THE FALL OF NASHVILLE, FEBRUARY 25, 1862

The Nashville Courthouse Square, ca. 1860.
The Nashville Courthouse Square, ca. 1860.

On February 25, 1862, the city of Nashville fell to the Union Army of the Ohio.  In the aftermath of Grant’s famous victory at Forts Donelson and Henry, the importance of this event has tended to be overlooked by history (and of course, historians), but the significance of the capture of the Confederate Capitol cannot be underestimated.

As James Lee McDonough noted in his 1977 book on Shiloh, when the Federals occupied Nashville, it was not simply the first Rebel state capitol to fall, it also meant the capture of a major Confederate industrial center and transportation hub.  Much as they do today, a number of roads and pikes plus five railroads lines radiated out in all directions; moreover, in the 1860’s river transportation was far more important than now and the Cumberland linked Nashville and the Confederate heartland to the Ohio Valley in one direction and East Tennessee and eastern Kentucky in the other.

Just as importantly, Nashville and Middle Tennessee was an important manufacturing center which was now denied the Confederate war machine.  The iron industry in Middle Tennessee dated back to frontier days and the steady flow of the Cumberland River powered any number of mills and factories.  There were cannon foundries, small arms manufacturers, while the caves in the surrounding region supplied saltpeter for the manufacture of gunpowder and the fertile farmlands of the region provided food and livestock in quantities enough to supply an army.  In addition, there was the Nashville Armory, located on College Hill, just south of the town, where large stands of arms and ammunition were stored; several steamboats were also in the process of being converted to gunboats to counter the Yankee war machines.  All these strategic assets would now be denied the Confederacy for the duration of the war.  From Nashville too, Union troops would sally forth in all directions to subdue the Rebellion over the next several years, with ample supplies to sustain them.  No one realized it at the time, but the fall of Fort Donelson and the capture of Nashville spelled the doom of the western Confederacy—and ultimately of the Rebellion as a whole.

"Order Out of Chaos" by Mort Kunstler.  Nathan Bedford Forrest, refusing to surrender at Fort Donelson, arrived in Nashville to find it had been hastily abandoned by the governor and paniced Rebel troops.  He salvaged munitions, tried to prevent looting and then burned what military stores could not be saved.
“Order Out of Chaos” by Mort Kunstler. Nathan Bedford Forrest, refusing to surrender at Fort Donelson, arrived in Nashville to find it had been hastily abandoned by the governor and panicked Rebel troops. He salvaged munitions, tried to prevent looting and then burned what military stores could not be saved.

In the ten days following Grants victory at Land Between the Rivers (today Land Between the Lakes) the remnants of Confederate forces not caught in the surrender came reeling southward toward “Rock City” (as Nashville was nicknamed), the Secessionist state government made haste to high tail it out of town and a general panic ensued among the civilian population.  This was the general situation on February 25, 1862, as exemplified by a diary entry at the time:

Today it seems settled that we met with a disastrous defeat in the end at Donelson by the enemys overpowering numbers surrounding our men, who fought bravely & well. Gens. Floyd & Pillow escaped with some of the troops__ but Buckner is a prisoner. It is now contradicted that Nashville surrendered, & sent a boat with a flag of truce down the Cumberland to meet the enemy & give up the city (!) as was at first reported__ but it is certain that our troops from Bowling Green have fallen back to Murfreesboro and they have burnt the bridges, steamboats etc. at Nashville and not a Yankee near them! Oh! it is disgraceful! Gov. Harris who rode round town alarming the citizens__ who said to Ewing__ Every  man must now take care of himself; I am going to take care of myself__ fled.  Lucy French Diary (courtesy TSLA)

Citizens of Nashville awoke one morning to find the big guns of the USS Cairo aimed directly at their homes from its berth on the opposite bank of the Cumberland.  Soon other warships and transports descended on the city from downriver.
Citizens of Nashville awoke one morning to find the big guns of the USS Cairo aimed directly at their homes from its berth on the opposite bank of the Cumberland. Soon other warships and transports descended on the city from downriver.

