A Carnival of Death: A Federal Officer’s View of the Battle of Nashville

After fighting in over a dozen engagements in the past two years as a member of the 99th Ohio Infantry, Lieutenant Colonel John Cummins was no stranger to life on the battlefield. But what he saw on the first day of the Battle of Nashville took his breath away.

    "A fog concealed our movements early in the morning, but it soon cleared away," he wrote to his father a week later. "The sun shone brightly and revealed the fact that the troops were moving out of Nashville on every road- cavalry, infantry, and artillery. You could see long lines like great serpents dragging their slow length along in every direction. White troops and black troops, veterans, and new recruits, all moving to the carnival of death. The inner and outer lines of breastworks were soon passed and artillery booming in our front soon informed us that the Rebels waited our coming and the contest was begun."

    During the Nashville Campaign, the 99th Ohio was part of General Joseph Cooper's First Brigade of General Darius N. Couch's Second Division of the 23rd Army Corps. The 99th Ohio formerly had served in the 21st and 4th Army Corps of the Army of the Cumberland but was transferred to the 23rd Corps in June 1864 during the Atlanta campaign. Colonel Cummins' letter to his father originally saw publication in the January 6, 1865 edition of the Sidney Weekly Journal


Lieutenant Colonel John E. Cummins of the 99th Ohio poses with his horse during the Civil War. During the first day of the Battle of Nashville, the colonel's horse was struck by a spent ball and panicked, "rearing and plunging, my saddle turned and unseated me in a style I don't much fancy," Cummins confessed to his father. "As I was among the rocks, I was fortunate to escape with slight sprains and bruises." 


Headquarters, 99th Regt., O.V.I. near Duck River, Tennessee

December 22, 1864

 Dear father,

          Having time this evening I write you. On the night of December 14th, I received orders to be ready to match at daylight with three days’ rations in haversacks and 60 rounds of ammunition in cartridge boxes. That I knew meant business and brisk operations, too. At daylight, we commenced moving and I soon found we were moving out towards Hood’s army. A fog concealed our movements early in the morning, but it soon cleared away. The sun shone brightly and revealed the fact that the troops were moving out of Nashville on every road- cavalry, infantry, and artillery. You could see long lines like great serpents dragging their slow length along in every direction. White troops and black troops, veterans, and new recruits, all moving to the carnival of death.

          The inner and outer lines of breastworks were soon passed and artillery booming in our front soon informed us that the Rebels waited our coming and the contest was begun. The hustle and hurry of the approaching battle was apparent everywhere as wherever you cast your eyes the battle lines were forming with skirmishers thrown out then commenced moving forward. The rattle of small arms soon could be heard, and the movements of troops became more rapid, the driving of artillery horses more furious. A great battle was being fought. The sun shone brightly for a time as if to lighten up and cheer the men in their death carnage, but soon became obscured again as if frowning on what was passing below. Our division was in a rare line and kept moving forward in line of battle through thickets, over meadows and cornfields, over ditches and gulches, up and down hills, passing here and there a dead or wounded Rebel or Union soldier yet stopping not to notice them until about 2 o’clock we became the front line, passing other troops.

          On we moved until crossing a large open field where we found the enemy in our front on a high, rocky, steep hill and on the left flank of our brigade then ahead of our line behind a stone wall. Musket balls flew thick on our left from the stone fence and upon the hill in front; three pieces of artillery also opened upon us from the hill. I saw the first smoke of the guns and said to the men ‘look out, it is coming.’ A shell burst in front of the line and one in the rear throwing the dirt high in the air. The men yelled and without orders jumped forward knowing instinctively their only safety lay in running rapidly on. So they rushed impetuously forward amid the grape and canister that the battery sent us, crossing the field and climbing the hill in a shorter time than I can relate it. The Rebels fled panic-stricken. Some of the horses were shot down and the guns were captured and turned on the enemy. Our line advancing on the left drove them from the stonewall capturing many of them. It was a rout as far as I could see.

Federal soldiers in camp during the Battle of Nashville. The weather was mixed on the first day of the battle but turned to rain on the 16th and progressively worsened in the days following with sleet, ice, and snow. The gloomy weather no doubt matched the mood of the defeated Army of Tennessee as it retreated into Alabama. Colonel Cummins recalled meeting captured Confederate prisoners during the pursuit and commented that "many of the prisoners were jubilant at the idea of being captured as all admitted they were badly whipped and cursed Hood for bringing them into Tennessee." 

          We followed on capturing prisoners until we gained the top of the second hill when our line being much broken by our rapid movements was ordered to halt and night approaching, we went to fortifying immediately. As we were charging up the hill, Adjutant Walkup’s horse was shot and he had to leave him- the horse afterwards died. My horse was struck with a spent ball and rearing and plunging, my saddle turned and unseated me in a style I don’t much fancy. As I was among rocks, I was fortunate to escape with slight sprains and bruises. I was soon mounted again and going up the hill at no slow pace.

I never saw men in my life so impetuous, so eager for the strife, as all of the men of our army were on that day. Whenever the enemy opened a battery, all that was to be done was to give the order charge and away they went with shouts and yells determined to succeed, and they did succeed for they captured them in every trial. Every man appeared confident of victory, every soldier felt himself a hero and acted as a hero should. The Rebels appeared panic-stricken and would not stand. They appeared to have no hope of success. Never were such results achieved with so little loss. A Rebel major of artillery said “he never saw such damned reckless men to charge. They didn’t give me time to warm my guns!”

