The Battle of Nashville- 150 years later Musings on an Old Piece of Iron

His name was Alvis Holladay. No one called him “Alvis” however. To friends and family he was “Buster.” And he was obsessed with relic hunting. Civil War relics that is. Socially awkward and a bit of a nerd he was unconcerned about the usual teenaged high school social rituals of dating, sports, fast cars, etc. Instead, nearly every weekend he put his trusty metal detector in his beat up red 62 Dodge and went out in search of metal things hidden in the ground from a hundred years before, the debris of war- various types of rifle and artillery projectiles or fragments thereof, buttons from uniforms, belt buckles, connector pieces from knapsacks and leather gear, and much, much more.

It wasn’t all treasure. Mostly he got trash. The detector would sound off into his headphones at the presence of any sort of metal, trash or treasure, and in the years since the war, a great deal of trash had accumulated on CW sites. There were days when he spent hours out in a weedy field and got nothing for his trouble but chigger bites, a bad sunburn, and lots of rusted tin cans. But, old Buster had some lucky days too, lots of ’em, and by the time he was eighteen years old, around 1969, he had gathered an impressive collection of Civil War artifacts which he piled into every nick and cranny of his bedroom.

On three or four occasions I went out with Buster to try my luck. We scoured the ground at Shiloh (just off park property), an old farm near the Stones River in Murfreesboro, the old Johnsonville site on the Tennessee River, and at a property just South of Abbot Martin Road in Green Hills here in Nashville. At this place I got lucky and unearthed a fascinating bit of history still in my possession.

It was the Summer of 69. Astonishingly enough, the place we walked over that day was a small cattle farm-a field of cows and cow paddies ringed by an electric fence-just a few acres adjoining a large development of ranch style homes and the commercial district of Green Hills along Hillsboro Road. Even then this cattle farm seemed out of place, a farm in the middle of suburbia. But there it was.

It was no ordinary cattle farm for another reason. At the top of a long gradual rise SW of the main house there was an unnatural formation rising from the ground about four to five feet high, five or six feet wide, and seventy five yards or so long. Even to the untrained eye it appeared man made. To a Civil War buff, it was clearly the eroded remnant of an earthwork fortification.

Two years previous Buster had discovered this site after receiving a tip from a friend. After getting permission from the property owners to dig (as long as he refilled his holes), he took his detector out of the car, crossed the electric fence, turned on the device, and swept it a few inches over the ground a few feet in front of the old earthwork. Immediately the thing began sounding off like nothing he had ever seen before. Within minutes he filled a box with iron fragments of exploded artillery shells. He could hardly dig fast enough. He stopped only when darkness fell and he could no longer see. As soon as he could he returned and found more relics including one entire unexploded projectile. Clearly this was a place that had come under a severe artillery bombardment during the Battle of Nashville. It didn’t take Buster long to come to the conclusion that he had discovered the precise location of Redoubt Number 4, a Confederate fortification where such a thing had indeed occurred on the afternoon of December 15, 1864. He returned to the site again and again over the next few months. He told no one other than his family about it. It was his spot. No one else, so far as I know, hunted there or even knew about it until years later- a relic hunter’s dream come true.

Buster had already found several boxes full when he took me out there that Summer day and let me try my luck. And my efforts were rewarded. A few inches below the surface approximately a hundred feet or so below the earthwork I found my hunk of CW iron, the back of a “Hotchkiss” artillery shell, a conical shaped “bolt” fired from a 3″ordnance gun, a rifled piece of field artillery. I still have it, my chief relic of the Nashville battle sitting on my desk, a heavy iron chunk of CW history fired from one of about twenty or so guns located on a ridge a half mile or so to the West along what is now Estes Road near the present site of Harpeth Hall girls academy. These guns pummeled Redoubt Four, a detached exposed enemy position, for about an hour and a half. The Union fire was deadly accurate as evidenced by the proximity of the shell fragments to the earthwork.

Sergeant Maxwell of Lumsden’s Batttery tells in his account of the defense of Redoubt Four: “a Federal four gun battery opened on us, completely enfilading our four guns..our number three (gunner) Horton, was shot down..with a bullet in his groin and rushed to the rear..Hilen L. Rosser ..a lad of seventeen, the youngest of three brothers that belonged to the battery, had his head shot off by a shell, scattering his brains in the face of Capt. Lumsden.” (p.53, EYEWITNESSES AT THE BATTLE OF NASHVILLE, ed. by David Logsdon.*

The doomed Confederate defenders, only about a hundred or so Alabamians with a few dozen artillerymen manning four brass smoothbore artillery pieces, never had a chance. Soon after the Union guns had done their work and the smoke had cleared, the shell shocked survivors caught sight of two brigades of Union infantry coming up the long rise straight at them. The defenders fired what they had in their single shot rifles at the approaching horde and then fled toward their own lines a miles or so away to the East as fast as their legs could carry them.

The fall of Redoubt Four was but one episode in the Battle of Nashville, one hundred and fifty years ago today. This decisive battle of the US Civil War occurred in the hills south of Tennessee’s capital city putting an end to the last hopes of the Western Confederacy. Though the fabled Army of Tennessee wasn’t completely destroyed the next day on December 16, it fled the area in disorder never to return, no longer a threat to Union installations in the area. For John B. Hood’s shrunken, demoralized army, the battle of Nashville was an unmitigated disaster. For the Union, it was, arguably, their most brilliant success. For the Union commander George Thomas, everything went according to plan; something that rarely happens in any battle anywhere, anytime. Back in Washington City, president Abraham Lincoln was delighted- a major worry crossed off his list.