Imagine, if you will, how the remaining citizens of the City felt when they awoke that morning to see an ominous looking tortoise-shaped gunboat sitting on the opposite bank with massive guns pointed directly at them.  In fact, the mayor of Nashville the day before had already arranged for the peaceful occupation of the city with General Buell, the Union army commander.  However, General “Bull” Nelson jumped the gun a bit and that Sunday morning began unloading his troops first thing, before the formal surrender. General William B. Hazen’s 19th Brigade was one of the first to debark marching along Lower Broadway for a few blocks before wheeling right to ascend the steep acclivity towards the state capitol.

Hazen halted in front of the St. Cloud Hotel, now an office building at the corner of Fifth and Church Streets, where he was met by the proprietor of the hotel, Mr. Carter, who invited Hazen and his staff into his “scanty bar.”  The innkeeper was solicitous of his new guests and Hazen, a teetotaler, tells us Carter tasted everything first, “to assure us.”  Of the previous guests of the St. Cloud, Hazen tells us “we found in the hotel, fast asleep and very drunk, one Rebel soldier, the largest man I ever saw in uniform.”  The bar on the ground floor of the hotel soon became a favorite watering hole of Union officers and the hotel became General Buell’s temporary headquarters.

Of those Nashville’s citizens who had not fled in the panic of the previous week, some had turned out to watch the arrival of the Yankees.  But it was not a cheering or welcoming crowd, as the Union regiments had experienced when they had marched off to war.  Rather, for those brave enough to venture onto the street, it was more a somber, perhaps even morbid, gathering; more like the sort of crowd which gathers to witness the aftermath of a terrible accident in the street: a sight terrible to behold, but too compelling to turn away from.

"The First Union Dress Parade In Nashville." Print showing the 51st Ohio Volunteer Regiment, led by Col. Stanly Mathews, on dress parade in Nashville, Tennessee, March 4, 1862.
“The First Union Dress Parade In Nashville.” Print showing the 51st Ohio Volunteer Regiment, led by Col. Stanly Mathews, on dress parade in Nashville, Tennessee, March 4, 1862.

It was a somber Sunday for the denizens of the Rebel capital—except for one man.  William Driver was a retired Yankee sea captain, who had moved to Nashville years before to enjoy the city’s Southern charm.  A devoted patriot, loyal to the Union, when the city caught Secessionist fever, Captain Driver proved immune to the disease and instead flew the stars and stripes—the banner he had flown while at sea–proudly outside of his home, and which he had nicknamed “Old Glory.”  As Driver later explained, “it has ever been my staunch companion and protection. Savages and heathens, lowly and oppressed, hailed and welcomed it at the far end of the wide world. Then, why should it not be called Old Glory?”

The City of Nashville as it looked ca. 1862, under Union occupation.
The City of Nashville as it looked ca. 1862, under Union occupation.

As the Southern states seceded one by one, his neighbors became progressively more hostile to the old sea captain.  Some threatened to rip the flag down and burn it; others hinted more darkly that the Yankee captain should be hung by it.  To prevent the beloed flag being desecrated, Captain Driver finally took down it down, folded Old Glory very carefully, and had it sewn into a quilt.

Capt. William Driver, the retired sea captain whose American flag, Old Glory, first flew over the Tennessee Capitol on Feb. 25, 1862.
Capt. William Driver, the retired sea captain whose American flag, Old Glory, first flew over the Tennessee Capitol on Feb. 25, 1862.

 

That Sunday morning, from his house on Rutledge Hill, Driver could see the Federals unloading from their armed transport.  He hastened upstairs and retrieved the bed-quilt from its hiding place and made his way down to Lower Broad and then on up opposing hill all the way up to the state capitol building.  In contrast to his fellow citizens, Captain Driver was in a jubilant mood as he mingled with the blue-clad troops.

