Editor's note: This is the first installment of The Battle For Nashville, which will appear weekly on our Web site, www.nashvillescene.com.
Trigg Moseley stepped from the bus and into the front yard. Today was December 16. He was speaking into a microphone that swooped down in front of his mouth and attached to his head by a yellow, plastic headpiece. A speaker was hooked to his front pants pocket, and it blasted out whatever he said, at great volume and at great distance. His wife had picked up the device for him at Brookstone the week before, on a shopping trip with her girlfriends to Atlanta; it had been designed for aerobics instructors. Knowing how the crowds had grown at the annual tourand fully aware that the event was important to himshe thought it would be the perfect little send-off. That morning, it would have taken Moseley two minutes to locate the "on" button if not for his friend, Jill Smathers, who kept an eye on him as he ripped apart the yards of deep green wrapping paper decorated with horses, bugles and foxes. She had immediately sensed his impatience as he began pulling out cord, speaker, Styrofoam and batteries. But in no time, she had the device up and running, tethered to his body, functional. Wearing it didn't make Moseley feel entirely comfortablehe had the feeling the microphone gave him an overly modern air. Did he look like an astronaut? To achieve a measure of confidence about his appearance, he reflected on the rest of his outfit: He was dressed in an old pair of khakis that were frayed in the cuff, two-toned L.L. Bean hiking boots, a polo shirt open at the collar and a blue blazer. It was a uniform he had worn since he was six. Certainly there was no problem there, was there? As Moseley stood in the front yard of the house on Shy's Hill Road, something was falling from the sky that was more than mist, but less than drizzle, and it was not entirely clear whether it was frozen, whatever it was. In Nashville, what this amounted to was an atmospheric convergence: cold front swooping down from Kentucky, rain surging upward from Alabama, and their dismal union in Nashville. Into the cold air Moseley exhaled, and he watched a cloud of steam exit his body. Ah, his lungs. He loved his lungs. Being outdoors, in the cold, made him feel invigorated and alive.
He saw the others shivering, and he wondered if they noticed that he was just fine with it. Forty-eight years old, Trigg Moseley ran every morning, no matter the weather. He made it a point to golf once a week, no cart. Once duck season opened, he would situate himself in a hunting blind with his Memphis in-laws, before dawn, with shotgun shells and a bad bottle of wine and a couple of his favorite dogs, where he would make sure he could still perfectly lead his targets. Come summer, in the heat, his physical labors would turn to bushhogging the family farmhe loved telling the farm hand to get off the damn tractorjust to remind himself of the motions of crude, physical labor. It was the agrarian in him, the man in touch with the earth, with elemental substances like dirt, sweat, plants, gutted fowl, fish bait, bird shot, the seasons and life itself. The cold was no bother. No biggie. A half-hour of cold in the middle of a subdivision of electrified ranch-style homes wasn't piddle compared to the physical sacrifices that had been paid by tens of thousands of hell-bent Rebel and Yankee soldiers around this Shy's Hill, and on this same day, in 1864. Both sides then had weathered the cold for days. There had been no campfires, little food, no sleep. A third of the Confederate soldiers had gone barefoot. It was just plenty of marching and more encounters with the enemy and more injured, wounded and dead. When Moseley transported himself to this long gone world, which was something he could do quite easily, we found it fitting that it was so cold today. That he was standing exposed to the cold in nothing but a blue blazer was a way for him to engage in a complex system of comparison to what had happened in the war. The soldiers then had suffered. He, too, would have to suffer if he were he to hold himself to their standards. At stake were many important issues having to do with his character in a world that was utterly bereft of it. He was certain others understood this about him.
Breathing deeply in the front yard, he turned to Mudge, not because he necessarily wanted to speak with Mudge, but because what he felt came so strongly out of him that he would just as soon have said it to a tree. The others were still getting off the bus, but Mudge, as he had been for most of the day, was standing close by Moseley's side.
