William Keesy and the Battle of Nashville

     One of the better written if lesser-known memoirs of the Civil War was written by William A. Keesy of Norwalk, Ohio who served as a private in the 55th Ohio early in the war then served with the 64th Ohio in the western theater in the war’s final months. War As Viewed From the Ranks was self-published by Keesy in 1898 and his lengthy account of the battle of Nashville in December 1864 is especially noteworthy.

“At about 10 o’clock on this 16th day of December, it was my privilege to witness one of the grandest military scenes that ever graced American history,” he wrote. “The battle line was advanced across a marsh or valley where, for at least two miles, everything could be distinctly seen. The banners and battle flags were waving, arms glistening, the whole line moving by flank, couriers galloping, batteries of artillery and platoons of cavalry moving with military precision, all guided by one mind, there in the face of the enemy- a truly sublime spectacle.” Keesy would soon cease being a spectator and become an active participant in this last great battle of the western theater…

The 64th Ohio, led by Lieutenant Colonel Robert Carson Brown, was part of Colonel Joseph Conrad's Third Brigade of General Washington L. Elliott's Second Division of General Thomas J. Wood's 4th Army Corps. 

 

Private William A. Keesy, Co. D, 64th Ohio Veteran Volunteer Infantry

On December 15th in the early morning, there was a line of troops came down in our rear from the left as we faced the enemy and marched to the right until it covered our entire rear. Few of us knew of this formidable army. It, however, had scarcely lined up in our rear when a general forward movement of our entire line was made. We advanced on our picket line, by which time no less than 120 cannons were plying their deadly work and the great Battle of Nashville was on.

In our immediate front, we were galled by a Rebel battery which was doing deadly execution from a stone fortress. Our advance here was very precarious. But a strong battery was brought up to our help and as they poured shot and shell into that fort, it was turned to our advantage. The shot and shell, hurling and pitching the stones with deadly effect in every direction, our advance was comparatively easy. The roar of the battle was superlatively sublime. The deep, bass guttural boom of the heavy guns from the gunboats on the river with the musical ring of our brass field pieces and light artillery combined with the piercing, lightning crash of our steel Parrot guns combined with the roar of the guns worked yonder by the enemy, interspersed now and then on some part of the line with the rattle of musketry, made a tumult that was magnificently awful. Were such a state of affairs to continue for long, one would need a new nature suited to such convulsive tumult or be transplanted to an orb where such confusion does not come.

Yonder, across the hills, a dash is now being made. The musketry is heavy. Down there in the hollow, a battery is on the gallop, hurrying up to a better position. Over there the pioneer corps is opening a path to let the artillery or cavalry through. The ambulances are busy hauling off the wounded. A long row of dead men tell of the terrible work that has been going on. How different, too, that today we have not met with a single reverse. At Spring Hill and Franklin, we had to keep out of the enemy’s way, but now he is falling back from us. The citizens of Nashville were out by the thousands, strung along on the works and on the hill witnessing this mighty conflict. Night at length settled won the scene, and it was quite evident now that the enemy was no longer sanguine of sweeping over Kentucky or getting the spoils of Nashville as he was two weeks ago.

After darkness had fully set in, so that the enemy might not discern our movements, we were sent to support the left. The order was for each man to promptly and quietly follow his file leader. It was very dark and we were very quiet. No one ten rods away would have had the least suspicion of a moving army so nearby. We were rushed along through timber and thicket, over clearing and stony ground. At one time I lost sight of my man and for a while was completely lost. I almost called out, which under the circumstances would have been punishable with death. To attempt a movement at my own venture I might run right into the enemy’s line. The men behind me were following me. When the line ahead got to their destination, they would easily know who made the blunder. I was still hurrying along while the above thoughts were rushing through my brain, and now I forged ahead in desperation. I could hear the man following close on my heel. I determined to get away from him or find my man, so I ran, panting and desperate, until at last I saw the faint outline of a moving man ahead and catching up, found my man.

I have no means of knowing how far we marched that night. We came to an opening and saw lights ahead. Soon we came to a camp where the campfires were burning brightly.  At first, I thought it to be a clearing, but as we were passing through it shells that had been left in those fires by the fleeing Rebels made it clear that but a very short time before it had been the enemy’s camp. The explosions and screeching whiz flying fragments made many a man walk humpbacked as we hustled through that camp. After passing the fires and coming to open country, we were ordered to lie upon our arms. Our rest was seriously disturbed by a wounded Confederate soldier who was lying nearby. His leg had been shot away in the previous day’s conflict and he had been overlooked by his anxious comrades. His groans were pitiful. Our surgeon told him to be as patient as possible and when daylight should come, he should have needed care; but at present, he could do nothing, for it was not possible to have a light there under the enemy’s guns.