Horace Fisher, General Nelson’s aide-de-camp, witnessed what happened next:

“A stout, middle-aged man, with hair well shot with gray, short in stature, broad in shoulder, and with a roll in his gait, came forward and asked, ‘Who is the General in command? I wish to see him.’” Driver briefly conferred with the six foot tall general—who himself had formerly been a Navy man—and, “when satisfied that Gen. Nelson was the officer in command, he pulled out his jack-knife and began to rip open the bedquilt without another word. We were puzzled to think what his conduct meant….the bedquilt was safely delivered of a large American flag, which he handed to Gen. Nelson, saying, ‘This is the flag I hope to see hoisted on that flagstaff in place of the damned Confederate flag set there by that damned rebel governor, Isham G. Harris. I have had hard work to save it; my house has been searched for it more than once.’ He spoke triumphantly, with tears in his eyes.”

Nelson accepted the flag and immediately ordered it run up on the Capitol flagstaff, accompanied by “frantic cheering and uproarious demonstrations.”  The mission of climbing to the top of the state building was tasked to men of the 6th Ohio Infantry who double-timed it up the capitol steps, into the bowels of the abandoned building and up into the glass-framed cupola on top of the classical styled building.

Old Glory, Capt. Driver's cherished flag.  He had another flag which was later displayed as well.
Old Glory, Capt. Driver’s cherished flag. He had another flag which was later displayed as well.

According to local tradition, the erection of Old Glory from the flagstaff was not without incident.  A former state legislator and fire-breathing Secessionist, who had not fled with the rest when Fort Donelson fell, stood on the narrow wrought iron spiral staircase with musket in hand, blocking their way.

“You’ll raise that rag over this building over my dead body!” the greybeard Rebel told the flag detail.

The officer in charge was about to issue the militant Secesh a warning, when a shot rang out from behind, hitting the Rebel in the breast.  He died almost instantly, his limp body tumbling down the spiral staircase past them.

The men of the color guard continued their ascent and as the growing crowd of Federals outside witnessed the large banner unfurl, were met with resounding cheers as the flag ascended to the pinnacle of the highest spot in the city.  For ever after, the 6th Ohio would be nicknamed the “Old Glory” regiment.

The sun went down that Sunday on the American flag once more flying over the capital of Tennessee and a growing army of blue spreading out through Nashville and its surrounding territory.

It was by no means the beginning of the end for the Rebellion, but to borrow a phrase from Sir Winston Churchill, it was very much the end of the beginning. From now on, the Confederacy would be fighting for its survival.

A Confederate $20 bill showing the Tennessee state capitol; ironically not issued until after the city fell to the Yankees.
A Confederate $20 bill showing the Tennessee state capitol; ironically not issued until after the city fell to the Yankees.
ambrose-bierce-and-the-period-of-honorable-strife-cover
Ambrose Bierce, famed American author, is best known for his macabre fiction and cynical humor, served as a soldier in the front lines throughout the Civil War. Bierce’s wartime experiences were the transformative events of the young author’s life. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife for the first time chronicles this pivotal period of Bierce’s life.

For more on the Civil War, see The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln and Ghosts & Haunts of the Civil War.

The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer)
The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer)
GHOSTS AND HAUNTS OF THE CIVIL WAR 3x5
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.

Nathan Bedford Forrest: The Symbol and the Reality

Friends, Politically Correct Partisans, Lend Me your Ears!  I come to bury Nathan Bedford Forrest, not to praise him (sort of).

General Nathan Bedford Forrest:

Enough of the bad Shakespeare imitation. I normally do not mix current political discussions with history, but it seems we cannot talk about the events of over 150 years ago without inevitably being dragged into debates about the present.