"You know Mudge, the point of all this is that we've become a nation of pussies, basically, a nation fat and happy, content to sit in front of a television in our little climate controlled world, eating chips and dip and worrying about the color of the wallpaper in our second home," he said. "These soldiers didn't have squat. All they had was an ideal and the passion to back it up. I think about these soldiers and I think how soft we have become."
Mudge wasn't listening. "Dangit, Moseley, why didn't you tell me we was gonna be walking in the frigging mud," he said, scraping the soles of his $600 alligator-skinned Italian loafers with a stick. Mudge really didn't care about the particulars of the war at all. This was not the first stop on Moseley's annual bus tour of the Battle of Nashville. The 7 a.m. kick off had begun in Green Hills, a loose conglomeration of upper-middle class homes, sprawling apartment complexes and stores where you could find antique silver and Tuscan bread and tapenade in a jar if that's what you were looking for. Across that same landscape, years ago, with the earth stripped bare by Union forces who had cut down every tree for miles around for fuel, a huge battle had been waged. John Bell Hood was a laudanum-addicted, one-legged Confederate general with a lame arm who had decided that, with the war at a pivotal point, he had no choice but to take a gamble and attack Nashville, which at the time was under Union control. And so he had driven his men to an awful end. The turning moment of the battle had come late in the afternoon on December 16 as Union troops drove the Rebels off Shy's Hill and sent them running into the dusk. They would not stop until they got to Alabama. The Battle of Nashville, while little discussed in the history of the war, was certainly the effective end of the Western theater of the war; in fact, some argued it was really the end to the war itself.
For Moseley, for whom the war was a hobby, maybe even more, this was the sixteenth year he had stood in this yard, preparing to deliver the same speech, at what amounted to the most important stop, Shy's Hill. The people attending the tour this year included a couple of Moseley's Memphis in-laws, who seemed to take the pilgrimage even a bit more seriously than he did, in a kind of serious, Deep South way; young associates at Moseley's venture capital company, who often looked upon the tour as an opportunity to figure out what made the boss tick; Smathers, the principal in Smathers & Associates, a rapidly expanding Nashville public relations firm; and assorted other folks from St. Anthony Episcopal Church (to which he and his family belonged), old classmates from his Forward Nashville leadership training class two years ago, and others whom he did not even know. In its beginning years, the tour had been conducted out of a station wagon with a couple of buddies. Six years ago, in part because the Memphis in-laws had started bringing along a milk jug filled with Bloody Marys, the event had gotten celebratory, larger, more popular.
As the last of the guests were stepping off the bus, Moseley separated himself from Mudge and flicked on his speaker. "Allrighty, ladies and gentlemen," his voice boomed, so loud that it startled a flock of starlings from a nearby tree. "If I might have your attention, what I had told you was that at the outset of the battle, the redoubts occupied by the Confederates in the Abbotsford subdivision and at the Post Green Hills Apartments were overrun, and many of the Rebel troops fled, running for their lives, to this hill where we are now. This had been where Confederate general John Bell Hood had been throughout the battleit was a high enough place for him to view all the fighting beforehand. In fact, some have argued this is where his troops should have been all along. Had they chosen this place as a defensive position, many have speculated this whole thing might have turned out differently."
The more knowledgeable in the group shuffled a bit. Moseley's implicationthat the outcome of the Civil War itself might have been different had Hood dug in at Shy's Hill with his 20,000 men in one last, great stand that could have proved victoriouswas a source of extreme contention among the diehards. It was a pointless argument, but one that often drove the usual cast of amateur Civil War enthusiasts stark, raving mad. Realizing he probably shouldn't have even broached the subject, he paused a moment. The yard in which they were standing was as brown as the moon, the rye grass all dead stubble. The house nearby was all sharp angles and light wood, a split-level circa 1970s number, with several pockmarked boxwoods out front and Christmas lights hanging from the front door. Elsewhere in the neighborhood, all you could see were more homes, electrical lines and similar threadbare shrubs.
