Post-war fighting, again 

New book examines competing versions of the Battle of Nashville

New book examines competing versions of the Battle of Nashville

In Nashville: The Western Confederacy's Final Gamble (University of Tennessee Press, 358 pp., $39.95), James Lee McDonough takes a leisurely, expansive look at the Battle of Nashville, December, 1864—one of the biggest, bloodiest and most important battles of the Civil War. It's outcome, the defeat of the Confederate Army of Tennessee, finished the South as a military force west of the Appalachian Mountains.

Nashville native McDonough, a retired professor of history at Auburn University, sets the larger scene—Sherman, Grant, Nashville and its strategic importance to the Union—before settling down to the main story: Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood's attempt to retake Nashville, occupied by the Federal forces since 1862. McDonough analyzes what appear to be Gen. Hood's disastrous mistakes both on the final stages of the march north and at Nashville itself. Hood let a sizable Union force slip by in the night at Spring Hill, and he committed his troops to attack superior forces at Franklin. In the resulting sickening butchery, confidence in their general ran out with their blood. In Nashville, where he faced better equipped and supported Union forces twice his army's size, Hood blundered tactically and strategically. Hood was in poor shape, having lost a leg and the use of his left arm at Chickamauga. McDonough suggests he may have been on laudanum, a common painkiller based on opium. Perhaps it was simply that great generalship requires more than the kind of great soldiering that had raised Hood to command.

McDonough offers details on the battle sites then and now, the houses commandeered by Union and Confederate armies, the scandals and gossip surrounding the personages. His book covers in fuller detail than earlier treatments the role of the African American brigades. Previously kept in support roles because of the prevalent view that they would prove unreliable in battle, the free blacks fought well, though their appearance incensed many Confederate troops and fired them to extra ferocity.

This is thick history; the sources and interpreters are many and often at odds with each other. Virtually all of the commanders were infected with ego and ambition, and they wrote extensive memoirs, autobiographies and tracts full of self-justification, excuses and recriminations against their fellows in the fight. The many regimental histories also need careful filtering. McDonough periodically pauses to survey the historiography and tries to find his way through to how it actually happened, while admitting that some questions may never be settled to everyone's satisfaction. Indeed, passions still rage among those with particularly detailed knowledge or axes to grind, so a book of this sort is sure to draw fire from enthusiasts.

McDonough will read from and sign his book at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on Dec. 9 at 6 p.m.

—Ralph Bowden


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