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Could battered rebels escape a Yankee trap at Nashville?

Private Matthew Raspberry of the 15th Mississippi slumped forward against the stone wall. Then another soldier sprawled face down, and Lt. Col. James Binford realized his troops were being shot in the back. The Federals had broken through the Confederate line, putting the Mississippians in a crossfire. Men in gray were running for their lives in a complete rout.

What no one on the field could know was that the chaos was setting up one of the war’s most heroic rescues. Many Confederates would owe their lives to a duty-bound, level-headed lawyer with no military training.


IT WAS THE SECOND DAY OF THE BATTLE of Nashville—December 16, 1864—and for about a month, things had been going badly for Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee. At Spring Hill on November 29, they had had a chance to block troops in Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield’s Army of the Ohio and keep them from reaching George Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland in Nashville. But Hood and his staff made a series of blunders that allowed the Yankees to pass quietly by during the night. Then Hood sent his men into the Battle of Franklin on the 30th, marching across a broad cornfield, directly into the guns of dug-in Union infantry and artillery. Nearly 7,000 Confederates were killed, wounded or captured, with six generals killed or mortally wounded. And there’s no way to measure the demoralizing effect on the survivors when they looked out on the bodies of their friends piled up where they met the Union line, painting the whole field in gray.

Then the tattered army advanced 30 miles to the Yankee stronghold of Nashville and dug into forward positions. But after sitting through an ice storm, many of them without shoes, tents or blankets, they had to give up their entire line to an overwhelming Union attack.

The next day dawned on a new Confederate line two miles farther south, anchored by Peach Orchard Hill (which Union reports called Overton Hill) on the right, and steep Compton’s Hill on the left, 300 yards west of Granny White Pike. Maj. Gen. Benjamin Cheatham, a Tennessean, commanded the left, with a thin, broken line that continued south around two more hills. The Confederates’ weakened state showed in Claudius W. Sears’ Brigade, which was down to 150 men. Yankees had captured five artillery batteries the previous day. And Hood had sent his best cavalry officer, the dauntless Nathan Bedford Forrest, some 40 miles away to Murfreesboro on a meaningless mission to attack the Federals there. From Compton’s Hill, Maj. Gen. William B. Bate asked repeatedly for reinforcements, but there were none for Hood to send. The Confederates controlled only one road into the city, Franklin Pike, and their line, about three miles long, was too much for the battered army to hold.

Col. William M. Shy’s depleted 20th Tennessee looked out from the top of the hill on a Union force so great that they couldn’t see either end of the blue line. The Federal artillery barrage was fierce, starting in the morning and coming from several directions, with Union shells passing in the air as they slammed into Shy’s position. About 4 p.m., the Federals charged the hill, swarmed over the top, and killed or captured all but about 65 of the defenders. The brave young colonel was killed, and the place would come to be known as Shy’s Hill.

Bate’s Division broke and ran east toward Franklin Pike, and suddenly the Yankees were within the Rebel lines. In the middle, Lt. Gen. Alexander P. Stewart’s Corps fought gallantly behind a stone wall (actually a series of dry-stacked stone farm fences). Binford’s 15th Mississippi was there, with its left on Granny White Pike. On his left was Maj. Gen. Edward Cary Walthall, who followed Bate, peeling back from Comp ton’s Hill and running headlong about 75 yards behind Bin ford. Binford’s troops saw the rout and looked to their leader to see if they should run too. But Binford had no orders to retreat, and inspired his men to stand fast. Just then, Union infantry attacked Binford’s front in three lines. The Mississippians fought furiously, and left only about 50 Yankees alive and running to the rear. The Rebels brought in their fallen regimental flag, and Binford jumped up on the stone wall to cheer the victory. That’s when he saw Raspberry fall toward the very wall they had just defended. The Federals pursuing Walthall across the field behind Binford’s men had apparently stopped to shoot them in the back. Members of the 15th Mississippi had no choice but to bolt as fast as they could for Franklin Pike, with Binford admitting later in his personal journal that he set a blistering pace for them. The Yankees were moving parallel to the 15th, so they faced left and cut into their line, capturing all but 52. Binford was one of the lucky ones who got away.

Binford’s experience was repeated down the line, and the Rebel center crumbled. Then the right, on Peach Orchard Hill, gave way, forcing a retreat down Franklin Pike.


THE NASHVILLE TERRAIN DEFINED the battle in two ways. First, the field was almost devoid of trees, even on the hillsides. Some of it was cultivated, and the rest had been stripped of timber for the Yankee fortifications and firewood. Men could see exactly what was happening, where both sides were positioned, and how they were moving and fighting. “In front we had an open view of several hundred yards,” Binford said. That was helpful to commanders, but when the Confederate line broke, everyone could see the panic, and the terror fed on itself.

The field was also broken by rolling hills and gulleys, making it almost impossible for troops to move in formation. As a result, once the rout started, there was little order on either side. Southerners ran, skirting the hills, clamoring up and down the uneven ground, and Northerners pursued them wherever they could find them. Further, the field had thawed from the ice storm, leaving mud that bogged down men, horses and artillery. Confusion reigned. Darkness was falling, and men ran in every direction, all flowing generally south and east, with no formation and no leadership.

