Wednesday, December 15, 2010

“The Question is Settled”

Today marks the 146th anniversary of the first day of the Battle of Nashville. While most students of the Civil War are aware of the overall importance of this final hurrah for John Bell Hood and his Army of Tennessee, some might be surprised to learn that United States Colored Troops played an important part in this decisive Union victory. Moreover, that any black troops were allowed to participate in this fight at all should not be taken lightly – Union commanders in the Western Theater (William Tecumseh Sherman being one of the most vociferous and influential among them) considered USCTs untrustworthy for front line service and tried to limit their service to nothing more than manual labor. When the fighting was over at Nashville, however, Maj. Gen. George Thomas was overheard to say, “Gentlemen, the question is settled; negroes will fight.”

The battle itself was fought on Thursday and Friday, December 15 & 16, 1864. Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas, commanding a Federal force of about 55,000 men, attacked and routed the Confederate army commanded by Gen. John B. Hood, which numbered fewer than 25,000. On December 2nd Hood had settled his army before Nashville, strongly entrenching what was left of his army along a series of hills south of the city. Since he didn’t have enough men to attack Thomas, Hood simply waited in his trenches for Thomas to attack him. Thomas obliged on the morning of December 15th.

The plan of attack called for the main assault to be directed against the Confederate left flank. A diversionary assault would be launched prior to the main effort, and it was in this diversion that many of the USCTs would “see the elephant” for the first time. They were commanded by a Pennsylvanian named Maj. Gen. James B. Steedman. Steedman’s subordinate, Colonel Thomas J. Morgan of the 1st Colored Brigade thought that all his men had to do that morning was clear out some lightly-manned Confederate rifle pits. As it turned out, Morgan was dead wrong. When his men attacked around 8 a.m. all was smooth sailing until they encountered a deep ravine near the cut of the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad. At that point Confederate artillery and musket fire ripped into the ranks of the black troops from three different directions. One Confederate later recalled, “We had the negroes in our trap, and when we commenced firing on them, complete demoralization followed.” After several minutes of severe punishment, Morgan’s soldiers fell back to the Murfreesboro Pike, where they remained for the rest of the day. Even if the diversion itself had failed, the main effort against Hood was a resounding success and Thomas pursued Hood’s men until nightfall of the 15th.

Thomas was pressured to keep pressing Hood’s men, and thus launched follow-up assaults on December 16th. USCT units that had not participated in the first days fighting now had a chance to prove themselves. They went into the attack on the Confederate lines at Overton Hill, and once again they were raked with intense artillery fire (one survivor said that the air “seemed as full of the death-laden missiles as of hail in a driving hail storm”). Still, the black troops pressed on. The 13th USCT ignored the intense fire and advanced all the way up to the Confederate line. After one of the color-bearers was hit, a second one retrieved the flag until he was hit. Eventually five more men of the color guard stepped forward to rescue the colors one at a time – all would be shot down. One survivor later recalled, “The last color bearer shook the flag over the rebel works but it was snatched from his hand, and he was shot. Every one of the color-guard was either killed or wounded.” The 13th lost 40% of its strength in this assault. A Confederate who witnessed this attack said that he “never saw dead men thicker than” at Nashville.

Still, Union forces triumphed once again and the Army of Tennessee was destroyed as a cohesive fighting force. Humiliated Rebel prisoners found themselves guarded by black soldiers, a fate that many described with horror and anguish – the USCTs proudly standing guard over them served as a constant reminder that the old social structure that they cherished and fought for was no more.

While the United States Colored Troops who fought at Nashville could be proud of the part that they played in the victory, they still had to face the racism that prevailed in their own army. Indeed, many of the wounded from the battle received poorer medical treatment than their white counterparts, prompting Brig. Gen. Lorenzo Thomas to proclaim, “Had these men been white soldiers, think you this would have been their condition?”

Nevertheless, black soldiers knew that every time they performed well in battle that this would have far reaching consequences beyond the battlefield. Every victory was a small step in the long road to citizenship and social equality. One of those steps was taken 146 years ago today.

USCT Order of Battle

Provisional Detachment (District of the Etowah) MG James B. Steedman

Provisional Division, BG Charles Cruft

1st Colored Brigade Col Thomas J. Morgan

14th U.S. Colored Troops: Ltc Henry C. Corbin

16th U.S. Colored Troops: Col William B. Gaw

17th U.S. Colored Troops: Col William R. Shafter

18th U.S. Colored Troops (battalion): Maj Lewis D. Joy

44th U.S. Colored Troops: Col Lewis Johnson

2nd Colored Brigade, Col Charles R. Thompson

12th U S. Colored Troops: Ltc William R. Sellon, Cpt Henry Hegner

13th U.S. Colored Troops: Col John A. Hottenstein

100th U.S. Colored Troops: Maj Collin Ford

1st Battery, Kansas Light Artillery: Cpt Marcus D. Tenney

Post of Nashville, BG John F. Miller

Garrison Artillery, Maj John J. Ely

Battery A, 3rd U.S. Colored Light: Cpt Josiah V. Meigs


  1. Good stuff.

    I just read about this in "Like Men of War" by Noah Andre Trudeau.

    What makes Thomas' comment so more important is that before the battle he apparently shared the doubts about the willingness of the USCT men to fight.

  2. Thank you for this post. What is truly remarkable is that Maj. Thomas and General WT Sherman were so completely dense. The "Question" had been well settled in the Trans Mississippi West by the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry at Poison Spring, and by the 2d Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry at Jenkins Ferry (both battles in Arkansas) as well as by the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry at Fort Wagner. That high ranking Union officers continued to spout such inanities (especially when it was well known that the US Colored Troops were subject to the Black Flag from CSA troops) sheds more light on the issue of why it took so long to subdue those in rebellion.

  3. Such inanities continued to be spouted for almost a century. The histories of black units in World War II are replete with statements by both outsiders and some of their own officers that black soldiers were incapable of combat operations. As is now fairly well known, well trained black units performed with distinction.

  4. That’s definitely true. When I was doing research for an exhibit on African American military service during the age of Jim Crow I came across a lot of examples from WWII. I was shocked to learn that white corpsmen refused to treat black Marines for fear of what would happen if their blood mingled. Shocking stuff. You can find out more here:

  5. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.