“Six men are on a hill—a general and his staff. Below, in the gray fog of a winter morning, an army, which has left its entrenchments, is moving upon those of the enemy—creeping silently into position. In an hour the whole wide valley for miles to left and right will be all aroar with musketry stricken to seeming silence now and again by thunder claps of big guns. In the meantime the risen sun has burned a way through the fog, splendoring a part of the beleaguered city.” –Lt. Ambrose Bierce
Of the six men on the hill with Bierce that morning, when he wrote his memoir he was already the sole survivor. Today there are none; even their children’s children are few and far between. That fifteenth of December, the hills surrounding what is now downtown Nashville erupted in a massive bombardment as the big guns of Fort Negley and the other Union hilltop forts burst forth against the starving and shoeless troops of the Confederate Army of Tennessee.
Although outnumbered and lacking the abundance of munitions and supplies the Federals enjoyed, the Rebels initially resisted the massive blue onslaught. On the far right flank of Hood’s army, the men of Cleburne’s division Confederates repulsed an attack by the valiant but green regiments of the United States Colored Volunteers. The USCT troops entered the railroad cut there only to encounter a withering fire from above.
Elsewhere, the Rebels were not so successful. General Thomas, the Federal commander, launched a massive assault against the Confederate left flank, throwing all of Wilson’s Cavalry Corps out in a wide enveloping maneuver, backed by masses of infantry. The Army of Tennessee, ill-clad, ill-fed and outnumbered, was overwhelmed. Where affluent suburbanites now throng Green Hills Mall and the surrounding boutiques and bars, thousands of warriors in blue and gray fought to the death that day.
One by one, the Confederate redoubts fell to the Union tide, as the Army of the Cumberland relentlessly drove the Rebels back.
The following day, the sixteenth, the Johnnies continued to put up a resistance, but as the day wore on the weight of numbers began to tell and finally the once proud Army of Tennessee fell before the onslaught.
Confederate regiments and brigades that had fought toe to toe with the Yankees at Shiloh, Stones River, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge and Atlanta now fell dead, fled in disorder or surrendered. For the only time in the entire four years of war, a Confederate field army was thoroughly and completely defeated.
Stanley Horn, a pioneering historian of the war in the western theatre, described the Battle of Nashville as the “Decisive Battle of the Rebellion.” While later historians have not always been in agreement with Horn, there is no denying the magnitude of its success. Contrary to what one recent scholar said of Gettysburg, it was Hood’s Autumn Campaign and the Battle of Nashville which were in fact “the Last Invasion” by the Confederacy.
Most modern historians have regarded Hoods invasion as doomed from the start; certainly it was a desperate gamble. John Bell Hood himself described it as a “Forlorn Hope.” But despite all the mistakes by Hood, the broken promises made to him by Jefferson Davis and General Beauregard, the fact is that he and his men came very close to destroying at least part of General Thomas’ army at both Spring Hill and Franklin. Moreover, if historians regard the Battle of Nashville as a forgone conclusion, the Lincoln administration–and in particular General Grant–did not. The prospect of taking Nashville and its treasure trove of munitions and supplies, would have emboldened the entire South and enabled Hood to march on the Ohio Valley and beyond–a prospect that sent shivers down the Federal’s collective spine.
It may be true to say that the Civil War was won in the East in April of 1865; but it is equally true to say that the Civil War was lost in the West the winter before, at the Battle of Nashville, December 15-16, 1864.
After devoting several years delving deeply into the military career of Ambrose Bierce, famed American satirist and short story writer, I am always interested in finding new first hand accounts of campaigns and battles he fought in.
In the Autumn of 1864, Bierce was a staff officer with the Army of the Cumberland, fulfilling the role as Topographical Engineer with a division of the IV Corps. He was, as happened many times during the war, an eyewitness to bitter and bloody fighting.
It was therefore with some interest when I came across a short book by another “engineer” who, like Bierce, was with Schofield’s little army on the road to Franklin and Nashville.
While Ambrose Bierce was with Wood’s division in the IV Corps of the Army of the Cumberland, Levi T. Scofield (no relation to the general) was on the staff of General Cox’s division, with the XXIII Corps. Both corps were part of General Schofield’s force on the “retreat” (actually a holding action, ordered by Thomas) from Pulaski, Tennessee all the way back to Nashville.
While technically part of Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland for this campaign, Schofield, in his official report on the campaign pointedly lists his XXXIII Corps as part of the Army of the Tennessee. Although not given an official designation, Schofield’s little army was de facto the reconstituted Army of the Ohio, which had fought during the Atlanta Campaign that summer. Levi Scofield, as a nod to that unofficial fact, put the Army of the Ohio logo on the cover of his little book.