The current mess began with the brutal and senseless murder of nine black church members in Charleston, South Carolina and ensuing controversy regarding the Confederate flag—or more properly, the Confederate battle standard.  While I personally feel that it is improper to wave that symbol of rebellion over any state building or government grounds other than historic sites, and that its removal from the South Carolina state capitol was long overdue, the subsequent politically correct jihad against the Rebel flag and banning it from all public venues—including the Dukes of Hazard car and Walmart—not only borders on the hysterical, but entirely misses the  point. And since then, the PC frenzy has morphed into vigilantism and vandalism, not only towards historic statues of Confederate leaders, but has expanded to war memorials to American dead and the vandalizing of graves on private property.

 Racism and rampant gun violence are the real problems, not the Confederate battle standard, which was not even the national flag of the Confederacy.  Banning the Rebel flag does nothing to fight racism, still less to control the ability of mentally unstable persons and criminals to have unfettered access to high-powered automatic and semi-automatic weapons.  The American public has, in my view, been hoodwinked by a neat little bait and switch ploy on the part of politicians unwilling to deal with the real issues.

To be sure, the Rebel battle standard has been used by hate groups as a symbol in the past and still is, but then so too has the Christian cross; so are we also going to ban the use of the cross in any public display?  Some Jews may regard the Crescent and Star as a hate symbol; some Arabs may likewise view the Star of David in a similar vein; but neither is inherently a symbol of hatred or bigotry.  While I wouldn’t feel comfortable displaying the Confederate battle flag on my person or property, I recognize that there are many folks who may display it as a symbol of either regional pride, Southern heritage or just plain as a symbol that they’re a redneck good ol’ boy who likes to drink Jack Daniels and go yee-haw! at music concerts.

The same symbol can mean different things to different people, especially so the Rebel flag.  By all means let us deal with racism; and there are many, many things that can be done to regulate and control guns while still respecting the letter and spirit of the Second Amendment that would save many lives, all without adversely affecting responsible hunters, sportsmen and collectors.

Also caught up in this growing tidal wave of political correctness (really the shuck and jive avoidance of dealing with the real issues) is the issue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, or more precisely, his likeness in the Tennessee State Capital and in Memphis.  Swept up in their fervor for erasing history, local Democrat and Republican politicians and various pundits among the general public have called for its removal from the august halls of the state capitol.  In Memphis, arguably the poorest city IN THE COUNTRY, demagogues have inflamed public opinion with misinformation and half-truths and are diverting hundreds of thousands of taxpayer money to pursue illegal actions–money sorely needed for education and fighting poverty and drug use.

Please note: no one is calling for the repeal of the drunks-with-guns-in-bars law the state legislators passed, or the guns in playgrounds law, or the take your gun to work law, much less rolling back the patently discriminatory voter ID laws Tennessee and other states have passed to make it as difficult as possible to vote.  Nope: just remove the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust from Capitol Hill and illegally remove a historic monument in a public park and vandalize Forrest’s grave.

In truth, General Forrest has always been something of a controversial figure, even during his lifetime.  He never quite made it into the pantheon of the Lost Cause; he was not a Virginia Swan, he did not graduate from West Point and, while Forrest was an officer, he was sometimes less than a gentleman.  It is true that before the Civil War he had been a slave trader, an odious occupation even in the South–and one which his wife had strong objections to.

Starting as a common soldier, his native genius for war led to his rapid promotion;  in battle after battle, he was “fustest with the mostest” (as he is often misquoted as saying) defeating the Yankees on numerous occasions. His record of success in battle speaks for itself; as a great captain of war, he is due recognition on that count alone.

 

NATHAN BEDFORD FORREST SURROUNDS THE YANKEE CAVALRY SINGLE HANDEDLY
Nathan Bedford Forrest surrounds the Yankee cavalry single-handedly. He allegedly killed 30 Federals personally and lost 31 horses in battle, and came out of the war “a horse ahead.”