"December 16, 1864, had been fairly awful," Moseley continued. "It had started raining the night before, and the ground was so frozen it was nearly impossible for the Rebel forces to dig trenches and build a defensive position. On top of that, they were exhausted. They were hungry. In fact, this being the Army of Tennessee, many of the Rebel soldiers had been born and raised here in Nashville. But they had not come home to greet their spouses or their parents. Instead, they had come here to fight an enemy."
Moseley paused, listening to the sound of his own voice trailing off through the trees in amplified waves. The effect was disconcerting to him, and he thought of junking the entire apparatus. But since his wife Joanie wanted him to wear it, he felt compelled to use it. "And now, I would ask that you follow me up the hill, where you will see where Colonel Shy, the 26-year-old Confederate, who was a Nashville native, attempted to defend his hill against the Union onslaught. The hill is named after him."
Moseley walked toward a trail leading from the side of the yard. Entering into the woods, he glanced behind him just in time to see Jill Smathers gently encourage everyone to fall into line, doing so with a simple wave of her long, white hand. It was such a clean, easy movement. God how he loved her efficiency. Ever so briefly, the two locked eyes, and in her glance he felt an acknowledgement of the support and respect that existed between them. Truth be told, the feeling of teamwork was shooting down to his toes.
Immediately behind him on the trail, meanwhile, was Mudge, which did not please him. Mudge had not even been invited on the tour to begin with. But when the tour bus had opened its doors that morning in the West End Church of Christ parking lot, Mudge had climbed on with a box of Krispy Kremes and a look that said he wouldn't rather be any place else. "Glazed? Chocolate covered?" he announced to the passengers, all sweetness and light. To Moseley, however, the motives behind Mudge's antics were as clear as day.
If Moseley had been surprised to see Mudge that morning, it didn't take long for him to realize it was all about Darby Glen. It had been so transparent of Mudge, so redneck! This alone had cast a pall of low-grade anxiety on today's tour, on top of what was already a throbbing, ever-present panic Moseley was experiencing about the huge venture. But for Mudge to insert himself into his tour, into his hobby, to ingratiate himself into his social circle and into his life to get even more of a foothold in the real estate project, was so disingenuous.
Moseley had never wanted to be involved in Darby Glen, but now it was consuming all of his hours, his days, his life. The first development plans for the 1,400-acre spread, which his family had owned for a half-century, called for a gated community with security guard access, 190 one-acre home sites selling for $295,000 a pop, an 18-hole golf course, a complete renovation of the original 1855 residence to serve as a clubhouse and the addition of a few French style fountains here and there. The project had seemed to run counter to everything Moseley stood forwhy would he want a new development of monstrous bourgeois brick homes constructed atop the green fields of his family's history?
Why indeed? As time wore on, Moseley found his objections slowly disappearing, like a spring rain moving on, or a river bank collapsing, bit by bit, into the muddy current. The reasons in favor of the development were many. The house itself, a huge thing lived in only by his mother, had become costly to maintain. The land itself was not being farmed anymore, save for a 200-acre tract leased to an older neighbor who grew corn. Nearby, a four-lane access road had cut through an adjacent farm. And the owners of that farm had sold out years ago, leading to the undertaking of a mega-development of three-story homes purchased by upper-management transplants who were new to town.
For these reasons the project had started making sense. And then there was the issue of money: $12 million of it alone to Moseley, not to mention what it would bring to his mother and brother. As much as he tried to tell himself it was not about the moneynot about the millions in cool, clean after-tax jack that he could plop down into a low-interest bearing account and chuckle overhe could not avoid the glee that struck him when he thought of it. The money, he knew, would leave him set for the rest of his days.
Faced with what to do with Darby Glen, Moseley ultimately decided that developing it was the thing to do. The developers from Atlanta who had originally pitched the idea to his family three years ago had failed to secure financing, though they had managed to rezone the land from agricultural to residential. At that point, Moseley made the project one for his own venture capital firm. Technically, he did not see this as making him a developer per se, developers being a class of people who normally came from Texas and went broke every seven years. James Franklin "Trigg" Moseley III was simply doing another deal.
