Plagued with a “case of the slows,” brother-in-law Nels Jensen and I start late on our epic Civil War cycling adventure south of Nashville. Worse, the forecast is ominous, so we really need to roll on our Brentwood-to-Franklin round trip.
My personality skews toward Jubal Early (short-tempered, profane) and J.E.B. Stuart (flamboyant, carefree). I’m apt to ride aimlessly through the countryside, then swear repeatedly because of a missed turn. Thankfully, Nels is wired like Ulysses Grant: even-tempered, strategic, tactically sound. He’ll keep this ride on track.
“Car back,” Nels warns shortly after our journey begins in Brentwood on Granny White Pike—a wartime artery used
by both armies during the Battle of Nashville.
“Civil War history ahead,” I’m thinking. “So much history ahead.”
Chugging up a steep grade, I remember what a longtime Nashvillian told me: “Every hill you see around here the armies occupied during the war.” Many of these hills, crisscrossed by modern roads, are occupied today by mansions with well-manicured lawns so expansive they should be declared national parks.
We turn on Holly Tree Gap Road—especially ambitious cyclists would ride up and down this hilly, serpentine monster to where it intersects Franklin Pike. On December 17, 1864, that’s where Federals harassed beleaguered soldiers of John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee in the aftermath of the Confederates’ soul-crushing defeat the day before at Nashville. Now that site is a mishmash of modern development and unrecognizable as a battlefield.
Already drenched in sweat several miles into our ride, we cruise past Jefferson Davis Drive and briefly stop for a water break. On our left, we find a residential development; to our right, a large, untilled farm field; in the near distance, a rickety, red barn. The dividing line between them is an antebellum stone wall about 2½ feet high—a common site on our weekend rides.
“Built by slaves,” a caretaker tells me during his break from mowing grass. The rock walls are often knocked akilter, he says, by unruly cows.
Suburbia eventually gives way to countryside. Out here, amid horse farms, fields of yellow meadow buttercups, and roadkill, it isn’t hard to imagine Nathan Bedford Forrest and his cavalry galloping about. In fact, this is where the “Wizard of the Saddle” and his boys found safe havens after their raids on 700-man Union garrisons in Brentwood in March 1863.
And out here history can be downright bizarre.
Astride Del Rio Pike, on a rise across from a soybean field, stands an impressive, circa-1810 brick home. “When you have a house like this,” owner Abbie Griffith says, “it owns you, you don’t own it.”
But it’s not the Federal-style residence we’re here to see—or Griffith’s 150-pound Great Dane, “River,” who seems to enjoy my company. We’re here to examine the final resting place of a 20th Tennessee colonel in a small family cemetery 75 yards behind the house.
William “Bill” Shy, a handsome, 26-year-old Confederate officer, was killed by a point-blank head shot at Compton’s Hill (now Shy’s Hill) on December 16, 1864—the second day of the Battle of Nashville. Afterward, some believe Bill was bayoneted to a tree by a Yankee (untrue).
What is indisputable is that his body was returned to the Shys and buried behind “Two Rivers,” the family farmhouse on Del Rio Pike. The officer’s remains lay undisturbed in a nearly 300-pound, cast-iron casket until the winter of 1977. Around Christmas, law enforcement was called to the property to investigate the disturbance of a grave. The house was undergoing renovation at the time.
Atop churned earth, Griffith’s mother discovered a headless body in a sitting position, clad in what appeared to be a tuxedo, a white silk shirt, trousers partially laced up the sides, and black, square-toed boots. Mom “was absolutely scared to death,” says Abbie, whose family isn’t related to the Shys. Stories that the body was a pile of goo when it was first found are, well, rubbish, says Griffith.
Judging from its condition, University of Tennessee forensic anthropologist William Bass determined that the well-embalmed remains were of a male who had been dead six months to a year. He believed the victim was white, 26 to 29 years old, had brown hair, and weighed about 175 pounds.
Was this simply a grave robbery or something even more sinister?
