December 16, 1864
THE CRITICAL ACTION OF THE BATTLE OF NASHVILLE
Above: Napoleon 12-pounder faces North at the summit of Shy’s Hill in front of a backdrop of flags representing Minnesota (see story of why BONPS flies the Minnesota flag below), the U.S. flag, and the 1st National Flag of the Confederacy.
A heavy day of fighting on Thursday, December 15, 1864, saw Confederate forces fall back to the south to an east-west line roughly parallel to the current course of Harding Place in South Nashville. The right flank of the Confederate line was anchored at Peach Orchard Hill to the east, and the left at Compton’s Hill, later to become known for posterity as Shy’s Hill, to the west.
Confederate troops occupying Shy’s Hill did so against the combined disadvantages of darkness and muddy, virtually impassable fields. As a result, weary and battle-worn defenders of the summit located their positions too high on the crest to be able to sight clearly downhill toward attacking troops. In addition, the Confederate troops on and around Shy’s Hill were drastically outnumbered by the Union force. Federal infantry was arrayed to the north and west of the Hill, and cavalry to the south.
U.S. artillery outnumbered Confederate artillery by approximately 100 to 30, though most of the Confederate cannon were unable to get into fighting position. Shy’s Hill, for most of the day of Friday, December 16, was pounded by approximately 1,500 rounds of artillery shells from every direction except East. As the day grew longer and darker, probably sometime after 3 o’clock, Federal Brig. Gen. John McArthur instigated a strategy that resulted in a massive charge up the Hill by four brigades of Minnesota troops.
The Confederate force on the plateau of Shy’s Hill was quickly routed. By the time the Minnesotans achieved the summit, many Confederates had already begun their retreat toward Granny White Pike and Franklin Pike. Those who remained were captured or killed.
Among those who died fighting was 26-year-old Lt. Col. William L. Shy, commanding the 20th Tennessee, under the command of Brig. Gen. Thomas Benton Smith. Col. Shy, who grew up in Williamson County, Tennessee, was killed by a close range headshot. His body was taken to the nearby Felix Compton house and laid on the porch with a blanket over him. His parents came from Franklin to get him. His effort to hold the hill at all cost, and his death on the summit, resulted in a renaming of the hill in his name.
His commander, Brig. Gen. Smith, surrendered, though his fate had an unfortunate end. As he was being led back to Nashville, probably on Granny White Pike, he was struck multiple times on the head by a Federal officer wielding the butt end of a sword. The officer was thought to be Col. William McMillen, who commanded McArthur’s 1st Brigade. The resulting skull fractures did not kill Smith, but caused him to be institutionalized for the remainder of his life. The street on which the Shy’s Hill trailhead begins, and where the historical marker is located, is named in his honor: Benton Smith Road.
The fall of the Confederate left flank at Shy’s Hill marked the end of the battle of Nashville. Even though the right flank had held its line in the battle at Peach Orchard Hill to the east, the entire force broke with the collapse to the west and the battle of Nashville ended with the retreat of Hood’s Army toward Brentwood and Franklin.
Today, the Battle of Nashville Preservation Society owns a portion of Shy’s Hill and leases the summit from the Tennessee Historical Commission. It is protected by a conservation easement through the Land Trust For Tennessee. The kiosk, eastern slope trail, and Memorial flag plaza at the summit are maintained by BONPS.
The role of the Minnesota troops at Shy’s Hill and in the Battle of Nashville is memorialized in various ways, including a Minnesota monument at the National Cemetery in Nashville. On Shy’s Hill, BONPS flies the Minnesota state flag to recognize the fact that Minnesota sustained more casualties at Nashville than at any other battle in which its men fought, and that they played pivotal roles during both days of the Battle of Nashville. The best-known painting depicting the battle at Shy’s Hill is the famous Howard Pyle mural located in the Minnesota state capitol. For an in-depth look at the role of Minnesota in the Battle, including the Pyle painting, see Minnesota Regiments At Nashville written by John Allyn, president of BONPS.
Visiting Shy’s Hill:
Shy’s Hill is located off Benton Smith Road in South Nashville. Admission is free to the public. A memorial flag plaza and Napoleon smoothbore artillery piece are located at the summit, which has vistas during winter months of the surrounding areas from which the Federal assault occurred in the late afternoon of December 16, 1864.
The site is open from dawn to dusk. Parking space is minimal; large vehicles may not be feasible.
Directions: From I-440, exit Hillsboro Road and travel south to Harding Place and turn left. Turn right onto Benton Smith Rd. to historical marker. The trailhead is marked by the historical marker and an interpretative kiosk at the bottom of the hill.
For Google map directions, click here.
