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by Walter Durham

In the tradition of Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk, Nashville and Tennessee were committed to the federal Union and were slow to join the rush to secession. As late as February 1861, Tennessee voters opted to remain in the Union, but when the firing began at Charleston, South Carolina, a few months later, they voted to separate and become a state of the Confederacy. Nashville's young men enlisted for military service in large numbers and local industry mobilized its resources for war.

Tennessee State Capitol (1862)

The Confederate Army erected Forts Donelson and Henry on the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers respectively to defend Nashville and Middle Tennessee, but the Union Army needed only three days to reduce both and capture most of the defending soldiers. There was no other defense of the city and prior to the arrival of the Union Army, panic gripped the populace. The Confederate forces in the area fell back to Murfreesboro, and the mayor surrendered the city on February 25, 1862.

First Review of Federal Troops in Occupied Nashville (1862)

The Union Army made Nashville the center of its operations in the western theater for supplies, transportation, hospitals, and communications. President Abraham Lincoln made the city the first center for reconstruction in the South when he appointed Andrew Johnson military governor with instruction to return the loyalty of Tennesseans to the Union. The army erected a series of forts along the southern edge of the city, the largest of which was Fort Negley. Although the Confederates never attacked the forts, they kept the occupying army on the alert by raiding nearby towns and feinting raids on the city.

Drawing of Fort Negley (1863)

Governor Johnson found most Nashvillians unexpectedly reluctant to reestablish their loyalty to the Union. By requiring oaths of loyalty as a condition of licenses and privileges, he slowly forced most merchants and professionals to acquiesce in the Union. By arresting and threatening incarceration, he bulldozed others into re-declaring their loyalty.

Johnson controlled the city government by appointing the mayor and city council from Union sympathizers. He made sure that the Union had at least one friendly daily newspaper in Nashville by importing an editor and paying him with government funds.

Portrait of Andrew Johnson by Washington Cooper (1855)
Courtesy of the Tennessee Historical Society

The Union Army rapidly became the largest employer in the city, hiring civilian workers in its shops, warehouses, hospitals, camps, and construction projects. Its demand for workers increased to such an extent by 1864 that the government recruited large numbers of men in the North for employment at Nashville.

Completed in 1851, First Presbyterian Church was used as a hospital during the war.
Courtesy of the Tennessee Historical Society

The status of the black population, nearly all of whom were slaves, was left in limbo by Lincoln's failure to include Tennessee in the first emancipation proclamation. Many blacks from the surrounding area came to Nashville and the army impressed them and locals to build the forts and work wherever they were needed. Sometimes they received pay directly, but often their master received payment for their labor as they were technically still in slavery. Late in the war, the army enlisted Nashville blacks for regular military duty.

2nd U.S. Colored Light Artillery Regiment, Battery A. (1864)

The Battle of Nashville, fought on December 15 and 16, 1864, ended the war in the West. General Thomas' Union troops drove General Hood's Confederate Army away from Nashville and out of the state.

Before the Battle of Nashville, Governor Johnson had been elected vice president on the national ticket with President Lincoln. He moved to Washington in February 1865. Soon after, when Lincoln died at the assassin's hand, Johnson became president of the United States. The war ended on April 9.

Painting of the Battle of Nashville by Howard Pyle.
Courtesy of the Tennessee State Library and Archives

In Johnson's absence, postwar reconstruction was at first in the hands of radical Unionists who elected parson William G. Brownlow governor. After a few years, the tide turned, and control of state politics again was in the hands of those Tennesseans who had cast their lot with the South, although they had been the last to do so.

In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes came to lay the cornerstone for the Customs House as a symbol of the end of Reconstruction.




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