Monday, June 29, 2020

'Came only to die': Five black lives lost on Peach Orchard Hill

Under devastating fire, 13th U.S. Colored Troops advanced up Peach Orchard Hill on Dec. 16, 1864 -- 
the second, and final, day of the Battle of Nashville. This is private property in a residential area,
 Like this blog on Facebook | Follow me on Twitter

In an affluent residential area of Nashville, only slivers of ground remain undeveloped on Peach Orchard Hill, where U.S. Colored Troops fought courageously in their first battle of the war.

A historical marker near Peach Orchard Hill does not mention 
the black troops who fought there.
On my brief visit to battleground there Saturday, the scene seemed so incongruous: Traffic droned on busy Franklin Road a short distance away from the private property; near a backyard pool, a hare dashed into a clump of woods, yards from a broken wheelbarrow; and steps from a large bed of flowers, an air-conditioning unit hummed beside a large house. This place, also known as Overton Hill, is hallowed ground.

How could this be?

Of the 3,840 acres of core Nashville battlefield, only about 320 acres where the fighting occurred are preserved. And the role of black troops during the two-day battle is virtually unrecognized publicly on historical markers in the city. Along Franklin Road, one describes the fighting that occurred here, but few stop to read it, and the role of the U.S.C.T. isn't mentioned.

Oh, what a story we're missing.

On the afternoon of Dec. 16, 1864, 13th U.S.C.T. soldiers advanced toward the camera
 up Peach Orchard Hill.  In the distance is busy Franklin Pike. 

On the unseasonably warm afternoon here on Dec. 16, 1864 – the second day of the Battle of Nashville – three regiments of U.S.C.T  advanced up the steep, 300-foot hill into the teeth of strong enemy defenses near the crest. Canister and well-directed musket fire poured into them. And yet these ill-equipped and ill-trained men, directed by white officers, charged on.

A post-war image of
Union officer
Ambrose Bierce, who 
 impressed by the U.S.C.T.
“I never saw more heroic conduct shown on the field of battle,” recalled an Ohio officer, “than was exhibited by this body of so recently released slaves.”

Disabled by a wound, U.S. Army officer Ambrose Bierce watched from afar the advance of the U.S.C.T. through “an intricate abatis of felled trees denuded of their foliage and twigs.”

“They did not hesitate for a moment: their long lines swept into that fatal obstruction in perfect order and remained there as long as those of the white veterans on their right,” he recalled decades later. “And as many of them in proportion remained until borne away and buried after the action. It was as pretty an example of courage and discipline as one could wish to see."

Even Confederate commander James Holtzclaw noted the valor of the black troops. In his sector, the general's men defended against soldiers in the 13th U.S.C.T. In its first, and only, major fight of the war, the nearly 600-man regiment suffered 55 dead among 220 casualties.

“Placing a negro brigade in front,” he wrote in his official report, “they gallantly dashed up to the abatis, forty feet in front, and were killed by hundreds. Pressed on by their white brethren in the rear they continued to come up in masses to the abatis, but they only came to die.

James Holtzclaw, a C.S.A.
general, wrote in his official

report about 
U.S.C.T. gallantry.
“I have seen most of the battle-fields of the West," he added, "but never saw dead men thicker than in front of my two right regiments.”

In his after-action report, 13th U.S.C.T. Colonel John A. Hottenstein wrote that his men advanced to the "very muzzles of the enemy's guns." But unsupported by artillery, the small regiment fell back, "but not for the want of courage or discipline."

"Them that was not killed," a U.S.C.T soldier recalled decades after the war, "was almost shot to death almost to a man."

From my vantage point on this private property, I gazed toward the present-day crest of Peach Orchard Hill. (Post-war construction of a road took away a chunk of the hill.) In his report, Holtzclaw wrote of five black color-bearers falling after they vainly attempted to plant their battle flag on Confederate earthworks. Another color-bearer was shot down a few feet of Holtzclaw's line. An Alabama officer leaped over the works to grab the prized trophy.

Did these acts of valor happen near a present-day tool shed, 50 feet from a row of sunflowers? Or maybe it was somewhere else in the back yard of the large, white ranch house. Who knows?

I tried to imagine the "wild disorder" described by Holtzclaw of black soldiers as they tumbled down the hill and the broken bodies that lay on the muddy, blood-soaked ground.

Who were these men?

Culled from widow's pension records in the National Archives, here are glimpses of five black lives lost on Peach Orchard Hill.

13th U.S.C.T. Private James Byars, Company K

(National Archives via
"I was a solger in the war with James Byars," wrote Company K Private Preston Byars in a document found in James' widow's pension file (above). "I was shot in the sholder and I was taken from the field. I was told he was shot and killed. When I left his side I never saw him any more. He must have been killed for all in my command was almost killed. Them that was not killed was almost shot to death almost to a man."

After her husband's death at Nashville, Ruth Byars filed for a pension, which was approved at the standard $8 a month. Years later, the former slave re-married and her pension was discontinued, but the union did not last. Ruth's second husband deserted her in 1874.

"I am very much in need of a pension," Ruth, who worked as a cook, claimed in an 1891 affidavit for the Bureau of Pensions. "Get it as soon as you can."

James' final resting place is unknown.

13th U.S.C.T Private James Thomas, Company B

Amy Roberson said she was James Thomas' daughter, but the Bureau of Pensions rejected her claim.
(National Archives via
Seven months after he was killed in action at Peach Orchard Hill, Jacob's widow died in Nashville. Decades later, a woman named Amy Roberson filed for a dependent's pension, claiming she was the daughter of Jacob and Cynthia Thomas, both of whom were former slaves. She was born into slavery herself in May 1860.

