Wednesday, June 09, 2021

Window (ledges) into past: Soldiers left mark at Nashville hotel

James Ward of the 14th Ohio carved his name into this Maxwell House Hotel ledge.
Several Union soldiers with the last name "Crider" and first initial 'J" served in the Western Theater.

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Present-day Church Street in Nashville wasn't exactly a bastion of tidiness during the Union Army's occupation. Next to the First Presbyterian Church (now Downtown Presbyterian Church) the Federals constructed a two-story outhouse that was, ah, pretty crappy. Twenty yards or so across the street stood the ugly shell of the unfinished Maxwell House Hotel, initially used by Confederates as a barracks and then by the U.S. Army for the same purpose beginning in early winter 1862.

The Maxwell House Hotel near the end of the war.
(Tennessee State Library and Archives)
Unsurprisingly, the hotel didn't receive 5-star treatment from its occupiers, who probably would have stolen all the towels, swiped those little bags of goodies given to honors club members, and perhaps made off with the exercise bikes in the gym if the place were officially open for business.

“In many places the tiling of the rooms was cracked and broken where fires had been built on the floor for warming purposes, and having been used for so long as a barracks, the building was alive with vermin,” former 1st Wisconsin Cavalry quartermaster sergeant James Waterman wrote decades after the war. “The whole thing was more like a prison than a barracks for civilized beings, and was a disgrace to the service.”

Soldiers left their marks in other ways: by etching their names on the limestone window ledges. Four examples recently acquired from a private collector by the Battle of Nashville Trust include the etchings of names and units of Ohio and Illinois soldiers (see photos). Names of others -- presumably soldiers -- also appear etched into the slabs of stone, which the Trust plans to donate to a local business, organization, or historic site. 

These four ledges were salvaged from the Maxwell House Hotel after a fire destroyed 
the building on Christmas Day 1961.
Polk D. Southard, a teen, served with the 41st and 53rd Illinois. He apparently struggled
with the "4" in "41." He died in 1920 and was buried in New Mexico.
The chances of identifying "W.W." are remote, but perhaps we'll ID "M. Day."

B.R. Hawk -- perhaps Benjamin Hawk of the 14th Illinois -- etched his name in this ledge.
G.B. Bates and H.C.B, left their mark, too.

The Maxwell House Hotel had a twisted history. In the fall of 1863, the grimy barracks housed hundreds of Confederate POWs, many from the Sept. 19-20, 1863, Battle at Chickamauga. On the morning of Sept. 29, disaster struck as POWs were being herded near a fifth-floor stairwell for breakfast. Barracks commander John Lakin, a captain in the 89th Ohio, may have warned the Confederates about the rickety flooring, but none apparently listened if he did.

The lone reminder in downtown Nashville 
of the old Maxwell House Hotel.
A temporary wood floor suddenly gave way, sending prisoners plummeting to the second floor. There were conflicting accounts of the number of dead – one indicated as many as 45 were killed; another said 25, while others said less. “Some were between the floors and were mashed almost to jelly,” a 10th Texas Cavalry veteran recalled. Dozens were injured. (Read more about that tragedy in my Rambling column for Civil War Times magazine.)

From its official opening in 1869 to the early 1900s, the Maxwell House Hotel was the go-to site for the most important people in society. Presidents Rutherford Hayes and William McKinley, both Civil War veterans, were guests, as was former slave trader and Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest, who took the oath to the Ku Klux Klan in a ceremony in Room No. 10.

Once one of the grandest hotels in the South, the Maxwell House was destroyed by fire on Christmas Day 1961. The lone reminder of the hotel is a historical marker mounted on the outside of a modern office building that occupies the site. 

As far as the fate of that huge outhouse, well, thankfully it was closed in January 1864.

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


-- American Civil War Research Database
-- Confederate Veteran, 1902, Vol. 10.
-- The National Tribune, May 3, 1900.

1 comment:

  1. Another fascinating article. Atlanta is another city where historic structures have disappeared without a trace.