Archive for April, 2012

2004 Kelley’s Point Signage

(Revision waiting for Approval)

This is the copy I wrote for the interpretive sign at Kelley’s Point Brookmeade Greenway, dedicated back in 2004. It was reviewed and approved by Ed Bearse, Chairman Emeritus of The US National Parks Service at the time.The sign was funded by a gift from the Civil War Roundtable of The United Kingdom.

The image below is a proposed revision, which includes a photo of the US Navy Lt. Cdr. Leroy Fitch. A video of this is available on YouTube.


“On this site, the evening of December 2, 1864, the Confederate Army of Tennessee initiated a two-week siege of Nashville. This was to be the last significant offensive military operation of the Civil War by the South. It was also one of the most significant battles between the Confederate cavalry and the U.S. Navy. Since late winter 1862, Nashville had been a key staging and supply base for the Union Army in the western theater of the war. It had also been under Union occupation longer than any other major southern city. Many of the Confederate soldiers from here had not seen home in almost three years. They would find that Nashville, as well as their Army, had changed much since the beginning of the war. Advancing here after the bloody Battle of Franklin, Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood anchored his left flank at this point. More than 25,000 Confederates began an investment line running from this position, arching more than 12 miles east, in an attempt to hem in Nashville on the south side of the Cumberland River. The farthest position reached on the far end of the line, was between Nolensville and Murfreesboro pikes at Grandbury Lunette. This made Nashville the most extensive geographical battlefield of the Civil War in terms of distance. Detached from Maj. Gen. Nathan B. Forrest command in Murfreesboro, Col. David C. Kelley initially commanded approximately 300 Confederates, beginning a two-week blockade of the Cumberland River here. This included two artillery batteries and a subsurface line of mines (then referred to as torpedoes) strung across the river. Kelley’s manpower was gradually increased to more than 1200 cavalry, and decreased to less than 800 before the Battle of Nashville commenced on the 15th of December. The U.S. Navy estimated up to fourteen artillery pieces emplaced between this site, and another position one half mile upstream. It is doubtful if more than 4-6 artillery pieces were employed by the Confederates here. Early on the morning of December 3, the Confederates captured two Union supply transports Prairie State and Prima Donna, along with 56 prisoners, 197 horses and mules, as well as food provisions of corn and oats. They disabled a third supply ship the Magnet, which was later found four miles downstream. Shortly after partially unloading the vessels, the U.S. Navy arrived on the scene, driving away the Confederates whom had depleted their ammunition. The Navy flotilla subsequently recovered the vessels. Between December 3 and 15, up to seven regiments of Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee Confederate cavalry effectively blockaded all transportation along the Cumberland River against seven heavily armed Navy gunboats here. The U.S. Navy unsuccessfully tried to dislodge the river batteries in six separate engagements in the weeks preceding the Battle of Nashville. During the fourth engagement on December 6, the U.S.S. Neosho was hit more than one hundred times by artillery rounds without being sunk. The sailors in blue came close to losing her however, when two of the Confederate rounds breached the monitor’s iron plating, and one lodged, unexploded, in the vessel’s powder magazine. The ship’s Quartermaster John Ditzenback and Pilot John H. Ferrell became recipients of the Medal of Honor for their actions that day, saving the boat’s colors when they were shot away by heavy Confederate gunfire. Kelley’s artillery had the Navy uncertain about the force they were up against. By the deceptive movements of their mobile gun emplacements along the high ridges here, elements of the Kelley’s cavalry convinced the Navy that they were a force over four-times their actual strength. This was a military tactic that was characteristic of the Confederate cavalry under Forrest command. Colonel Kelley had previously fought the Navy in the battle of Fort Henry and Donelson, East Port, Mississippi, on the Ohio River, and the daring Johnsonville raid only weeks before Nashville. Known as the “Fighting Parson”, because of his status as a Methodist minister and regimental chaplain, he later played a key role in the formation of Vanderbilt University in 1873. He unsuccessfully ran on the prohibitionist ticket for governor of Tennessee in 1890. By December 15, the Union forces were increased to more than 49,000. By fainting an attack on the other end of the battlefield while dividing the Confederate left along Richland Creek, the Union would crush the Army of Tennessee in the center, in one of the decisive battles of the war. Kelley’s artillery, along with five regiments from Chalmers cavalry, were one of the few Confederate units to hold their ground, and force the overwhelmingly larger Union cavalry into retreat on the opening day of the Battle of Nashville. Noteworthy in this counter-charge, near present day Interstate 40 and Charlotte Pike, was the participation of the prominent seventy-five-year-old civilian Mark Robertson Cockrill. It is said that he led the charge and galloped into the fray with the use of only one arm, holding his father’s revolutionary war musket in one hand, and the reins to the horse in his mouth. He was later imprisoned for his assault on a Union soldier after an argument over destruction of his property and prized livestock. When it was learned that Federal forces had overrun the cavalry headquarters at the Belle Meade Plantation, 3 miles southeast of here, Colonel Kelley withdrew in an attempt to rendezvous with the main force in retreat 6 miles to the east. The night of December 15, under cover of darkness, they abandoned their position here, moving through Bellevue, to the Little Harpeth River, and eventually, reconnected with their main force near Hillsboro Road and the present day Old Hickory Boulevard. This was just in time to provide a critical rear guard that fought a delaying action from Brentwood, south more than one hundred miles, crossing into Alabama and then over the Tennessee River above Muscle Shoals, where the Union pursuit was called off. Thus ended the last great attempt by the South to reclaim the State of Tennessee, or advance to recover any of it’s lost territory. The once great Army of Tennessee would be surrendered by Gen. Joseph E. Johnston four months later at the Bennett’s House, near Durham Station, North Carolina, April 26,1865”.

