THE NONBATTLE OF NASHVILLE
How one of the biggest prizes of the Civil War was taken without a shot — and how East Nashville was at the center of it all
Most Nashvillians, even the newer arrivals, know a Civil War battle took place here. It’s hard, after all, to drive through certain parts of the city and not notice the historical markers.
Fewer know what history records as the Battle of Nashville occurred near the end of the war and involved invading Confederate soldiers. And perhaps an even smaller number realize that the December 1864 battle was not the decisive engagement that some have claimed, but rather the ugly anticlimax to the bloody, ruinous Pickett’s Charge-in-miniature that had taken place two weeks earlier during the Battle of Franklin.
The truly decisive Civil War event here — the nonbattle of Nashville — happened in February 1862. No one was killed. Not a shot was fired. The only fighting was between Confederate troops and the local population for food and resources.
Yet this nonbattle set the course of the entire war west of the Appalachians. Ultimately, Nashville would become the most heavily fortified city in Union hands next to Washington, D.C., and the supply base that provisioned Sherman’s march to Atlanta. And when the nonbattle unfolded, East Nashville was at its center.
The Role of Nashville
When the Civil War began, Nashville ranked as one of the South’s largest and most sophisticated cities. Then, as now, its location made it a major transportation hub and distribution center, and its commercial district was booming. Only Philadelphia had more medical schools. Its homes and muddy streets were lit by gas, and the city had its own ice plant. Of Nashville’s roughly 30,000 inhabitants, about 6,000 were black, and 1,000 of them were free.
The present route of the inner interstate highway loop (I-265) roughly delineates the city’s limits west of the Cumberland River circa 1861. The Dominican Convent in Metro Center stood at the northern fringe of town. The station for the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad was in The Gulch, just six blocks from the western edge of town. The terminus of a railroad that ran to Decatur, Ala., was located at what is now Broadway and Sixth Avenue (various lines had their own stations, much as London still has today). The old Howard School and the University of Nashville were near the south end on Rutledge Hill.
On the east bank stood the unincorporated village of Edgefield, already gaining appeal among affluent homebuyers. The two sides of the river had been connected for barely a decade. An elegant suspension bridge, constructed in 1850, had become part of Nashville’s skyline. Then in 1859, a gleaming new railroad bridge went up to serve the L&N and the Edgefield and Kentucky lines. Edgefield itself extended only a few blocks beyond the river, bounded on one side by present-day Main Street and on the other by Fatherland Street. In order to reach Nashville from the north by land, the only route was through Edgefield. When Tennessee became the last state to join the Confederacy in 1861, Nashville figured prominently in Rebel plans. It became the supply base for Confederate armies that formed a rough line across southern Kentucky. The provisions and equipment that went north from Nashville by rail came through Edgefield.
Confederate troops camped on the east side of the river before heading north and northwest along the same routes that today mark Dickerson, Gallatin, and Whites Creek Pikes.
For all its strategic importance, Nashville itself had no real defenses. Instead, the Rebels concentrated their efforts downstream, near the Kentucky border. Fort Donelson, just outside Dover, Tenn., had guns capable of repulsing Union gunboats that came up the Cumberland from the Ohio River, and a formidable garrison to match. Fort Donelson’s companion, Fort Henry, on the other side of what is now the Land Between the Lakes, guarded the Tennessee River.
By mid-February of 1862, Nashville eagerly awaited the daily reports from Fort Donelson, under assault by Union forces after Fort Henry fell. The news was good until it wasn’t.
First, Nashvillians heard how Fort Donelson’s batteries had turned back Federal gunboats, badly damaging their flagship. Then, on Friday, Feb. 14, they cheered dispatches describing how so many dead Union soldiers lay outside Fort Donelson’s earthworks that a man could walk across the field without touching the soggy ground. But the celebration wouldn’t outlive the weekend.
The Great Panic
Sunday, Feb. 16, brought news of disaster: Donelson and roughly 13,000 Confederate troops had yielded to U.S. Grant, who earned the nickname “Unconditional Surrender” from the battle. Nashville, for the time being, was defenseless.
