Wednesday, June 19, 2019

“Bravery, Tenacity, and Deeds of Noble Daring”: The 13th United States Colored Troops in the Battle of Nashville

By Andrew McMahan

The Civil War brought about several drastic changes to the United States. Among these was the entry of tens of thousands of African Americans into the armed services, an act most Americans viewed as a right reserved for white citizens. Initially, the Union did not recruit black soldiers. However, enslaved people in the South closely followed the movements of U.S. troops, escaping and running to the safety of the Union lines whenever possible. Army officers hired many of these refugees as laborers and cooks. Despite the many thousands of African Americans eager to enlist, the Union armed forces were not permitted to employ black troops until Abraham Lincoln issued the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. In response to an influx of new recruits, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton established the Bureau of Colored Troops (BCT) in May 1863 in order to centralize enlistment of African American soldiers. Although regiments formed under the BCT were comprised of black troops, the Union Army placed only white officers in command. Unlike other volunteer regiments, these did not incorporate the name of the states in which they were formed. Instead, they were designated United States Colored Troops (USCT), showing they were under federal rather than state authority.

This engraving shows African American recruits boarding a troop train bound for Murfreesboro, TN. Print and Broadside Collection, Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA).

The Union Army raised several USCT regiments in Tennessee. Organization of the 13th USCT began in Murfreesboro in July 1863. The brave men that made up this regiment were primarily laborers from Clarksville, Gallatin, Murfreesboro, and other areas in Middle Tennessee. These men were shortly sent to Nashville and formed the core of the 13th USCT. Colonel John A. Hottenstein was the regiment’s commanding officer.

Union officers regularly assigned USCT units to construction, garrison, and guard duties in order to free up white regiments for combat operations. Some white officers believed that African American troops were unfit for combat and would run when given the chance. As a result, the 13th USCT was primarily assigned to building and guarding the Nashville & Northwestern Railroad. By October 19, 1863, the regiment was positioned some thirty miles west of Nashville, guarding the Nashville & Northwestern. Evidently, the regiment was not fully organized by this time. Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Trauernicht stated he did not have enough men to provide laborers and guards for the railroad. Furthermore, he claimed their limited numbers prevented them from drilling and improving discipline because all of the men were busy as either laborers or guards. Trauernicht expressed concern for his men and stated that in the event of capture he was unsure whether Confederate forces would recognize the troops as soldiers of the United States or hang them as spies. He claimed all of these problems would be solved by having a full complement of men.

Union forces completed construction work on a portion of the Nashville & Northwestern in May 1864, and the regiment continued guarding the railroad until November 30. Elements of the regiment did conduct limited military operations during this time. For instance, in late August 1864, G Company, under the command of Captain Andrew Jacobs, set out on a scouting mission west of the Tennessee River. They marched 40 miles to Huntingdon, enduring summer heat and fatigue. On August 30, they came under sudden attack by a group of Confederate guerillas commanded by an individual Captain Jacobs identified as “Petty John.” The soldiers of G Company maintained their discipline and put up a determined fight, losing one man killed and a sergeant severely wounded. “Petty John” was wounded but escaped capture.

As of November 1864, the 13th had not participated in any major actions, aside from isolated skirmishes. Due to the unfounded opinions regarding African American troops in combat, the 13th USCT spent months on guard duty on the Nashville & Northwestern. However, Confederate General John Bell Hood’s campaign to retake Nashville in late 1864 changed this. In response to the Army of Tennessee’s advance, the companies of the 13th USCT assembled in Waverly on November 30 and departed for Nashville the next day. The regiment arrived in the city on the evening of December 7. Between December 7th and 13th, the men constructed rifle pits and other fortifications in anticipation of the Army of Tennessee’s assault on the city.

On December 11, Colonel Hottenstein and two hundred men scouted ahead of the Union positions in order to determine if the Army of Tennessee was to their front. The colonel and his troops applied pressure to the rebel pickets, driving them back to their main line. Finding that the Confederates had indeed arrived in force, the 13th withdrew to the Union positions. On December 13 the entirety of the 2nd Colored Brigade, commended by Colonel Charles R. Thompson, conducted a reconnaissance east of the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad. The 13th regiment deployed as skirmishers, with the 12th and 100th in reserve. Once again, the 13th encountered the Confederate pickets and pushed them back toward their main line. The brigade faced substantial resistance on the property owned by a Mr. Rains. They remained there under heavy fire for some time, withdrawing just before dark. The 13th USCT lost one man killed and four wounded.

