When Federal forces began to drive across Tennessee in 1862, thousands of blacks, most of them slaves, walked off the plantations and farms and trailed after the long blue columns of Union soldiers because they offered the assurance of safety in numbers and carried the whisper of possible freedom in their haversacks.
Called “contrabands” (Union Gen. Benjamin Butler coined the term), the men served as scouts, spies, blacksmiths, teamsters and general laborers. But they could not serve as soldiers. Not until August 1862, when the War Department, in a radical shift of policy, officially announced that “all slaves admitted into military service, together with their wives and children, were forever free.”
Then, on May 23, 1863, with the butcher’s bill of Antietam, Fredericksburg, Stones Rivers and Chancellorsville requiring payment in the form of new recruits for the badly mauled Union ranks, the War Department issued General Order 143 establishing a Bureau of Colored Troops. Now Union commanders in the South could organize and muster full regiments of able-bodied black men. In Tennessee, more than 20,000 former slaves made their mark and donned Union blue. One of them was William Holland.
Sadly, the historical records of these men, most of whom could neither read nor write, do not exist. But the military pay and pension records at the National Archives in Washington offer a glimpse into the lives of thousands of United States Colored Troops (USCT) too often overlooked by history books.
Holland‘s record reveals that his military service was, for the most part, very much like that of most “colored troops” - garrison duty; guarding rail, river and supply routes; and escorting Confederate prisoners to detention camps in the North. But for three months in 1864, Holland experienced the war in a way few, if any, other free black men, could have.
From Sept. 25 to Dec. 25, Holland reluctantly rode with the man Union Gen. William T. Sherman called a devil and worth 10,000 Union lives to capture: the Confederacy´s most notorious raider, Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest.
What tangled web of historical circumstance brought together the former field hand and the millionaire slave trader and plantation owner? What did Holland think about campaigning with cavalrymen who massacred black soldiers at Fort Pillow, Tenn., the previous April, and how did he live to tell the tale? There are answers to some of these questions, and educated guesses can be made about others. However, some answers are lost forever in the loamy soil of middle Tennessee.
Guarding the rails
Holland’s story begins, if his memory as an elderly man is accurate, on Aug. 31, 1831, in Haydensville, Todd County, Ky., the same county that gave birth to Confederate President Jefferson Davis 23 years earlier. By the time the Union Army rolled into middle Tennessee, Holland was working as a farm laborer on land owned by Benjamin Harlan near the town of Cowan, Tenn. Harlan probably had a small spread and owned just a few slaves. Holland says his proper name was Harlan, too, but that he was called Holland in the Army.
Holland’s “official” life picks up when he enlists March 1, 1864, at Pulaski, Tenn. Standing 5-foot-3-inches and weighing 140 pounds, he was mustered into the 3rd Alabama Infantry AD (African descent) at Sulphur Branch Trestle, Ala., and promoted to sergeant in Company I on April 15.
Holland’s unit was reorganized and renamed the 111th United States Colored Infantry on June 25, 1864, and was assigned to garrison duty in Pulaski until September, when it was sent into northern Alabama. Most of the regiment was garrisoned at Athens, but a detachment, including Company I, was sent to the blockhouse guarding the strategic trestle bridge on the Alabama and Tennessee Railroad at Sulphur Branch.
The railway was a critical link in the long Union communications and supply chain that ran from Louisville, Ky., across Tennessee and northern Alabama, and into the ranks of Sherman’s “bummers” ready to march from Atlanta to the sea.
A useful trick
Long and overextended supply lines were blood in the water for Forrest’s band of raiders. Riding under direct orders from Davis himself, Forrest’s column of 4,500 troopers and eight pieces of artillery set out from Tupelo, Miss., on Sept. 16, 1864, to raise havoc behind Sherman’s lines. The three-week raid would bring Forrest and Holland together.
Forrest headed for Athens, a well-fortified town with blockhouses and 1,350 feet of 17-foot-high earthen works. Its white and “colored” defenders had ammunition and provisions to withstand a siege of at least 10 days. On the morning of Sept. 24, Forrest’s artillery commander, Capt. John W. Morton, lobbed shells into the fortification for about an hour with little effect.
Rather than storm the defenses, Forrest resorted to guile and, taking advantage of his reputation for ruthlessness, sent a note to Union Col. Wallace Campbell of the 110th USCT. He asked for a meeting to avoid “the effusion of blood that must follow the storming of the place.” At the meeting, Forrest warned Campbell that he had 12,000 men and storming the works could result in a massacre.
Using a trick that had worked before, Forrest paraded his men, first on foot and then on horseback, around and around the increasingly nervous Union officer.
The ruse worked. Campbell surrendered the town, its stores, and 600 men without a fight. Before the day ended, Forrest had bagged about 1,300 prisoners, 300 desperately needed horses, copious quantities of food, ammunition and medical supplies, and two locomotives. He paroled the white officers on their honor, marched the white troopers south under guard to Andersonville, Ga., and sent the black soldiers to Mobile, Ala., to work on the harbor defenses.
The next morning, near the town of Elkmont, Ala., about 10 miles from Athens, Forrest reached Sulphur Branch Creek. The trestle bridge was 72 feet high, 300 feet long, and had defenses to match its imposing size. Double casemated blockhouses with walls 40 inches thick guarded each end and a large fortress stockade held a garrison of 1,000 men and two field pieces.
About 200 men were part of the 9th Indiana Cavalry; 300 more were from the 3rd Tennessee Cavalry (Union). The rest were men of the 111th USCT, including Company I and Holland, a sergeant. Forrest eschewed his “surrender or be massacred” tactic because the fort’s commander, Col. W.H. Lathrop of the 111th USCT, was made of sterner stuff than the cowardly Campbell.