As word advanced almost virally on that cold, rainy morning, panic seized the city. Churches abruptly dismissed their services. Some worshippers said their ministers had warned them to prepare for a bloody slave insurrection. One local girl, Rowena Webster, recalled “a reign of terror and confusion” as women and children scrambled home from church and “darkies smiling at the scene.” Rumors spread that 35,000 Union troops were already in Springfield, just 25 miles away, and would arrive in Edgefield by nightfall. Union gunboats supposedly had passed Clarksville and would begin shelling Nashville later in the afternoon. Around 11 a.m., another rumor took off: Gov. Isham Harris had decreed that all women and children should be out of the city within three hours. According to an account by local newspaperman John Miller McKee, “We found the town in a perfect tumult.”
Supporters of the Rebel government hastily threw belongings into bags and jammed Nashville’s train stations. Some who couldn’t secure seats rode atop passenger cars. Wagons jammed the roads. Hiring a private conveyance suddenly became impossibly expensive. Many left on foot, carrying trunks on their backs or bundles in hand. Before the afternoon was over, the Bank of Tennessee had hauled its gold and silver to the safe remove of Columbia. Gov. Harris and the legislature fled for Memphis.
V.K. Stevenson, president of the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad, left town by private train, shirking his duties as a Confederate officer in the quartermaster corps. Maggie Vaulx, age 17, was also among the refugees. Her parents dispatched her from their suburban estate on Franklin Pike, in what is now the Melrose area, to stay with cousins 20 miles south near Triune. “Oh! What a miserable, wretched day I have spent,” Vaulx wrote in her diary. “This night our city will be surrendered to the Yankees, and how many peaceful and happy homes will be made desolate!”
No Yankees appeared by Sunday night; instead, thousands of Confederate troops arrived from Bowling Green, which they abandoned after Fort Donelson’s fall. That night, Nashville Mayor R.B. Cheatham crossed the suspension bridge and called on the Rebel commander, Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston, at his Edgefield headquarters. Johnston told Cheatham he intended to leave Nashville; attempting to defend it would put the city and its inhabitants at risk. Johnston suggested when the Federals arrived, Cheatham should place the city under their protection.
Cheatham returned to an eagerly waiting crowd at the public square (today, the parking lot in front of the Metro Courthouse) and reported the news from Johnston. He also announced that whatever food the Rebels couldn’t take with them in their haste would be distributed to residents.
The next day, shops and businesses across the city were closed. Nashville’s numerous newspapers ceased publication. Train stations remained packed with frantic citizens. Johnston, who would be dead within two months at Shiloh, had already marched his army south.
Their place was taken in Edgefield by retreating Confederate units under the command of Gen. John Floyd that had fought past Union lines at Fort Donelson and escaped. In tow they brought a group of Union prisoners, some of whom were wounded. One of them, A.F. Gilbert of the 17th Volunteer Illinois Infantry, recalled being tended by Mrs. John Bell, whose husband had carried Tennessee in the presidential election of 1860 under the banner of the Constitutional Union Party. Had her husband won, Mrs. Bell told the Yankees, there would have been no war.
Fresh rumors continued to alarm the locals. One began with a troop of Texas Rangers, who allegedly vowed to burn the city rather than let the Yankees have it. Already on edge because of the Rangers, residents were abruptly awakened when fire bells sounded in the middle of night on Monday. From their windows, it appeared the whole riverfront was in flames. At the lower wharf, near where Broadway ends at the river, the Confederates had been converting two steamboats into gunboats. Fearful that the boats would fall into Yankee hands, the military authorities set them ablaze. While the city had been in no danger, the fire exacerbated the sense of panic among Nashvillians.
The next night brought two more fires. After the remaining Rebel troops crossed into Nashville from Edgefield, and despite pleas from city leaders, the Confederates torched both bridges over the Cumberland. The twoyear- old railroad trestle had been constructed with $250,000 from local investors, who lost everything. The fine suspension bridge had been designed by Nashville architect Augustus Heiman, now a Union prisoner with the rest of his regiment at Fort Donelson.
All week, the scene at the riverfront warehouses bordered on riot, as crowds with wheelbarrows and baskets pressed forward in the rain to receive promised distributions of food. With local markets closed, the demand for food became more urgent each day. Other Nashvillians, employees of the Confederate government who had gone weeks without pay, saw the food as their rightful compensation — which was just as well, since Confederate money became practically worthless during the Panic.
