Book Review: Johnsonville: Union Supply Operations on the Tennessee River and the Battle of Johnsonville, November 4-5, 1864

How many Johnsonville experts do we have out there? Anyone? No no…not the sausage. To be honest the little I knew about Johnsonville, Tennessee related to the 100th USCT Infantry, a unit that included several men from my hometown and their time spent guarding the vital supply depot. That’s why I selfishly jumped at the opportunity to review the latest offering from Savas Beatie…in hopes of learning more about the oft neglected 100th USCT.

Johnsonville: Union Supply Operations on the Tennessee River and the Battle of Johnsonville, November 4 – 5, 1864 by Jerry Wooten. Savas Beatie, 2019.

What I found in Johnsonville: Union Supply Operations on the Tennessee River and the Battle of Johnsonville, November 4 – 5, 1864 was so much more than an obscure regiment, though admittedly I was thrilled to find the 100th USCT mentioned several times. Author Jerry Wooten, perhaps the most qualified individual to write this book having previous served as Park Manager at Johnsonville State Historic Park, has filled a substantial void in Civil War historiography with this effort. Wooten mined an impressive number of resources to deliver a thorough and balanced history of an otherwise neglected corner of the war, highlighting battles, supplies, logistics, transportation and emancipation. And all in a fast and entertaining read (205 pages)!

Wooten first traces the Johnsonville region back to the late 18th century up through the development of the supply depot, named for Military Governor and later Vice President and President, Andrew Johnson. He devotes a full chapter to the development of the Nashville & Northwestern Railroad, one of the unsung engineering feats of the entire Civil War, the author noting that the bed for the railroad dug during the Civil War is still in active use today!

The significance in Johnsonville is less in the battle than in the role it played as a critical Union supply depot. Wooten notes that Johnsonville would become the second largest supply depot in Tennessee. As such it was responsible for keeping William T. Sherman’s Army fed, equipped and supplied during Sherman’s operations in Georgia. The author spells out the logistics behind the supplies that flowed into and out of Johnsonville throughout the war.

Wooten’s coverage of the battle of Johnsonville and associated skirmishing during Forrest’s raid into western Tennessee is particularly important. Previously available accounts and interpretation of Johnsonville are primarily Confederate and reflect a Lost Cause narrative that Forrest ‘surprised’ and overtook the Union defenders and destroyed the depot. The author utilizes both Union and Confederate sources to debunk the claim. Wooten also does justice to the USCT troops at Johnsonville whose contributions had been  previously omitted from the historical record.

The author also traces the postwar history of Johnsonville, from its rise with the Tennessee River Bridge to its later decline and ultimately it’s flooding under the 1944 TVA Kentucky Dam. This blend of military/social history tracing the prewar, wartime and postwar years of a Civil War locale not named Gettysburg was a refreshing read.

I would be remiss to not point out some distracting typos throughout the text. More frustrating were inconsistencies in the index which made it difficult in referencing back to find certain regiments or individuals. Even still these can be easily cleaned up in future printings, which I do hope this book sees.

I’ve always included historian Terry Lowry as one of my favorite Civil War authors. His books on Scary Creek, Carnifex Ferry, Charleston and Droop Mountain are simply outstanding microhistories of battles not widely studied outside West Virginia. While new sources have turned up since their publication these books are essentially the final word on each of these battles. They don’t need to be touched again. In Johnsonville Jerry Wooten has similarly written what’s likely the final word on the supply depot and the November 1864 battle. Hats off to Savas Beatie for another quality release.

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7 Responses to Book Review: Johnsonville: Union Supply Operations on the Tennessee River and the Battle of Johnsonville, November 4-5, 1864

  1. Michael Bradley says:

    How can the author “debunk” the “theory” that Forrest destroyed the Johnsonville supply depot when it was actually destroyed?

    • Jon-Erik Gilot says:

      Hi Michael,

      As the author points out, most damage was in the area of the wharf. Most of that damage was done at the hands of the defenders. There was no ‘wholesale destruction.’ The monetary blow was astounding, that’s for certain, but the depot was running supplies again in short order.

  2. Chris Kolakowski says:

    I had an ancestor there in the 43d Wisconsin

  3. John Sinclair says:

    It’s also a remarkably preserved battlefield (though a bit out-of-the-way to visit) with a small but good state visitor center.

  4. Michael Bradley says:

    I cannot agree that the depot “was running supplies again in short order.” The O. R. shoes the post was soon abandoned because of Hood’s move into Tennessee . C. S. cavalry scavenged the ruins of Johnsonville to gather supplies for the ARmy of Tennessee.

    • Jon-Erik Gilot says:

      Hi Michael,

      Remaining supplies and troops weren’t removed from Johnsonville until the end of November, more than three weeks following the battle. Even then the movement was more with an eye for readily available supplies should Nashville be attacked. The depot was reoccupied in early January with work there continuing into the spring before it was decommissioned.

  5. Rhea Cole says:

    Johnsonville & many other outlying supply post, rail road bridge guards & the like were withdrawn to Nashville, Murfreesboro & Chattanooga. It was a long convoy of men & equipment that was being withdrawn to Nashville that Schofield had to push ahead that brought on the Battle of Franklin. Ed Bearss says that the attack on Johnsonville was indicative of the profligate waste of resources committed by the Confederates. Forrest had no business being in West Tennessee in the first place. I don’t make a habit of arguing with Ed, so I will leave it there.

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