Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Review - "Johnsonville: Union Supply Operations on the Tennessee River and the Battle of Johnsonville, November 4-5, 1864" by Jerry Wooten

[Johnsonville: Union Supply Operations on the Tennessee River and the Battle of Johnsonville, November 4-5, 1864 by Jerry T. Wooten (Savas Beatie, 2019). Hardcover, 9 maps, photos, drawings, notes, appendix, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xvii,179/222. ISBN:978-1-61121-477-2. $29.95]

The Union capture of the Tennessee state capital without a fight in February 1862 gifted federal forces with an excellent forward supply base for supporting the next phase of Union advances into the Confederate heartland. Though Nashville warehouses could be stocked by both rail and water transport, supply lines into the city were vulnerable to interdiction by man and nature. The West's railroad networks were frequent targets of Confederate cavalry raiders and guerrillas, and the Cumberland River was subject to seasonal low water that frequently cut off that route. In order to maintain a more consistent flow of supplies, an east-west connection with the Tennessee River was contemplated and eventually completed in 1864. Connecting the city of Nashville with the massive new supply depot at Johnsonville, located on the east bank of the river in Humphreys County and named after the Tennessee war governor, was the Nashville & Northwestern Railroad (an antebellum dream project that was finished during the war by Union authorities). Fully operational in May 1864, Johnsonville quickly became a supply hub second only to Fortress Rosecrans in the Tennessee logistical network that would be instrumental in sustaining General Sherman's massive army group in North Georgia. With much of the existing published literature more narrowly focused on the Confederate cavalry raid that contributed to the post's near destruction, the full nature of Johnsonville's role in the Civil War has now been revealed at unprecedented depth and range in Jerry Wooten's Johnsonville: Union Supply Operations on the Tennessee River and the Battle of Johnsonville, November 4-5, 1864.

After a brief opening discussion of the geography, early settlement history, and antebellum economic development of the site that would eventually become Johnsonville, Wooten's narrative launches into a fairly expansive discussion of the Union Army's mid-war recognition of the need for a new major supply depot on the Tennessee River (as summarized above) and the massive 1863-64 construction project that would bring it to fruition. Apparently, the quartermaster department employees and civilian contractors who lived and worked at the military depot left behind few accounts of their activities, but Wooten, a former Park Manager at Johnsonville State Historic Park, was able to uncover enough firsthand source material to provide readers with some useful insights into life there. The text also provides a fine descriptive overview of the physical layout of Johnsonville along with more specific details of the buildings and support structures (of which a few photographs survive) located there.

As one would expect, obtaining enough labor in wartime Tennessee to finish both the military town of Johnsonville and the railroad that connected it to Nashville was no easy task. In the book, Wooten discusses the efforts of soldiers and civilians in constructing, maintaining, and defending this new supply link in the Union Army's western logistical network. Black labor in particular, both volunteers and individuals impressed from Tennessee contraband camps, was essential to completing the railroad within the time frame required. By the author's estimate, 7,300 impressed laborers (mostly from Middle Tennessee) worked on the Nashville & Northwestern Railroad during the twelve months leading up to September 1864. As was the case in many other rear area western posts at this stage of the war, a combination of white and USCT troops were assigned to garrison Johnsonville, and black soldiers guarded the railroad all along its length. The navy was also ever present, with four tinclads based at Johnsonville. Despite its importance, Johnsonville was not really heavily defended. According to Wooten's research, though redoubts housing several batteries were built on the high ground and the depot facilities were surrounded by five miles of earthworks, the military garrison rarely exceeded 500 men at any given time (though the civilian workers could be armed in an emergency).

Given West Tennessee's history of destructive Confederate raids on isolated Union posts and transportation infrastructure, the relative weakness of Johnsonville's defenses (even in late 1864) made it an inviting target. Indeed, the most frequently documented aspect of Johnsonville's wartime history is the devastating attack on the post conducted by Nathan Bedford Forrest's Confederate cavalry in early November 1864. While an entire book [Col. Donald Steenburn's Silent Echoes of Johnsonville: Nathan B. Forrest, Rebel Cavalry & Yankee Gunboats (1994, 2001 2nd. ed.)] along with a few smaller treatments have already addressed Forrest's October-November raid that ended with the bombardment and burning of Johnsonville, Wooten account of the entire operation from beginning to end takes this coverage to a new level. Based on primary sources and unfolding over several chapters covering Confederate interdiction of river traffic, their capture of three Union vessels, the concurrent ship versus shore engagement at Reynoldsburg Island that also involved Confederate use of the captured gunboat U.S.S. Undine, and the direct bombardment of Johnsonville itself, the book's collective treatment (well supported with maps) of the raid's events, with Johnsonville at its center, is the best now available. With prior accounts presented mostly from the Confederate viewpoint, Wooten's work also adds much-needed Union perspective.

While the Confederate cross-river bombardment of Johnsonville was highly destructive, Wooten's research reinforces the modern consensus that the primary instigators of the conflagration that consumed ships, wharves, and buildings were the defenders themselves. Though the army and navy officers who ordered the destruction to keep the post's valuable ships and supplies out of the hands of the enemy (it was widely assumed by those in charge that the Confederates threatened Johnsonville on both sides of the river) were later acquitted of negligence, many still consider their actions premature and unnecessary. By any measure (Union authorities estimated government property losses at $1.5 million and Forrest claimed he inflicted $6.7 million worth of damage), the level of destruction at Johnsonville was extraordinary. However, as Wooten appropriately maintains, the strategic significance was minimal. Timing is everything in war, and striking Johnsonville in November 1864 was far too late to hinder Sherman's campaign in Georgia, and the effects on Union forces during the late stages of General Hood's operation in Middle Tennessee that winter were only slight.

An appendix very briefly explores the origins of the U.S. Army's quartermaster department and its Tennessee branch in the Civil War. This is appropriate enough, but, given the book's argument that Johnsonville's logistical importance has been underappreciated, the space might have been more usefully devoted to a quantitative rundown and analysis of the nature and volume of supplies that passed through Johnsonville during its months of peak operation (March-November 1864). But that's more of a wish list item than a serious criticism.

Though relatively short in length, Wooten's study offers a rather comprehensive examination of the historical legacies of persons and events related to Civil War Johnsonville. In addition to being a fine battle history, the book should be regarded as a major contribution to the ongoing study of what it took to keep Civil War armies supplied in the field. With several recent studies paying closer attention to logistical superiority as a key component of Union victory, Johnsonville's content and analysis should form a very useful part of that growing discussion, now and into the future.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the review of “Johnsonville.” We appreciate your review and are glad to hear you enjoyed the book! Those interested in checking out this book can read more at the Savas Beatie website:
    Savas Beatie staff


Please SIGN YOUR NAME. Otherwise, your comment submission may be rejected, at my discretion. Also, outside promotions are not allowed in the comments section.