Suggested Reading:

Forrest’s Fighting Preacher: David Campbell Kelley of Tennessee (Civil War Series)

More about Bob Henderson on Google+

Battlefield Shrugged

I had a heated discussion with a good friend the other day. I asked her to watch a video I shot in Shiloh, Tennessee about the Sesquicentennial ceremony of that epic Civil War battle. The response that I got caught me by surprise: “you know, one of my best friends is black, and all this talk about the Civil War is making me uncomfortable”. I began to feel angry, determining that she assumed, because I am a native Nashvillian, my perspective would be of a neo-Confederate in regards to my interest in that war. Having lived outside of the region for many years, I am well aware of stereotypes many people have about Southerners, especially if they have never spent much time in the region – or at least in Nashville. But I thought she knew me better than that. Originally from Michigan, this transplant has lived in Nashville since high school.

It wasn’t until 1993 (in my mid 30’s) that I had ever read anything about the American Civil War for pleasure. In hindsight, it occurred to me that I had never been taught anything about the Battle of Nashville in school, and this has been confirmed by many people who grew up in this city.


In December of 93′ I volunteered for one last deployment with the Tennessee Air National Guard. With the down-sizing of the United States active duty military following the collapse of the Soviet Union, National Guard units were getting squeezed harder to do more of the “real world” military operations. My brother Britt was very ill, and I had spent too much time away from my young family over the last few years. I decided 14 years was enough and I would leave the service after one final mission. It would be a 30 day operation based out of Germany to air-lift aid to Bosnia and Herzegovina: Operation Provide Promise under the command of the United Nations (UNHCR).

Hearing of my plans, my brother Blake suggested I should read ‘The Decisive Battle of Nashville’ by Stanley Horn which he gifted me for Christmas of that year. I did could hardly put the book down. It came alive to me, clearly visualizing the geographical description and typography of every single troop movement. Growing up on top of most of the vast expanse of the battlefield, I would never look at west and south Nashville the same way again. It also occurred to me that the battle tactics used by the US Army in 1864 were identical to the strategy that we used in Operation Desert Storm only three years prior. But what stuck me as most ironic, was that I was getting ready to deploy to assist with humanitarian relief operations in another civil war that also involved issues of race and ethnicity. At the time, I knew little about either of those two events.

I was reminded of a discussion I had with a British Naval Officer from Scotland a few years before this. He knew more about the American Civil War than I did, to my embarrassment. I also recalled him almost falling off his bar stool when I told him I was “Scotch-Irish”. He responded: “Damn it man, scotch is what you drink…and forget about the Irish part of it!” He latter shared a very emotional story about his first taste of war aboard the HMS Sheffield in the Faulkin Islands War in 1982. For the first time in my life, I began to consider the study of history might have some practical use in the present.

After my experience in Bosnia, I began to research my own country’s Civil War. One rainy Saturday, I decided to take my two young sons to the Carter House Museum in Franklin, Tennessee. Following the tour, I asked the curator, Thomas Cartwright, how I would go about researching my own family connection. All I knew was that I had a Confederate soldier by the name of Walter Scott Bearden; my maternal Grandfather’s paternal Grandfather. Thomas pulled out a reference book and determined that he was an officer in the 41st Tennessee out of Bedford County. He also knew that they had been part of Brig. General Strahl’s Brigade during the Battle of Franklin, which was almost completely wiped out, including the death of General Strahl.

This peaked my interest in running Lt. Bearden’s biography down leading me from battle to battle, through almost every major conflict in the Western Theater of the American Civil War. I found that my ancestor had been wounded twice in The Battle of Atlanta, the second wound in the upper-thigh (usually fatal),  leading a rear-guard action out of Atlanta near Jonesboro, Georgia. He would have been presumed to have been beyond help, but a particular nurse from Shelbyville, Tennessee took a special interest in the young Lieutenant. He survived, and they married after the war. Walter S. Bearden practiced law and was a Circuit Judge in Middle Tennessee for many years. He also was very involved with his former Sargent Sumner Archibald Cunningham in the publishing and circulation of The Confederate Veteran Magazine, a collection of Confederate stories of the war. He also was one of the keynote speakers at the dedication of the Confederate monument in the Franklin City Square around the turn of the 20th Century.