Baffled law enforcement could not match a headless corpse to any missing persons’ report. “It looks like we have a homicide on our hands,” said the local police chief.
Not so fast, chief.
Initially overlooked, the head was discovered by Bass in the jumbled grave. And days later, after a much more thorough examination of the remains, he and investigators agreed the body was indeed Shy’s.
“I got the age, sex, race, height and weight right,” Bass told a Nashville newspaper, “but I was off on the time of death by 113 years.”
In early 1978, the colonel received a dignified reburial at “Two Rivers.” The Shy grave robber has never been identified publicly.
Mindful of her home’s history, Griffith frequently hosts Shy descendants, Civil War buffs, and others eager to see the scene of the crime. “I feel like it’s my duty,” she says, “to share this place.”
Zooming past a turkey vulture enjoying road food, we head south in Williamson County, to Civil War-rich Franklin. A village with a robust slave market in the 19th century, it’s now a booming city in one of America’s wealthiest counties.
Blocks from Main Street, we briefly stop at Rest Haven Cemetery, where Confederate Tod Carter was buried. At the Battle of Franklin on November 30, 1864, the 20th Tennessee captain was mortally wounded about 75 yards from his boyhood home. Two days later, he died in that very house in the room next to one he was born in in 1840.
We deftly navigate busy downtown streets and stop at the 1850 Bennett-Gathmann house on West Main. During the battle, 15-year-old Hardin Figuers ignored his mother’s warnings and climbed up a tree to get a view of the battle.
We glide down Cleburne Street, near where the body of Irish-born Confederate Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne was found by comrades the night of the battle. Think there aren’t any more Civil War artifacts in the ground in this residential neighborhood? Two years ago, a local couple gave me a bullet and clumps of lead found on their property.
On Lewisburg Pike, we pedal past a shop busy with customers—hey, don’t they know a Union artillery battery was set up right here near the railroad tracks during the battle? Nearby, a historical marker on a sliver of preserved battlefield explains a site where withering Federal fire swept Rebel ranks “like hail.”
Perhaps one of the victims was James Wilson Winn, a 25th Georgia private, whose grave site in McGavock Confederate Cemetery nearby is our final Franklin stop. Winn’s parents planned to take their 16-year-old son’s remains back to Georgia. But when the couple discovered his grave was so well tended, they went home and returned with a permanent tombstone. To this day, visitors honor James with stones and coins placed atop his grave.
Thirty miles into our ride, Nels somehow survives a brutal encounter with a bug he swallowed. We’re nearly gassed. But dark clouds and several hills don’t keep us from our most rewarding stop.
Sometimes Nels and I discover the unexpected on our weekly, mind-soothing rides—a seat on the porch of an out-of-the way general store, a fellow cyclist with a $6,000 bike.
But one overcast winter day, we found the truly unexpected: a small slave cemetery on Murray Lane’s median in Brentwood. A short distance away, a sizable mural at a subdivision entrance commemorates Confederate Colonel Edmund Rucker’s saber duel with a Union colonel during Hood’s post-Nashville retreat.
Nearby, in the mid-19th century, 38 slaves toiled on the 600-acre plantation of Lysander McGavock, who farmed tobacco and corn. After McGavock’s first home was destroyed in a fire, slaves built the wealthy landowner a mansion called “Midway” in 1847.
Roughly 10 miles south of Nashville, wartime skirmishes flared here, and Midway served as a headquarters and hospital for both armies. Now it serves as the Brentwood Country Club headquarters.
Inside the modest cemetery, steps from busy roads, a modern memorial’s inscription notes “unsung heroes” who “endured the shackles of slavery.”
Visitors place tokens of remembrance —pennies and pebbles—on its ledge. On our first visit, Nels discovered a powerful note from a grateful visitor:
“I so very hope someone thanked you during your life here. You could not have imagined so many wonderful things we have today because of your labors, and how much farther we have to grow.”
Minutes after our latest visit, a 35-mile ride complete, the heavens open up, too. ✯
John Banks is the author of the popular John Banks’ Civil War blog.