Johnsonville: Union Supply Operations on the Tennessee River and The Battle of Johnsonville, November 4-5, 1864

In November of 1864 Nathan Bedford Forest led his troops toward the Union supply depot located at Johnsonville, Tennessee.

The Johnsonville installation was one of the most critical Union supply depots in the western theater of operations.

Established at the end of the Nashville and Northwestern Military Railroad in September, 1864, Johnsonville was a major source of supply storage and distribution that assisted Union forces in Tennessee and Georgia.

Forest’s attack was the culmination of his campaign along the Tennessee River and resulted in the fiery destruction of millions of dollars of Federal supplies, equipment, and ships. The story of this successful Confederate raid and the logistical center at Johnsonville is the focus of this recent Civil War study by Jerry T. Wooten.

In Johnsonville readers are given a fascinating look at one critical aspect of the logistical work done by the Union Army during its efforts to suppress a large-scale rebellion stretching across vast territories. For the Union armies to prevail it was necessary that the might of Federal transport and supply services were effectively mobilized.

The Union had a significant advantage in terms of railroad capacities, manufacturing resources, engineering skills, and overall logistical capabilities.

These advantages were noteworthy but required expertise on the ground so that they could be effectively utilized. The story of how the Johnsonville supply depot was established and used was one that demonstrated just how the Union forces were able to leverage their material superiorities in ways that greatly assisted in their ultimate victory in the Civil War.

As Wooten notes in this concise history of an overlooked subject, Johnsonville was selected as the site for a major logistical hub due to its location. Johnsonville was along the Tennessee River and was the right spot to concentrate supplies for eventual dissemination to Union forces operating in locations such as northern Georgia, western and central Tennessee, and Mississippi.

In order to facilitate the establishment of the Johnsonville depot, it was necessary to build an entire railroad stretching from Nashville all the way to the Tennessee River. The construction of this military railroad was a herculean task that required approximately one year of planning and labor, the impressment of thousands of men to complete the work, countless guerrilla raids, and significant cost overruns.

By September 1864 the Union Army had used over 14,500 men to build and protect this railway. Among the men who carried out the backbreaking work needed to build the line were 7,300 impressed free African-American men. These freedmen were forced to work for the Federal railway program and carried out terrible physical labor without either payment or choice. A further 6,500 USCT troops participated in the construction and defense of the railway along with upwards of 700 Federal engineers. When completed, the Johnsonville line was a feat of human effort typical of the countless hours of work done on the Union wartime logistical system.

Johnsonville, itself, was a minor settlement until the Federals arrived. The few residents at Johnsonville were quickly overwhelmed by the arrival of thousands of Union workers, railway employees, and African-American troops and laborers.

Almost immediately about 100 acres of trees were cut down and transformed into the boards needed to construct the supply depot. In short order saw mills, supply warehouses, docks, and any number of other structures were built.

Within days of the depot’s construction, supplies began to arrive for distribution or storage. On a daily basis, Johnsonville welcomed supply ships, gunboats, trains, and barges all of which were pieces in the vast Union logistical system. In no time at all, Johnsonville became one of the busiest supply distribution centers in the South. This volume of supply redistribution made Johnsonville a prime target for the Confederates.

As noted above, only two months after its establishment, Johnsonville came under attack by the redoubtable Nathan Bedford Forest. En route to Johnsonville, Forest and his men had successfully captured or destroyed several Federal supply ships and gunboats. Forest had even manned two of his captured Federal “Tinclads” and used them against their former owners.

At Johnsonville, Forest fought a battle unique in Civil War history. Forest’s attack came from the forested shoreline opposite Johnsonville as the Tennessee River was too high for him to attempt a crossing aimed at striking the Federals by land.

So, Forest settled for a bombardment of the Johnsonville with the aim being the achievement of disorder and destruction at this critical supply center. What Forest could not have predicted was how poorly his Union opponents would react to his bombardment. Faced by a surprise Confederate artillery assault, the Federal commanders at Johnsonville prematurely ordered the burning of ships, supplies, barges, and equipment even though it is doubtful Forest could ever have directly attacked them with his infantry and cavalry.

The end result of this self-immolation was the loss of millions of dollars of Union supplies and equipment. When Federal gunboats attempted to counterattack, Forest badly damaged the Union flotilla. When Forest withdrew, he had suffered virtually no casualties and had inflicted significant material destruction upon his opponents.

After Forest’ attack, the Johnsonville depot was repaired but really became an afterthought. In only five months the war was essentially over as the armies of Lee and Johnston had surrendered.

Interestingly, Johnsonville remained a small town even after the withdrawal of Federal forces. Prone to flooding, Johnsonville continued as a hamlet until the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was implemented during President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. In 1944, the damming of the Tennessee River resulted in the creation of Kentucky Lake and the inundation of the town of Johnsonville.

All that remains of this Federal supply center are some fortifications placed on high ground near the docks. Johnsonville State Historic Park near New Johnsonville, Tennessee, has been established in the area near the original depot.

With thousands of acres of recreational land and water, hiking trails, a visitor center that commemorates the Civil War history of the region, and an African American cemetery from the era, the park is a significant attraction. Fortunately, the park and the scholarly efforts of Jerry T. Wooten in this fine book help to commemorate the efforts of Union and Confederate supporters that clashed at Johnsonville.

Union logistical efforts were at the heart of the Federal victory in the Civil War. Utilizing railroads to transport troops, supplies, and ordnance with relative ease were vital capacities that made the Union war effort successful. Johnsonville was but one of the supply hubs the Union armies used to maintain their operations.

Built at a rather late stage in the war, Johnsonville was a critical support for General Sherman’s capture of Atlanta, as well as other western theater Federal operations. Destroyed by General Forest and shoddy Federal leadership, Johnsonville ended its essential function in a fiery way. By presenting the story of the Johnsonville depot, its construction, primary purposes, and its destruction, Jerry T. Wooten has offered Civil War enthusiasts a slice of history they can savor. This is a well written, thoroughly researched, amply illustrated, and engaging story. Johnsonville no longer exists but the author of this fine book has done well to remember it and detail the amazing story that its history was.

Title: Johnsonville: Union Supply Operations on the Tennessee River and The Battle of Johnsonville, November 4-5, 1864

Author: Jerry T. Wooten

Publisher: Savas Beatie

Pages: 205

Price: $29.95

Soft Cover