Nashville history

Glen Leven
Glen Leven, Nashville, TN

The sesquicentennial–150th anniversary–of the Battle of Nashville (Dec 15-16, 1864) is/was yesterday and today. In case you’re not a Civil War scholar (I’m not), the Battle of Nashville was the last big “western” battle in the Civil War, and it was won decisively by the Union Army.

I found out about the battle anniversary and the commemorative events entirely by chance. We had no other firm plans for the weekend, so I suggested to the Mr. that we might get some history, and he was amenable.

Our interest in the Civil War is of fairly recent vintage. When we moved to the South, neither the Mr. nor I knew much of substance about the war. Literally all I learned in school in Washington state was that the South was committed to slavery and lost the war because their cause was wrong. Or, in other words, the North was morally and otherwise superior to the South, which might be true in this instance, but also seems a simplistic reduction of the issues and certainly never made it seem very interesting.

(Please note: This is seriously a very long post about local Civil War stuff, not books or writing, or even AU slavery history in Ganymede Quartet! It’s about real history! And how I find it interesting!)

In summer 2013, I finally roused myself to take an interest in Nashville and the Mr. agreed to accompany me to visit Civil War sites in and around the city. It wasn’t so much that I was interested in the Civil War specifically, but I like history, and I like research, and that’s really what there is to be interested in around here besides the music industry. I was apprehensive when we started visiting battlefields and house museums, expecting to be presented with a lot of pro-Confederate opinions and romanticizing of the Southern cause, but that hasn’t been our experience at all. All of the surviving antebellum mansions were occupied by the armies for one side or the other at some point, and most served as hospitals, as well. The history everywhere is a combined Union/Confederate history, typically presented by people who are passionate about the facts and delighted to share their knowledge. So far, it’s always been a presentation of American history, of intimately human history, and not a politically-motivated interpretation, and I’ve definitely appreciated this.

There were a large variety of commemorative events planned for the weekend, but we only went to a couple. Saturday we went to Glen Leven, which is rarely open to the public. I adore house museums of all kinds, and the Nashville area has a lot of good ones. This was our first time seeing Glen Leven, and it might be my favorite of all the local historic houses, with there being something especially gracious and welcoming about the proportions and layout of the rooms. Lots of windows, 14’ (or higher) ceilings, wide porches, and a pair of elaborately-framed mirrors that must be original to the house because they fit so perfectly between and around the windows in the front parlors. It’s also the least public-ready of the local houses, not entirely restored and mostly unfurnished.

There was a gentleman giving a talk about the battle-related history of the house in one of the front parlors, but other visitors were talkative and inconsiderate (and brought squalling babies!) and we couldn’t hear him over their chatter. However, there were reenactors in the other parlor answering questions about displays of Civil War-era medical instruments and supplies of the sort that would have been used while the house served as a Union hospital. And in case you weren’t aware, it’s been repeated over and over again at these house/hospital museums that there was actually plentiful anesthesia for amputations and other procedures on both sides of the conflict. People having their arms sawn off while they bit down on sticks or screamed and begged for mercy were apparently not the norm.

In most cases with these houses, the families who owned them remained in residence (whether in the house itself or somewhere else on the property) even after the houses had been commandeered by one or the other army. The women (remember, all the free men were gone, basically) would end up nursing and writing letters for injured men, and they did this whether it was for Union or Confederate soldiers. They behaved like more-or-less gracious hostesses in the midst of a bloody war on their doorsteps. I absolutely think the Southern cause was wrong, and I’m aware that the welcoming house was the result of a system of oppression and subjugation, but I can’t help but feel for these women who were unprotected and essentially invaded by entire armies while they tried to keep shit together.

I definitely wonder about the slaves, though. There’s not nearly as much information offered about their lives, unsurprisingly. Presumably, some of them were helping the free women handle these influxes of soldiers (despite the Emancipation Proclamation, Tennessee had slavery until 1865). It seems like every house museum has a story of a slave who stayed with the family after the war, and it’s always a little bit of a mystery as to why they would choose to do that, though you can make reasonable guesses. In some cases, it seems likely that the former master was offering a good employment opportunity to a slave with specialized skills. In others, such as with slaves who had raised generations of the family’s children, it seems possible that there was a more personal connection. Or it might just have been that they didn’t know where else to go, or found the prospect of suddenly providing for themselves in the world daunting. The slaves who stayed were a minuscule proportion of all slaves, of course, and their stories do seem to be offered up to some extent to show that all slaves weren’t miserable, which I don’t think is a conclusion you can necessarily draw based on that evidence. It stands to reason, though, that these former slaves who stayed behind would be better-documented than former slaves who left, so perhaps that’s another reason their stories are told more often.

