Today In History: The first Confederate State Capital Falls

On February 23, 1862, Union troops occupied Nashville, the first Confederate state capital to fall. Nashville remained under Union control for the rest of the war and was the scene of an early Reconstruction policy with a pro- Union government led by wartime Governor Andrew Johnson.

By summer 1862. the city quickly became an important Union supply base and recruiting center. Nashville’s position along the Cumberland River and railroad access to points north made it an important supply center for advancing Union forces. It was also a recruiting center for United States Colored Troops.

On March 3, 1862, Lincoln officially made Andrew Johnson military governor of Tennessee. The news, given to Johnson through Secretary Stanton stated:

You are hereby appointed Military Governor of the State of Tennessee, with the authority to exercise and perform within the limits of that state, all the singular [sic], the powers, duties and functions pertaining to the office of Military Governor (including the power to establish all necessary offices and tribunals, and suspend the writ of Habeas Corpus) during the  pleasure of the President, or until the loyal inhabitants of that state shall organize a civil government in conformity with the Constitution of the United States.

Accusing the mayor and city council of disloyalty, Johnson dismissed them and replaced them with Unionists. He also arrested the editors of secessionist-leaning newspapers.

Military occupation brought new questions to both occupiers and civilians. How should the Federal army administer the city and surrounding territory? What rights did civilians have? How would enslaved people be treated? It was the first urban area to be occupied and administered by the Union army, and this was the first time southern civilians adapted to occupation outside Virginia. It was uncharted territory for everyone.

The Tennessee state capitol in Nashville. Library of Congress.

By November 1862 over 50,000 Union troops were in and around the city. Led by General William S. Rosecrans, the bulk of this force marched on Murfreesboro in December 1862, setting the stage for the battle of Stones River.

Ironically, Tennessee was the last state to secede from the Union (June, 1861) and the first to be largely occupied and have a reconstructed government. Governor Johnson laid the groundwork for Republicans to lead the state of Tennessee back into the Union in 1868 – the first seceded state to do so.

Another fun fact, only two Confederate state capitals remained in Southern hands for the entire war: Tallahassee, Florida, and Austin, Texas. Both were only occupied by Union forces after the fighting ended.

Dunkerly is the author of Force of a Cyclone, co-written with Caroline A. Davis.


5 Responses to Today In History: The first Confederate State Capital Falls

  1. Someone should study Andrew Johnson’s time as military governor of Tennessee and how it affected his chosen policy positions while President. Andrew Johnson was a non-conciliatory Unionist governor of Tennessee. From what I’ve read he treated Confederate Tennesseans pretty harshly and I’ve read accounts of his policies driving some Tennessee Unionists, especially in Middle and West Tennessee, into siding with the Confederates. Apparently he had a difficult time getting enough Tennesseans to vote Republican/Unionist in 1864. He was so scared he wouldn’t get enough votes that he lingered in Tennessee longer than Lincoln wanted him too in 1864. Then once President, he chose to not push the ex-Confederates as hard.

    1. I agree, Lyle, his policies and actions should be studied more, or at least better understood. I’ve not read much about him myself, so there may be some works out there on him that I’m not aware of.

  2. Just for the sake of clarity… one of the stars on the Confederate Battle Flag represented the Confederate State of Kentucky, with Capital at Bowling Green. Another star represented the Confederate Government of Tennessee with its capital… relocated from Nashville (23 FEB 1862) to Memphis by Governor Isham Harris. Bowling Green was evacuated on 14 FEB 1862 and occupied by Federal General Ormsby Mitchel the next day. Confederate Governor of Kentucky George W. Johnson remained in company with General Albert Sidney Johnston until the Battle of Shiloh, where both General Johnston and Governor Johnson died of wounds. [OR Ser.1 Vol.7 page 2.]

    1. Yes, Mike…. Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee had stars representing them on the Confederate flag. The Confederate government of Tennessee was in exile after Nashville’s fall. A point that is important but I didn’t go into here. Thanks.

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