Monday, December 15, 2014

The Battle of Nashville: 150 Years Ago Today

Beginning on this day 150 years ago, the Confederate army launched a desperate assault on federal forces in Nashville as part of Confederate General John Bell Hood's attempt to threaten Union-held territory and lure General William T. Sherman away from Georgia. Despite the Confederate bloodletting at Franklin on November 30 of that year, the Confederates pursued their federal counterparts toward Nashville. Arriving on the south side of Nashville around December 2, 1864, the Confederates entrenched in an unlikely effort to besiege the strongly-fortified city. The thin Confederate lines stretched from the Cumberland River on the west to another bend of the river on the east. With perhaps 20,000 effective troops, the Confederates lacked sufficient manpower to complete the encirclement.

Major General George H. Thomas commanded Union forces during the Battle of Nashville.
Tennessee Historical Society Picture Collection

Inside the city, Major General George H. Thomas enjoyed the advantage of strong fortifications and earthworks which had been built in anticipation of a potential Confederate attack. With concentrations of African American refugees in the city available for military labor, and as many as 18,000 civilians employed by the army, Nashville was one of the strongest fortified cities on the continent. Thomas’s army, with a three-to-one advantage in numbers over Hood’s army, was primed for a major victory.

View of south Nashville from the campus of the University of Nashville. Fort Negley can be seen in the distance. Nashville had been occupied by the Union since 1862.
TSLA Photograph Collection

President Lincoln and General Grant pushed the cautious Thomas to destroy Hood’s army as quickly as possible. Thomas, however, refused to move until everything was in order and delayed further when a major ice storm hit the area on December 12. While the Confederates sat in frozen trenches with little or no food, few overcoats, and suffering low morale after the fiasco at Franklin, Thomas’s men prepared for the attack.

Written “in the field near Nashville” December 5, 1864, this receipt of medicines and hospital stores was issued to Senior Surgeon Robert W. Mitchell, Vaughan’s Brigade, CSA, 10 days before the Battle of Nashville. It includes alcohol, morphine, surgeon’s needles and silk, opium, and a large amount of whiskey.
Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee

Finally on December 15, the weather broke and the federal advance began. Thomas sent his cavalry out Charlotte Pike in an effort to envelop the Confederate left flank. On the Confederate right, federal infantry, including a brigade of United States Colored Troops seeing combat for the first time, advanced to hold the Confederates in place. By the evening of the 15th, the Confederates had been forced to give up their positions and had fallen back to a shorter defensive line from Peach Orchard Hill on the far right, to Shy’s Hill on the left. There they sat, awaiting the next day’s attack.

This two sided hand-drawn map of Nashville, probably drawn for Army of Tennessee commanders by a Confederate spy, includes many features of wartime Nashville. Signed by “J.C.,” it shows “64-pounder” gun emplacements on the Cumberland River, the Brennan Foundry, and the stockade and fortifications around the State Capitol. The reverse side shows sentry houses and firfle pits on St. Cloud, Cathy’s, and Overton’s Hills, and military “graveyards” to the east.
Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee

The federal plan of attack for December 16 was much the same as the day before—hold the Confederate right in place with a diversionary attack while also pressuring the center and flanking on the left, using cavalry. Confederates entrenched on Peach Orchard Hill inflicted heavy losses on the advancing United States Colored Troops, but the Confederates atop Shy’s Hill crumbled under the weight of attacks from three sides. The collapse of the Confederate left flank put the rest of Hood’s army in flight. It was only the brave rearguard actions by some Confederate units that prevented the complete destruction of the Army of Tennessee.

Pre-Civil War cased tintype of Col. William Shy, 20th Tennessee Infantry, CSA. Shy was killed at the Battle of Nashville on December 16, 1864, defending a hilltop position that now bears his name.
Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee

The Battle of Nashville was the most complete federal victory of the Civil War and ended any Confederate threat to the state. Amazingly, those Confederate soldiers who remained with the defeated Army of Tennessee would fight again before the war finally ended in May 1865.

Dr. William H. Givens, an assistant surgeon attached to the 1st Division, detached from the 14th Army Corps, USA, wrote this letter to his wife on December 18, 1864 from the Rains House in Nashville. “We have suffered severely in the loss of men, but have gained one of the greatest victories of the war. We have captured large quantities of guns, small arms ammunition and prisoners . . . The fighting was quite severe all around here, and just in sight of here dozens of dead men have lain in the rain . . . nearly every one had been stripped of some article of clothing, all of them of their boots and shoes, most of them pants and many of coats, hats and all.”
Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee

TSLA’s current exhibit “1864: War Rages in Tennessee” features the Battle of Nashville and will be up in our Memorial Hall through the end of the year.

Many of the images come from Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee:

The Tennessee Virtual Archive (TeVA) has several other Civil War collections:

Other Civil War Resources at TSLA:

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.