 

One incident which seems to belie the claim that Forrest was a virulent racist was towards the beginning of the war, when he made an interesting offer to the Blacks in his service:

“When I entered the army I took 47 negroes into the army with me, and 45 of them were surrendered with me. I said to them at the start: ‘This fight is against slavery; if we lose it, you will be made free; if we whip the fight, and you stay with me and be good boys, I will set you free. In either case you will be free. Those boys stayed with me, drove my teams, and better confederates did not live.'” (statement before the 40th US Congress, 3rd Session)

His war career did have one black mark, however; at Fort Pillow he was accused of conducting a massacre of Black Union soldiers.  That a massacre of surrendering soldiers did occur there is generally accepted by historians; how many were shot after surrendering versus armed soldiers fleeing to the river and the safety of Union gunboats, however, remains hotly disputed.  Forrest always denied giving any explicit orders in regard shooting unarmed prisoners and maintained that the Union prisoners, black and white, were treated humanely.  After the war he testified before Congress on that score and pointed out that the terms of surrender he offered the Union garrison at Fort Pillow was more generous than Grant’s terms to Lee at Appomattox.

At the end of the war, in his farewell address to his troops Forrest told them:

“I have never, on the field of battle, sent you where I was unwilling to go myself; nor would I now advise you to a course which I felt myself unwilling to pursue. You have been good soldiers, you can be good citizens. Obey the laws, preserve your honor, and the Government to which you have surrendered can afford to be, and will be, magnanimous.”

In the chaos of the postwar era, the Ku Klux Klan came into being.  Begun in Pulaski, Tennessee, initially as a fraternal group by half a dozen bored Confederate veterans, it soon morphed into a vigilante organization and, after a time, General Forrest was asked to head the “secret empire.”  Before Congress Forrest denied membership, however he was being disengenous in that regard.  Nonetheless, as acts of violence and vigilantism attributed to Klan members grew, Forrest became disturbed at the way the organization was developing.  In 1869, he publicly called for the Klan’s disbandment because of its use of violence.

Today, General Forrest has become a symbol of racism and violence divorced from the historical record; the facts regarding his life and times seem to matter little to those who use him as a symbol of our current national problems.  The historical reality, however, was far more nuanced.  If he did possess strong racial feelings before or during the war–and that is far from certain–it is clear that in the postwar era he underwent a sincere change of heart.  At one point he was credited with single-handedly preventing a white race riot.  Then, in 1875, he was asked to speak before a meeting of Black Southerners seeking racial reconciliation and agreed.  His said, in part, this:

“We were born on the same soil, breathe the same air, and live in the same land. Why, then, can we not live as brothers? I will say that when the war broke out I felt it my duty to stand by my people. When the time came I did the best I could, and I don’t believe I flickered. I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I believe that I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to bring about peace. It has always been my motto to elevate every man- to depress none. I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going.”

This doesn’t much sound like the rantings of a rabid racist, does it?  There is another bust of another former Confederate soldier in the state legislature as well, maybe they should remove his statue as well: Sampson Keeble, placed there in 2010.  By the way, Keeble was born a slave and in 1873 became the first Black elected to the Tennessee state legislature.

Oh, yes, and then there is the little matter of Andrew Jackson and the Cherokee Indians’ Trail of Tears.  His equestrian statue is very prominent on Capitol Hill in downtown Nashville; how about removing him too while we’re at it?

Nathan Bedford Forrest was certainly no saint: he was quick to anger and ferocious in the heat of battle; he may have been guilty of committing wrongs during the war.  But Forrest was also a man capable of growth and change and, all in all, a better man than those who would turn him into an icon of hate and bigotry give him credit.

There are many more things one could say pro and con regarding N.B, but this essay has already rambled on too long. Let me inflict a little more Shakespeare on you in closing:

“The evil that men do lives after them;

The good is oft interred with their bones.”

 

For more about the war in the Western Theater, see Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, University of Tennessee Press.

 

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover
Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, chronicles the wartime career of one of America’s most famous authors.