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.
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, which included Grant’s army. Halleck argued that if Buell moved toward Nashville, the Confederates could reverse their withdrawal by coming up the Cumberland River, defeat Grant at Fort Donelson, and isolate 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, General Albert Sidney Johnston, commanding the Western Theater, received word of Fort Donelson’s fall late on February 16. He stated, “I must save this army,” and issued orders to pull his Army of Central Kentucky out of Bowling Green, Kentucky. He also began preparations to abandon Nashville. 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 met with Major Generals John B. Floyd and Gideon Pillow at Nashville and placed Floyd in command of evacuating troops and supplies from the city. Johnston had once held a formidable defensive line across Kentucky from the Alleghenies to the Mississippi River. This was now an extremely fragile line of Confederates concentrated mostly at Cumberland Gap in the east, Murfreesboro-Nashville in the center, and Columbus, Kentucky, in the west.
Meanwhile, news of Buell’s impending advance spread panic throughout Nashville, as residents tried to seize the goods in the Public Square warehouse earmarked for the Confederate government. Floyd could do little to stop the panic until Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry command arrived. Floyd put Forrest in charge of restoring order, and when appeals to patriotism failed to stop the looting and pillaging, Forrest’s men charged the mobs with swinging sabers. Stability soon returned.
The cavalry troopers then seized the supply warehouse and held the residents off with a firehose. Forrest’s 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. Forrest bitterly noted that millions of dollars’ worth of lost supplies could have been saved “with proper diligence.”
Many Nashville residents joined Forrest’s cavalry and wagon trains in retreat to join Johnston’s main army at Murfreesboro. Johnston reorganized his army 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.
Meanwhile, Brigadier General William “Bull” Nelson and his division of 6,000 Federals arrived at Fort Donelson. This division was part of Buell’s army, but Nelson had orders to reinforce Grant’s army. Since the fort was now secured, Grant ordered Nelson to continue on to Nashville aboard river transports, protected by the gunboat U.S.S. Carondelet. Grant wrote to his wife, “‘Secesh’ is now about on its last legs in Tennessee. I want to push on as rapidly as possible to save hard fighting. These terrible battles are very good things to read about for persons who loose no friends but I am decidedly in favor of having as little of it as possible…”
Bands playing “Yankee Doodle” signaled the arrival of Buell’s lead division across the Cumberland River from Nashville on the 24th, just over 24 hours after Forrest had evacuated the city. The bridge had been destroyed, along with any boats the troops could have used to cross the river. Buell awaited transports from Edgefield, as well as the rest of his 9,000 men to arrive at the riverbank. During this time, Nelson’s division approached Nashville aboard their transports on the Cumberland.
The next morning, Buell observed Nelson’s Federals entering the deserted city from their transports. Annoyed that one of his own divisions had captured Nashville under Grant’s orders, Buell ordered Grant’s division under Brigadier General Charles F. Smith, currently at Clarksville, to join Buell’s army at Nashville. Buell reasoned that even though Smith’s division belonged to Grant, it was operating within Buell’s jurisdiction and therefore eligible to fall under his orders.
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.
Grant informed Halleck that he was going to meet with Buell at Nashville, and Grant headed out on the 26th. He stopped at Clarksville, where Smith showed him Buell’s order. Smith believed the order to be petty and unnecessary, but when Grant advised him to obey it anyway, Smith replied, “Of course I must obey.” Grant then continued up the Cumberland until he arrived at Nashville on the 27th. When Grant learned that Buell was still at his Edgefield headquarters, he wrote him:
“I have been in the city since an early hour this morning, anxious and expecting to see you. When I first arrived I understood that you were to be over today, but it is now growing too late for me to remain longer. If I could see the necessity of more troops here I would be most happy to supply them. My own impression is, however, that the enemy are not far north of the Tennessee line. I am anxious to know what information you might have on the subject.”
Grant informed Buell that Smith was on his way, but “If not needed, please send him back.” As Grant prepared to leave, he ran into Buell, whom one of Grant’s staff officers called “an angry man.” Grant shared information he received “that the enemy was retreating as fast as possible.” Buell refused to believe it and insisted that the Confederates were preparing to counterattack. Grant left matters to Buell and returned to his main command at Fort Donelson.
Buell soon began ferrying his men across the Cumberland to reinforce Nelson and defend against a Confederate attack that never came. 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 house 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.
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