Both General Schofield, commanding the Union troops during the march north, and General Hood, in charge of the Rebel forces, have both generally received criticism from historians over the years and for similar reasons. Before being appointed commander of the Army of Tennessee, Hood has been accused of going behind his superior, General Joe Johnston, and criticizing him to superiors in Richmond– with a view to getting himself appointed in Johnston’s stead. Schofield has been accused of much the same thing with regard to General Thomas to Washington. To what degree either Hood or Schofield were guilty of these accusations I will defer to others, save to note that recently historian Stephen Hood has argued vehemently in Hood’s defense and done much to rehabilitate “the Gallant Hood.” No one has yet argued similarly on behalf of Schofield.
One thing is clear, however; both general’s actions during this campaign have been underappreciated. To be more precise, one could argue that what previous historians have viewed as Hood’s failures as a general are better understood as Schofield’s skills as a field commander. Hood should have won at Springhill and captured Schofield’s army; likewise, because of a fatal blunder on the part of one of Schofield’s subordinates, Hood came very close to triumphing at the very start of the Battle of Franklin. Luck and Brigadier Opdycke prevented an unqualified Confederate success there.—but it was a very close thing nonetheless. The fact of the matter is that General Hood’s army came closer to success at Franklin than General Lee’s did at Gettysburg—and were more exposed to enemy fire for a longer duration during the charge.
For those unfamiliar with the role of topographical engineers during the Civil War, perhaps I should clarify their position in the War. Officially they were surveyors and map-makers, which today would be classed as a rear echelon staff position—hardly the stuff of daring-do and danger. During the Late Unpleasantness, however, their duties and responsibilities were far different. From the very start of the war, the lack of accurate maps of the South bedeviled Union commanders. During Ambrose Bierce’s tour of duty in western Virginia (today West Virginia), the lack of maps and bad guides cost the Federals several lost opportunities. They would have fared far worse save that the Confederates were as green and as ignorant as they. Over the course of the next several campaigns in the Western Theater, however, Union commanders sought to rectify this deficiency and this is where the role of the topographical engineers came in.
Knowing what roads led where, where and of what quality were the bridges, fords, road junctions and other features of the terrain became something of the highest priority. Far from working in the rear, the topographical engineers went out ahead of the army, often working behind enemy lines, gathering tactical intelligence of the countryside and of the enemy dispositions in it. It was extremely hazardous work and there was always the danger that, if captured, they would be treated as spies and executed. It was a far cry from being a rear echelon “red tab” (to borrow the British slang for a staff officer).
During the Battle of Franklin, Bierce and the IV Corps were north of the Harpeth River, guarding the river crossing and the supply train, a position from which Lt. Bierce had a bird’s eye view of the start of the battle and which is related in some detail in Period of Honorable Strife.
Captain Scofield, by contrast, was with General Cox’s rear guard and in the front line of the battle, so his memoir of that fight is quite vivid and detailed, with a number of anecdotes about the engagement not mentioned elsewhere. Being a topographical engineer, Scofield also had a good eye for where things happened and recorded them on the maps that accompany his book.
As near as I can tell, he rendered these maps in watercolor or wash; there are also a number of pen and ink sketches that accompany his narrative and as no artist is listed, I am assuming that Scofield also rendered these himself. This is important, because there were no combat artists accompanying either army during this campaign, much less photographers, so the Autumn Campaign is very poorly documented in comparison to other campaigns of the war perhaps less deserving of the artist’s touch.
In Nashville, Federal photographer George N. Bernard did photograph the Union defenses about the time of the Battle of Nashville. Many of Bernard’s photos of Nashville taken during the battle were originally taken with a stereo camera, although I have only discovered a few mounted on stereo cards. Perhaps others of this same series are squirreled away in some archive or collection. There were other photographers present as well and their work too is waiting to come to light.
Although Captain Scofield wrote many years later–and his sketches and maps are presumably also of that vintage–the fact that he was an eyewitness to those events gives great weight to their value as historical source. A number of the anecdotes of the Battle of Franklin which he narrates he illustrates with his sketches.
While Scofield’s sketches were not able to be incorporated into my current book on Lt. Bierce, they are nonetheless of value documenting the Battle of Franklin and have hitherto been poorly known. This, therefore, seemed to be an opportune time to publish a few of them as they relate to the battle. Let us commemorate those who fought and died on both sides with reverence and respect. There is special place in Hell for those who desecrate the graveyards and memorials of the war dead.
