|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,
(CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)
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.
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|
Ambrose Bierce, who was
impressed by the U.S.C.T.
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
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 fold3.com)|
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 fold3.com)
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 fold3.com)
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 fold3.com)
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 fold3.com)|
|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 Armies, Vol. 45, Part 1.