In the Eyewitnesses books, men, women and children who were there tell you what it was like to be thrown into the racket and confusion of a Civil War battle, to run for your life, to be knocked down by a bullet, to help surgeons amputate mangled arms and legs, to search battlefields for fallen friends, to comfort dying comrades, and to wonder how you survived.
Creating this you-are-there format meant gathering as many first-person accounts as possible about each battle from diaries, letters, books, interviews and reminisces. I made transcripts of those parts that were about the battle. Then, I broke the accounts apart and rearranged them in a roughly chronological order, so the eyewitnesses describe the battles, from start to finish.
The battles are roughly linked: Shiloh follows Fort Donelson, Stones River follows Perryville, and Franklin leads to Nashville.
Fort Donelson is an unusual Tennessee battle because Confederate defenders were attacked by Federal soldiers and Federal gunboats. Southern artillery roughed up the gunboats and drove them off in a dramatic showdown, and Confederate infantry punched open an escape route through the Federal siege lines. Just as it seemed all the Confederate generals had to do to save their army was to lead it through the escape hole, the top generals lost their nerve and abandoned their troops.
A disgusted cavalry colonel named Nathan Bedford Forrest led his men, and others who wanted to escape, out of the fort before it was surrendered.
Loss of Fort Donelson quickly led to the Federal occupation of the Tennessee capital, Nashville. The occupied city became a major supply center for Federal armies invading the South.
Franklin was a Confederate victory if considered only in terms of who held the battlefield after the fight. It was a disaster when considered more broadly. The South lost 1,700 killed and 5,000 wounded or taken prisoner. Five veteran generals were killed, and 53 regimental commanders were casualties.
Federal losses are, officially, 189 killed and 2,325 wounded or taken prisoner. Some researchers who have studied Franklin say the Federal death toll is too low because it does not include those who later died of wounds, and at least one researcher believes the report of the number killed was falsified.
Whatever may have been the Federal cost in killed, wounded and missing, it was a loss the North could afford. The South, however, could not make up its losses, and many soldiers who survived lost confidence in the army’s commander. Two weeks later, that corrosion in morale played a role in the rout at the Battle of Nashville.
This was the only major battle in Tennessee that involved large numbers of black Federal soldiers.
The battle is also important because it hastened the end of the war.
By December 1864, the Confederacy essentially had two major armies left east of the Mississippi River. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was stuck in the trenches defending Petersburg, Virginia, and John Bell Hood’s battered Army of Tennessee was camped outside of Nashville.
Hood’s troops were in bad shape. He had sent them into a Federal meat-grinder at Franklin on Nov. 30. The survivors were poorly clothed, needed shoes and were often hungry. They were camped in the open, with few tents, during a very cold, freezing spell.
But, in and close around Nashville, Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas’ Federal army was well fed, well clothed, well shod, and had access to the stores, saloons, churches and eating places in Nashville; many of the soldiers had the opportunity to attend a circus in town. Thomas had overwhelming numbers at his disposal, and he was just waiting for the weather to improve so he could attack Hood.
In a two-day assault, the Federals routed Hood’s troops and drove them south and out of Tennessee.
Though several thousand Southern soldiers escaped, the Army of Tennessee was finished as a major military threat. That meant thousands of Federal soldiers and their artillery and supplies could be shifted north for use against Lee and other Southern forces.
Lee surrendered in April, and the war was quickly over.
Perryville was the biggest Civil War battle fought in Kentucky. It is an important battle because it kept Kentucky from joining the Confederacy.
Perryville is also notable because the Federal commander didn’t know thousands of his men were fighting a desperate battle against a smaller Confederate army until the struggle was pretty much over.
Only then did he realize he had lost a rare chance to inflict a crushing defeat on the Confederacy.
Shiloh is significant for the sobering impact its casualties had on the North and the South. Neither side expected such staggering numbers of dead and wounded, and neither side’s army was prepared to handle so many casualties. Both armies had to rely heavily on civilian volunteers and donated supplies to tend to the wounded.
One reason for Shiloh’s high casualty rate was the inexperience of so many officers and men. For both sides, Shiloh was a valuable lesson in what to expect in a battle and how to handle troops under fire.
The battle began Dec. 31, 1862, with a dawn attack by the Confederate army. Both wings of the Federal army were driven back, but they did not break. Both sides rested on New Year’s Day. On Jan. 2, 1863, the Confederate commander attacked, but the charge was driven back with 1,700 casualties.
Both sides claimed the victory. The Federals held the battlefield, but had suffered 12,706 casualties. The Confederates’ casualties were less, 9,870, but they retreated.
While the Federal army recuperated, the men were put to work building Fortress Rosecrans, a huge supply base just outside Murfreesboro. The supply depot became the springboard for the successful Tullahoma Campaign, which forced the Confederate army out of the productive farmland of Middle Tennessee to Chattanooga. Fortress Rosecrans became a major supply base for subsequent Federal drives into the South.
The Eyewitnesses at the Battle of books are not sold on this site, but here are historic homes, battlefields and organizations that do offer the books:
Belmont Mansion in Nashville
Blockade Runner Civil War Sutlery in Wartrace, Tenn.
Carnton Plantation in Franklin
Carter House in Franklin
Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park
Eastern National in Corinth, Miss.
Fort Donelson National Battlefield
Friends of Fort Negley in Nashville
Lotz House in Franklin
Parkers Crossroads Battlefield
Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site
Rippavilla Plantation in Spring Hill, Tenn.
Save the Franklin Battlefield
Shiloh National Military Park
Stones River National Battlefield