It was the South’s most desperate battle.
It is the South’s most forgotten battle.
In December, 1864, what was left of the Confederate Army of Tennessee fought for two days in an attempt to wrestle control of Nashville from the Union Army, which had held the city for the previous two and a half years.
Outnumbered three to one, half starved, outarmed and, in many cases without shoes, the Confederates fought bravely but were routed and chased south for the last time. Thousands were killed, wounded or taken prisoner in the last major battle of the “western theater” of the Civil War.
In places like Shiloh, Stones River and Fort Donelson, large parts of the battlefield are preserved in national military parks with visitors centers and park rangers.
Even in Franklin, where there is not a national military park to honor the battle, about 200 acres of the battlefield are preserved, and there are two structures (the Carnton Plantation and Carter House) whose houses are interwoven with that of the battle.
But the battlefield of Nashville has been covered almost entirely over by houses, churches businesses and paved over by neighborhood roads and by Interstate 65. Many people who died that day remain buried in various, unknown places throughout the Green Hills and Oak Hills parts of town. One can inspect the remains of a Civil War fort (Fort Negley), but it wasn’t the scene of the major parts of the Battle of Nashville. It is only through the recent efforts of a few local history buffs that many of the remaining battleworks have even been found!
Here is some background about the Battle of Nashville:
As we describe in the virtual tour of Carnton/Carter, Confederate General John Bell Hood left south Georgia undefended and marched back to Tennessee in the fall of 1864. On November 30, 1864, his army lost about 7,000 of its 20,000 fighting men at disastrous assault at the Battle of Franklin.
After the Battle of Franklin, Union General John Schofield (a West Point classmate of Hood’s) ordered his men to go back to Nashville. There the Union Army could be fed, get some rest, and be protected by a series of defenses that included a four-mile trench and several forts.
The largest of these forts was a complex structure called Fort Negley, which guarded Nashville from invasion from the Franklin Pike.
Rather than fall back after defeat, Hood ordered his men to continue north. For about two weeks, the Confederates dug entrenchments, some of which were known as “lunettes” and others of which were called “redoubts.” Redoubts were typically armed with five or so small cannon and several hundred men to guard it.
The Confederate soldiers did this in spite of the fact that they were nearly starving; and, by this time in the war, as many as a third of them may not have even had shoes!
In Nashville, the Union Army was under the command of General George Thomas (who was senior to Schofield). For the first two weeks of December, President Lincoln and General Grant, in Washington, were furious at Union General Thomas for allowing the Confederate Army time to rest and dig fortificatons.
However, Thomas knew something Lincoln and Grant didn’t know–the weather in Nashville was horrible. Not only was hard to imagine moving an army in the middle of snow and ice storms, but Schofield knew that the elements were much harder for the Confederates to bear than the his Union troops, who had better guns, more food, plenty of clothing, better shelter and plenty of firewood.
Finally, on December 15, Thomas ordered his army to attack (which means that, unlike at Shiloh, Stones River and Franklin, the Union army attacked first at Nashville). The Battle of Nashville started with hours of cannon fire from Fort Negley in the direction of the Confederate Army. At 8 a.m., on the Union left (the Confederate right), a Union force attacked a Confederate dirt fort near the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad called Granbury’s Lunette.
By the way, many of the Union troops in action in this part of the battle were black soldiers (then known as “colored” troops). In fact, colored troops may have been involved in more combat at the Battle of Nashville than in any other battle of the Civil War.
The Confederate troops (most of them from Texas) won the initial skimish at Granbury’s Lunette. However, what General Hood didn’t realize was that the attack on the lunette was a diversionary tactic meant to hide the fact that the primary Union attack was coming on the opposite end of the battlefield.
As part of this main attack, eight thousand Union cavalry (soldiers on horseback) and more than 37,000 Union infantry (soldiers on foot) rode and marched west, then south, and attacked the five redoubts that the Confederate army had built in the vicinity of Hillsboro Pike. (So, on this end of the battlefield, about six thousand Confederates were up against about 45,000 U.S. Army soldiers!)
Take a look at this very busy map of the battlefield (above right; click on it to make it larger). You can see Granbury’s Lunette on the far right, the Union cavalry heading west on Charlotte, and the Union forces leaving from the Belmont Mansion area and heading toward the five redoubts.
If you are familiar with the geography of Nashville, it is hard to imagine this Union assault now, because the land on which the Union advanced is now covered with houses, businesses, local roads, the wide gulch created by Interstate 440, the Belmont and Vanderbilt University campuses and tens of thousands of trees.
However, at that time, almost none of this part of Davidson County was developed. And you can very clearly see (from photos of the time) that the competing armies had cut down every tree in the area!
For a while, Confederate soldiers managed to hold off the Union assault. However, the Union forces had a lot more soldiers, especially on this end of the battlefield. Eventually, however, thousands of well-armed Union soldiers overwhelmed the redoubts that cold, foggy afternoon, forcing Confederate soldiers to fall back, surrender or fight to the death.
