US Colored Troops at the Battle of Nashville

The Battle of Nashville, by Kurz & Allison, created/published circa 1891
An artistic rendering of the US Colored Troops at this key Civil War Battle
Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-pga-01886,LC-USZC4-506, LC-USZ62-1289

The Battle of Nashville was a two-day battle fought on December 15–16, 1864. It is considered a major success by the Union army over Confederate forces in the Western Theater of the Civil War. (Western Theater = west of the Appalachian Mountains, but east of the Mississippi River.) African Americans, who as laborers helped to build fortifications for the city, fought as soldiers to protect it in that decisive battle. They, and the Union, won.

The Union entered the battle with a contingent of some 55,000 men, and ended the battle with just over 3000 casualties, including 400 dead and 2,558 wounded. Confederates, from a contingent of 30,000 men, had an estimated 6,000 casualties, with 1,500 killed/wounded and 4,500 missing/captured, although some casualty estimates are higher. The Confederate forces in the battle, called the Army of Tennessee, were effectively decimated. Among other consequences, the defeat meant that Confederate general Robert E. Lee would have little help from the Western Theater in defending Virginia and the Confederate capital in Richmond. Four months after the Battle of Nashville, Lee would surrender to Union general Ulysses Grant at Appomattox.

The United States Colored Troops, the black/segregated portion of the Union army, had eight regiments with a combined 5,000+ men at the Battle of Nashville:
• 12th US Colored Infantry – organized in Tennessee at large
• 13th US Colored Infantry – organized in Nashville, TN
• 14th US Colored Infantry – organized in Gallatin, TN
• 16th US Colored Infantry – organized in Nashville, TN
• 17th US Colored Infantry – organized in Nashville, TN
• 18th US Colored Infantry – organized in Missouri at large
• 44th US Colored Infantry – organized in Chattanooga, TN
• 100th US Colored Infantry – organized in Kentucky at large

(A regiment is a unit of at most a thousand men, although deaths, injuries, desertions, etc, can lessen a regiment’s numbers. Infantry regiments – containing foot soldiers – were designated by number. Hence, for example, the 10th US Colored Infantry, or 10th USCI for short. A regiment that was organized in a particular location might have enlisted men who lived elsewhere, but came to that enlistment cite to join the army.)

Most of these black soldiers were from Tennessee, and a plurality had enlisted in Nashville. So, many of them were fighting for their homes, to protect the city of Nashville and the state of Tennessee from Confederate occupation and all that meant for the African American population that lived there. The Battle is easily one of the most important, and decisive, battles that black troops were involved in during the war, yet it is not as well known as, for example, the failed attack on Battery Wagner in South Carolina by the 54th Massachusetts Infantry regiment (which was made famous by the movie Glory).

The role of African Americans in the battle is discussed in the following two videos. The videos are from a 2012 discussion between Dr. James Haney, a Professor of History at Tennessee State University, Nashville, TN, and Kwame Leo Lillard, president of the Nashville based President of the African American Cultural Alliance.

ABOVE: Portion of a 2012 discussion with Dr. James Haney and Mr. Kwame Leo Lillard about African Americans and the Civil War’s Battle of Nashville, December, 1864. This focuses on the importance of Nashville in the Civil War; the construction of Ft , the largest stone fort built during the Civil War – and built by black laborers, and the recruitment of Tennessee black men into the Union army. There is also a discussion of the monument built to Tennessee African descent soldiers which is seen at the top of this blog post.

ABOVE: Continuation of a 2012 idiscussion with Dr. James Haney and Mr. Kwame Leo Lillard about African Americans and the Civil War’s Battle of Nashville, December, 1864. This portion focuses on the role of African Americans in the battle.

The US Colored Troops at the battle have been noted for their bravery in the face of considerable losses. In the book The Tennessee Campaign of 1864, D. L. Turner and Scott L. Stabler write (p. 155) that

While the USCT suffered enormous casualties, they also enjoyed effuse praise for their actions in battle. The 13th alone recorded 220 casualties (killed, injured, missing) or 40% of its force. One Confederate commander who praised USCT actions said he “never saw a dead men thicker than in front of my two regiments.” Following the engagement, an officer of the 100th USCT surveyed the battlefield and stated, “The blood of the white and black men has flown freely together for the great cause which is to give freedom, unity, manhood and peace to all men, whatever birth or complexion.”

C.B. Leitner of Geneva, Georgia, a soldier in Confederate General John Bell Hood’s army, at one point attempted to persuade Confederate President Jefferson Davis to consider recruiting Black troops as well. Believing that the presence of black Confederate troops might have helped the Southern army push Union forces back to the Ohio River, he wrote, “{if you} could have reinforced the Army of Tennessee with 40,000 Negro troops today it would have been up on the banks of the Ohio River.”

“Falling like wheat before a mowing machine,” southerner James Holdsclaw later wrote, “they gallantly dashed up to the abates(sic), forty feet in front, and were killed by the hundreds.” Lastly, one Ohioan wrote, “I never saw more heroic conduct shown on the field of battle then was exhibited by this body of men so recently slaves.”

The following is from a ceremony commemorating the US Colored Troops in the Battle of Nashville, from late November 2012.

ABOVE: Video, Battle of Nashville, Hymns and Songs of Civil War, Cpl. Gary Burke. Introduction by Kwame Leo Lillard

United States Colored Troops National Monument, Nashville National Cemetery
The inscription reads, “In Memory of the 20,133 who served as United States Colored Troops in the Union Army Dedicated 2003.” This refers to the 20,000+ African American men from Tennessee who served in the Union Army; only Louisiana and Kentucky provided more black troops to the Union war effort. As many as 2,000 black Union soldiers are interred at the cemetery, including men who were at the Battle of Nashville.
Photo Source: of Battlefields and Bibliophiles blog

9 thoughts on “US Colored Troops at the Battle of Nashville

  1. This is great, extremely helpful for the history paper I’m writing on African American aid for the Union cause in the civil war.

  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  3. Pingback: They fought and died for freedom: Black soldiers in the U.S. Civil War | Alt Left Press

  4. Pingback: They fought and died for freedom: Black soldiers in the U.S. Civil War - LiberalVoiceLiberalVoice — Your source for everything about liberals and progressives! — News and tweets about everything liberals and progressives

  5. Hello!
    I’m in search of images of the flags carried by the 17th USCT at the Battle of Nashville. The Regiment was commanded by William Rufus Shafter of Galesburg, Michigan. He was aawarded the Medal of Honor at Fair Oaks.
    His Brother in law Capt. Job Aldrich lost his life in the USCT assault across the railroad cut.

    • The flags from the 12th USCT Regiment are in the United States Military Academy Museum, Accession Numbers 2656 (U.S. standard, formerly 4326) and 2657 (Regimental Standard, formerly 4327). They will be very similar to what the 17th USCT was issued. A book about Tennessee flags of the Civil War will be issued in 2019 by University of Tennessee Press and will discuss the makers and history of these flags and refer to those that are missing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s