When the battle opened on December 15 Confederate forces under the command of the youthful John B. Hood had been dug in a long thin line facing the Union fortifications just south of town for about two weeks. After the terrible blood-letting at Franklin on November 30 Hood and his badly mauled army pursued the fleeing Twenty-Third Corps under Schofield North but being unable to catch him as he slipped into Nashville and the safety of the extensive fortifications there, had simply dug in and waited. What exactly Hood, with the depleted, badly equipped and demoralized forces at his disposal planned to do outside Nashville has always been a bit uncertain. Technically he was carrying out a classic siege, but realistically the Union forces in Nashville only grew stronger, not weaker, while Hood watched and waited and pleaded for reinforcements that would never come.

The fortifications encircling Nashville were much too strong for even the headstrong and reckless Hood to challenge. Maybe, Hood must have thought, they will attack me as I did at Franklin and maybe, just maybe, we can do to them what they did to us and a seriously weakened Union force might abandon the city. But this was a forlorn hope. George Thomas, the Federal commander in Nashville was one of Mr. Lincoln’s most capable generals, a Virginian, who, unlike his old friend Robert E. Lee, refused to change loyalties when his home state seceded. This officer, known as the “Rock of Chickamauga,” would fight hard. But unlike Hood, he would fight smart. Besides, he had all the advantages. His gathering army would be better equipped, better fed, more confident in their commander, and, most of all, would enjoy a more than two to one advantage in numbers in the coming battle. Thomas determined to leave the safety of his fortifications and move against Hood only when he was good and ready and not a moment before even though his anxious superiors in Washington threatened to relieve him of his command at one point. Thomas, well aware that Hood could only watch and wait, would not be rushed. He had that luxury knowing that the massive Federal installation in Nashville that had built up since the city had fallen to Union forces two and a half years before was never in any real jeopardy. With each passing day Hood’s weary, hungry forces grew weaker and Thomas’ grew stronger. Time was on his side.

The Confederates were saved by darkness at the end of the first day of the battle, Dec. 15, as the army withdrew a couple of miles to a second line of defense and dug in just South of what is now Battery Lane. The Union army followed them, formed up, in a long parallel line just North of their enemy and started blasting away at them with artillery the next morning. As the Confederates responded as best they could with their own artillery and hunkered down to await the next onslaught, Union dismounted cavalry under James Wilson slowly worked their way around the extreme Confederate left. On what came to be known as Shy’s Hill the tired cold defenders never really had a chance against the legions of Union soldiers who came up the slopes from three sides. They broke and ran and within minutes the entire Confederate line began collapsing to the East like a row of dominoes.

At the end of the day on December 16 Hood’s army was in full retreat cramming onto Franklin Road and Granny White Pike with the Union cavalry in hot pursuit. Thousands had been taken prisoner and were making their sullen dispirited way North under guard toward internment pens in Nashville where they would be processed before being shipped North to POW camps in Illinois and Ohio. The exhausted remains of Hood’s army would finally cross the Tennessee River near the Alabama state line a week or so later to spend a miserable Christmas in the camp of the defeated. Knowing that all hope was gone, many would desert and head for home leaving the fabled Army of Tennessee a mere shadow of what it had been only six weeks before when it had crossed into Middle Tennessee full of energy and renewed hope.

Most of the blame for this debacle can be placed on the commander himself- John B. Hood and his poor decisions made in late November at Spring Hill and the terrible decision he made on Winstead Hill just South of Franklin to assault the Union position there. It was a judgment call Hood, who survived the war, never(unfortunately) regretted. In his memoirs he choose to blame the men of Cheatham’s Corps, the brave men who made the charge and died in droves, that they were timid and had grown too accustomed to fighting behind breastworks and fortifications. It was an assertion that insulted the proud veterans of his army. They might forgive him for a bad mistake but to put the blame on the them and their dead comrades for a mistake for which Hood and Hood alone was responsible? They wouldn’t forgive him for this. They turned their back on him and refused to speak his name at reunions. They spit on the ground on those rare occasions when his name was mentioned. Few attended his funeral. In the West their beloved commander was Joe Johnston. In the East it was, of course, Robert E. Lee. Among the rank and file Hood was universally despised.

Was the Battle of Nashville a foregone conclusion? I think so. The cold, hungry, war weary Confederates encamped South of town could, in the days prior to the battle, clearly see across the deforested plain the mighty host gathering against them Any fool could tell that the fates had turned against them. When the battle began, most of them stayed at their posts and fought anyway-until they were killed, wounded, overwhelmed and captured or ordered to fall back. In the hills South of Nashville their glory days were over. Here there would be no ecstasy, only agony. But it wouldn’t last much longer. The bloodletting was drawing to a close. The end of the long cruel war was near.

All this comes to mind when I reach over and pick up my one lb relic of that fight, my iron chunk of history, a small part of the means by which the more numerous industrial Northern states brought the agriculturally oriented Southern Confederacy to its knees in our biggest American war. A little piece of rusted iron can say a lot. I wonder who loaded it into the gun and pulled the friction primer to fire it toward the doomed Confederate position a mile or so to the East. Did a portion of this shell kill the 17 year old Confederate gunner? Gosh, If it could only talk.

**********************************************************

*a heavy enfilading fire upon your position would be something not easily forgotten. Having inspected the remains of the earthworks at Redoubt Four, it is easy to see that they run East-West as if anticipating an attack from the North, which, of course, was the location of the enemy when the thing was constructed. (many battle maps erroneously show the works facing West- NW) Thomas, however, did not cooperate. His guns were placed due West of the redoubt, about twenty in all, firing from a mile or so away, rendering the fortification almost useless. To return fire, Lumsden had to relocate at least two of those guns out in the open. But they offered little challenge to the Feds in this most unequal contest.

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