But now, among other things, this is what Darby Glen had brought him: He was being stalked by the likes of Joe Mudge, a high school graduate who had started a chain of convenience stores which he had then sold for $240 million, much of which he had used to start his own commercial bank in a strip center in a Nashville suburb. A redneck! A man who was so gauche as to fly a Rebel flag, but didn't really give a hoot about the facts of the Civil War! A man who wore precious little Italian slip-ons to ride on a bus and troop across fields and look at Civil War sites! A man who, unfortunately, could compound interest in his head without consulting a calculator, who knew the exact balance of his 16 biggest customers to the nearest dollar, a man who had sweet-talked more unwitting businessmen from Florida to New York out of more money than anyone in these parts because of excessive quantities of charm and guile. Joe Mudge, Moseley knew, was not a man to be underestimated.
The trail to the top of Shy's Hill wound through clumps of honeysuckle, tall poplars and maples. No more than several hundred yards long, it was steep. The group arrived at the top slowly, spread far apart. As Mudge came walking up, he tripped over a root, muttering "damnit" between deep, lunging grabs for air. With each step he took, his loafers made a squishy-squishy sound, completely soaked as they were. Within seconds, Smathers herself took the hill, her face hungry and taut, her blond hair pulled so sharply behind her head that her ponytail seemed to tug at her ears. She was not smiling; rarely, he noticed, did she ever smile. His stomach warmed as he looked at her.
Once everyone had caught their breaths, Moseley began speaking again.
"There is a right way to build a trench; and there is a wrong way," he said. "Engineers in the Civil War understood correctly that you dug a trench not at the exact top of a hill, but just below its top. That can be explained, actually, geometrically. If you are located at the top of a hill, you cannot see the bottom below you. But if you build your trench further down the hill, actually on the side of the hill, you can see all the way to the bottom. That, you see, is the perfect defensive position. From that point, you can fire on the troops gathering at the bottom of the hill as they prepare to attack you. There are entire classes on this at West Point, I can assure you."
Moseley knew the group was locked into the story, so he paused a moment.
"When the Rebels gathered here on the evening of December 15, it was late. They had just been overrun and had retreated here. In the dark, the engineers did not advise their soldiers well. You see, the Rebels stupidly built their trenches right at the top of this hill rather than on its side. That meant the Yankee troops could climb 90 percent of the hill without even being seen. If you're wondering where those trenches were, here are the remains of one right here."
Next to a wooden bench that had been placed atop the hill, and on which Mudge was now sitting, a slight depression wound its way gently across the hill. That was the trench. It was not as deep as a ditch, but more like the depression that precedes a wave 200 to 300 yards before it hits the beach. Every member of the group walked over to examine it more closely, eagerly, as if they were in a museum.
"Now, I betcha they's been some old folks filling in this trench with some old leaves and such, considering the way it hardly looks like a trench," Mudge said out loud, speaking to no one in particular. "Probly dumped a whole lot of sticks and limbs in there every year when fall came around. Hardly looks like a place where people would have fought a war."
The group looked at Mudge quizzically, appearing to wonder why he was so eager to unveil his ignorance. Moseley himself pretended as if he hadn't heard Mudge at all. In his mind's eye, Moseley was able to see the trench as it had once existed: a finely cut fresh thing, all red dirt and limestone shards, in which soldiers had sought safety from the whizzing bullets. The tour group seemed of a like mind, inclined to imagine that it was more like what it had once been rather than what it was now. Moseley continued. "Ultimately, of course, the moment of the battle came. It was late afternoon and the Rebels faced north in their trenches. The Union troops were gathered at the foot of the hill, awaiting direction from their generals. Knowing they could take the hill, and upset because the day was drawing to a close and victory was slipping from their grasp, the Yankees decided not to wait for an order from their officers. Losing patience, they simply stormed the hill on their own. There was never really any doubt as to Union victorythe Southern soldiers offered some resistance, but with their trenches inadequately built, they soon found Yankee soldiers easily piling into their positions. The young Colonel Shy, however, did not leave. He was shot and killed, imploring his troops to fight as a bullet struck him in the chest, knocking him to the ground and ending his brief life."
