The Assault of the 13th United States Colored Troops (USCT) at the Battle of Nashville December 1864
On December 15th, 1864, Major General George Thomas’ U.S. troops attacked General John Bell Hood’s Confederate lines south of Nashville, Tennessee. After a disastrous and costly battle at Franklin, Tennessee, Hood opted to continue his drive north and capture Nashville before advancing even farther north. Thomas outnumbered Hood almost two to one, so the Confederate general set up defensive positions and waited for Thomas’ army to attack him.
Thomas launched a diversionary attack on the Confederate right, and hit the Rebel left with his main assault force. This attack successfully drove the Confederates out of their fortifications; they retreated two miles south and set up a new line.
Thomas decided to use the same tactics when assaulting the new line on December 16th. The main assault would again be against the left with a diversionary attack against the right. Thomas’ army was a collection of units including the 4th and 23rd Corps, three divisions of the Army of the Tennessee, and a five brigade entity called the Provisional Detachment District of the Etowah under the command of Major General James B. Steedman. Two of these brigades—the 1st and 2nd Colored Brigades– consisted of eight regiments of United States Colored Troops (USCT). These regiments of Black soldiers were led by white officers as was standard at the time. The 1st Colored Brigade, under the command of Colonel Thomas J. Morgan, had seen considerable fighting and casualties on the 15th. This brigade would be in reserve on the 16th, and the 2nd Colored Brigade, under Colonel Charles R. Thompson, would take it’s turn. Thompson’s brigade included the 12th, 13th, and 100th USCT.
Steedman’s provisional division was on the left of the Union line; Brigadier General Thomas J. Wood’s 4th Corps was on Steedman’s right. Wood, who had only
recently taken over command of the 4th Corps following the wounding of Major General David S. Stanley, wanted to do more than just hold the Confederates in place with a diversion. He wanted to attack and carry the position, and convinced Steedman to help out.
Attacking and rolling up the Rebel right would not be easy, as the Confederate position was a strong one with its line anchored on high ground called Overton Hill, also known as Peach Orchard Hill. Steedman’s troops would have to advance across a plowed field that had a grove of trees and brush in the middle of it that would impede the advance. Another of Steedman’s brigades, this one under Lieutenant Colonel Charles H. Grosvenor, would be the farthest to the left, with Charles Thompson’s three USCT regiments between Grosvenor and the 4th Corps. Thompson would initially attack with the 12th and 100th regiments, with the 13th backing them up. Two of Wood’s brigades under Colonels Abel Streight and P. Sydney Post would be attacking to the right of Thompson. On Overton Hill, a brigade of Georgians under Brigadier General Marcellus A. Stovall and a brigade of Alabamians under Brigadier General James Holtzclaw, both from Lieutenant General Stephen D. Lee’s Corps, prepared to repel the attack.
An artillery bombardment of the Confederate positions preceded the infantry attack, but it had little effect. As Thompson’s regiments advanced, they were soon hit with deadly Rebel artillery and musket fire. The grove of trees and brush broke up the formation of the 12th and 100th regiments, causing some to bunch up, leading to more casualties as the Rebel defenders took advantage and concentrated their fire. The attack of the 12th and 100th ground to a halt and the men took cover as best as they could. On the right, Post and Streight also were unable to carry the position.
As the trailing regiment, the 13th USCT began its advance toward the Rebels as the other regiments were taking the brunt of the enemy fire, allowing the 13th to close in on the Confederate works. Then, a charge was ordered and the 13th rushed toward the Rebel lines on Overton Hill. With the other Union troops pinned down, the Confederates concentrated their fire on them, cutting down many. But they continued the assault with some even reaching the Confederate works and mounting the ramparts only to be shot down. An officer in the 12th USCT observed:
A portion of the Thirteenth mounted the breastworks by themselves, without the support of their comrades to the right and the left, the Rebel reserves rising up were able to give their undivided attention to them, and poured in so hot a fire as to mow down those on the works almost to a man. The others were obliged to fall back. I doubt if a man of those who actually mounted the intrenchments survived.
The 13th USCT’s commanding officer, Colonel John H. Hottenstein, wrote in his after action report that “The fire of the enemy was terrific, but nonetheless the men, led by the
officers, continued to advance to the very muzzels of the enemy’s guns, but its numbers were too small, and after a protracted struggle they had to fall back, not for the want of courage or discipline, but because it was impossible to drive the enemy from his works by direct assault”.
The attack on the right flank did not break the Confederate line, but the main attack on the Confederate left eventually caved in that flank. Union cavalry raced into the Confederate rear, and Hood’s army was compelled to retreat. Thompson’s regiments and the other U.S. troops on the right again attacked, this time spontaneously without orders, chasing after the retreating Confederates and capturing the Rebel works. Hoods army retreated out of Tennessee, and his invasion of that state was over.
In its first significant action, the 13th USCT had 55 killed, 165 wounded and 1 missing for a total of 221 casualties out of 576 engaged, a casualty rate of 38%. This was by far the most casualties of any Union regiment in the Battle of Nashville. Colonel Thompson’s other two USCT regiments also suffered severely. The 100th lost 12 killed and 121 wounded for a total of 133, which was the second highest number of casualties for a regiment in the battle, and the 12th had 114 casualties—10 killed and 104 wounded. This was the fourth highest regimental loss.
The sacrifice of the 13th earned the regiment some respect from an unexpected source. Confederate General Holtzclaw wrote in his report of the battle. “Placing a negro brigade in front they gallantly dashed up the abatis, forty feet in front, and were killed by hundreds. Pressed on by their white brethren in the rear they continued to come up in masses to the abatis, but they came only to die. I have seen most of the battle fields of the West, but never saw dead men thicker than in front of my two right regiments”.
Blood Proof: USCT at the Battle of Nashville by Noah Andre Trudeau. Civil War Times, February 2013.
A Colored Brigade in the Campaign and Battle of Nashville by Henry Freeman. In Military Essays and Recollections: Papers Read before the Commandery of the State of Illinois, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Volume II.
Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War 1862-1865 by Noah Andre Trudeau.
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion. Series I, Volume XLV, Part 1.
Regimental Losses in the American Civil War, 1861-1865 by William F. Fox.
Repelling Hood’s Invasion of Tennessee, by Henry Stone. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume IV, edited by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel.
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