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The United States Colored Troops of Major General William T. Sherman’s army wanted to fight during the 1864 Atlanta Campaign, but “Cump” had a dim view of black troops and did all he could to keep them in the rear. As Sherman began his March to the Sea on November 16, 1864, he made sure he left his USCT units behind. But he also left behind a problem: John B. Hood and the Rebel Army of Tennessee. To deal with Hood, Sherman assigned to Major General George H. Thomas a racially mixed force of about 55,000 men and ordered him to react in kind should the mercurial Confederate general move north and cross the Tennessee River. Like Sherman, Thomas did not think much of the fighting acumen of black troops. But on a dreary December day in Nashville, those troops would prove both men wrong.

Thomas, a Virginia-born Unionist whose rearguard defense of Snodgrass Hill at the Battle of Chickamauga earned him the sobriquet “Rock of Chickamauga,” had moved his headquarters to Nashville in late September and begun organizing his command. Some of his units were generously sized, such as the two army corps numbering perhaps 22,000 men. The others, however, consisted of African-American regiments that had been dispersed along the state’s strategic railroad lines. What this meant was that unlike Sherman’s all-white legions headed for Savannah, the force Thomas would command against Hood in defending Tennessee consisted of both white and black units.

Though not a racist, Thomas subscribed to the conventional wisdom of the day that black soldiers were incapable of combat. In fact, he told Colonel Thomas J. Morgan of the 14th USCT outright that he didn’t believe Morgan’s men would fight in the open field. Thomas also took a dim view of subordinates who agitated to halt the common practice of assigning black troops exclusively to fatigue and garrison duties. When Colonel Reuben D. Mussey, the U.S. commissioner appointed to organize the USCT units in Tennessee, complained that the belief “that the negro is to be made a man by first being made a soldier does not seem to be comprehended yet by the commanding generals,” Thomas’ chief of staff was quick to slap him down. Such statements, Mussey was informed, “are in violation of the spirit and letter of the regulation of the army.” The commissioner was in turn placed under arrest until he made a “proper retraction and apology.”

Colonel Morgan’s persistent requests for reassignment to combat duty also drew a biting rebuke from the Department of the Cumberland’s assistant adjutant general, Lt. Col. George E. Flynt: “The Major General commanding [Thomas] directs me to say that when you shall have learned cheerfully to perform your duty to the best of your abilities in such position as may be assigned you, then shall you have learned the first lessons of that discipline, which apparently, you are so anxious should be taught your regiment.”

On November 20, four days after Sherman left Atlanta heading for the Atlantic Coast, Hood responded by marching his 40,000-man army north from Tuscumbia, Ala. Once across the Tennessee River, he moved northeast, effectively flanking a 22,000-man Federal force under Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield posted to the east at Pulaski. Hood pushed his men hard, hoping to cut off Schofield’s command and destroy it, but the Yankee officer was equally anxious to stay one jump ahead of his numerically superior adversary. Hood—not fully recovered from losing his right leg and the use of his right arm the previous year—got in front of Schofield near Spring Hill, but allowed the Federals to escape. Enraged by what he felt was a lack of fighting spirit among his troops, Hood ordered a frontal assault the next day on a strong Union rear-guard position at Franklin. The resulting debacle cost him more than 6,000 men, including many of his best officers. Schofield withdrew to Nashville, followed by Hood.

On December 2, Hood worked to entrench his army along the hills south of Nashville. His effective strength was about 23,000 men (not counting units detached for subsidiary operations)—enough to pose a serious threat, but insufficient to assault the Federal earthworks. Hood’s strategy was to assume a strong defensive position, counting on pressure from Northern officials to force Thomas to attack him. Although many of Hood’s assumptions verged on pure fantasy, he hadn’t underestimated the panic caused by his presence in several nearby states. Hood wasn’t one to rush into a major offensive; besides, the odds and ends left to oppose him by Sherman didn’t add up to an effective combat organization.