 “A puff of smoke on a hill to our front and distant about a half a mile followed in a few seconds by the striking of a shell between our regiment and the 3rd Tennessee on our right gave us our cue. Away we went, without orders, for that hill. Through mud shoe top deep, over fences, across ditches, all organization lost before we reached the foot of the hill. As I passed a log house a charge of canister raised the shakes on its roof and the hair on my roof at the same time. It won’t lay straight yet.” ~ Private William Taylor, Co. D, 99th Ohio


We had struck the left flank of the Rebel army and were driving them endways. On other parts of the field our army succeeded well, yes, succeeded nobly beyond all expectations. Our regiment only lost seven wounded on the 15th. The hills on which the Rebels planted their artillery were so high that they could not depress their guns sufficiently to injure us much when we charged them. At night a drizzling rain set up and tired and weary there was no sleep for us. The line must be fortified to guard against reverses on the morrow. We worked all night. At times I had hard work to keep any of the men at work as they were so wearied, and I had the officers woken up several times and required them to keep their men at work. I slept not a wink until about daylight the next morning.

At daylight we found the enemy entrenched on a hill in our front in easy rifle range. But they had no battery planted and we did; it soon opened, and the second shot knocked off a head log in one place making the Rebels scatter in a way which was quite amusing to our men. We remained quiet in our works the greater part of the 16th, but the fighting was brisk all day on the other parts of the line. Within sight of us the Rebels opened batteries several times during the day, but they no sooner opened than a charge placed them in our hands. It was amusing to hear the men joking about the Rebel artillery. They seemed only to want them to reveal the positions of their guns so they could capture them.

In the afternoon a brigade of the 16th Army Corps charged on a hill in our immediate front, taking it with ease, and our lines closing up in other directions, a large number of Rebels were captured. We fought none on the 16th and when in the afternoon we moved out on to the support of other troops, the rout of the Rebels was so complete we did not come up with them. One line of our troops was enough to drive them from every position. All the artillery the Rebels used fell into our hands and frequently it was captured before they could get it into position. Night saved Hood’s army from annihilation. Many of the prisoners were jubilant at the idea of being captured as all admitted they were badly whipped and cursed Hood for bringing them to Tennessee. Many were bare-footed and ragged, thinly clothed, and without blankets. They had been told there were scarcely any but new recruits and drafted men at Nashville, and they inquired eagerly what troops ours were. They knew none but old troops could fight as our men did, some of them thought Sherman must have come back with his men.

“The Rebel breastworks presented a sickening sight. We crossed at the point where the artillery fire was concentrated. Six Rebels were held in the trench by one stout head log- heads, arms, legs, entrails, all mixed in a promiscuous mass.” ~ Private William Taylor, Co. D, 99th Ohio


Night, a dark and dreary night, followed the day and the rain which had been moderate during the day poured down in torrents. Tired and exhausted, our men slept on the field while the Rebels dragged themselves along retreating from the place they were so confidently told was within their grasp. The morning of the 17th, the bugle sounded reveille at an early hour. Our army was in motion marching after the retreating foe. Soon artillery could be heard miles in front as our cavalry came upon the rear guard of Hood’s army. Our corps was in the rear and marched but a short distance. It rained a cold wintry rain, the mud was deep and growing deeper, yet the men murmured not as they were eager to come up with the Rebels and finish the good work already begun. They were flushed with victory while the Rebels were depressed by defeat. At night we were again out in the rain, many without blankets. It was hard soldiering but must be done.

Musician Joseph Henry Clapper of Co. E of the 99th Ohio saw action with the regiment throughout its existence including the battles of Stones River, Chickamauga, and Atlanta.  The 99th Ohio was reduced and consolidated with the 50th Ohio on December 31, 1864; two years before Clapper and his regiment were guarding McFadden's Ford during the Battle of Stones River and would take part in their first major engagement on January 2, 1863 during Breckinridge's assault. 

On the 18th we again moved forward, but the whole army had come on to the Franklin Pike and it had almost ceased to be a pike from the heavy trains which had gone over it. The weather remained inclement: it rained, it snowed, and sleeted alternately and the wind blew piercing cold from the northwest. This day we reached the Harpeth River opposite Franklin. There was but a single bridge and day and night, the troops, wagons, and artillery were crowded over it. We camped without crossing. During the day we had been meeting captured artillery and prisoners coming back from the front. Each fresh crowd of Rebel prisoners brought forth remarks from our men and retorts from them. Some of our men would ask the Rebels if they were going to take Nashville; they would answer pleasantly yes while another would ask why don’t you take Nashville? A snappish Rebel would reply why don’t you take Richmond? One would “where’s Hood?” I heard the reply given that “he told us he would go to Nashville or hell, and he’s got the hell end of the road.” The prisoners appeared generally pleased that they were captured and frequently asked if hardtack was plenty in Nashville. They said they had been living on parched corn and beef alone.

Our army has captured since we left Nashville more than 8,000 prisoners and 61 pieces of artillery. No small victory with a fine prospect of still further fruits resulting from it. I am in hopes this campaign will soon close and we will be permitted to rest until spring opens. But if any good can be done to the cause by the continuance of active operations, I am willing to do my share. You may think we move slow, but if you could only see the roads and know that we must bring up rations and ammunition, you would not think so.

Source:

Letter from Lieutenant Colonel John E. Cummins, 99th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Sidney Weekly Journal (Ohio), January 6, 1865, pg. 2

 

 

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