The group stood silent, imagining the thought of thousands of Yankees storming up the hill to where they now stood. The bullets had cut through the air, slicing through flesh and bone and anything else in their way. The Union troops had overwhelmed the Confederates so easily in the final moments, the push to the top of the hill taking place in only a matter of minutes to settle what had been four, long years of bloodletting beforehand. The Memphis in-laws mumbled to one another about the young Shy, whose punishment had been little discussed in the Civil War histories. The three church members from St. Anthony's gathered themselves together by a large sycamore and pointed in low murmurings to a large rock by the trench. Had that been a point of protection for the Rebel defenders, they wondered.
As they all imagined the scene unfolding, Moseley himself began walking down the trail. Soon, everyone was following him. Through a thicket of desperate looking bramble, all lifeless in the December air, stood a slight clearing. There the group gathered before what was a perfect view of the city: homes and businesses, a glass-domed mall, church steeples and steel and glass office complexes and cellular phone towers. It was a view of their lives from a place they'd never been.
"After the war, Hood was asked to comment on the failed battle," Moseley said, after the group had a chance to scan the scene below them. At the same time, Moseley pulled from his wallet a worn index card that appeared to have some writing on it. "The battle had been a routthe Rebels had been soundly whipped. Hood himself had been harshly criticized for leading his troops into a disaster. But Hood had something interesting to say when asked about the encounter. He said, and I quote: "In truth, our army was in that condition which rendered it more judicious that the men should face a decisive issue rather than retreatin other words, rather than renounce the honor of their cause without having made a last and manful effort to lift up the sinking fortunes of the Confederacy, I therefore determined to move upon Nashville.' "
Moseley looked up. He adjusted the speaker attached to his pants to make sure everyone could clearly hear what he said next. "My friends, many scholars and historians consider this battle pointless and forgettable. But in many ways, its importance was just as Hood described it. The battle was certainly a failed endeavor, as he stated. But the Battle of Nashville also laid to rest the question of success or failure for the South. It had the saving, graceful element of being the beginning of the end. From this point forward, from this hill, all roads led to Appomattox. In the narrative of history, that was the Battle of Nashville's reason for being."
The group stood awkwardly for a few seconds. After all, it appeared the tour was overno one was exactly certain what to do next. But then, one of the Memphis in-laws yelled out, "Let's give Trigg a great big round of applause." Soon, the sound of clapping had filled the little woods in which they stood. Moseley felt his chest expand a bit. It had not been the greatest speech he'd ever delivered, but it was the conclusion of yet another tour, the end of a ritual of his own making, something he did not for his own sake but so that people might know a bit more about the world in which they lived.
Basking in the crowd's affection nonetheless, he looked for Smathers. Instead, he saw Mudge, there, on the far-away bench, sitting down, smoking a cigarette. He saw the in-laws, now pouring Bloody Marys from a jug. But there, THERE, yes! There was Smathers! Had she gotten it? His wife never much paid attention to his Civil War interests, but what did Smathers herself think of it all? What did she think of this passion of his, this interest, this day?
He watched as she pulled her phone out of her purse, placed it to her ear, her high, efficient cheekbones drawing up so slightly under the tension of the receiver, her eyes then locking with his as her lips moved slightly without sound, her palm then slapping the phone shut, the phone going back in the purse, her look saying...saying...was she saying anything more than he thought she might be saying?
Now next to him, she grabbed him hard by the arm, pulling him down the trail out of earshot of the others. "A nosy, piss-ant reporter is calling around because he's got wind of a lawsuit being filed against you today to halt any activity out at Darby Glen. My guess is Joe Mudge's name is all over it. Meet me in my office in 15 minutes. You've got a godamn disaster on your hands, pal."
The two didn't even say goodbye to the rest of the group. In full retreat, they fled. Damn Darby Glen, Moseley thought.
COPYRIGHT 2004 BY BRUCE DOBIE.