When Thomas reported that he intended to stand pat until his units (especially his cavalry) were properly equipped and organized, Lincoln’s military chief of staff complained to Grant—who immediately started badgering Thomas with telegrams offering gratuitous advice and telling him to attack. Thomas still moved methodically, further delayed by an ice storm. His plan called for the principal attack to be launched from the Union right flank. The mass of his mobile force, moving in a grand wheeling action, would fall on Hood’s left flank, which wasn’t anchored to any natural stronghold. Preceding this grand assault would be a diversionary attack against the Rebel right; the black Union troops were assigned to this phase. The USCT units were grouped in something called the “Provisional Detachment (District of the Etowah),” under the overall command of Maj. Gen. James B. Steedman. In addition to three white brigades, Steedman’s detachment included two black ones; the 1st under Colonel Morgan (consisting of the 14th, 16th, 17th, 18th and 44th USCT), and the 2nd led by Colonel Charles R. Thompson (holding the 12th, 13th and 100th USCT).

Steedman, a Pennsylvanian, had no previous experience with black troops. Soon after the Nashville fight he was heard to comment, “I wonder what my Democratic friends…would think of me if they knew I was fighting…with ‘n——’ troops?”

True to form, Morgan rushed to Steedman’s headquarters to lobby for some frontline service. About 9 p.m. on December 14, he learned what his role would be. As Morgan recalled, Steedman “said he wished me to open the fight by making a vigorous assault on Hood’s right flank.” He explained this was to be a feint, intended to convince Hood that it was the real attack, and lead him to support his right by weakening his left, “where Thomas intended to assault him in very deed.” When Morgan asked for tactical advice, Steedman merely waved him away, saying, “Tomorrow, Colonel, just as soon as you can see how to put your troops in motion, I wish you to begin the fight.”

Leaving instructions for his men to “have an early breakfast and be ready for serious work at daybreak,” Morgan scouted the Rebel position. His appraisal was mostly limited to a long-distance scrutiny of the enemy’s campfires, leading him to believe the Confederates had constructed a spur to their main lines running northeast across the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad. This spur was covered by a ring of rifle pits, and Morgan concluded that “if the rifle-pits could be carried and a column pushed well to the rear [of the spur]…the ground east of the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad [would] be given up to us with little loss.” What he missed in the darkness was a small lunette the Rebels had built on the tip of the spur, where they had placed four cannons.

Recalled Captain Henry Romeyn of the 14th USCT: “Camp was astir at 4 a.m., and breakfast had been eaten long before daybreak. One hundred rounds of ammunition per man and two days’ rations were issued, and just as the first grey streaks of dawn appeared, the companies ‘fell in,’ leaving tents standing.” Even though Morgan’s men were ready to advance by 6:30 a.m., another 90 minutes would pass before Steedman released them, mostly because of a thick fog covering the area. While Morgan’s USCT regiments marched out the Murfreesboro Pike to get past the spur, one of the white brigades involved cut in behind Morgan to move more directly against the position; the other black brigade would press it from the east.

At first everything went according to Morgan’s scenario. His three black regiments taking part in the operation (two other regiments were posted elsewhere) formed into three lines of battle. At the front was the 14th, with the 17th USCT under Colonel William R. Shafter next in line followed by Colonel Lewis Johnson’s 44th USCT. The black troops were supported on their right by a small white brigade under Lt. Col. Charles H. Grosvenor. A combat outfit in name only, Grosvenor’s command consisted of three regiments, one of which was detached as a flank guard, leaving him with the 18th Ohio and a unit culled from what the colonel later described as “new conscripts, convalescents, and bounty jumpers.”

When all was ready in Morgan’s front, Lt. Col. Corbin of the 14th gave the command “Forward!” waving his sword overhead. According to Romeyn, “Pushing on, the right of the skirmish-line passing through an orchard and cornfield and the left through a field lately cleared of timber and thickly strewn with stumps and piles of brush, over the crest of the slope it had ascended, it found itself on a sloping field…and face to face with heavy earthworks on its opposite side, from which, came at once a heavy and deadly fire of both artillery and infantry.” The right half of the skirmish line went to the ground, while the left trailed off to the south to engage what Romeyn called “a strong force of rebel skirmishers.”

