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Desolation & Despair The Story of the 20th Tennessee Infantry CSA

By D.A. Serrano


The eight soldiers in this image are thought to be members of the 20th Tennessee Infantry taken at Rock Island prison sometime in the winter of 1863 to 1864. The soldier on the extreme left is possibly Sgt. Joseph K. Marshall of Company D. He was captured on Missionary Ridge November 25 and arrived at Rock Island on December 9th. Surprisingly, the men are all clad in six or seven button identical frock coats. Reports show the following men of the 20th captured at the battle of Missionary Ridge, J.G. Andrews, R.A. Jordan, Thomas Stovall, C. Buchanan, J.R. Marshall, T.J. Wilson, G.W .Davis, Fred Beech, Paul Beech, Theo(Todd) Carter and Thomas A. Tanner. Ambrotype courtesy Battle of Franklin Battlefield Trust.

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ust when you think that all great images are discovered, published, or otherwise seen by the Civil War public, collectors and historians are treated to a rare photo that has hidden in obscurity for 150 years. Group photos of Confederate soldiers in the field or outdoors are extremely rare. Only a handful come to mind, the three rebel prisoners at Gettysburg taken by Brady after the battle, the Rosenstock photo of Confederate soldiers in marching column at Frederick, the large group of Confederate prisoners taken during the 1864 Virginia Overland campaign are some of the more

ganized into regiments. With names like the Hickory Guards and Swanee Rifles, 10 companies from several different counties in middle Tennessee were organized into the 20th Regiment. By June of that year the Regiment reported 880 men and was led by Seminole War veteran 50-year-old Joel A. Battle, a wealthy plantation owner from Davidson County. Although in the beginning they were poorly armed and would perform guard duty and drill carrying sticks instead of rifles, the new recruits made up for their lack of training and equipment with spirit and determination. Some brought old flintlocks from home and others

General John C. Breckenridge would always be fondly remembered by the veterans of the 20th. The Mexican war veteran was a Kentucky native and politician before the war, his wife made silk flag for the 20th that was inadvertently left in Atlanta by mistake. Breckenridge had a deep dislike for Braxton Bragg and felt that Bragg was incompetent. At Murfreesboro Bragg sent Breckenridge’s division on a near suicidal charge against union lines that almost wrecked the 20th Tennessee along with the rest of the division. In the waning months of the war the capable general was made Secretary of War by Jefferson Davis. USAMHI. famous. Recently, an image of several Confederate soldiers purportedly taken at Rock Island Prison has come to light and with it a story of one of the most traveled, hardest fought regiments in the Army of the Tennessee, the 20th Tennessee Volunteer Infantry. With the call to arms in April of 1861 many companies and recruits from throughout Tennessee arrived at Camp Trousdale to be or-

J. L. Cooper was one of the unlucky men of the 20th captured at Fishing Creek. While a POW he was detailed as a hospital attendant and was paroled in August of 1862. He was promoted to Sgt. September 1, 1863 and was wounded at the battle of Missionary Ridge. His recuperation only took a few months and he was back in the ranks for the Atlanta campaign being promoted as Aide De Camp to Gen. Tyler. History of the 20th Tennessee Infantry.

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were eventually armed with a collection of military antiques from the arsenal in Nashville. Their many travels started when the regiment were briefly ordered to Virginia and stationed at the town of Bristol for only two weeks before they were ordered to the Cumberland Gap at the apex of Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia. Eventually, they were placed in the brigade of General Felix Zollicoffer along with the 15th Mississippi, the 19th and the 25th Tennessee Infantry. The green Regiments band supposedly only knew two songs, “The Girl I Left Behind” and “The Bobtail Horse”. The regiment’s first taste of real war was at Fishing Creek, Kentucky [Mill Springs]. Under the inexperienced leadership of Zollicoffer the regiment was cut to pieces sustaining 110 casualties, a large amount considering it was a small engagement like so many in the beginning of the war. Many of their antiquated flintlocks were ineffective because of the dampness “not one musket in 10 would fire” and the Regiment barely escaped across the Cumberland River. Gen. Zollicoffer wearing a white raincoat stumbled into Union lines and was shot and killed, the first Confederate general killed in the West. It also marked the first Union victory of the war. Once on the opposite bank of the Cumberland the steamship they escaped on was set fire by Private David Marion Brown and the dispirited men began a retreat lasting eight miserable days in the dead of winter. The Twentieth’s Col. Battle was commended by all for his ability and courage.