More about Bob Henderson on Google+

The Battlefield Beneath Us

Having grown up on the epicenter of the last major battle of the Civil War, the lack of information available on this most dramatic event in Nashville’s past has always amazed me.

Most people think of Appomattox, Virginia as the end of the Civil War, but it was Nashville where, for all practical purposes, the Confederacy waged its last serious offensive military operation. The loss that resulted, ensured the defeat of the Army of Northern Virginia in the east, which was barely hanging on around Petersburg. After Nashville, the Confederates were forced into retreat until they would finally surrender a few months later in Virginia, North Carolina and finally Texas.

Those final events stand as a lasting image of the end of the war, and eclipsed the pivotal events of Spring Hill, Franklin and Nashville.

Due to the lack of any interpretive museum about the Battle of Nashville, most visitors to the city have no understanding of Nashville’s role during the Civil War. Many residents as well would probably be surprised to learn that there was a war fought in most of their own backyards. Unlike Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Shiloh and many other battlegrounds in Tennessee, there is little visible evidence of the battlefield that lies beneath most of west and south Nashville. Random historical markers are the only evidence of the mighty struggle that effectively ended the war in the west.

The lack of historical education on the war, and Nashville’s role in particular in it, has probably been the greatest obstacle to preservation efforts today.

old charlotte pike

Old Charlotte Pike

Some say that the subject of the Civil War is still too controversial, and is generally dismissed as an affair that many would just as soon forget ever happened. This sentiment is probably a typical response to the population of any defeated country, but is exasperated by the lingering bitterness over slavery, as evidenced by the recent battles over some southern state flags.

Given this state of tension, it is no surprise that the media and most educational institutions steer away from the subject altogether.

Nashville is one of the few major battlefields in the Nation that does not have a national military park. Today there is little of the battlefield available for public access.

The majority of the most significant sites have been developed for commercial or residential purposes. The old Fort Negley fortifications behind the Cumberland Science Museum in downtown Nashville, and the new Peace Monument Park on Granny White Pike, are the only Civil War landmarks in Nashville owned by the local government.

Fort Negley, which is the largest inland stone fortification of the Civil War, is in a rapid state of deterioration. There are another twenty sites around the city that can be linked to the Battle of Nashville. None are under the protection of the city, state or federal government.

As the city swells to meet the growing demand for new office space, housing and infrastructure, it risks losing what little is left of this valuable historical resource.

There is a little known site that may become the first park of its kind in Nashville — Kelley’s Battery, which is a scenic piece of real estate located on the Cumberland River nine miles west of town in a sharp bend in the river known as Bell’s Bend.

It is a well-preserved wooded area, and has visible earthworks from its use as a land battery in the preceding weeks of the Battle of Nashville. A six-acre tract of the river battery site is planned to be donated to the city through negotiations between The Battle of Nashville Preservation Society, Inc., Metro Councilman Bob Bogen, and the commercial property development company that owns it: JDN Realty. The Metropolitan Park Service has expressed an interest in incorporating this land into a Greenway Park.

One hundred and thirty-seven years later, some of what little is left of this historic battlefield, might finally preserved for future generations.

A recent survey of visiting European tourists listed the Civil War as the most important attraction in Tennessee. Nashville is a perfect genesis for Civil War tours, as it has the closest international airport to the majority of Tennessee’s Civil War sites, which are second only to Virginia in the number of battlefields in the Nation. There are an estimated 1,100,000 direct descendants of Union soldiers and 470,000 direct descendants of Confederate soldiers who fought in the Battle of Nashville.

Nashville is the closest major battle site to 11 northern states which sent soldiers here to fight. Unfortunately, there is not much for the tourist to see interpreting this pivotal event in American history.

The Tennessee State Museum in Nashville is estimated to have only 10% of the state’s Civil War artifacts on display. It has a very nice war section, but not very much information on the specifics of the Battle of Nashville or Franklin.

As the city looks for new sources of tourism dollars, there is a wealth of drama, history and heritage that is a priceless cultural and economic resource to be shared with the rest of the Nation.

Preservation of Nashville’s valuable battlefield real estate should be a higher priority in the allocation of funding for historical preservation. When these historic sites are developed, they are lost forever. Erasing these sites cannot remove that painful experience from the city’s past. As troublesome as that chapter may be to some, it is a page of our city’s past that deserves more attention and respect. It is our duty as citizens to preserve these windows to the past for the benefit of us, as well as our descendants.

Understanding what transpired in generations before us, gives many clues to societal behavior today. We are, for better or for worse, influenced by those events that preceded us. It is to be hoped that by learning from these dramatic stories, we evolve a better understanding of ourselves, as well as those from whom we are descended.

– Bob Henderson

Lt. Commander USNR (ret)



Forrest’s Fighting Preacher: David Campbell Kelley of Tennessee (Civil War Series)

More about Bob Henderson