With the Confederate right retreating and their middle dissolving, Cheatham was stranded on the extreme left. Union troops pressing south were cutting him off from Franklin Pike and the main body. To the south was a wall of steep slopes, the Brentwood Hills. And in his front was Maj. Gen. James H. Wilson, commanding a dismounted Union cavalry of some 10,000 men, most of them armed with Sharps and Spencer repeating rifles.

Fortunately for the Confederates, Brig. Gen. Mathew Ector’s Brigade, at that point under Col. Daniel Coleman, had been pulled off Shy’s Hill about 1:15 p.m. and repositioned to extend the left flank at Granny White Pike. Wilson’s cavalry had been pushing all day, and Cheatham kept extending his line until it curved back like a fishhook. Ector’s Brigade went into a key position, with its left against the Brentwood Hills, and there prevented Wilson from turning the fishhook any more. And yet, after the fall of Shy’s Hill, the brigade found it couldn’t hold out for long. A loss for the Rebels was at hand, with death or capture imminent.

One deployment conducted in the middle of the afternoon would make a crucial difference for the Confederates, however. It involved Brig. Gen. Daniel Harris Reynolds and his Arkansas infantry regiments.


REYNOLDS WAS AN ARKANSAS lawyer who raised a company of cavalry, The Chicot Rangers, at the outbreak of the war. But after early action at the battles of Wilson’s Creek and Pea Ridge, his cavalry had been dismounted. At Nashville, Reynolds was commanding the 1st and 2nd Arkansas Mounted Rifles, along with the 4th, 9th and 25th Arkansas infantry, and they began the morning of the second day in line between Compton’s Hill and Granny White Pike.

But just after 3 p.m., Reynolds’ troops were pulled out, with vague orders to be in reserve to support Ector’s Brigade. They crossed Granny White Pike and stopped 300 yards east, on a little hill, where Reynolds had a great view. For a few minutes, he was a man without a fight, awaiting specific orders. Then Bate’s Division broke and ran. The whole line, Reynolds later wrote, “became one fleeing mass of men, and the enemy pressing in hot pursuit.”

Reynolds saw that he had to preserve the only escape for the Confederate left, a country lane through a narrow gap in the Brentwood Hills. Yankees coming down from the stone wall also knew it was there, and pressed toward it. Reynolds didn’t need any orders; he quickly formed his men in the grassy field in front of him, threw up some fence rails as cover, and pushed back the enemy advance. That gave time for Cheatham’s men flooding back from the line around the hills to get through the gap.

Then the intrepid Reynolds pulled back, forming his courageous 1st regiment at the mouth of the gap, and his 2nd at the south end. The fighting was intense, but it’s also likely they were up against a conglomeration of soldiers from various units who might have been without officers to spur them on. So in the narrow pass, the 1st was able to hold off the Yankees for about 30 minutes.

The pass inclined for a quarter-mile, then fell a quarter-mile into cultivated fields bordered by a creek beyond the hills. There Cheatham hurriedly restored some measure of order, then moved out along a country road that followed the creek generally east toward Franklin Pike, where he would find the main body. Reynolds was left alone in the little valley.

The 1st was still skirmishing its way out of the gap when a small detachment of Union soldiers circled around about 11/2 miles on Granny White Pike and came into the valley, using the same road Reynolds was on. So he formed another skirmish line on a slope, and again held the enemy off long enough for the 1st to join them.

It was a textbook fighting withdrawal. Each side repeatedly called to the other to surrender. And every time the Yankees got within range, the Arkansans would deliver a rain of bullets that forced them to stop. Reynolds left his 2nd as a rear guard and moved a half-mile. Then he left the 9th and moved another half-mile. Finally, darkness put some distance between the two armies.


ONE OF THE DIFFICULTIES IN UNRAVELING THE retreat from the Battle of Nashville is that there were few written reports, even by Union officers. They were burdened with more than 4,500 prisoners, and the reports they did manage to file dwelled on claiming credit for capturing cannons and men.

Both armies were on the move, with hundreds more Rebel prisoners being taken during the pursuit. But the greatest reason for the lack of written details is that there were so many men in so many places, fighting in small groups, and often without officers. Nobody came away with a clear, overarching view of what happened that night. And thus one of the war’s most heroic acts, Reynolds’ defense of the gap, went unrecognized.

The exact route Reynolds’ command took out of the bottomland remains a mystery, but he kept leading them south by southeast. They were given up as captured, but by 1 a.m., Reynolds and his men joined the rest of Hood’s wretched army in Franklin.

The exact number of Confederates Reynolds saved from Yankee guns and prisons is also unknown. Some estimates say there were 5,000 men on the Confederate left when the day began. Since the first men to flee from Compton’s Hill and the stone wall were the only ones with a chance of getting to Franklin Pike, it’s reasonable to say that some 3,000 men may have escaped through the little gap in the Brentwood Hills. Without decisive and disciplined action by Reynolds and his Arkansans, the war would have ended that day for many of them.

While others ran, Reynolds’ Arkansas infantry kept their formation. Thousands panicked, but they kept fighting. Other commanders were dazed, but Reynolds kept a cool head. “It has taught us never to despair under any circumstances,” he recalled.


Joe Johnston, author of The Mack Marsden Murder Mystery, is a writer, songwriter and artist in Nashville.

Originally published in the January 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.