Today, only one of those redoubts sits on undeveloped land. Thanks to an organization called the Battle of Nashville Preservation Association, you can visit the former site of Redoubt 1 on a residential street called Benham Avenue.
Darkness came early on December 15, 1864, and as they withdrew after the fighting on that day, the Confederates somehow managed to form a new line.
As you can see on this map on the left, the Confederates formed a relatively straight line starting at a place known as Compton’s Hill (later known as Shy’s Hill) and going all the way east to a Peach Orchard. This Confederate line was located at about the present day locations of Harding Road and Battery Lane.
After the Confederates spent all night frantically created defenses, fighting resumed the next day. It started at the Peach Orchard. As local historican Ross Massey writes:
“As the afternoon began, over 6,000 U.S. infantry began forming for an assault. After a massive artillery barrage, they moved forward at about three o’clock.
“As they approached [Confederate General] Lee’s line, they became entangled in fallen tree tops, laid out to slow them down. As they struggled to get through, Confederate artillery opened, and the infantry rose up and poured out a deadly fire. The attackers were confused and broke for the rear, ending their part in the battle.
“Local legend says it would have been possible to walk across the slope of the hill, stopping from one dead Yankee to another.”
A lot of these Yankees soldiers were members of the 13th United States Colored Troops, who lost 220 officers and men during the fighting at the Peach Orchard. This may have been the single greatest loss of life for black soldiers during the entire Civil War.
Today, a group of African American Civil War re-enactors in Middle Tennessee is known as the 13th United States Colored Troops Living History Association. This group is very active in re-enactments throughout the state.
Unfortunately, the former site of the Peach Orchard lies between a busy highway (Franklin Pike) and Interstate 65.
Things went better for the Union cause at the other end of the battlefield.
Atop Compton’s Hill, about 1,500 Confederate soldiers tried to hold out against a constant barrage of gunfire and a force several times its size. They fought galliantly, but eventually the musket fire and cannon fire took its toll, and soldiers (many of which were from Minnesota) fought their way to the top. In fact, Minnesota lost more fighting men at the Battle of Nashville than at any other Civil War battle.
The Confederate cause was lost for good when Colonel William Shy was shot between the eyes. Since that time, the hill has been known as Shy’s Hill.
Shy’s superior that day was General Thomas Benton Smith. Smith and his men surrendered, and in a story often repeated after the war, was beaten and stabbed by a Union general named William McMillen after he was disarmed. Smith survived the war but later spent a large part of his life disabled as a result of his injuries.
After the defeat at Shy’s Hill, the entire Confederate line ran southward in retreat. “Such a scene I never saw,” wrote Sam Watkins, a private in the Army of Tennessee who was shot three times in the battle. “The army was panic-stricken. The woods were everywhere full of running soldiers. Our officers were crying, ‘Halt! halt!’ and trying to rally and re-form their broken ranks. The federals would dash their cavalry in amongst us, and even their cannon joined in the charge.
“Hood’s whole army was routed and in full retreat. Nearly every man in the entire army had thrown away his guns and accoutrements.”
Many of the retreating soldiers continued southward for days. The Confederate Army of Tennessee didn’t stop marching until it got to Mississippi, and it never fought again.
The Union Army later reported that 387 of its soldiers were killed and 2,500 wounded in the two-day Battle of Nashville. The Confederate Army was never really organized enough to report its killed and wounded. But it is believed that about 4,500 Confederates were captured during the battle.
The Army of Tennessee has marched into Middle Tennessee with 38,000 men. After it reorganized in Mississippi after the Battle of Nashville, it only had 15,000 left!
Here are some footnotes of this battle:
* In the early part of the 20th century, there was talk about having part of the Nashville battlefield preserved. But people in Nashville had no desire to save the scene of a battle that had been such a disaster for the Confederacy. Some of the things referred to in this account of the battle (Granbury’s Lunette, for instance) were rediscovered as late as the 1980s by some of the people who co-founded the Battle of Nashville Preservation Society.
* The big exception to this is Fort Negley–the remains of which are now a Nashville public park. Though it did not see heavy fighting during the Battle of Nashville, Fort Negley was a remarkable military structure and is worth a visit.
* Colonel Benjamin Harrison of Indiana commanded a regiment at the Battle of Nashville. He would later become the 23rd president of the United States.
* In 1977 (113 years after the battle!), robbers dug up the grave of Colonel William Shy in Franklin, stole artifacts from it, and left his body behind. Local officials were so confused that the body was still intact that at first they thought that the body left behind was the body of a recent murder victim (what they didn’t know is that Colonel Shy’s body had been embalmed in 1864). It took a few weeks for them to determine that the body found in Colonel Shy’s grave was, in fact, Colonel Shy. The colonel was later reburied, but his original iron coffin was donated to the Carter House in Franklin, and you can see it on display there.
Perhaps no one knows as much about the battlefield of Nashville as Ross Massey.
Click here to learn more about getting a guided tour with him.