Above: Trailhead kiosk contains interpretative maps, photos and descriptions of the battle at Shy’s Hill
Above: Artillery piece looks northwest, overlooking Green Hills Shopping Center, Burton Hills and other areas of Southwest Nashville. Federal Troops stormed the Hill from these areas. This 12-pounder Napoleon was one of the most prevalent field artillery pieces used by both sides in the Battle of Nashville. BONPS placed this replica on the summit in 2008. (Click to enlarge)
Above: Memorial Flag Plaza on the summit, showing Memorial Wreath placed each December 16 by descendants of men who fought on this ground for both the Union and the Confederacy. (Click to enlarge)
Above: Confederate trench line, marked with head logs, running from the top of Shy’s Hill roughly northeasterly towards Harding Place. (Click to enlarge)
Above: Donors Plaque at the Shy’s Hill trailhead, bearing the names of those who contributed to the purchase the site for BONPS in 2008. (Click to enlarge)
Shy’s Hill Trail Rebuilt for Sesquicentennial
In February, 2014, BONPS Board member Parke Brown and his professional landscaping crew from The Parke Company, Inc. (http://www.theparkecompany.com/) rebuilt the winding trail up the East slope and gave the summit a facelift with weedeaters and chain saws.
The result: Shy’s Hill and its topside memorial plaza look like a well-manicured state park, just in time for the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the battle on the hill on December 16, 1864.
“It’s a good time to experience the uphill walk and contemplate the sacrifices made during battle,” Parke said. His crew spent 100 man hours in February, 2014, installing the 150 8-foot beams which are laid out end-to-end to line the winding three-foot-wide trail. Each beam was drilled and then anchored into the hillside with three 24-inch iron rebar rods. The trail surface was then filled with 12 cubic yard of hardwood mulch.
In all, the project resulted in the installation of 1,200 linear feet of 4×4 beams (purchased and delivered up the hill by Board member Sidney McAlister, Parke noted) and 420 pieces of rebar.
On December 15, 2005, Anne Holt of WKRN-TV Channel 2 News interviewed then BONPS Vice-President Jim Kay on the significance of the Battle of Nashville and preservation efforts by the Battle of Nashville Preservation Society. He discussed the importance of Shy’s Hill and the surrounding battlefield.
(Video file is .wmv format; length is 2 min. 57 sec.; file size is 2.88 MB)
Shy’s Summit in 2013 Snow
Short video of early March Snow at Shy’s Hill Summit 2013 [Video by Tom Lawrence]
Shy’s Hill as photographed in the 1880s and 1890s
Why Fly the Minnesota Flag Atop Shy’s Hill?
By Philip Duer, former President of BONPS
“People wonder why we fly the Minnesota State flag at the summit of Shy’s Hill. For those who are knowledgeable about the battle here, it was the Minnesota regiments who assaulted the hill and charged across muddy cornfields below it to break the Confederate line on the second day, Dec. 16th, 1864. Howard Pyles’ painting (at the Shy’s Hill kiosk) portrays that dramatic attack. Minnesota suffered the most casualties at Nashville than in any other battle. It is with thanks to Vern Ege who has brought this article to our attention of a man devoted to finding the graves and stories of CW soldiers from Minnesota. His inspiration — stories of 2 soldiers from Minnesota who died at Nashville! While not the bloodbath of many battles, the story of Nashville continues to be of interest. One only has to read the late David Logsdon’s “Eyewitness to Nashville” to feel the growing tension, excitement, and despair as both armies faced off for 2 brutally cold weeks before the battle.
Vern’s ancestor’s story is provided below as we document those who fought here. http://www.startribune.com/local/178468071.html
December 2011: Sesquicentennial Commemoration Begins
THE BATTLE OF NASHVILLE DECEMBER 15 – 16, 1864
In the Sesquicentennial year, The Battle of Nashville Preservation Society, Inc. honored the memories of soldiers of the Union and Confederacy who fought and sacrificed in this profound historical event by placing memorial wreaths on two of its battlefield preservation sites which symbolize the deadly conflict on each of the two days of the battle — for December 15, 1864, Redoubt No. 1, and for December 16, 1864, Shy’s Hill. Below is President Philip Duer’s commentary on the event:
A Message from Philip Duer, President of BONPS 2011 – 12
December 16th, 2011
As I ascended Shy’s hill this morning to place our memorial wreath below the flags flying at the summit, I was struck by the thought that this day was the same 147 years ago — a chilling rain, fog, and a coldness that made the day heavy and miserable.
But today was not the same, it was different; I could ascend the hill with no thoughts of harm save for slipping on some wet leaves, and I was comfortable in my waterproof jacket and boots. I had no fear of being shot, wounded or maimed. I calmly walked up the hill, not rushing in desperation to reach the top. No one was trying to kill me nor I them. I was climbing the hill in peace.
