The Fall of Nashville

February 24, 1862 – Federal forces invaded Tennessee and seized the first Confederate state capital of the war.

The Federal capture of Fort Donelson opened an invasion route into Tennessee, making Nashville the next logical target. However, two Federal military departments operated in the area, and each seemed reluctant to cooperate with the other.

Gen Don Carlos Buell | Image Credit:
Gen Don Carlos Buell | Image Credit:

Brigadier General Don Carlos Buell, commanding the Department of the Ohio, had jurisdiction over eastern Tennessee. Buell had vacillated when asked to support Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant’s attack on Fort Donelson, but now that the path to Nashville was opened, Buell hurried to advance on the Tennessee capital.

Major General Henry W. Halleck, commanding the Department of Missouri from St. Louis, had control over western Tennessee. Halleck argued that if Buell moved toward Nashville, the Confederates could reverse their withdrawal by coming up the Cumberland River, defeating Grant at Fort Donelson, and isolating Buell deep in hostile territory.

Halleck, who had complained about the lack of coordination between the departments, had another idea in mind in a message to General-in-Chief George B. McClellan: “Make Buell, Grant, and (John) Pope (in Missouri) major-generals of volunteers, and give me command in the West. I ask this in return for Forts Henry and Donelson.” McClellan took no action at this time.

For the Confederates, the Fort Donelson defeat compelled General Albert Sidney Johnston, commanding the Western Theater, to pull his Army of Central Kentucky out of Bowling Green, Kentucky, and move it southward into Tennessee. Johnston wrote to Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin:

“I have ordered the army to encamp to-night midway between Nashville and Murfreesboro. My purpose is to place the force in such a position that the enemy can not concentrate his superior strength against the command, and to enable me to assemble as rapidly as possible such other troops in addition as it may be in my power to collect… I entertain hope that this disposition will enable me to hold the enemy for the present in check, and, when my forces are sufficiently increased, to drive him back.”

Johnston, who once held a defensive line across Kentucky from the Alleghenies to the Mississippi River, now had a fragile line of Confederates concentrated mostly at Cumberland Gap in the east, Murfreesboro-Nashville in the center, and Columbus, Kentucky, in the west.

Nathan Bedford Forrest | Image Credit:
Nathan Bedford Forrest | Image Credit:

Meanwhile, news of Buell’s impending advance spread panic throughout Nashville, as residents tried seizing the goods in the Public Square warehouse earmarked for the Confederate government. Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest, whose cavalry troopers had escaped Fort Donelson and were now stationed in Nashville, tried restoring order by appealing to the people’s patriotism. When that failed, his men rode through the mobs and cleared the streets with their sabers.

Forrest’s troopers then seized the warehouse and held the residents off with a firehose. The men took weapons and ammunition, 600 boxes of military uniforms, 250,000 pounds of bacon, and hundreds of wagons filled with flour and other provisions. Forrest shipped ordnance being developed in the Nashville foundry to Atlanta and destroyed the Nashville works. In addition, employees of T.M. Brennan & Company, which had been converted from manufacturing steam engines and farm machines to artillery, escaped with a valuable machine used to make rifled cannon.

Buell’s Federals began advancing along the railroad from Bowling Green on the 22nd. Advance elements and Federal gunboats approached Nashville the next day, sparking hysteria. Massive traffic jams prevented much of the food in storage from being hauled off. Therefore, tons of stores, including 30,000 pounds of bacon and ham, were burned.

Many residents joined Forrest’s cavalry headed southeast to Murfreesboro, where Johnston reorganized his Army of Central Kentucky into three divisions. Major Generals William J. Hardee and George B. Crittenden each led a division, while Brigadier General Gideon Pillow, one of the Fort Donelson escapees, led the third. Brigadier General John C. Breckinridge’s command and the cavalry units of Forrest and Colonel John A. Wharton remained unattached.

Brig Gen William "Bull" Nelson | Image Credit:
Brig Gen William “Bull” Nelson | Image Credit:

Bands playing “Yankee Doodle” signaled the arrival of Buell’s lead division across the Cumberland River from Nashville on the 24th. The bridge had been destroyed, along with any boats the troops could have used to cross the river. Buell awaited transports as well as the rest of his 9,000 men to arrive at the riverbank. Meanwhile, a 7,000-man division led by Brigadier General William Nelson approached Nashville aboard river transports, protected by the gunboat U.S.S. Cairo.

The next morning, Buell observed Nelson’s Federals entering the deserted city from their transports. Nelson met with Buell across the Cumberland and left Colonel Jacob Ammen to receive the city’s surrender from the mayor. Nashville fell without resistance, becoming the first Confederate capital to fall in the war. Grant’s victory at Fort Donelson had enabled Buell to capture this important city.

Buell soon began ferrying his men across the Cumberland to reinforce Nelson in case Confederate troops tried taking the city back. The Federals quickly occupied the state capitol and various other public buildings, chopping down trees for firewood. They also forced city officials to swear allegiance to the Union. A defiant woman cheered for Jefferson Davis as Buell rode down High Street, prompting him to report, “The mass of people appear to look upon us as invaders.” Federals seized the woman’s home and used it as a hospital.

In losing Nashville, the Confederacy lost one of its finest bases of weapons manufacturing. Professed Unionists among the citizenry led the Federals to massive stockpiles of supplies and munitions that the Confederates had left behind. Many of these supplies were to be sent to Confederates in Virginia.

The loss of the important industrial center of Nashville devastated southern morale. It also isolated Confederates in western Kentucky and Tennessee, compelling them to eventually fall back southward. The city became a vital base of Federal operations for the rest of the war.


References (multiple dates); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 12707; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 130, 132-34; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 113-15; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 166; Harrison, Lowell H., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 123; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 174-76; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 402; Nevin, David, The Road to Shiloh: Early Battles in the West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 98-99; Street, Jr., James, The Struggle for Tennessee: Tupelo to Stones River (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 68, 89


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