When it was time for the 17th USCT to take up the momentum and sweep past the enemy’s exposed spur, Shafter’s men dutifully moved forward, passing abreast of the silent enemy lunette to their right. Once the black troops reached the railroad line, where they found their way blocked by a deep cut in the right of way, the Rebel cannoneers opened fire. Just then the Confederate infantry and artillery swung out from the entrenched line directly in front of Shafter’s men. The 17th USCT was caught in devastating fire from the front, right flank and rear. “It was an awful battle,” Shafter later wrote. “We had the negroes in our trap,” related a Georgia soldier on the hill, “and when we commenced firing on them, complete demoralization followed. Many jumped into the [railroad] cut and were either killed or captured.” In his after-action report, Shafter stated that the 17th USCT was “soon obliged to fall back, which was done in rather a disorderly manner.”

Even as Rebel fire was ripping into Shafter’s ranks, Morgan ordered Grosvenor’s brigade to launch a supporting attack. Although a portion of the 18th Ohio actually reached the enemy’s main line, the composite regiment— according to Shafter— “behaved in the most cowardly and disgraceful manner,” and this effort also failed. Farther to the west, Thompson’s black brigade did little more than engage the Rebel skirmishers.

The action planned and executed by Colonel Morgan accomplished none of its tactical objectives. All his units withdrew to the Murfreesboro Pike, though later in the afternoon some of his soldiers occupied the Rains house, where they knocked loopholes in the walls and sniped at the Rebel lines. Morgan later consoled himself that his efforts had achieved their strategic purpose—attracting Hood’s attention— thus making possible the grand Union success on the other flank. Sadly, he gave himself and his men too much credit. The fog and poor conditions that had held up his advance until 8 a.m. caused similar delays on the Union right. Not until 10 a.m. were things underway there; by then Hood was not only apprised of the limited number of troops operating against his right, he also knew that Morgan’s effort had failed.

The heaviest casualties among the black troops occurred in Shafter’s regiment. The colonel of the 17th USCT later reported 17 of his men killed or mortally wounded and 67 wounded. In the 14th USCT there were 4 killed, 41 wounded and 20 missing, while the 44th suffered four wounded. “Colored soldiers had fought side by side with white troops,” Morgan enthused. “They had assisted each other from the field when wounded, and they lay side by side in death….The day that we had longed to see had come and gone, and the Sun went down upon a record of coolness, bravery, manliness, never to be unmade. A new chapter in the history of liberty had been written. It had been shown that marching under a flag of freedom, animated by a love of liberty, even a slave becomes a man and hero.”

News of the Union’s success at Nashville on the 15th reached Washington via telegraph late that evening. A copy of the message was brought to the Willard Hotel, where Grant was preparing to leave for Nashville and relieve Thomas for failing to act with enough celerity. But details of the day’s battle changed all that. “Push the enemy now,” Grant urged in his reply, “and give him no rest until he is entirely destroyed.” That is precisely what George Thomas intended to do.

On December 16, a cloudy and showery day, the Federals began feeling their way south from the line of Rebel works they had taken the previous day. Even though the Confederates had abandoned their earthworks during the night, it was not until 6 a.m.—and only after he had received orders from Thomas to do so—that Steedman moved to occupy the enemy trenches. It took him five hours to catch up with the rest of Thomas’ army, which was spreading out to confront the new defensive position occupied by Hood’s veterans.

Thomas’ basic plan for December 16 was a repeat of the first day: diversionary actions against the Confederate right, with the main blow to be delivered against the enemy’s left. But the Union IV Corps and its aggressive commander, Maj. Gen. Thomas J. Wood, moved into position opposite the Rebel right center. Having missed most of the fighting on the 15th, Wood was determined to grab a piece of the glory. He decided on his own to attack the Southern right with all his strength, hoping to cut off Hood’s retreat route.

It would not be easy. The Confederate flank was anchored on high ground known as Overton Hill in some accounts, or Peach Orchard Hill in others. As Wood prepared for the attack, his enthusiasm infected Steedman, who resolved not just to support the effort, but also to put some units into the attacking column.

Since Morgan’s brigade had taken the worst of it on December 15, Steedman decided that Thompson’s brigade would now get the call. Grosvenor’s brigade, which had performed so poorly the previous morning, would support Thompson. But this time Grosvenor had a small black regiment, the 18th USCT, added to his command. Union cannons were rolled forward to begin a heavy bombardment of the Confederate position. The artillery barrage lasted until about 2:45 p.m., when General Wood gave the order to attack.