Federal troops in line during the Battle of Nashville


At daybreak, the deep rumbling boom of one of the heavy guns on the river was the signal to renew the attack. In a few minutes the battle line was astir from end to end. The disposition made of the troops by both armies during the night changed the form of battle somewhat, but the results were very probably the same. We constantly advanced with the heaviest firing being on our right. At about 10 o’clock on this 16th day of December, it was my privilege to witness one of the grandest military scenes that ever graced American history. The battle line was advanced across a marsh or valley where, for at least two miles, everything could be distinctly seen. The banners and battle flags were waving, arms glistening, the whole line moving by flank, couriers galloping, batteries of artillery and platoons of cavalry moving with military precision, all guided by one mind, there in the face of the enemy- a truly sublime spectacle. I wondered that the enemy did not dispute our crossing that valley, but further on he let us know that he still existed.

We came now to broken country where the 64th Ohio was taken up on a great hill on the side exposed to the enemy and ordered to lie down. We had not lain long until across a valley, open country and timber in a distant wood, there was a great flash, the roar of cannon, and a flying ball which plowed a great groove in the side of the hill and threw dirt all over us. The flashes and shot came in quick succession. A ball plowed under Major Coluther’s horse. One man named Jake Shawl had lain down parallel with the line and the colonel said, “Shawl, you had better lie the other way or a cannon ball may cut you in two.” Shawl answered, “My Lord, Colonel, it would be better to have a leg cut off than to be split from end to end!”

This being a target with the balls coming so very near and fast, with no redress for us, became an awful strain. We did not understand why we should be thus exposed. But now, what causes this hill to tremble so? Great guns, was there an earthquake? While we are put down here to draw the enemy’s dire, a battery of six Parrott guns was brought up on the other side of the hill. They ran their noses over the summit and ‘scent the battle afar off.’ Now their angry bark and terrible bite are telling on our tormentors. The effect is so marked that the enemy’s guns are silenced, and down through the woods across open fields we got to see what we can do for those who are looking for us.

Kurz & Allison depiction of the Battle of Nashville shows Federal troops overrunning a Confederate artillery position on December 16, 1864. Historians have struggled with estimating Confederate casualties during the battle; an estimate of 6,000 breaks down to 1,500 killed and wounded while General Thomas claimed capturing 4,500 more. Hood's army retreated all the way to Tupelo, Mississippi over the next 10 days and the Union army picked up more prisoners during the pursuit. Hood's army had gone into Tennessee in November with roughly 38,000 men; by mid January 1865, only 18,000 of them were still in the ranks. 

After passing through a few fields and going through a timber, we drove in the skirmish line of the enemy, who was now lying in force behind exceedingly strong works, just across an open field beyond the woods. As we emerged from the woods, the enemy’s line was ablaze, and shot and shell and musketry did their terrible work. Here I saw canister so freely poured out of the belching cannon from those lines that the dry leaves on the ground moved towards us as if impelled by a gale. The heavy guns were pelting them in on every side. I saw a shell strike into a large white ash tree about 40 feet from the ground and the way the rail splinters flew out of that tree and around or heads was enough to make one ridicule the old process of making rails.

I heard George McConnell calling at my rear a little way, and I ran to him feeling sure he must be wounded. I cried, “George, where are you hit?” He replied, “I am not hit, just look at my gun.” I saw his gun had been struck with a bullet about four inches from the muzzle. I answered “George, don’t act a fool about that gun. There are plenty of others lying around. Take that dead man’s there.” But of course no force could stand against that withering fire, and we had to fall back under cover of the woods. Here we entrenched ourselves. Pete Hershiser had the end of his index finger shot away. I tore out the lining of my cap and did the necessary surgical work, and he fought on as usual.

We were located just in the edge of these woods with a few scattering trees and an open field before us. Just across this was the strong lines of the enemy’s works with head logs, abatis of the worst kind, and terrible guns grinning at us from numerous embrasures. There were a number of our dead and a great number of our wounded out there in our front and how to get them was the question. When we were repulsed and fell back from that awful shower of grape, canister, shot, shell, and musketry, we were in the most favorable range possible. Some of our wounded were begging by motions to be brought off. An officer ordered two stretcher bearers to go out and fetch the wounded men. They protested, and so would I. It was sure death to go out there alone.

The lengthy list of battle honors for the 64th Ohio included Stones River, Chickamauga, Mission Ridge, Rocky Face Ridge, Resaca, Kennesaw Mountain, Atlanta, Spring Hill, Franklin, and finally Nashville. This stand of late war national colors resides with the Ohio History Connection in Columbus. 

William Stannard, who never flinched in battle, was asked to go with an axe and cut down a bothersome tree in our front. He went out to the tree, struck a few blows, threw the axe leisurely upon his shoulder, and deliberately walked back and said “It is too damned hot for me out there.” He did not say how many balls struck the tree while he struck half a dozen blows, but possibly half as many balls for the Rebel sharpshooters were after anyone looking out that way. I was glad just then that I was not a stretcher bearer. Those poor fellows would have to lie there until night came, unless we tried again to break that line, in which case they too likely would be shot to pieces or trampled to death.

