Johnsonville/Forrest state parks
You can see Johnsonville State Historic Park from Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park.
Elsewhere on Tennessee History for Kids, you'll find virtual tours of Civil War battlefields (Shiloh, Fort Donelson and Fort Pillow), ghost towns (Port Royal), and places flooded by the Tennessee Valley Authority (Butler Museum). This tour will be all of the above: a place where a Civil War battle occurred, where a town used to exist but doesn't any more, and where TVA flooded the landscape. To tell this story, we take you to two places across the Tennessee River from each other: Johnsonville State Historic Park in Humphreys County and Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park in Benton County.
These two parks are located across the river from each other, where West and East Tennessee meet.
Here, the Confederacy scored a small but dramatic military victory in the fall of 1864, going down in world military history as the only time a force of cavalry (troops on horses) defeated a naval force.
To make the most of a trip to these two state parks, you have to use your imagination. When the TVA created Kentucky Lake in 1945, the Tennessee River permanently flooded its banks in this part of the state and buried most of the battlefield and the old town of Johnsonville in several feet of water. So this place looks NOTHING like it did during the Civil War.
Johnsonville during the Civil War
PHOTO: National Archives
Originally known as Knotts Landing, Johnsonville was a sleepy river community before the Civil War. Then, as Union forces advanced into Tennessee, they built a rail line west from Kingston Springs to hook up with ships bringing supplies south along the Tennessee River. (The idea was to provide another way to send supplies into Nashville, which was union occupied after 1862.) Where the rail line terminated at Knotts Landing, the army built a supply depot containing warehouses and stores. The place was soon renamed Johnsonville after Andrew Johnson, who was military governor of Tennessee at the time.
Johnsonville was a bleak, busy place, where practically every tree had been cut down and used for a structure or firewood. Most of the Union troops charged with protecting it were white soldiers from Wisconsin, but some were black, conscripted into uniform after they helped build the rail line.
The railroad depot at Johnsonville
PHOTO: National Archives
In the fall of 1864, Union General William Sherman's army had forced its way through Chattanooga and Atlanta on its legendary "march to the sea." In desperation, the Confederate Army came up with a bold plan to leave Georgia, move west and then north, attack Nashville, and retake the Tennessee state capital, cutting off Sherman's supply lines. Part of this plan was for Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry forces -- numbering about 3,000 men -- to destroy Johnsonville (to put this in context, Forrest's attack on Fort Pillow had occurred only six months earlier).
PHOTO: National Archives
Forrest succeeded, laying waste to Johnsonville in a quick military operation. First he set up large guns (known as artillery) on the west side of the river north of Johnsonville, at two places called Paris Landing and Fort Heiman. When federal boats came south from Kentucky, loaded down with supplies, the Confederate guns opened fire and captured two of them (one of them contained, among other things, 9,000 pairs of shoes, which mean that Forrest's men all got a new pair). A few days later, Forrest's troops brought their artillery south and set it up across the river from Johnsonville. At about 2 p.m. on November 4, 1864, they opened fire.
An artist's image of the Battle of Johnsonville
Within a few hours, Confederate guns inflicted severe damage to the Union operation at Johnsonville and the trains, boats and structures there. There was a large quantity of hay in Johnsonville, intended to feed Union Army horses. When it ignited, fire spread fast, and panic took over. Under the mistaken impression that Forrest's troops intended to cross the river, many of the Union soldiers fled. When Forrest's cavalry withdrew that night, the fires of Johnsonville were so bright that it travelled six miles by the glare.
This huge plaque at Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park tells the story of the Battle of Johnsonville.
Johnsonville lay in waste. The Union side lost four gunboats, four steamboats, 17 barges, supplies that Forrest estimated at $6.7 million, and at least 150 men (the number taken prisoner by the Confederates). Only two Confederate soldiers were killed and nine wounded. In the engagement, the Confederates burned and sunk the union vessels that they captured. Those boats are still sitting on the bottom of the Tennessee River; click here to read about current efforts to raise them.
Although Johnsonville was an embarassment for the Union and a triumph for the Confederacy, it didn't affect the outcome of the war. The Confederate attack on Nashville in December 1865 was a disaster, while Sherman's army continued to march south through Georgia.
The "island" that was once the west bank of the Tennessee River.
After the war, Johnsonville remained an active town; many of the troops who had been stationed there remained in the area (some of their descendants still live in the area). In the 1870s a railroad bridge was built across the river. This rail line was later moved, but you can still see the remains of one of the railroad tressles next to what appears to be an island in the middle of the Tennessee River. (This "island" was once the west bank of the river, before Kentucky Lake was formed).
The Johnsonville area from the west bank of the Tennessee River. The "island" shown in the previous picture is on the right.
In the early 1940s the town of Johnsonville had to move because of pending plans to build Kentucky Dam. Hundreds of families relocated to the area along Highway 70 in a new community known as New Johnsonville. Before the flood waters rose, all houses, schools and other structures in the flood path were torn down. Their foundations remain, however, buried by the waters of Kentucky Lake.
And here are some more photographs from our trip to the Johnsonville State Historic Park and Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park:
Near what used to be Johnsonville's rail terminal, here is what is left of a platform that apparently sat in front of a building.
There is a small, neglected museum at Johnsonville State Historic Park. Here is a gun on display there.
PHOTO: TN State Library & Archives
The museum has some great pictures of what is known as "Old" Johnsonville. There was, for instance, a train wreck on the bridge in 1915, as you can see here.
The Union soldiers at Johnsonville built earthen defenses, known as ramparts, at the top of the hill above Johnsonville. You can see these today.
Elsewhere at the park, next to a playground, you can see these remains of Civil War era rifle pits.
There are about six miles of hiking trails at Johnsonville, although there isn't currently a map of the place. This is one of the prettier of the trails; it goes along the bank of the Tennessee River.
There are several small graveyards in the area. Like many tombstones, this one reminds us of how harsh life could be in the small town of Johnsonville.
Across the river you can see a high area known as Pilot's Point. The Nathan Beford Forrest State Park visitors center and the Forrest monument, shown in the first picture of this virtual tour, is at the top of Pilot's Point, shown here. By the way, Pilot's Point is the highest elevation in West Tennessee (669 feet).
We recommend you go to Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park first. There is a nice visitors center and museum there that contains displays that tell you about the Battle of Johnsonville; you will also find find artifacts that tell you about culture along the Tennessee River. Then, drive through Benton County and across the Tennessee River bridge to Johnsonville State Historic Park. Please be advised that Johnsonville has no maps of the place; that there are no amenities of any kind there; and that the museum is only open by appointment.