Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Battle Of Nashville - A Confederate Disaster - December 16, 1864

Howard Pyle, a noted 19th century illustrator, painted this mural in 1907. The original is located in the governor’s Reception Room in the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, Minnesota. It depicts the attack on the afternoon of December 16, 1864 by the 5th and 9th Minnesota Infantry Regiments on the Confederate line just to the east of Shy’s Hill, which is seen in the background. The area depicted is just east of Granny White Pike and just south of modern Battery Lane, on modern McArthur Ridge Court.

Howard Pyle's Painting In The Governor's Reception Room In The Minnesota State Capital
  On December 16, 1864, Hood had changed the position of his three Corps from where they had been on December 15. Benjamin Franklin Cheatham was now on the left, A.P. Stewart was in the center and Stephen D. Lee was on right. At about 12:00 PM Union artillery firing from the present location of Father Ryan High School pounded the Confederate lines on Peach Orchard Hill. In the 1970's when Franklin Road Academy was under construction I found evidence of this bombardment. Like at Redoubt # 4 I found shell fragments everywhere along with Minie balls and .577 Caliber Enfield bullets, which were usually used by Confederate troops. Steedman's Union Division of 12,000 men again spearheaded the Union attack on the Rebel right, led by black troops. Thomas's plan was to again feint with his left and attack with his right in the hope of forcing Hood to weaken his left in order to reinforce his right. This ruse didn't work on the 15th but it did work on the 16th. Hood transferred two brigades from his left because the Union attack was so vicious on his right he was tricked into thinking that Thomas's main attack was coming against Peach Orchard Hill. At 2:45 P.M. Steedman opened the attack. There were 1200 casualties. Of 556 black troops in the attack 229 were killed, along with five color bearers. This attack came from the direction of the railroad, which was there during the Civil War, and parallels present day I-65 South. It was said that if you walked from the Confederate breastworks down the hill to the railroad that you could literally walk on Union bodies without touching the ground. This is the only part of the Confederate line that didn't break that day. I-65 and Harding Place have destroyed much of Peach Orchard Hill but if you drive down Franklin Road to Elysian Fields road and go all the way to the turnaround you can still see part of the battlefield sloping down to the interstate.

  At the Confederate left on Shy's Hill the soldiers had only a few hours to prepare defenses. The same mistake had been made here by Confederate engineers that had been made on Missionary Ridge in Chattanooga a little over a year earlier. The trenches were dug on on the crest of Shy's Hill rather than the military crest. This was a huge mistake because the defenders could not see the enemy until they were right on top of them. For most of the 16th of December the Union artillery pounded Shy's Hill and the Confederate line. After much indecision by the Union Generals positioned to the west and north of Shy's Hill, Union General John MacArthur, without orders, gave the signal for the attack. This attack unleashed all of the Union troops in the area which became a race to the top of the hill. One Union Colonel gave his men orders not to cheer or fire a shot until they had gained the works. After a short but vicious hand to hand fight the whole Confederate line crumbled. Lt. Colonel William Shy was shot through the head at point blank range and his body was later found pinned to a tree by a bayonet. Today this area is heavily wooded and a suburban neighborhood, but then it was mostly farmland and mostly cleared of trees. Rebels positioned to the right of Shy's Hill could clearly see the collapse of the Rebel lines to their left. They saw Wilson's cavalry coming up in their rear and Union Infantry rolling up their flank closely chasing panicky rebels. Rebels all along the line began streaming toward Granny White and Franklin Pikes in an disorganized mob.

  General Stephen D. Lee, leading the only organized Corps left on the battlefield began covering the Rebel retreat toward Franklin. Rarely had any army, North or South been so thoroughly routed. The Rebel army had been through a lot by this time. They had been badly led. Napoleon said that there is no such thing as bad soldiers, only bad Generals. These men were as good as any men in any army. About one third were barefooted, most were ragged, starving and many were without blankets during one of the worst winters on record. They had reached their breaking point. Many men threw down their rifles and ammo in order to lighten their load. Artillery and wagons were overrun. Lee was able to establish some sense of order in the retreat to save the army's remnants. General Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry would link up with the army farther south and he would conduct a brilliant rear guard protection of the army. Out of the original 30,000 men who had originally crossed the Tennessee River from Alabama into Tennessee to began the campaign only 9,000 men were left when they reached safety in Tupelo Mississippi. General Thomas had chased an army 100 miles during winter and won the most decisive battle of the war. It was decisive because he had virtually destroyed one of the two most important Confederate armies and effectively taken it out of the war but Grant was still not satisfied. He would eventually relieve General Thomas. Casualties were 2,100 Union, and nearly 5,000 Confederate.
Shy's Hill In The Late 1800's

Shy's Hill In The Late 1800's

View From The Top Of Shy's Hill

View From The Top Of Shy's Hill

Shy's Hill

Shy's Hill

Shy's Hill

Peach Orchard Hill

Peach Orchard
This was the ragged condition that at least one third of the Army of Tennessee was in at the battle of Nashville. They were barefoot during one of the coldest winters on record.

The Minnesota Monument At The National  Cemetery On Gallatin Road

Monument To Black Soldiers At The National Cemetery On Gallatin Road
Granny White Pike in 1935

Original Location Of The Battle Of Nashville At Thompson Lane & Franklin Road

Present Location Of The Battle Of Nashville Monument On Granny White Pike


  1. Thank you for posting this! I am doing genealogy research and have an ancestor that fought in the battle, I really learned a lot from your narrative. Could I have your permission to attach this to my family tree?