know more. I wanted to know a lot more. I even asked her for the best books to read about the Civil War battles afterward — I was that geeked out.
The bicycle tours are over for the season, but Shannon will be giving the same tour as a caravan tour (you’ll drive to each point instead of bike) as well as other tours throughout the year and if there’s any way at all that you can get to one of them, I’m telling you it’s an experience you won’t forget. I’m especially excited for those of you with kids, because Shannon is the kind of person who can singlehandedly convince a kid that history is actually interesting and important. I’m also excited for those of you with girls because they have an opportunity to see a young woman who’s passionate about the history of war — a subject that’s typically the exclusive domain of men. My teen daughter didn’t come with us on this tour and I’m already planning on bringing her to another tour this summer because I know she’s going to love Shannon’s take on the Civil War and get a lot out of the experience.
I hope Shannon will earn a permanent place at the battlefield and stay there the rest of her career! But right now, she’s only guaranteed a spot there for a year — so a tour with her is an experience you don’t want to put off. Although the tours are free, you do have to reserve a spot in advance. You can do that by going to the NPS calendar for the Stones River Battlefield. Scroll down to all upcoming events or choose a specific date on the calendar. You might also want to call in advance to make sure Shannon Rowe is giving the tour you’re interested in attending. Contact John McKay at 615-907-9271 for more details on that. And if you go on the tour and enjoy it, be sure and fill out a comment card in the visitor’s center at the end — Maybe, we can all help Shannon stay at the Stones River Battlefield for years to come.