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.”

Thompson’s attack was set up with the 100th and 12th USCT regiments in a first line of battle, supported by the 13th. Captain D.E. Straight of the 100th remembered that as his men watched the preparatory artillery bombardment, the rank and file understood that the cannonade was “only the prelude to an undertaking more fearful and terrible.” A few men came to their officers or sergeants with their money or valuables for safekeeping. “This and little talk among themselves showed a settled resolution, to unflinchingly face death in the cause of freedom and nationality,” Straight noted.

“One of the batteries gave the signal, and the troops moved to the assault,” Freeman later wrote. A Rebel gunner on Overton Hill observed: “On they came in splendid order, banners flying, mounted officers with drawn swords careering up and down in front of the lines. Then our artillery had its opportunity.” As Freeman recalled, “A shell took a file of men from one company, burying itself in the ground at the feet of the company following. Men were falling on all sides.” Captain Straight wrote that the “air seemed as full of the death-laden missiles as of hail in a driving hailstorm.”

One of the wounded troops in the 12th USCT seemed uncertain of how to react. “Captain, I am wounded,” he called out. “What shall I do?” That man—who would die of his wounds—was told to lie down as the battle lines moved on. Meanwhile Confederate fire continued to tear into the ranks of the 100th and 12th. A heavy thicket through which the 12th had to pass resulted in more fatalities. The officers opted to make the passage a company at a time, slowing down the 12th and separating it from the 100th, and also causing the men to bunch together as they hurried to catch up. “They were so compact that every shot from Rebel muskets and cannon was telling with fearful effect,” Freeman noted. Wrote New York Times correspondent Benjamin C. Truman, “The rebel infantry blazed away at a fearful rate, and the artillery discharged sixteen shots of canister, which made the assaulting column reel, waver, and almost fall back.”

As these two regiments stumbled to a halt, unable to advance any farther, the 13th USCT kept moving. It was the 13th’s first battle, and what the raw soldiers saw that day was demoralizing. Among the first to be hit was Private Alexander Helms. A friend caught him as he was spun around by the impact of the bullet, then gently lowered him to the ground. “Lord have mercy,” Helms groaned as his comrades moved past. Nearby, Private William Smith was struck in the breast by a Minié ball that tore through several layers of clothing before flattening itself, merely bruising the stunned soldier.

Also advancing in the 13th USCT was Private Newton Tucker, whose family lived in Nashville. During the regiment’s march to the front earlier that month, the men had passed through town, but there had been no time for a halt. Tucker’s wife Mary and their 2-year-old son had anxiously scanned the passing files until he passed. When he finally did see his family, Tucker had stopped just long enough to bow to them.

Helped by the attention focused on the other two USCT units, and by the efforts of Wood’s troops farther to the right, the 13th USCT got closer to the Rebel works than any other regiment in action on that flank that day. Perhaps the unluckiest surviving member of the unit was Private John Beach, a 200-pounder who had bragged that a “man could bust an inch plank over my head and not faze it….” Midway through the charge, Beach was knocked to the ground by a shell that tore off his knapsack and equipment. Although he injured his hip in the fall, Beach continued on. But nearing the enemy’s line, he was shot in his head and face. “This so jarred my hard skull & fractured it,” Beach later testified, “I fell senseless to the ground.” Roused to consciousness when the regiment began retreating, Beach lumbered after his comrades—only to be hit a third time, this time in the side. Amazingly, he lived to tell this story for many years after the war.

Rebel gunfire also decimated the 13th’s color guard, which had brought the standards to within 30 feet of the enemy line. “There were very few negroes who retreated in our front,” declared an Alabama soldier on Overton Hill, “and none were at their post when the firing ceased; for we fired as long as there was anything to shoot at.” While the 13th’s shattered ranks tumbled back, the adjutant of the 18th Alabama Infantry stepped out from behind the breastworks to pick up the fallen flag. “The bearer was dead, as were nearly all of his comrades,” the Alabamian reported.