First elected captain and then major of the 20th Fred C. Claybrooke would be considered one of the bravest officers of the Regiment. At Murfreesboro, Claybrooke rallied his men by riding back and forth in front of the Regiment holding the colors aloft. He died of wounds received at Hoover’s Gap in June of 1863. History of the 20th Tennessee Infantry.

Another casualty of Fishing Creek was John L. Gooch Capt. of company E. His debilitating wounds forced him to resign July 19, 1862. He died after the war on his farm in Smyrna, Tennessee. History of the 20th Tennessee Infantry.

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One of the sadder stories of the war came in the final months of the struggle. Thomas Benton Smith was a brigadier when captured at the Battle of Nashville. While being led to the rear, he was viciously attacked by Col. W. L. McMillan of the 95th Ohio infantry without any provocation. The drunken Col. struck Smith three times with his saber opening a ghastly wound to his head. Barely alive, Smith was rushed to Union surgeons who thought the wound moral. Luckily, Smith would survive. Later in life he would suffer from bouts of severe depression and erratic behavior. His sister after finding out that Smith, naked and painted like an Indian carrying a bow and arrows was practicing his archery on passersby. She eventually had him committed to the Tennessee State Insane Asylum where he would remain for the next 47 years. His one joy during this period was occasionally attending reunions of his old comrades in the 20th Tennessee. History of the 20th Tennessee Infantry.

Postwar view of Missionary Ridge in the approximate area where the 20th fought. Library of Congress. Library of Congress.

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In the middle of the debacle on Missionary Ridge, division commander William B. Bate handled his three brigades skillfully. His position became untenable after being flanked by General Hazen’s Federals. His rearguard action helped stem the Union forces pursuit of Braggs beaten army. In later life he would become governor of Tennessee and also a US Senator. USAMHI. As terrible as Fishing Creek was, it was a mere skirmish compared to what was ahead. By April of 1862 the 20th was in General John C. Breckenridge’s division and were again decimated at Shiloh losing 187 in killed and wounded out of approximately 400 engaged. Their beloved Col. Battle was captured on the second day and never returned to the Regiment. In the Army reorganization of May 1862 the Regiment selected 22-year-old Thomas Benton Smith as their Col. and were sent to Vicksburg under Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn’s District of the Mississippi. By now traveling was in their

Capt. of Company A, William G. Gwin first enlisted in the “Hickory Guards” as a private. In 1863 he made a claim for a stolen mule and in 1864 purchased a haversack from the Macon Arsenal for $40, showing how devalued Confederate money had become. At the battle of Kennesaw Mountain he suffered a severe wound in the leg leading to its amputation. Even incapacitated he refused to leave the service and in later life was elected clerk of the Davidson County Court. History of the 20th Tennessee Infantry. blood and the Brigade was sent south to Louisiana, first engaged at Baton Rouge and afterward at Port Hudson. Many of the men in the Regiment were quite sick with fever and chills further depleting their numbers. At Murfreesboro the Regiment fought in front of the Cowen House and suffered more casualties. They finally got a rest at Tullahoma and it was there that the 20th received a new flag made by Gen. Breckenridge’s wife. They fought again at Hoover’s gap and eventually retreated to Chattanooga.

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Theodrick (Todd) Carter was captured on Missionary Ridge and as an officer, sent to Johnsons Island prison in December of 1863. One of the few prisoners to escape in route to Ft. Delaware by jumping out a train window in Pennsylvania, he rejoined his regiment that March in Dalton for the Atlanta campaign and ultimately Franklin. Todd had not been home for three and a half years. As the 20th charged the Union works Captain Carter shouted “I’m almost home, follow me boys”. The young captain would be mortally wounded 525 yards southwest from his family’s property during the battle and die on Dec 2nd. Photo courtesy Battle of Franklin Battlefield Trust.

Right: William J McMurray was wounded five times during the war. After being paroled in was admitted into a U.S. Army hospital and had his left arm amputated on May 24, 1865 not only did she write a compelling history of the 20th he also became a highly respected physician after the war. History of the 20th Tennessee Infantry.

