Friday, May 20, 2022

Review - "Fortress Nashville: Pioneers, Engineers, Mechanics, Contrabands & U.S. Colored Troops" by Mark Zimmerman

[Fortress Nashville: Pioneers, Engineers, Mechanics, Contrabands & U.S. Colored Troops by Mark Zimmerman (Author-Zimco Publishing, 2022). 8.5" x 11" Paperback, maps, photos, illustrations, appendices, source notes, bibliography. 338 pp. ISBN:978-0-578-37936-4. $29.95]

Though no exhaustive microstudy of the December 15-16, 1864 fighting at Nashville yet exists, solid coverage is spread among numerous narrative history, essay, and periodical sources. All acknowledge the immense strength of the fortifications constructed around the Tennessee capital during the years following its surrender to Union forces in February 1862. However, details have always been sparse, and certainly no single volume has approached the level of comprehensiveness displayed in Mark Zimmerman's new book Fortress Nashville: Pioneers, Engineers, Mechanics, Contrabands & U.S. Colored Troops.

Soon after General Don Carlos Buell's Army of the Ohio entered Nashville, ambitious plans were hatched to construct a series of large forts that would bristle with heavy guns and be of cutting edge military engineering design. Zimmerman traces in meticulous fashion the evolution of these fortifications from an initial collection of detached works overlooking key roads, bridges, and government buildings to a vastly more integrated network of massive forts connected by two (inner and outer) lines of earthworks fronting the city and anchored on both flanks by a wide bend in the Cumberland River. In the book, the author examines at greatest length the jewel of Nashville's defense, the masterpiece of military architecture that was Fort Negley. Close attention is also paid to the design and construction of other major Nashville forts (ex. Morton, Andrew Johnson, Houston, Gillem, Whipple, and Garesche) along with a host of lesser works.

The reason why so much blood, sweat, and treasure went into fortress Nashville went far beyond the city being the political center of occupied Tennessee. Ideally situated in Middle Tennessee, Nashville was quickly transformed into the administrative and logistical nerve center of the Union Army's invasion of the Confederate heartland. That indispensable strategic point, with its critical road, rail, and river connections radiating in all directions, needed to be augmented and protected at all costs. Making that years-long process a major theme of the book, Zimmerman, in highly informative fashion, expands the narrative beyond the city itself and into the integrated logistics and defense system established across Middle Tennessee. In addition to describing networks of blockhouses protecting the existing railroad system, the author discusses at length the construction of major strategic logistical enhancements (ex. Fortress Rosecrans near Murfreesboro and Johnsonville on the Tennessee River) along with forts overlooking key garrison towns across the region. Attacks by both conventional and irregular Confederate forces against some of those points at various times during the war are also recounted.

Closely supporting the text is a tremendous assemblage (easily hundreds in number and often full page in size) of maps, historical illustrations, photographs, fortification design drawings, charts, and modern artwork. Locations partly or fully erased by modern development are helpfully marked on modern maps (though GPS coordinates are not provided). Many of these items have appeared in other publications (for example, in the atlas to accompany the O.R.), but nothing like the magnitude of this astounding collection of visual material related to the Union defense of Nashville and Middle Tennessee has ever been published before in a single volume.

In addition to a summary of the region's frontier-era fortification history and a general recounting of western theater Civil War events leading up to the Union capture and occupation of Nashville, numerous sidebars and even entire chapters are devoted to a great variety of topics associated with the defenses of Civil War Nashville. A sampling of these includes biographies of notable military engineers, histories of specialized engineer/pioneer units involved in fortification construction, and numerous preservation matters. The region's contraband camps and the role former slaves played in constructing the Nashville fortifications are also highlighted, as are locally organized USCT units and their attacking role in the Battle of Nashville. The Nashville fortifications were never directly assaulted, so the battle itself is only briefly discussed, mostly in the context of the Union seizure of redoubts protecting the left flank of General Hood's army and the aforementioned assaults by the USCT troops on the Confederate right flank.

In addition to paying close attention to details and perspectives on the design and construction of the fortifications, information regarding garrison units and their artillery inventories is found in the main text, in tables, and in the addendum/appendix section. Especially useful for reference are the series of 1862-66 inspection reports reproduced in Addendum C. The material presented in the book is not formally annotated, although sources are frequently mentioned in the main text and Zimmerman includes at the rear of the book both source note discussion and bibliography sections.

An interesting contrast with the Washington defenses, and Civil War fortification engineering as a whole, is the degree to which stone was used in the Nashville forts, a consequence of the ground in and around the city being so rocky. Western theater students know that the scale of Nashville's defenses were second only to Washington's, but they might be surprised to learn how long it took to get to that point. While Washington, when properly garrisoned, was rendered largely impervious to direct assault by 1862, Nashville, according to Zimmerman, had only advanced toward completion a relative handful of major strongpoints by the end of that year. Given the degree to which the city had developed by 1862-63 into the western theater's most important advance base of operations (and the threats directed toward it by the Confederacy's western army over that time), it's rather surprising that the double line of connected fortifications so carefully described in the text had not been completed until late 1864. It seems likely that shifting priorities, funding, inconsistent labor availability, and geology were key issues behind that slow progression.

Meticulously detailed and densely packed with visual aids of all kinds, Fortress Nashville ranks among the most compelling descriptive and illustrated histories of major Civil War fortification networks. Readers of this study will also gain a keen appreciation of the multitude of factors underpinning Nashville's central role in sustaining the Union war effort in the West. Paired with B.F. Cooling's work on the nation's capital, readers now have authoritative reference studies of the two most strongly fortified cities in the country during the Civil War. Highly recommended.

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