I had no grief nor emotional trauma to deal with from the horror of Franklin. I had no reason to keep my head down. I had no hunger pangs, thoughts of home, nor whether I could survive not only the cold but other men trying to take my life. I didn’t have to press my body against the earthworks. I could stand in safety and view the panorama from Shy’s Hill in contemplation as to what it must have been like. I could see the hills where Union artillery fired hundreds of shells. I could see the lines of infantry and cavalry forming up for the assault. I could try and picture the scene as men fell and died on both sides. But in reality, I could not know what it was like, I could not perceive the horror of watching friends die, of the fear and panic, of waiting for the dreaded inevitable conclusion or of the jubilation of victory.
No, today is not the same save in one respect and that has been that every year since the battle people have remembered those who fought and gave their lives for what they believed in as they saw it, which in the end made us all Americans. It is inconceivable today that the mistakes made to cause such a war will ever happen again. It is for that fact that we remember their sacrifices. I can leave that hill in peace as I found it.
The Burning of the Shy’s Hill Mortgage
The Battle of Nashville Preservation Society’s mortgage on Shy’s Hill property was burned amid cheers at the top of the historic summit on Saturday morning, April 15, 2006.
The ceremony marked the successful raising of $55,000 in funds over a 150-day period to retire the debt on the property, which lies on the east side of the hill.
BONPS co-founder Wes Shofner had originally purchased the property in order to protect it from development. Property at the top of the hill had been owned by the Tennessee Historical Commission since 1954.
The hill-top ceremony was attended by participants BONPS President J.T. Thompson, BONPS Vice-President James Kay, BONPS Historian Ross Massey, Metro Nashville Vice-Mayor Howard Gentry, and Metro Councilwoman Lynn Williams. Vice-Mayor Gentry proclaimed the day “Shy’s Hill Day.”
In 2005, BONPS blazed an access trail up the East slope of Shy’s Hill which incorporates several switchbacks and makes the steep climb much less strenuous. Trenches quickly dug by Confederate defenders in the darkness before the December 16, 1864 battle, which run up the side of the hill ,are now much more visible to visitors.
The hill was called Compton’s Hill when it was attached by a huge Union force late in the afternoon of December 16, resulting in a rout of the entire Confederate Army of Tennessee. It was re-named after Confederate Col. William M. Shy, who was killed at the summit during the hand-to-hand fighting there.
The retirement of the BONPS debt was due to the generosity of BONPS members and friends. BONPS gave special thanks to those donating $1,000 or more:
Dan B. Andrews
Dr. James B. Atkinson
William B. Billips
Robert W. Bogen
Robert D. Brown
John Eddie Cain
William G. Coke, Jr. Charitable Lead Trust
Paul E. Cook
William H. Hawkins
James D. Kay, Jr.
Fowler H. Low
Joanne W. McCall
Michael B. McKee
Milton P. Rice
Tennessee Civil War Preservation Association
Mr. and Mrs. Clark Tidwell
BONPS, Nashville Metropolitan Historical Commission, and the Tennessee Historical Society Receive State Honor for Preserving Shy’s Hill
- Above: Accepting the House Joint Resolution are, left to right, Doug Jones, Immediate Past-President of BONPS; Ann Roberts, Director of the Metropolitan Historical Commission; Ann Toplovich, Executive Director of The Tennessee Historical Society; and BONPS President J.T. Thompson.
The House Joint Resolution was issued by Representatives McDaniel, Harwell and Senator Henry. “While we are proud to be recognized by this distinguished resolution for the joint effort on the work on Shy’s Hill performed by BONPS, the Metro Historical Commission and the Tennessee Historical Society, we look forward to the work that continues to be important in preserving our battlefield sites,” said J. T. Thompson, BONPS president.
The Battle of Nashville Preservation Society was founded in 1993 to protect the remaining battlefield sites and promote an understanding of life in Davidson County during the American Civil War. The organization recently retired the debt on the Shy’s Hill property in order that future generations may appreciate its rich history. The Tennessee Historical Society owns the crest of the hill and leases that area to BONPS.
It was at Shy’s Hill on December 16, 1864, during the Battle of Nashville, that Federal troops finally broke the Confederate line on the left flank, resulting in a massive Rebel retreat and a decisive Union Victory.
Since its founding, the BONPS has been instrumental in the preservation of Shy’s Hill, Redoubt No. 1, and Kelley’s Point sites, as well as actively involved in the preservation of the Battle of Nashville Monument and the rehabilitation and interpretation of Fort Negley. The Battle of Nashville Preservation Society has played an integral role in the promotion, protection, and interpretation of the sites important to our city’s role in the Civil War.