Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Review - "The Nashville and Decatur in the Civil War: History of an Embattled Railroad" by Walter Green

[The Nashville and Decatur in the Civil War: History of an Embattled Railroad by Walter R. Green, Jr. (McFarland, 2022). Softcover, maps, photos, sidebars, tables, illustrations, appendix section, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:viii,175/256. ISBN:978-1-4766-8852-7. $39.95]

Following a relatively direct 122-mile path between its namesake Tennessee and Alabama cities, the Nashville and Decatur Railroad passed through a number of other settlements and towns similarly steeped in Civil War history, including Brentwood, Franklin, Thompson's Station, Spring Hill, Columbia, Pulaski and Athens. An aggregation of three railroad companies (the Tennessee & Alabama RR, the Central Southern RR, and Tennessee & Alabama Central RR), the N&D was the western face of an important heartland transportation triangle completed by the Memphis & Charleston RR (which formed the southern side of the triangle between Decatur Junction and Stevenson, Ala) and Nashville & Chattanooga RR (the eastern face from Stevenson back to the Tennessee capital). Much shorter in length and less strategically significant than other tracked arteries  that formed more of the true backbone of the Confederate South's rail network (among those the Mobile & Ohio and Memphis & Charleston railroads), the N&D nevertheless shaped several Civil War campaigns in significant ways and was, when controlled by federal forces, a vital lifeline for otherwise isolated Union supporters in North Alabama. The N&D's full Civil War story is presented in comprehensive fashion for the first time in Walter Green's very impressive book The Nashville and Decatur in the Civil War: History of an Embattled Railroad.

After briefly charting the early story of the railroad, Green's narrative exhaustively documents the N&D's wartime history and the multiple cycles of destruction and reconstruction that it, and nearby communities, endured. After the victorious conclusion to General U.S. Grant's forts Henry and Donelson campaign completely unhinged the western Confederacy's over-extended cordon defense line in early 1862, the precipitous Confederate retreat south across central Tennessee inflicted the first great wave of bridge and rail destruction below Nashville. Union repair crews were quickly mobilized to repair the damage. Nevertheless, a combination of civilian saboteurs, Confederate cavalry raiders, and severe weather events targeted vulnerable N&D rail crossings throughout 1862 and 1863. By February 1864, and after great effort and expense, the railroad was back in working order and shuttling men and supplies to General William T. Sherman's army group, then poised to invade North Georgia. During September and October of 1864, Confederate cavalry under General Nathan Bedford Forrest swarmed all over the N&D, the damage being extensive but administered far too late to deter Sherman's campaign in Georgia. During John Bell Hood's bold advance into Middle Tennessee later that year, which largely followed the line of the N&D, both sides meted out heavy damage to the railroad, and, well into the following spring, heavy rains continued to wash out spans repaired by Union forces after Hood's retreat.

Much of Green's narrative is framed around four individuals (three military officers and a civilian contractor) heavily tasked by Union authorities with repairing, maintaining, and defending the tracks of the N&D. The first is Col. William P. Innis of the First Michigan Engineers and Mechanics regiment. Though an excellent and thorough history of the First Michigan (Mark Hoffman's "My Brave Mechanics")  was published in 2007, Green's exploration of the regiment's activities along the N&D further extends our knowledge and appreciation of that specialized unit by presenting a detailed picture of the period during which the regiment first began to earn its stellar reputation. These sections of the book also usefully complement recent work in the literature crediting clear Union superiority in engineering and logistics with being a prime factor in winning the war. Also covered in meticulous fashion is the expansive Union effort, in response to larger and more effective Confederate raids, to replace stockades with more secure blockhouses at each bridge/trestle and to build major forts (ex. Fort Granger near Franklin) near other strategic locations.

Improving military defenses was not enough, however, and a parallel Union initiative was launched to rebuild trestles and bridges using more robust designs and construction materials. A civil and structural engineer himself, Green seems to revel in these details, and readers also interested in such matters are the beneficiaries of his insights.

Grenville Dodge, as Union general, railroad engineer, and intelligence gathering innovator, needs no introduction to regular readers of western theater Civil War history. His lauded management of bridge repair/replacement is covered at length by Green, as is the central part General Dodge played in organizing black regiments. The general was also chiefly responsible for creation of the Tunnel Hill contraband camp and its nearby railroad timber supply complex. Under Dodge, businessman and civilian contractor Lucius Boomer worked behind the scenes to replace the N&D's bridges with stronger steel and wood designs using state of the art Howe trusses shipped prefabricated from the North.

The fourth recipient of Green's special attention is Col. William Merrill. While it was well recognized at the time that isolated railroad defenses could not consistently resist large enemy forces armed with artillery, blockhouses were nevertheless deemed essential to slow the progress of those raids and protect crossings from small-scale attacks conducted by guerrilla bands and lighter cavalry forces. As the book explains at length, Merrill was the man behind experimental blockhouse designs that were quickly adopted throughout the Tennessee-Alabama railroad 'triangle' referred to earlier. The book's detailed coverage of the September and October 1864 Forrest raids shows how and where Merrill's blockhouses were tested, and under what circumstances they succeeded and failed.

As mentioned earlier, the N&D had a direct impact on two major 1864 campaigns, Sherman's in North Georgia and later Hood's in Middle Tennessee. Green explains how the counterclockwise flow of train traffic along the strategic triangle formed by the N&D, M&C, and N&C filled Sherman's advance depots with enough supplies to keep his men from starving or running out of ammunition if the Western & Atlantic RR was later cut. Green also keenly observes that once Sherman's campaign was in motion, most of the supplies were routed through the N&C, making the N&D no longer essential and rendering the fall Confederate raids on it, as destructive as they were, of little consequence to Sherman. During Hood's campaign, N&D defenses repaired and re-manned after Forrest's fall raiding were again targeted for destruction by both advancing Confederates and retreating Union forces. Later, when Hood found himself and his much-depleted army outside Nashville and in desperate need of reestablishing lines of supply, repair work to the N&D was again given priority only to have subsequent retreat spark yet another cycle of Confederate destruction and Union repair. Indeed, the book's detailed account of the railroad's role in Hood's 1864 Tennessee Campaign provides one of the literature's best examples of the fine line drawn between preserving rail service for one's own use and denying it to the enemy. Within Green's recounting of a multitude of raiding events and military campaigns, discourse is consistently steered toward how the N&D railroad and its defenses shaped operational conduct and goals. As just one example, his discussion of the bridge crossings at Franklin, Tennessee offers fresh insights surrounding that aspect of the November 1864 battle, its lead in, and its aftermath.

Augmenting the narrative is a vast array of visual aids and other supporting materials. Photographs and biographical sidebars are sprinkled throughout the text. A wonderful collection of both original and archival maps are included, one of the most impressive being the six-map series of full-page drawings tracing in detailed fashion the entire length of the railroad between Nashville and Decatur, with due emphasis being placed on the location of each river and creek crossing, fort, station, and town along the railroad's path. A great host of additional data and text information can be found in the appendix section. Among the most impressive resources found there is an exhaustive documentation of N&D crossings and fortifications built between November 1863 and mid-1864.

A stupendous Civil War railroad study (one of the best you'll find), Walter Green's The Nashville and Decatur in the Civil War will likely stand far into the future as the standard history of this relatively short but important western theater rail line. Presented in a manner worthy of emulation by other writers contemplating similar projects, this volume is a highly notable contribution to the growing modern library of Civil War railroad, transportation, engineering, and logistics studies.

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