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.
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 town of Johnsonville in several feet of water.
So this place looks nothing like it did during the Civil War.
Originally known as Lucas Landing, Johnsonville was a sleepy river community before the Civil War. After the Union Army took over Middle Tennessee, it completed a rail line known as the Nashville and Northwestern Railroad west from Nashville to hook up with boats 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 Lucas Landing, the army built a supply depot containing warehouses and stores. Lucas Landing was 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.
Many of these black soldiers had built parts of the Nashville and Northwestern Railroad, and enlisted in the U.S. Army after the Emancipation Proclamation.
Today there is so little left of Johnsonville that you have to really use your imagination when you visit the place.
But if you come to the Johnsonville State Historic Park visitors center, you can study this remarkable sketch of what the place might have looked like in 1864.
In the fall of 1864, Union General William Sherman’s army had forced its way through Chattanooga and Atlanta and was on its way to Savannah, Georgia, and the Atlantic Ocean. 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.
Forrest succeeded, laying waste to Johnsonville in a quick military operation better described as a “raid” than as a “battle.” First he set up large guns (known as artillery) on the west side of the river far 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).
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.
Within a few hours, Confederate guns inflicted severe damage to the trains, boats and structures at Johnsonville. There was a large quantity of hay there, intended to feed Union Army horses. When it caught fire, the flames 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.
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 raid, the Confederates burned and sunk the U.S. Naval vessels that they captured. Those boats, or what is left of them, are still sitting on the bottom of the Tennessee River.
Although Johnsonville was an embarassment for the Union and a victory for the Confederacy, it didn’t affect the outcome of the war. The battles of Franklin and Nashville, which came shortly thereafter, were both disasters for the Confederate side.
After the war, Johnsonville remained an active town; many of the troops who had been stationed there remained 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).
In the early 1940s the town of Johnsonville had to move because of 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.
Here are some more photographs from our trip:
Here is the brand new visitors center at Johnsonville State Historic Park.
There are a lot of displays inside the visitors center that tell you the story of what happened here.
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.
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 you can see these remains of Civil War era rifle pits.
There are about six miles of hiking trails at Johnsonville. This is one of the prettier of the trails; it goes along the bank of the Tennessee River.
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).