A special investigator was assigned to the case by the Bureau of Pensions. Seeking evidence to buttress Amy's claim for a pension, the pension bureau interrogated former slaves and James' former masters. Their testimony gives stark picture of the times.

"He was a mere boy of about 17 years old when he left me," testified 73-year-old former slaveholder James Thomas Sr. He and his son, Sam, claimed Cynthia and James were never married.

A 73-year-old Methodist minister, a former slave who sold eggs, butter and chickens, disputed the slavemasters' testimony: "I performed the marriage ceremony on the [slavemaster Granville] Pillow place," Alfred Wilson testified, "uniting those two in wedlock. I remember it well. It was on a Saturday night and in the [slave] cabin of Cynthia's mother..."

Sarah Walker, James' sister, also belonged to James Thomas Sr. She left her master "when the Yankee army first came to Columbia [Tenn.]..." Walker testified she and her husband raised Amy after the deaths of Jacob and Cynthia.

Sarah also recalled saying goodbye to James with Cynthia on the morning of the battle. "I never saw my brother again," she said.

Ultimately, the Bureau of Pensions believed the testimony of former slavemasters over former slaves. Roberson's claim was rejected in 1890.

The final resting place of soldier James Thomas is unknown.

13th U.S.C.T. Private Lewis Martin, Company A

Probably unable to read or write, 39-year-old Lewis Martin signed this form with an "X" when he enlisted.
(National Archives via
Lewis, who was 5-foot-4 with black hair and eyes, enlisted in Franklin, Tenn., in August 1863.
On either Dec. 18 or 23, 1864, he died  from a lacerated wound to the left hip at Hospital No. 16 -- one of many medical facilities in Nashville during the war. Located on South College Street, the hospital served African-American soldiers and contrabands. The 39-year-old farmer was married to his wife, Minerva, for about 23 years. His final resting place is unknown.

13th U.S.C.T. Private Miles German, Company I

German's widow Ellen signed with an "X" this pension file document, which includes 
the birthdates of her five children.  (National Archives via
German enlisted in the 13th U.S.C.T. in Stevenson, Ala.., on Oct. 22, 1863, and was mustered into the regiment at Camp Rosecrans, in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Miles, who died of his wounds in Nashville a little more than a month after the battle, was survived by his wife Ellen and five children: John, 8 in 1864; Jerry, 6; Augustus, 4; Alice, 3; and Martha Jane, 2.

In a terrific, detailed post on her excellent "From Slaves to Soldiers and Beyond" blog, researcher Tina Cahalan Jones wrote German was enslaved in Williamson County (Tenn.). After the war, Martin's remains were disinterred from somewhere in Nashville and re-buried in the national cemetery north of the city.

13th U.S.C.T. Private John House, Company H

(National Archives via
Months after the war was over, 13th U.S.C.T. Lieutenant Barnabas Ricketts wrote this note confirming House's death in a Nashville hospital on Dec. 16, 1864. John may have died at the Glen Leven Estate, where a makeshift Federal hospital was set up a short distance north of Peach Orchard Hill. Thirty years after her husband's death, Sophia House remained unmarried. John was buried in Nashville National Cemetery in a section with his U.S.C.T comrades.

Private John House's grave in Nashville National Cemetery.

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


-- San Francisco Examiner, June 5, 1894. (This is source for Bierce comment about worthiness of black soldiers.)
-- Lewis, G.W., The Campaigns of the 124th Regiment, Ohio Volunteer Infantry, with Roster and Roll of Honor. The Werner Comapany, Akron, 1894.
-- The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate ArmiesVol. 45, Part 1.


  1. Thank you for highlighting this forgotten action. I remember you visited the site a few months ago and I think I commented then too.

    The 13th USCT was commanded by US Army regular Col. John A. Hottenstein and was part of Col. Charles R. Thompson's 2nd USCT brigade. Hottenstein is buried in Kansas,

    I have done some research on where the action took place relative to the modern topography. In modern Nashville, Overton Hill sits immediately north of Hardling Place and there appears to be a few very large mansions on top of the hill today. Elysian Fields Roads skirts the northern and eastern approaches to the hill, and the majority of the combat took place between Southmeade Parkway and Harding Place. The USCT regiments approached from the northeast and east (modern Morriswood Drive and Father Ryan High School area). It appears the 13th USCT drifted slightly to the west in its approach and hit the northern sector of the hill, roughly near the intersection of Elysian Fields Road and Omandale Drive. This indirect approach exposed the 13th's left flank to a severe flanking fire that I think resulted in the high casualties (55 KIA and 166 WIA). The other two regiments of Thompson's brigade--the 12th and 100th USCTs--hit the northeastern sector of the hill and suffered fewer casualties than the 13th USCT.

    This is the best description of the terrain and the hill in 1864:

    When Captain Henry V. Freeman of the 12th USCT got a good look at the Rebel-held hill, he wasn’t happy with what he saw. “It was probably their strongest position,” he later declared. “The slope of the hill was obstructed by tree-tops. The approach was over a ploughed field, the heavy soil of which, clinging to the feet, greatly impeded progress.” Facing the 12th, Freeman noted, “was a thicket of trees and underbrush so dense as to be almost impenetrable, constituting a kind of wooded island, in the midst of the cornfield.”

    1. Todd: Thanks for this. Much appreciated. John Banks

  2. Great story & read - thanks John

  3. Pvt. House actually died at U.S. General Hospital No. 16 on South College Street. It was known as the "Contraband Hospital," as it was where all African American soldiers and Government workers were treated. It was notoriously overcrowded, understaffed, and conditions were filthy enough to lead to a major scandal. It was closed in 1865 and a new, cleaner, and far better facility known as the Wilson General Hospital was opened to treat African American patients.

    1. Thanks for this, Brian. What's the source for this? Best, JBANKS