At the battle of Chickamauga the 20th was almost annihilated. Company E alone lost 17 of 23 men engaged. But for once the Army of the Tennessee was victorious and Braxton Bragg seemed to be on the verge of complete victory. As the Federals retreated from Chickamauga, Bragg hesitated and invested the city of Chattanooga. The 20th was put to work fortifying Missionary Ridge and the Confederates waited to starve the federals out of the city. As most of Bragg’s plans, this would not end well. General Grant was able to reinforce

his army and go on the offensive. What should have been an impregnable position on Missionary Ridge was instead a death trap. As part of Bate’s Division the 20th maintained its reputation for courage and discipline holding the line on the crest of the ridge. As the onslaught of blue clad troops slowly clawed their way up the hill, Bates and the 20th held out. As confederate forces to his right and left

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Stereoview taken from the steps of the State Capital looking west towards the battle of Nashville, December 15, 1864. Library of Congress. slowly melted away the Division was eventually flanked and forced to retreat. The Regiment along with the rest of the Confederate Army regrouped in northern Georgia during the winter of 1864. The badly decimated 20th was able to briefly rest and the Army under the leadership of newly appointed General Joseph E. Johnson resupplied and waited. The campaigns in northern Georgia slowly took their toll. The 20th requited themselves with their usual gallantry fighting continually from Dalton to Atlanta. A member of the 60th North Carolina Regiment that briefly was brigaded with the 20th said “they could out fight and out steal any set I ever saw”. By the fall of 1864 the 20th found themselves marching towards their home state, Tennessee. Hoods invasion would place the Regiment on familiar ground in front

of Franklin. Sadly, Capt. Todd Carter would be killed on his family’s homestead and many in the regiment were compelled by close proximity to their own homes to leave the ranks. Briefly diverted to Murfreesboro to assist Forrests Calvary, they were unluckily recalled to Nashville, “The death angel was there to gather its last harvest.” By now the ranks of the 20th were the mere size of a company and the Army of the Tennessee was quickly routed. What was left of the regiment eventually found its way to North Carolina. Their last battle, Bentonville was far from their beloved homes. In the final reorganization of the army on April 9, 1865 the 20th was consolidated with other Tennessee regiments to form the Fourth Consolidated Tennessee Infantry. Still faithful to the colors only 34 men were left.

— Sources — History of the 20th, Tenn Inf. 1904 ,W.J. McSpecial thanks to Joanna Stephens, Curator, Murry, Co. Aytch 1900, Sam Watkins, Captain Battle of Franklin Trust. Tod Carter,1978. Dr. Rosalie Carter.

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The Strange Case of Colonel Shy O

ne cold winter day on Christmas Eve 1977, the police were called to investigate a crime. On arrival at the antebellum home on Del Rio Pike the grisly remains of a young man, headless and clad in a black tuxedo was found on top of the grave of Civil War hero Colonel William M. Shy of the 20th Tennessee infantry, “ modest as a woman, as gentle and kindly to all he came in contact. In the heat of battle he was the embodiment of courage, determination and brave to a degree”. He had been killed in the Battle of Nashville defending Compton Hill with the remnants of his regiment. Forensics determined that the body had been dead for no more than 2 to 6 months, was a Caucasian male, 5’11” between 26 to 29 years old and weighed approximately 175 pounds and the Colonel’s body was undisturbed. A murder had been committed. The case would proceed in the following weeks and a further investigation would

slowly reveal the awful truth. This was no recent murder; nevertheless it was murder if war could be called that. The headless body was that of Colonel Shy dead for 113 years. Because the corpse was in such an excellent state of preservation, [the skin was still pink] no one would originally believe it was from the Civil War. But large quantities of arsenic a mid-19th century embalming method were found in the body. The further examination of the cast-iron coffin revealed a hole where the body had been pulled out. The grisly work of grave robbers or just local pranksters was the final evaluation. On February 13, 1978 a brief ceremony performed by Rev. Charles Fulton was performed at the grave site. Silently carrying the coffin of Colonel Shy were six members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Surrounded by flags of his beloved Confederacy, Colonel Shy was again placed at rest.

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Desolation and Despair  

The Story of the Confederate Tennessee Infantry C.S.A . during the Civil War.

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