On December 15, 1864, the Confederate line was anchored on the far right by Granbury’s Lunette. The lunette, a name given to earthen field fortifications which originated in the 17th Century as crescent-shaped outworks, was named after Gen. Hiram B. Granbury, who was killed during the battle of Franklin a couple of weeks earlier. Manning the Confederate right was the Corps of Gen. Benjamin Franklin Cheatham, a Nashvillian who himself happened to be in the lunette on the morning of Dec. 15. The lunette contained 4 artillery pieces and the remaining 344 men of Granbury’s Brigade.
On this first day of battle, Union Gen. George Thomas sent Maj. Gen. James Steedman’s corps against the Confederate right as a feint; the major thrust of the Union attack would come on the far end of the Confederate line, about four miles to the west, with a huge wheeling maneuver by infantry and cavalry.
Steedman’s forces chosen for this assignment involved three brigades. Two of them consisted primarily of African American soldiers, many of them seeing their first combat since the first recruitment of black troops in 1863. The 1st Colored Brigade consisting of five regiments was commanded by Col. Thomas Jefferson Morgan; the 2nd Colored Brigade, consisting of three regiments, was commanded by Col. Charles Thompson. The third brigade was commanded by Lt. Col. Charles Grosvenor and was composed of an odd assortment of white soldiers whom he described as “new conscripts, convalescents, and bounty-jumpers.” The attacking force totaled about 7,000 infantry and supporting batteries.
Heavy fog enveloped the lunette area when Steedman’s three brigades finally got underway, attempting to flank the Confederate forces from the East in the vicinity of the Murfreesboro Pike. The first advance toward the area of the lunette came from the 1st Colored Brigade. The Southerners were well aware of the advance and allowed the Union troops to penetrate to within extremely close range before unleashing a devastating barrage of rifle fire and canister shot from the four guns within the lunette.
One part of the 1st Brigade had advanced south of the lunette and did not realize they were approaching a deep depression in which lay the tracks of the Nashville & Chattanooga railroad. A horrendous scene unfolded as Cheatham’s troops allowed the Union troops to advance into an inescapable position. When the Confederates sprang their trap, many of the Union soldiers jumped down into the railroad cut. Others had already begun to move into the cut at its far southern opening. Many reports document the broken bones and other injuries resulting from the jump, and of the withering fusillade of fire from Cheatham’s Corps who were poised on the top rims of the railroad cut. The Union brigades suffered significant casualties. Most reports indicate that hundreds of black soldiers were killed in the fight.
Photo above shows the area of the railroad “cut” where U.S.C.T. troops took heavy casualties from Cheatham’s Corps. The depth of the cut shown in this 2011 photo is deeper by about 10 feet than on the day of the battle, due to a grade change by the railroad at the time it laid the “cut-off” tracks adjacent to the Lunette in the early 1900s.
The 2nd Brigade, approaching from the North, had become locked into a duel with Confederate forces and stayed that way most of the day. Grosvenor’s brigade was quickly routed after Cheatham’s Corps had dispatched the 1st Brigade at the lunette and railroad cut.
The battle around Granbury’s Lunette was the only Confederate victory on the first day of the Battle of Nashville. The left flank collapsed late in the afternoon as the overwhelming strength of the Union forces was brought to bear. Cheatham’s corps eventually abandoned the lunette and withdrew with the remainder of the Confederate line around 9:00 p.m. They re-formed throughout the night for the second and final day of the battle on December 16, 1864.
It is difficult to record the full meaning of the Battle of the Lunette without recognizing how it was impacted by the relatively rare occurrence of the racial make-up of the combatants. The “Colored Brigades” were heavily represented by former slaves seeing their first combat, while most of their all-white opponents were also seeing black Union soldiers for the first time. That scenario played itself out again the next day in the fierce battle at Peach Orchard Hill. In both encounters, great courage was displayed by both sides.
Long after the Battle of Nashville, Granbury’s Lunette was partially destroyed when a second railroad bed was cut through part of it in the 20th Century. Its remnants – officially located at 190 Polk Avenue — were salvaged by, and are owned by, the Gen. Joseph E. Johnston Camp of the SCV. The preservation was assisted by adjacent McCord Crane Co. Evidence of its earth walls and the infantry ditch that fronted the wall can still be seen. The deadly railroad cut lies about 400 feet West of the lunette, which stands as one of the most important preserved sites of the battlefield.
For a detailed account of this part of the Battle of Nashville, see James Lee McDonough’s excellent book, Nashville – The Western Confederacy’s Final Gamble (2004)