Normally I don’t blog about current events and prefer to focus on subjects directly related to the Civil War, especially the more esoteric or unusual aspects of the Late Unpleasantness. Since there is so much going on in Middle Tennessee regarding the Sesquicentennial, however, I am going to digress a bit this go round. Hopefully I will be able to get back on track with blog entries before the big Battle of Nashville celebrations coming up next week.
While there has been a number of interesting 150th events going on in the Mid South since September, this author has been distracted putting his latest book “to bed,” dealing with Ambrose Bierce and his Civil War experiences (more of that at another time), so I have been very remiss of late. However, this weekend I did have a booth at Mike Kent’s venerable Mid South Civil War Show, now named (I think) the Franklin Civil War Show, ever since the powers that be in Music City decided turning their state fair grounds into a quick profit for developers would be a good idea. That the voters in Nashville did not agree with the politicians and their developer friends has only temporarily delayed them, unfortunately.
As an aside, any travelers to Nashville for the anniversary of the battle should be aware that the state fairground itself is smack dab in the middle of battlefield. There is a Confederate “lunette” just down the road on a hill overlooking Nolensville Pike on a small road that leads over a railroad cut and over to Murfreesboro Road. This is the same part of the Nashville battlefield I blogged about in “Captain Aldrich and the Dance of Death” (July, 2014).
In any case, only fifteen minutes south of Nashville by interstate sits Franklin, which, while it too loves its developers and their bulldozers, has done a great deal to not only preserve its historic heritage, but in recent years been highly pro-active in reclaiming parts of the Battle of Franklin battlefield. Yes, you can have prosperity and history side by side and the city of Franklin is proving it–which is one good reason why one of the largest Civil War shows in the South moved down the road to Franklin a few years back.
As usual, Mike Kent’s show had an army of people attending, many in mufti, and there were excellent booths of all descriptions lining both levels of the Williamson County Agricultural Center. In between selling and jabbering about my Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil Warand The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincolnbooks, I talked with a number of nice folks on various topics of the War, (many of which are still in dispute) and learned a thing or three I didn’t know about before. Besides the two main Civil War books, I also had Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Groundon sale, as well as Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, which also cover a number of Civil War topics and I sold a few of those as well. I also did a bit of jawboning about my upcoming Bierce book and ran into one Civil War enthusiast from Indiana was quite knowledgeable about the Ninth Indiana Infantry regiment. Apropos of Civil War ghosts, several of the visitors to my booth told me about their family’s encounters with the supernatural at Civil War sites, which I will relate in a later blog or two.
When time allowed, I also went to the other booths to take a look see at what they had available. While I did buy one or two items, I wish my budget had been as big as my eyes, as there were quite a few collector’s gems on display there. Of course, by gems I mean uniforms, bayonets, swords, muskets and the like. Military Images magazine, a gold mine of pictorial information about the war, also had a booth there and I got to meet Ron Coddington there. In case you are not familiar with him and his work, he is the go-to expert for Civil War photography, especially cartes de visites and the like, and has written extensively, not only for MI for Civil War News and the New York Times. If ya’ll have never seen Military Images, I recommend it highly.
There were some unusual booths as well. I have blogged about sex and single soldier before and I still have hopes of convincing some publisher to let me do a book just on real romances of the Civil War (yes, folks, grandpa and grandma somehow managed to meet and reproduce, even during the Civil War), but one lady had a booth which was a revelation even to me. It had a wealth of documents, photos and other memorabilia about the distaff side of the Civil War, especially with regard to the armies of “shady ladies” who served their country in way not often written about. All of her displays were interesting and some surprisingly risqué for the 1860’s. Almost all of what her booth on exhibit has never been published before—which goes to show that there is quite a lot still out there about the war all of which have yet to see their way into print.
All in all, the 26th annual show was a success, both for my own books, but for Civil War enthusiasts attending in general. This year in particular the show occurred at an ideal time, bracketing as it does the sesquicentennials of both the Battle of Franklin and the Battle of Nashville. Not to be down on my home town, but compared to little Franklin, one would expect Nashville to have done more over the years regarding its Civil War heritage and preservation. In fairness, there have been some very active people interested in promoting Nashville’s Civil War sites and their preservation; and coming up in mid month there will be a lot going on in Nashville to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the battle one historian called “decisive.” If anyone out there reading this happens to be traveling through the city for the holidays on their way towards other destinations, be sure to take a day or two to linger and take in one or another of the special events happening for the Battle of Nashville anniversary. You’ll be glad you did.