Tennessee’s Civil War Past Comes to Life at Johnsonville State Historic Park
It’s so peaceful and pretty on the eastern shore of Kentucky Lake that it takes a leap of imagination to understand what the area around Johnsonville State Historic Park must’ve looked like when Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and his men attacked the busy Union Army depot on the eastern shore of the Tennessee River during the afternoon of November 4, 1864.
Opened in 2012, the park’s Welcome Center has one of the nicest set-ups I’ve seen in our state park system. Exhibits are arranged chronologically and a good introductory film is shown in a small auditorium throughout the day.
On Nov. 2-3 this year, the sound of cannon fire will once again fill the air during a weekend of living history and commemorative events marking the 149th anniversary of the Battle of Johnsonville. On Nov. 4, a guided two-hour walking tour with park manager Jerry Wooten will visit historic sites associated with the battle.
Although the Welcome Center is just off Highway 70, most of the park’s 600 acres lie about 2.5 miles away along the shore of what is now Kentucky Lake. As you reach this portion of the park you’ll drive through a gate and soon see three paved roads.
The lower road leads to an area bounded by the lake that includes the remains of the Lower Redoubt, or fort, and the location where the Nashville and Northwestern Railroad met what was then the Tennessee River. Anglers will want to check out the stakebeds near the mouth of Trace Creek. Binoculars will come in handy for birders.
A middle paved roadway leads to an area with picnic tables in pretty settings nestled among the trees.
The upper road leads to more hiking trails and several historic sites including the remains of the Upper Redoubt. From the overlook you can see Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park just across the river.
In 1864 rivers were the interstate highways, steamboats and barges were the 18-wheelers of the era. Supplies of arms, ammunition, food and medicine were crucial to the efforts of Federal forces. Nashville, with its river, railroad and road connections, fell to the Union in February 1862 and became an important part of supply routes supporting Union troop activities. As long as water levels on the Cumberland River stayed high enough supplies could be brought up the Tennessee River to the Cumberland River, unloaded at Nashville docks and sent south to troops in the field by rail.
When water levels proved unreliable, Military Governor Andrew Johnson, the park’s namesake, began extending an existing railroad line from Kingston Springs (38 miles west of Nashville) to a hastily constructed depot on the Tennessee River at Johnsonville. Within seven months the first trains were running.
General William T. Sherman was bearing down on Atlanta and needed to maintain a dependable stream of vital supplies from Nashville to troops on southern fronts.
The stage was set; desperate measures were called for.
By 1864, the Confederacy had been betrayed by its rivers and General Forrest, known for his daring tactics, was determined to do all the damage he could manage in a plan to disrupt Federal supply traffic on the Tennessee River.
When you visit Johnsonville you’ll learn about the only record of a naval force being defeated by troops on horseback.
And that the importance of a Civil War battle isn’t always counted by the size of the battlefield or numbers of dead.
While you are in the area you may want to check out the cabins, camping and Confederate and Union re-enactors at the NSSA Skirmish at Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park on Nov. 2-3.