On Wednesday, amid heavy rain and thunderstorms, Gen. Floyd, whom Johnston left in charge, ordered a halt to the giveaway. With no Federals yet in sight, Floyd concluded that more supplies could be evacuated than had previously been assumed. Before leaving town himself, Floyd tasked Col. Nathan Bedford Forrest, whose cavalry also had escaped Fort Donelson, with getting the 250,000 pounds of bacon, flour, clothing, and ammunition from the warehouses near the river to the railroad depots across town.
For the effort, which took three days, Forrest commandeered wagons, mules, and people (both slave and free). A bank president was among those impressed into service, apparently at random. As the crowd clamored, the troopers charged recklessly into their midst, swords brandished. It was the only time during the week that weapons were drawn in hostility.
Fearing a massacre, Mayor Cheatham called out the city’s steam fire engine and directed the fireman to pump frigid, brown water from the Cumberland and douse the crowd. “The effect was magical,” wrote one eyewitness. The riot was averted with no loss of life.
Meanwhile, the heavy rains had slowed the Federals, who seemed to be in no hurry. Forrest, along with the city’s last remaining Confederate troops, was prepared to leave on short notice. He used the lull to full advantage by arranging for the transport of rifling machinery and other equipment to Atlanta.
Methodist minister Holland McTyeire, editor of the Nashville Christian Advocate and later a principal actor in the founding of Vanderbilt University, also capitalized on the weeklong reprieve. Days earlier he had evacuated his family to Decatur, Ala. Then, seizing the opportunity, he returned to his Edgefield home just long enough to burn papers linking him to the secessionist movement.
The Yankees Arrive
On Sunday morning, Feb. 23, Nashvillians witnessed the advance edge of the Union army arriving in Edgefield. No longer able to avail himself of the bridges, Mayor Cheatham crossed the rain-swollen river in a rowboat, intent on placing the city under the U.S. Army’s protection. He was disappointed to find that the highest-ranking officer was only a captain. He returned to an anxious crowd at the Public Square with the captain’s assurance that the Union army would preserve Nashvillians’ rights and property.
About noon, a Union colonel arrived, and Cheatham rowed over again. The colonel reassured the mayor that the Federals had no intent to liberate slaves. A general, he said, would be along in a day or two to accept Nashville’s surrender.
In the interim, Forrest’s men lingered on the west bank. On their final day in the city they blew up what remained in their arsenal, including several thousand rifles the Confederates had previously confiscated from local citizens. After darkness fell, Forrest’s cavalry decamped for Murfreesboro, leaving Nashville an open city.
Early on Tuesday, nine days after the Great Panic began, a lookout atop the state Capitol spotted a Federal gunboat steaming up the Cumberland. A crowd gathered to watch the ship stop near the east bank and train its guns ominously on the city. A Union officer reported that thousands stared in silence as another boat reached the west-bank landing and began unloading a regiment of Ohio troops.
Preceded by their regimental band, the Federals marched to “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Yankee Doodle” as they ringed the Public Square. From there, they paraded up Cedar Street (now Charlotte Avenue) to the Capitol. Along the way, they passed citizens who lined the road in silence; one Northern reporter compared it to a funeral procession. Later, the band elicited a cheer when they struck up “Dixie.”
The troops also were greeted by some of the few hundred Unionists who had opposed secession and remained in the city. One, who had proudly displayed the Stars and Stripes even after Confederate rule began, took down her flag temporarily out of consideration for her neighbors. But William Driver, a retired sea captain, trotted out the flag that had once accompanied him to the South Pacific. He presented the banner to a Union officer, requesting that he raise it above the Capitol “to replace that damned Confederate flag set there by that damned Rebel governor.” At 8:45 a.m., Old Glory, as Driver styled it, replaced the Stars and Bars.
Later, Mayor Cheatham and nine other leading citizens crossed to Edgefield, this time via steamboat. They were keeping an 11 a.m. appointment with Union Gen. Don Carlos Buell, who had arrived the night before and set up headquarters in a private home next to what is now the East Park Community Center (see sidebar). There, the delegation formally surrendered the city.
By evening, nearly 12,000 Federal troops were in Nashville and Edgefield. The nonbattle of Nashville was over. The city was now in Union hands, where it would remain until the war’s end.