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. (Photo by Tom Lawrence)
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 or western flank at Compton’s Hill, later to become known for posterity as Shy’s Hill.
Darkness, battle fatigue and terrain became significant obstacles as Hood’s army attempted to re-group to the south. Depletion from casualties resulted in a considerably shorter defensive line. On the west flank, Hood positioned Maj. Gen. Benjamin Cheatham’s Corps on what he thought would be strategic high ground – the steep promontory of Compton’s Hill. Cheatham, a Nashville native, placed defense of the summit of Compton’s Hill in the hands of Maj. Gen. William B. Bate’s division, consisting (from left to right) of Tyler’s Brigade under the command of 25-year-old Brig. Gen. Thomas Benton Smith, Finley’s Florida Brigade under the command of Maj. Glover Ball, and Jackson’s Brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Henry Jackson.
Tough Odds for Hood’s Troops. Confederate troops occupying Compton’s Hill did so against staggering odds. They were outnumbered by an overwhelming Union force which had surrounded them with infantry to the north and west of the Hill, and with cavalry to the south.
Above: Artillery piece looks northwest, overlooking Green Hills Shopping Center, Burton Hills and other areas of Southwest Nashville. Federal Troops stormed the Hill from the north and northeast on December 16, 1864. The 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) (Photo by Tom Lawrence)
Serious problems were facing the Confederate force as darkness descended on Thursday evening, December 15. As the first day’s action died down, Cheatham’s Corps had to deal with the combined disadvantages of darkness, muddy terrain, and the weariness of what had been a difficult day on the battlefield, especially on the Confederate left flank.
Cheatham, positioned on the Confederate right flank on December 15, had to move south and west from his position around Nolensville Pike and was late arriving at the high ground. Reestablishing their defenses in the dark created new problems. They dug all night with few tools and axes – a difficult task at night on the steep slope, and were able to cut some trees and pile rock to complement the works. The trenches, however, due either to darkness or miscalculations by the engineers, were inadvertently constructed too far back from the “military crest.” As a result, the steepness of the hill became a liability instead of providing a high-ground advantage, because when daylight came, they were unable to see down the slope far enough from their positions to fire at Federal troops charging up the hill until the attackers were almost in their lines.
In addition, the trench lines were set up by aligning with a fire on the grounds of the Bradford house to the northeast. When daylight came on Friday, December 16, the angle and direction of the trenches did not line up with Stewart’s Corps to the east at around Granny White Pike. An angry Cheatham had to quickly readjust the line to the south in order to link up with the remainder of the Confederate position which ran easterly toward Peach Orchard Hill.
Artillery. The conditions also adversely affected the Confederate army’s use of its artillery. U.S. artillery significantly outnumbered Confederate artillery by more than 3 to 1. To make matters worse for Hood’s forces, most of Cheatham’s 34 cannons were unable to get into fighting position on December 16. Unable to get through Granny White Pike, the artillery had to be moved toward the new line across the muddy fields of the Lea Farm. When the fighting resumed on December 16, most of the guns remained parked and useless in the area now occupied by St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church on Belmont Park Terrace.
The Confederates were eventually able to place a reduced battery of smoothbore guns on a small plateau on the eastern slope of Shy’s Hill, commanded by Capt. Rene T. Beauregard, son of Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard. Fire from these and a few others were no match for the three Federal batteries which all day raked the top of the hill from the west, north and northwest. Confederate snipers, firing Whitworth long-range rifles, did their best from the high ground, but the prolific Federal fusillade – one battery as close as 500 yards – eventually leveled the earthworks on the summit. By some estimates, as many as 1,500 rounds of artillery shells, many of them from rifled barrels, pounded Compton’s Hill on December 16th.
Hood Moves Troops From Hill. As the day progressed, the already depleted Confederate force on the Hill was further reduced by Hood’s perceived need to move troops – four brigades in all — away from the hilltop. The first move occurred around noon, when the encroachment of Maj. Gen. James Wilson’s Union Calvary Corps from the south, behind the Confederate line, required Hood to shift Ector’s brigade of French’s Division, Stewarts Corps, to the south.
Next, furious fighting at Peach Orchard Hill caused Hood to move two brigades of Cleburne’s Division to the right flank late in the afternoon. And finally, about the same time, Reynolds Brigade from Walthall’s Division, Stewarts Corps – posted to the right of Bate’s Division on the Hill – was moved south to support Ector. The summit line was left thin, with no reserves.
By late afternoon, with daylight beginning to fade on a rainy day, Federal commanding Gen. George Thomas had been unsuccessful in ordering Maj. Gen. John Schofield to organize an assault on the hill with his XXIII Corps. Growing impatient as the day grew darker, Federal Brig. Gen. John McArthur, division commander in Smith’s XVI Corps, saw the Union advantage gained during the day-long siege of the Confederate left flank slipping away, and that nightfall would enable Hood’s army to either strengthen or escape.
Federal Attack In Late Afternoon. At about 3:30 p.m. he sent a message to Thomas and XVI Corps commander Gen. Andrew Smith that unless he were given orders to the contrary in the next five minutes, his division was going to attack Compton’s Hill and the Confederate line immediately to its east. Receiving no response by his imposed deadline, he ordered the charge by three brigades which contained four regiments of Minnesotans, as well as troops from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Iowa.
McArthur began the assault with only the First Brigade. Under the command of Col. William McMillen, they advanced under orders for silence and began the struggle directly up the severe north slope of Compton’s Hill, using the steepness as their cover. The 10th Minnesota Regiment, surging up the northeast side of the hill on the left end of the Union advance, was exposed to flanking fire and was hit hard. As the First advanced half way up the hill, McArthur sent the Second Brigade, with the 9th Minnesota on the right and the 5th Minnesota on the left. Its commander, Col. Lucius F. Hubbard, had two horses shot from under him and sustained a minie ball wound to the neck as the unit crossed a muddy corn field moving southwest. With their line exposed to enfilading fire, they sustained significant casualties including four 5th Minnesota color bearers who were shot down in the charge.
In short order, however, the 10th Minnesota breached the line of Finley’s Florida Brigade, and attacked Smith’s and Jackson’s Brigades from the rear. This precipitated the Confederate collapse. By the time McArthur’s troops achieved the summit, many Confederates had already begun their retreat toward Granny White Pike and Franklin Pike. Those who remained were captured or killed.
The Fate of Col. Shy and Gen. Smith. 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 shot to his head. 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. Smith was expected to die from the resulting skull fractures; he survived, but was institutionalized for the remainder of his life at an asylum in Nashville. 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 of the west and the battle of Nashville ended with the retreat of Hood’s Army toward Brentwood and Franklin.
Shy’s Hill Now. 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 were placed by, and 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 canvas 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. (Photo by Tom Lawrence)
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) (Photo by Tom Lawrence)
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) (Photo by Tom Lawrence)
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.