Evidently, the threat of Hood’s large Confederate force poised to attack Nashville prompted Union commanders to reconsider their stance on the combat capability of African American troops. On December 15, the 13th USCT along with the rest of the 2nd Colored Brigade were ordered to move into position for an assault on the Confederate line between the railroad and Nolensville Pike. The brigade quickly took the rebel earthworks directly ahead. However, the Confederates had expected them to attack this fortification and positioned their artillery in order to fire upon the USCT brigade once it captured the earthworks. Although the artillery fire was heavy, the earthworks provided sufficient shelter for the men of the 13th and other USCT regiments. They maintained this position for the remainder of the day, keeping up a steady exchange of fire with enemy skirmishers. The 20th Indiana Battery arrived to provide artillery support for the USCT men, and forced the Confederates to pull their cannons back.

On the morning of the 16th, the brigade commander sent skirmishers forward and discovered that the Confederates had abandoned their rifle pits and withdrawn to a new line. Colonel Thompson received orders to take his 2nd Colored Brigade and connect with General Thomas J. Wood’s 4th Corps. The 13th USCT, along with the 12th and 100th USCT, arrived at the intended position without taking any losses, though Confederate artillery on Overton’s Hill (also known as Peach Orchard Hill) did fire at the regiments. Upon arrival, General Wood informed Thompson that he was about to attack the enemy positions on Overton’s Hill, and requested that the three USCT regiments support his left flank. Overton’s Hill was heavily defended by Confederate infantry and artillery, making it a difficult position to take.

Overton's Hill can be seen in the bottom right corner of the map. TSLA Map Collection, Map 104.

At 3:00 pm, the Union troops of the 4th Corps and 2nd Colored Brigade began their daring attack. Thompson deployed his brigade in two lines, placing the 100th and 12th USCT in front and the 13th in support. The 12th encountered a dense thicket which slowed their advance, and the 100th came upon several fallen trees that broke up their formation. During this advance, the Union troops faced punishing fire from the Confederate soldiers on the hill. The 12th and the left portion of the 100th passed to the left of the Confederate fortifications, unable to face the line as the rebels had constructed it at a sharp angle. As a result, these two regiments suffered fire from both the side and the rear. Unable to turn the formation and face the enemy head-on, Thompson ordered the 12th to move off and take shelter behind another small hill in order to regroup and reform. Meanwhile, the rest of the 100th USCT continued advancing with the 4th Corps, but they were repulsed by the Confederates.

The 13th USCT pushed past the first line of the 2nd Brigade, weathering the withering fire laid down by the Confederates. Colonel Hottenstein remarked that he felt seeing the first line of Union troops lying down and taking cover from the rebel fire would negatively affect the courage of his relatively raw regiment. Although many of his men had been involved in skirmishes, the 13th USCT had yet to participate in such a deadly fight. However, the men of the 13th bravely pressed on. The regiment relentlessly advanced up the hill, despite taking heavy casualties, and actually stormed the Confederate earthworks. Unfortunately, the white Union troops to their right had already fallen back by this point. With no support, the 13th USCT had no choice but to pull back to their previous position. Although they did not take the hill, the Confederates were forced to withdraw after their line was breached elsewhere. Unable to take the city, the Army of Tennessee retreated from Nashville.

The attack on Overton’s Hill cost the 13th USCT dearly. The regiment went into battle that morning with 556 men and 20 officers. During the attack, they lost 4 officers and 55 enlisted men killed, and 4 officers and 165 enlisted men wounded. In total, the regiment lost 8 officers and 220 men during the 30 minute fight. Although the troops of the 13th USCT did not take the hill, they performed heroically and won the admiration of their superior officers and fellow soldiers. Colonel Hottenstein said of his men, “. . . after a protracted struggle they had to fall back, not for the want of courage or discipline, but because it was impossible to drive the enemy from his works by a direct assault.” He also commended the officers and enlisted men for their bravery, and specifically mentioned Sergeants James Wilson and Charles Rankin, who “. . . both displayed the greatest gallantry possible in carrying the colors, and sealed their devotion to them with their lives.” In engagements such as the Battle of Nashville, the regiments of the USCT proved themselves to their white counterparts and disproved the negative assumptions about the abilities of black soldiers. Many of these men escaped from bondage and enlisted, often without having ever handled a weapon, in order to end the practice of slavery once and for all in the United States. These soldiers may have been born into slavery, but they fought, and in many cases died, as free men.

Colonel Thompson recalled in his report, “These troops were here for the first time under such a fire as veterans dread, and yet, side by side with the veterans of Stone’s [sic] River, Missionary Ridge, and Atlanta, they assaulted probably the strongest works on the entire line, and, though not successful, they vied with the old warriors in bravery, tenacity, and deeds of noble daring.”

Sergeant Charles Rankin Service Record, Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served with the U. S. Colored Troops, MF 1742, Roll 104, TSLA.

Sergeant James Wilson Service Record, Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served with the U. S. Colored Troops, MF 1742, Roll 108, TSLA.


The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Vol. 45.

Luke, Bob and John David Smith. Soldiering for Freedom: How the Union Army Recruited, Trained, and Deployed the U.S. Colored Troops. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2014.

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Office of Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett

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