On July 31, 2019 I took the driving tour of the battle of Nashville offered by Ross Massey, the author of Nashville Battlefield Guide. As a native of the area who has studied the battle for decades, Massey is one of the leading experts on the engagement. It was a pleasure to ride around with him, even though Nashville’s new popularity makes it a traffic nightmare.
Nashville is an unlikely topic for me. While my interest is mostly with the Army of Tennessee, I know and feel more passion for Shiloh and Stones River. Yet, Nashville is not covered as much and the battle drew me in. John Bell Hood’s entire offensive was like the Ardennes and Leyte Gulf in World War II, a final throw of the dice that made some strategic sense but was too late to truly reverse the tide and had long odds of success. Last desperate attacks, particularly in winter, interest me. The Confederate retreat on December 16, the chaos of an organization collapsing, engrosses me. I find defeat more interesting than victory. It should be noted, I am obsessed with stories of sinking ships, which might be why my small World War II library mostly deals with the doomed Imperial Japanese Navy.
On a personal level I had one ancestor in the campaign. George Washington Dossett of Company C, 8th Kentucky Infantry (Mounted) deserted in late 1862 only to return and fight under Nathan Bedford Forrest in April 1864. He was in every fight with Forrest until he was captured at Selma in 1865. Dossett lived until 1913 and was a successful farmer.
Taking a battlefield tour of Nashville is unusual. Nashville is a large American city, and much of the battlefield is covered in suburban sprawl. The whys are not hard to imagine. For one, the real estate was valuable. Unlike Shiloh or Chickamauga, Nashville was fought right outside of a major city. Also, during the war most Nashville residents were pro-Confederate, and they watched the December 1864 battle hoping that hood would win. leading Lieutenant Colonel Isaac R. Sherwood of the 111th Ohio wrote, “No army on the continent ever played on any field to so large and so sullen an audience.” They did not want to remember one of the Confederacy’s worst defeats, a battle that effectively took the Army of Tennessee out of the war ended the Confederacy’s last gamble.
Massey suggested another reason. If markers and monuments were put up, they would have included Union monuments. After the war the North had more money and could afford far more lavish memorials. They could cast William Tecumseh Sherman in gold and give Ulysses S. Grant the grandest tomb in all of America. Massey mentioned that one of his Confederate ancestors wept when he saw the Shiloh battlefield was covered in monuments to the victors, while the vanquished had few.
The result is that Nashville, one of the biggest and most important battles of the Civil War, is arguably the least preserved. There are a few places though that one can visit. Shy’s Hill is the best preserved, but there is also Redoubts No. 1 and 4. The others are mostly gone. Massey and his compatriots saved part of the Texas Lunette, where Granbury’s Texas Brigade defeated a Union attack on December 15. The site though is maintained by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which is an organization that seems to be on borrowed time.
I have come to worry about the future of preservation. Battlefields are visited less and less. Fewer people identity as Civil War buffs and book and magazine sales are down. Whatever one’s feelings on the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, they do good work with grave maintenance and in the case of Nashville saving some sites. What will happen when they are gone? In New Orleans the Confederate dead are hardly mentioned on most cemetery tours and Sally Asher’s recent book about important burials in the three St. Louis cemeteries says few words about them. Whatever one’s feelings, the graves are of historical and often times artistic importance.
One cannot say where things will be in 100 years. The new stigmas placed on the war broadly and the Confederacy in particular ensures that the time when one could easily publish anything on the war are ending. As with anything, it is not wholly good or bad, but it does mean that raising money for preservation of battlefields and tombs will likely be more difficult. I hope that Massey and his compatriots can get what they have saved over to a more permanent situation before all traces of the battle of Nashville are lost.