Civil War Sesquicentennial: Nashville’s Occupation

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150 years ago today, Nashvillians gathered at the West bank of the Cumberland to catch their first glimpse of men they considered the enemy. The Civil War was underway, the Confederate army was surrendering the city without a fight, and Union troops were setting up camp in what is now East Nashville.


“There were all kinds of rumors going around that the union was going to destroy Nashville, that they were going to just blast the city off the map.”

But State historian Walter Durham says the Union takeover was essentially peaceful. The real fight was over loyalty…at least in words.

Andrew Johnson had served in Tennessee's House and Senate and in Congress before running for governor in 1853. He was a US Senator when the state seceded from the Union.

Andrew Johnson had served in Tennessee’s House and Senate and in Congress before running for governor in 1853. He was a US Senator when the state seceded from the Union.

The man in charge of the occupation wasn’t a Union General or a Northern politician out to teach the South a lesson.

It was Andrew Johnson, a Tennessee native, and an old friend.

Durham says Johnson came with a certain confidence that he not only knew Tennesseans, but had been elected by them as governor less than a decade prior. He had lived in Nashville, and Durham says Johnson felt he could reestablish himself and the union.

Johnson found his job wasn’t so easy. After all, Union troops suddenly outnumbered locals.

Rachel Craighead was in her twenties and newly married when the war began. Her brother died in the Confederate Army less than a year after Nashville's occupation began.

Rachel Craighead was in her twenties and newly married when the war began. Her brother died in the Confederate Army less than a year after Nashville’s occupation began.

That rankled people like Rachel Carter Craighead, a young woman who kept a diary throughout the war. She complained of troops in her church services, saying “I think they might let us worship without them.” When she saw the number of Union dead buried in the local graveyard, Craighead wrote that she found it, “outrageous to fill up our cemetery with such trash.” The sound of regiments cheering in the street outside her home made her angry. Even as she guessed that the soldiers probably had orders that would send them to the front, Craighead wrote, “many of them are going to their graves, but I am wicked enough to say I don’t care.”

In that context, Durham says Johnson found he had to make an example.

Johnson ordered three high-profile arrests. The man who’d helped negotiate Tennessee’s entry into the Confederacy, a judge who’d been outspoken in support of secession, and the man who’d been in charge of arming Tennessee’s Confederate soldiers were shipped off nearly 800 miles, to a fort in Northern Michigan.

The move sparked rumors that Craighead wrote about in her journal. “Buck Gorey came,“ she wrote of a friend’s visit. “Said they were going to arrest everybody who had aided the Rebellion. They had better build a wall around the city and take out the Union men. I think that much easier than any other way”

The rumor wasn’t that far off. Wave after wave of city leaders, clergy and businessmen were told that their right to work in the city hinged on signing an oath of allegiance to the United States government.

Rev. R.B.C. Howell was president of the Southern Baptist Convention for much of the decade prior to the war. He was imprisoned for his refusal to take the loyalty oath.

Rev. R.B.C. Howell was president of the Southern Baptist Convention for much of the decade prior to the war. He was imprisoned for his refusal to take the loyalty oath.

Rev. Robert Howell, the pastor of First Baptist Church, responded to that order in a letter to Johnson. “There is nothing known to me in the Federal Constitution, nor in the constitution of this state, which requires me to repeat that oath.” He made his case against the oath, and, even though he knew he’d likely be arrested, he ended with a firm refusal: “I most respectfully decline it and take the consequences.”

Group after group served time in the local penitentiary for their refusal, including Rachel Carter Craighead’s father. He ran a local bank, and Craighead writes that the keys to the safe were confiscated as he was arrested. “Dragged off to prison-and what for? I was so angry to think of those demons taking my dear father in front of their bayonets.”

Union troops stand in formation on the public square in Nashville, near where the Davidson County Courthouse is now.

Union troops stand in formation on the public square in Nashville, near where the Davidson County Courthouse is now.

Meanwhile, Durham says, wounded soldiers from both sides flooded the city’s makeshift hospitals and supplies constantly moved out on the river and railroad lines. “The relentless movement of union troops and armaments through Nashville southward kept wearing on the citizens.”

At one point, Craighead asks how long it can last, telling her diary, “we have got so much bad to believe that we can scarcely believe anything good.”

Then, on April 16, 1863, she writes of an notice in that day’s paper ordering every white person over 18 to take the oath in 10 days or be sent South. Now, instead of prison time for the men of the city, refusal brought the risk of uprooting their families entirely.

Durham says that was too high a price for many Nashvillians. “It was their home, and a couple thousand young men were in service and Nashville was home to these guys. They wanted to come back to Nashville because it was home.”

About a block away from Rachel Craighead's home, the grounds of the state capital were fortified and dotted with Union army tents throughout the occupation.

About a block away from Rachel Craighead’s home, the grounds of the state capital were fortified and dotted with Union army tents throughout the occupation.

To keep a hold on their city, most took the oath.

I do solemnly swear that I will support, protect, and defend the Constitution and the government of the United States against all enemies, whether domestic or foreign; and that I will bear true faith, allegiance and loyalty to the same, any laws, ordinances, resolution or convention to the contrary notwithstanding; and further, that I do this with a full determination, pledge and purpose without any mental reservation or evasion whatsoever; and, further, that I will well and faithfully perform all the duties which may be required of me by law. So help me God.

 

Over the next six weeks, almost eleven times more people swore to the oath than in the entire year prior.

It was enough.

From that point on, Washington considered Nashville loyal. The Union never lost control of the city, even though Confederates tried to win it back late in the war with the Battle of Nashville.

Our thanks to Beth Gilmore and Ridley Wills for reading the words of Rachel Carter Craighead and Rev. Howell.

 

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