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.
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