As Thompson’s troops retreated, they passed a section of the 14th USCT that had come forward to cover them. Captain Romeyn had no trouble tracing their path, as “the ground [was] strewn with dead and wounded as thickly as a farmer’s field with sheaves of a more peaceful reaper.” He remembered the “color corporal of the 12th, the only man of it left on his feet, standing beside his color, the staff of which he had driven into the soft ground, and loading and firing….Before many seconds had passed a glancing shot struck the side of his head, and pulling up his flag he drew from beneath the dead [color] sergeant the stars and stripes, and with both under one arm, and his musket in the other hand, the blood streaming down his face, he strode proudly back through the supporting line.”

Wood’s unscheduled attack achieved none of its objectives. On the extreme left of the Rebel position, long hours of stalemate were broken when Federal infantry captured a key hill, unleashing Thomas’ cavalry to sweep into the enemy’s rear, instigating a dramatic collapse of the entire Confederate line. A jubilant 100th USCT officer wrote in his diary that the “Rebs under Hood are the worst-whipped army that was ever in this part of the U.S.”

As the Confederate left flank dissolved into fleeing remnants, troops posted on Overton Hill began to pull back as well. Along Wood’s front, what one officer called a “wave of action” occurred as regiments, without orders, rushed into the emptying Rebel trenches. Steedman’s troops were also caught up in the moment; reporter Truman watched as a group of USCT men “reached the top [of the hill], and with a yell, went over the works….As soon as the hill was taken, the colored troops pitched after the retreating rebels, chasing them through a valley nearly a mile.”

Behind them, scattered across Overton Hill, were the black men who had paid such a terrible price for Steed – man’s impulsive decision to join in Wood’s unplanned assault. The 100th lost 12 killed, 121 wounded; the 12th had 10 killed, 104 wounded. But the 13th had suffered the worst: 55 dead and 166 wounded or missing. Among the dead in the 13th was Newton Tucker, who had bowed to his wife and child as his regiment hurried through town.

On December 17, General Thomas ordered his forces to pursue the remnants of Hood’s army. For the next 10 days, Billy Yanks and Johnny Rebs staggered through a nightmare of hard marches in abominable weather with few supplies. “Many of the officers and men were barefoot,” reported Colonel Hottenstein of the 13th USCT, “and never did men display more soldierly qualities than on this march; without shoes and a great time without rations, they performed their duty cheerfully and without murmur.” On Christmas Day the first survivors of Hood’s beaten army reached the Tennessee River. A pontoon bridge was erected the following day, allowing the weary Rebels to cross over, ending the campaign.

Looking back, some of the white officers in the USCT units found inspiration in the record of the black troops who had fought at Nashville. “Who will say that men who fought and suffered as did these colored soldiers have not fairly earned for themselves and their race the freedom which the war gave them?” Captain Freeman asked in 1888. In concluding his 1885 account of the battle, Colonel Morgan declared, “I cannot close this paper without expressing the conviction that history has not yet done justice to the share borne by colored soldiers in the war for the Union.” Morgan also related that soon after the Federals had seized Overton Hill, Thomas and his staff had ridden over the bloody ground there. Gazing across a muddy field where black and white bodies lay in the ultimate equality, Thomas had turned to those accompanying him and announced, “The question is settled; negro soldiers will fight.”

Sergeant Major Daniel W. Atwood of the 100th USCT believed that the courage and sacrifice shown by the black troops contributed to more than a battlefield victory:

It was the first time in the memorable history of the Army of the Cumberland that the blood of black and white men flowed freely together for one common cause for a country’s freedom and independence. Each was cheered on to victory by the cooperation of the other, and now, as the result, wherever the flag of our love goes, our hopes may advance, and we may, as a people, with propriety claim political equality with our white fellow-soldier and citizen; and every man that makes his home in our country may, whatever be his complexion or progeny, with propriety, exclaim to the world, “I am an American citizen!” I ask, is there not something in this over which to rejoice and be proud?

Noah Andre Trudeau is the author of Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War 1862-1865. His most recent book is Robert E. Lee: Lessons in Leadership, and he’s currently working on a book about Abraham Lincoln’s visit to City Point, Va., in 1865.

Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Civil War Times.