I do not know just how it was elsewhere along the line, but if the Rebel line was as strong and well-fortified as here, the Battle of Nashville promised to be a very disastrous affair to the Union cause, or to General Thomas’ army at least. Our line of works was far from satisfactory. We had a little ditch, and a little bank with a few old logs piled up. Men brought the cartridge cases and chopping them open, the cartridges were poured along on the bank of our ditch. It was now said that the colored troops were going to break the enemy’s lines on our right, and we were to make a demonstration. The citizens of the city by the thousands, strung over yonder distant hills, were waving their flags and cheering. The awful griping, ripping, tearing, rasping roar of the musketry on our right told of the heroic work going on as the colored boys faced death.

“Let ‘em have it boys,” is now passed down the line and at once our muskets were scattering bullets by the tens of thousands over the enemy’s works. I worked my gun until it got so hot that it actually burned my hand clear across the palm into a great blister. I at first wondered why the balls would spring up and shove my ramrod two thirds of the way out of the barrel when putting down a load. I soon learned it was so hot that gas was generated, and I feared that a premature discharge might be ruinous to my hands. We were enveloped in a cloud of smoke and flame, and aside from the flash of the guns, it was quite dark.

It was astonishing to see how excited men got and it is a wonder that the fire in battle is not more deadly. No doubt many lost their own lives and destroy the lives of their own comrades, through sheer excitement, as this incident will show. One Reiff was nervously firing away, but while he seemed to take aim toward the enemy’s lines, he fired every bullet into a log not more than two feet from his gun. I called to him with my mouth at his ear and with difficulty made him understand. “You will likely burst your gun.” He replied, “Oh, I’se gibben it to ‘em, I bets you I’se gibben it to ‘em.” And one he went, pegging his balls into the log.

Now a brigadier general came onto the ground. This place and at Franklin is the only place I ever caught sight of a general in battle. I heard the general say, “Move forward Colonel Brown.” The colonel cried out, “Attention! Forward-march!” The bugle sounded and out over the bank we went. Our heart throb was marked and swift as we were crossing that open field and though of what might happen if that line of Johnnies should rise up and again pour their leaden hail into us. We reached the abatis, got across, and mounted the strongest line of works that I helped to take during the war. Peter Hershiser and I were among the first to cross the works. About 3,000 Johnnies were swinging their blankets and signaling for us not to fire from the fleeing Rebel line.

I picked up a knapsack some Rebel had left which he evidently had captured from one of our boys at Spring Hill or Franklin. It contained a towel, writing material, and a picture of a very pretty lady and other articles. I saw a basin dug a foot or so deep in the ground. I said, “Pete, there is a dead Johnny near here, and there they were digging his grave when we drove them away.” At that instant we saw nearby a large Johnny with disheveled hair, shaggy beard, distended eyes, and mouth wide open glaring at us as though yet alive. A great hole through his body from side to side made by a piece of shell told the story. Sights like this were common affairs with us.

Federal knapsacks were popular battlefield pickups for the Confederates and would sometimes contain the Union company and regiment from which is was captured. William Keesy re-acquired a Federal knapsack like the one above while searching for souvenirs at the end of the battle. 


    I felt a little envious of the fellow who beat me to a caisson which had been left in the ditch- we were anxious to gain spoils of war, but when, as he opened the lid, a shell exploded and deprived him of his eyes, I felt thankful that I did not get there first. While we were elated to see the work we had done, as the line of works was in our hands, the enemy fleeing, and 3,000 prisoners with us, yet another tragedy must be acted before the Battle of Nashville was completed.

The enemy was hustling away on the Franklin pike, now far more rapidly than we had come in on it two weeks before. A battery of six field guns was ordered up to give them a good send off. The drivers were lashing their galloping horses into a furious race up to a place designated by the officer. The bugle sounded, “wheel and unlimber,” and every man was at his post and doing his level best to hasten the work. At that instant, a masked Rebel battery, which had been planted on a distant hill to cover the retreat, opened fire and before those guns of ours could be planted, two of them were knocked off their carriages, a lieutenant and two men killed, and several wounded. But the work of planting the other four went right on, and in a few moments what was left of the Rebel battery was galloping after Hood’s shattered and fleeing army and the Battle of Nashville was over.

In this battle, we captured 4,462 prisoners of whom 287 were officers. After the battle, as night was coming on, the 64th Ohio was ordered on picket. Our position fell in a cornfield. As is usually the case a great battle, we had a pouring rain. Our condition was anything but agreeable in this mud and soaking rain. Tired and hungry we had to grin and bear it, very thankful that we were yet alive. Co. D had 47 men when we met the enemy at Spring Hill a little over two weeks ago: now there were eleven of us to stack arms. Surely that is trimming down! Of course, all were not killed as some were in the hospital, some on their way to a Southern prison.

 

Source:

Keesy, William A. War As Viewed From the Ranks. Norwalk: The Experiment and News Co., 1898

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