The Ghost of Legislators Past: the Tennessee State Capitol’s Civil War Ghost

The Tennessee state Capitol as portrayed on a Confederate Twenty Dollar Bill.  Ironically, the bill was not issued until October, 1862, eight months after the Capitol fell to the Yankees

The Tennessee state Capitol as portrayed on a Confederate Twenty Dollar Bill. Ironically, the bill was not issued until October, 1862, eight months after the Capitol fell to the Yankees

Let me relate a tale, for those with a nose for a good ghost story and told by one who knows it to be true, about the Ghost of the Cupola.

I was recently informed that some summer tour guides in Nashville, who may have heard the story third hand, have embellished it with fabricated details, saying the Ghost of the Cupola is Rachel Jackson, the wife of Andrew Jackson. Given the fact that she died decades before the Capitol was built and never even lived near the downtown area, that is a curious piece of fiction to come up with. Rachel may very well haunt the Hermitage, but she doesn’t haunt the Capitol. So for native Southerners and tourists alike, let me set the record straight.

In Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, I told about a number of different ghosts which inhabit the Tennessee State Capitol. I obtained them from different sources, including some people who have worked there at various times. I also recently did some freelance work which led to me visiting the venerable building on a daily basis. Although I saw none of the spectres I have reported on while there, it did give me a better perspective on its hallowed haunted halls.

The Civil War ghost of the Tennessee State Capitol—The Ghost of the Cupola–I learned about after Strange Tales went to press. Regrettably, since then I have not had the opportunity to update that chapter, so I post it here in the blogosphere for your edification and enlightenment.

For those not familiar with downtown Nashville, Tennessee, the state capitol building is the big old Grecian temple which sits atop Capitol Hill in the heart of the city. At one time it was the highest point in downtown and no other buildings were taller. These days the Nashville skyline is constantly changing, so glass and steel are replacing limestone and marble at the pinnacle of the skyline.

The top of Tennessee’s Capitol building is adorned with an ornate cupola with glass sides, on top of which sits the flagpole where the United States flag flies daily. In February of 1862, however, another flag flew there—the Confederate flag.

Fort Donelson falls to the Union army under Grant, setting off a panic in the city of Nashville, Tennessee's capitol.

Fort Donelson falls to the Union army under Grant, setting off a panic in the city of Nashville, Tennessee’s capitol.

In the early part of 1862, a Yankee army under General Grant defeated the Rebel army defending Forts Donelson and Henry, the twin bastions on the state’s border which stood watch over the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers respectively. Back then the area was called Land Between the Rivers; today it is a fisherman’s paradise called Land Between the Lakes (thank you Corps of Engineers).

General Ulysses S. Grant smoked, drank and liked to play poker.  His skills at poker came in handy at Fort Donelson where he bluffed a superior force of Rebels into surrendering to his small army.

General Ulysses S. Grant smoked, drank and liked to play poker. His skills at poker came in handy at Fort Donelson where he bluffed a superior force of Rebels into surrendering to his small army.

In any case, when the two fortresses fell, a panic ensued upriver in Nashville and all those planters and planter’s sons who had been such militant secessionists fled the city, their carriages loaded with all the loot they could carry. In some cases they fled taking their slaves with them and left their wives and children behind exposed to the dangers of the barbarian Yankee horde. So much for Southern chivalry!

Nashville in 1862.  After the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson a panic ensued and those who could fled the state capitol.

Nashville in 1862. After the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson a panic ensued and those who could fled the state capitol.

Yankee gunboats steamed up the Cumberland unopposed and, arriving at Nashville, pointed their big guns ominously at the city. Yankee troops also soon arrived in large numbers to occupy the city. Needless to say, the first place they went up to was the capitol to haul down the detested Rebel flag.

Jogging double-quick time up the hill, the color-guard, their sharp steel bayonets a gleaming in the sun, made their way up the broad steps of the capitol. Once inside the building they made their way through the abandoned hallways of the legislature, then finally found their way to the rooftop entrance and climbed inside the cupola.

A narrow, winding wrought-iron staircase inside the cupola led to the flagpole at the top.
As they neared the top of the spiral staircase, the Yankees suddenly found the way blocked by an elderly gentleman. He was the last legislator left in Nashville, all the other Secesh politicians having already fled.

Unlike the other politicians, this fire-eating Secessionist refused to leave—to all and sundry in the city he said that he would rather be dead before he would see Old Glory fly over the capitol.

There on the stair he stood, armed with an antique flintlock. He boldly proclaimed to the barbarian Yankees: “you’ll raise that flag over this building over my dead body!”

Before the young Union officer in charge of the Color Guard could answer, a shot rang out from behind him on the narrow twisting stair.

The old Rebel clutched his chest, then tumbled down the stairs. The color guard climbed over him. On that cold day in February, 1862, Old Glory flew over the Tennessee State Capitol; Nashville was, unwillingly, back in the Union.

The Ghost of the Cupola is rarely seen--and he doesn't like Yankees!

The Ghost of the Cupola is rarely seen–and he doesn’t like Yankees!

Nowadays, other than to raise and lower the flag, do maintenance workers in the Capitol have much cause to go up into the cupola—nor do they wish to. Whenever workers are up there they generally have a very eerie feeling, like someone is watching. They do their repairs and hastily leave.

On more than one occasion, however, state workmen have seen a gray mist hanging around the top of the spiral stairs. The cloudy image is indistinct, but one senses a hostile presence there. No one has ever been hurt up there—at least not by any spectre, but long time employees in the capitol know exactly what it is—the ghost of the dead Rebel state senator, still barring the way to the top. For him the war will never be over.

The Tennessee State Capitol at night, when all the ghosts come out that haunt the building.

The Tennessee State Capitol at night, when all the ghosts come out that haunt the building.

For more Civil War ghosts, see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground and Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, originally published by Rutledge Hill Press and is still in print via HarperCollins Publishers.

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About Christopher Coleman

I am an author, lecturer, and sometime instructor. My interests span a variety of subjects, including Southern tales of the supernatural, American history and folklore, military history in general, as well as archaeology, anthropology, plus various and sundry things that go bump in the night. I currently have six books in print: Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, Dixie Spirits, Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, a factual history of some more esoteric--and hitherto overlooked--aspects the sixteenth President. My book is Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, published in hardcover by the University of Tennessee Press and chronicling the wartime experiences of young Ambrose Bierce, noted American author. Bierce has been called many things by many people, but idealist, hero and patriot are terms that should be added to the list after reading this book. I am currently at work on several projects, some dealing with the American experience but also several fiction and non-fiction works looking into the Age of Arthur.
This entry was posted in Civil War History, Civil War Leaders, Forts Donelson and Henry, Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, Nashville, Ulysses S. Grant and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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