The South was decimated by the Civil War, and everything I’ve read and viewed points to the federal government basically going out of its way to make the South suffer as much as possible in the aftermath, and with that in mind, you begin to understand a little better the sort of hurt and resentment that seems to always be simmering beneath the surface here. The South had a totally shitty cause, and their loss was absolutely righteous, but during Reconstruction the North really did kick them when they were already way down. And to some extent, I think the North still does kick the South. It’s not always undeserved, though :D

I’m a Northerner of a sort. I’m from the Pacific Northwest, and I’d move back there without a moment’s hesitation if it were possible. I think Nashville is really sub-par as a city (it’s a great place to spend a wild weekend, a dubious place to live), but I do feel like a lot of the things I dislike about this place can be attributed to some degree to the results of a sort of hurt pride dating back to the Civil War era.  I dunno. I don’t have sympathy for the Southern cause, but I do have empathy for the loss and pain all the people experienced during the war years. Seeing these museum houses, and seeing the pooled bloodstains on the parlor floors of makeshift hospitals, and hearing about the battles that were waged in people’s yards and the overwhelming numbers of dead that were left to rot in the sun, it’s just sad. It makes you wish very viscerally that people would choose another way to resolve issues besides fighting, and that societies would give up cruel behaviors out of basic humanity, but that seems so impossible, unfortunately. Ugh. It’s just sad.

After Glen Leven, we went to a battle site called Shy’s Hill, which is a steep hill with a slippery switchback trail that rises in the midst of a bunch of 60s ranch houses. Very few battle sites are preserved as battle sites here. Most of the land has been developed, and Shy’s Hill was probably able to be preserved only because it’s too steep to build on. As we were driving up, some reenactors shot off a cannon and it was so loud and unexpected and terrifying that I had the adrenaline shakes the entire time we were there. I am possibly prone to nervousness anyway, however! I was definitely not wearing hiking boots for the hill climb. In fact, I was wearing fashionable chelsea boots with minimal traction, and I was already worried about the descent as I was making the ascent.

Apparently, the Confederates did everything wrong at Shy’s Hill. The hill is so steep that they couldn’t aim their cannon down effectively. They dug in at the wrong place and couldn’t see the Union troops approaching. They just fucked up really badly, and they had their asses handed to them. There were a bunch of reenactor dudes in the costumes of both armies at the top, and we thought they might do something, but they were just standing around a fire bullshitting and eating hot dogs, so not particularly authentic. One guy had on a fleece vest over his uniform, which I found more annoying than is really my business. Authenticity!

Without any reenacting actually going on, there wasn’t much to do up top. It seemed obvious, though, once we were up there, that it wasn’t a good place to fight from. You could see for miles straight out from the hilltop, but you wouldn’t be able to see the opposing army approaching uphill without exposing yourself.  So you’d just have to sit up there admiring the view and waiting to die while being terrified/deafened by cannon fire. A lot of the decisions made by Confederate commanders in this battle and the Battle of Franklin two weeks prior seem kind of obviously bad, actually, and it makes me curious how the rank and file soldiers felt about what they were being asked to do. I could have asked one of the hot dog eaters, I guess. Missed opportunity.

The descent down the hill was indeed difficult, mud and slippery tree roots and tractionless boots. I was still all adrenaline-shaky, and I made the Mr. walk in front of me so he could block my fall if I slipped. And then I slipped and made a little bleat of terror, and he LEAPT OUT OF THE WAY. Luckily, I caught myself, but it was not his finest hour :D

So, nothing actually upsetting happened on our history date, but somehow I got and stayed upset. All the Civil War stuff makes me sad and emotional for days afterward. It’s tragic that slavery was ever a thing, and it’s tragic that so many people died fighting over it, and it’s tragic that the country’s reunion was so imperfect and feels so fragile. I find it all terribly interesting, though (which is why I keep seeking it out), and very relatable in spite of the politics, and it brings up a lot of empathy for what people went through in these battles, and then a lot of guilt over the empathy because, after all, many of these people were slave owners,  or at least fighting on the side of slavery.

While I’ve been pleasantly surprised that Civil War history sites are not necessarily the province of overt racists–you usually don’t even see Confederate flag stickers on cars, for instance, which makes it different than, say, a Kroger parking lot around here–there are the occasional dubious-seeming people present at these sites. However, the vast majority of people seem normal, curious and interested.  But definitely white. I have seen people of color at a couple of the house tours, but I can think of a lot of reasons that POC wouldn’t want to visit these sites. There’s a real dearth of information about the slaves’ lives, for one. But, yeah, it seems to be a white person’s hobby for the most part. We’ve never been to a big reenactment, and we’ll probably never attend one unless it’s super-easy to do, and I expect we might meet many more politically-dubious people at an event like that. More flag-wavers and more overt racists. I could be wrong, though, and it would be nice to be wrong.

While my enthusiasm for living in Nashville remains limited, I am grateful to have had these opportunities to learn about about the Civil War and American history basically just dumped in my lap. If I still lived up north, I doubt I’d ever have looked into any of this Civil War stuff, because why would I? You definitely have the luxury of being oblivious to it living in the Pacific Northwest! I find the stories deeply moving and interesting, and they make things about the South clearer to me somehow, though not always in ways I can articulate well. I want virtually everything here to be different, but I understand some of the reasons why it’s not, I guess.

If you’re interested in Civil War stuff already, it’s definitely worth visiting sites like these. And if you don’t think you’re interested but it’s easy for you to get to some antebellum mansion or old fort, consider looking into it if you have nothing more pressing to do. I have a feeling a lot of people had the same woefully incomplete  education about the Civil War as I did, and it’s a subject that deserves more attention than that.

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