Still reluctant to storm the formidable works, Forrest instead eyed the surrounding terrain and ordered his two largest field pieces placed on a hill that commanded the most important part of the Federal defenses. With his untrained but unfailing sense of tactical advantage, Forrest placed the rest of his artillery where it could rain down the maximum amount of damage on the interior of the fort.
A furious two-hour bombardment ensued. Enriched with ammunition captured at Athens, Forrest’s veteran gunners poured in 800 rounds that left the fort’s interior “perforated with shell, and the dead lying thick along the works,” Forrest’s artillery commander wrote later. Lathrop was killed and his second-in-command, Col. J.B. Minnis, was severely wounded. With his troopers now within rifle range, Forrest’s demand for surrender was reluctantly accepted.
The booty this time consisted of 300 horses, two pieces of artillery, more food and ammunition, and 973 bluecoats. With miles of railroad yet to destroy, Forrest again paroled the white officers, marched his white prisoners south, and sent the black soldiers to Mobile. All of them, that is, except Holland.
According to Holland’s pension affidavit sworn to on Dec. 1, 1899 (he would have been 68 if his birth date was correct), he claims he became a “waitman” to Forrest’s regimental surgeon, Dr. James Benjamin Cowan.
Holland’s pay and ration cards list him as “not present, prisoner-of-war” beginning Sept. 25. These documents declare that Holland was at Mobile with the rest of the 111th. But the Mobile Register published a list of prisoners Forrest sent to Mobile so that their former owners could claim them and be paid for the work they did. Holland’s name is not on the list.
Cowan was born Sept. 10, 1831, in Fayetteville, Tenn., making him the same age as Holland. He received his medical degree from the University of the City of New York Medical Department in 1855 and had been Forrest’s regimental surgeon since July 1862.
As the trestle and blockhouses burned and Holland’s comrades headed south to Mobile, Holland and Forrest’s marauding legions continued north. They returned to Florence, Ala., on Oct. 4, with 47 men killed and 293 wounded. While the raid failed to slow the relentless Sherman, it did disrupt his supply arrangements, causing the exasperated general to admit that it would be “a physical impossibility to protect the roads, now that Hood, Forrest, Wheeler, and the whole batch of devils are turned loose without home or habitation.”
Unfortunately, Holland doesn’t describe his experiences during these months, and his official record doesn’t pick up until just after Christmas. By then, Forrest had completed his famous Johnsonville (Tenn.) Raid in early November, but his freebooting days were numbered, as were Holland’s days of captivity.
Back in Pulaski
Soon after his Johnsonville triumph, Forrest received orders to find Gen. John Bell Hood and what was left of the Army of Tennessee after its disastrous Nashville campaign. It fell to Forrest to cover the Confederate’s headlong retreat, and he did so with his usual combination of courage and guile.
Fighting a splendid rearguard action through the sleet and rain of an early and bitter Tennessee winter, Forrest’s troopers encountered elements of Union cavalry along Richland Creek just south of Pulaski, Tenn., the same town in which Holland enlisted just nine months earlier.
It is likely that during a spirited firefight with units from the 5th Iowa, 7th Ohio, and 16th Illinois on Christmas morning, Holland simply walked away from his captors. His pension affidavit says only that he did not rejoin his regiment “until after Hood’s raid” and his service record again lists him present for January-February 1865.
With his Confederate odyssey at an end, Holland served out the remaining months of the war guarding bridges on the Nashville and Northwestern Railroad. He was honorably discharged and mustered out April 30, 1866, in Nashville. While his fighting days were over, Holland’s life continued to be inextricably linked to the killing fields of middle Tennessee for the rest of his days.
On July 17, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation authorizing the purchase of grounds to be used as national cemeteries “for soldiers who shall have died in the service of their country.” Chaplain William Earnshaw, superintendent of the newly created Stones River National Cemetery, was responsible for disinterring and reinterring the remains of Union soldiers killed in Tennessee.
Among the laborers performing this grisly but honorable task were men from the 111th USCT, including Holland. In fact, Holland worked as a caretaker at Stones River from the time of his discharge until April 1884, when he was thrown from a wagon and dragged by a mule while working at the cemetery. He applied for a disability pension in 1890, but was turned down. In 1895, he was approved for “senile disability” and received $12 per month until 1907, when it was increased to $20.
While employed at the cemetery, Holland married twice. His second wife, Ruth Miller, bore him two children, Josephine in 1872 and William in 1874. Holland probably used funds saved from his caretaker’s job to buy three acres of land just down the road from the cemetery. The former slave now farmed his own land.
Ironically, this plot of good black Tennessee earth was saturated with the blood of hundreds of boys in blue and butternut who died fighting there in an area called the Round Forest on Dec. 31, 1862, the first day of the battle of Stones River. Holland probably helped bury many of them in the national cemetery just a few hundred yards down the road.
While many facts of Holland’s life are shrouded in mystery, the date of his death is not. He died at his residence Aug. 14, 1909, and opted to be buried on his own property. His grave is marked with an official government headstone located just outside the walls of the Hazen Brigade Monument, itself a graveyard for 55 Union troopers killed at Stones River from the brigade of Union Gen. William B. Hazen.
The Holland property was purchased by the National Park Service in 1991 and incorporated into the national battlefield park. But the ground in which Holland rests is forever his and his alone.
c Gordon Berg is past president of the Civil War Round Table of the District of Columbia