I had a heated discussion with a good friend the other day. I asked her to watch a video I shot in Shiloh, Tennessee about the Sesquicentennial ceremony of that epic Civil War battle. The response that I got caught me by surprise: “you know, one of my best friends is black, and all this talk about the Civil War is making me uncomfortable”. I began to feel angry, determining that she assumed, because I am a native Nashvillian, my perspective would be of a neo-Confederate in regards to my interest in that war. Having lived outside of the region for many years, I am well aware of stereotypes many people have about Southerners, especially if they have never spent much time in the region – or at least in Nashville. But I thought she knew me better than that. Originally from Michigan, this transplant has lived in Nashville since high school.
It wasn’t until 1993 (in my mid 30’s) that I had ever read anything about the American Civil War for pleasure. In hindsight, it occurred to me that I had never been taught anything about the Battle of Nashville in school, and this has been confirmed by many people who grew up in this city.
In December of 93′ I volunteered for one last deployment with the Tennessee Air National Guard. With the down-sizing of the United States active duty military following the collapse of the Soviet Union, National Guard units were getting squeezed harder to do more of the “real world” military operations. My brother Britt was very ill, and I had spent too much time away from my young family over the last few years. I decided 14 years was enough and I would leave the service after one final mission. It would be a 30 day operation based out of Germany to air-lift aid to Bosnia and Herzegovina: Operation Provide Promise under the command of the United Nations (UNHCR).
Hearing of my plans, my brother Blake suggested I should read ‘The Decisive Battle of Nashville’ by Stanley Horn which he gifted me for Christmas of that year. I did could hardly put the book down. It came alive to me, clearly visualizing the geographical description and typography of every single troop movement. Growing up on top of most of the vast expanse of the battlefield, I would never look at west and south Nashville the same way again. It also occurred to me that the battle tactics used by the US Army in 1864 were identical to the strategy that we used in Operation Desert Storm only three years prior. But what stuck me as most ironic, was that I was getting ready to deploy to assist with humanitarian relief operations in another civil war that also involved issues of race and ethnicity. At the time, I knew little about either of those two events.
I was reminded of a discussion I had with a British Naval Officer from Scotland a few years before this. He knew more about the American Civil War than I did, to my embarrassment. I also recalled him almost falling off his bar stool when I told him I was “Scotch-Irish”. He responded: “Damn it man, scotch is what you drink…and forget about the Irish part of it!” He latter shared a very emotional story about his first taste of war aboard the HMS Sheffield in the Faulkin Islands War in 1982. For the first time in my life, I began to consider the study of history might have some practical use in the present.
After my experience in Bosnia, I began to research my own country’s Civil War. One rainy Saturday, I decided to take my two young sons to the Carter House Museum in Franklin, Tennessee. Following the tour, I asked the curator, Thomas Cartwright, how I would go about researching my own family connection. All I knew was that I had a Confederate soldier by the name of Walter Scott Bearden; my maternal Grandfather’s paternal Grandfather. Thomas pulled out a reference book and determined that he was an officer in the 41st Tennessee out of Bedford County. He also knew that they had been part of Brig. General Strahl’s Brigade during the Battle of Franklin, which was almost completely wiped out, including the death of General Strahl.
This peaked my interest in running Lt. Bearden’s biography down leading me from battle to battle, through almost every major conflict in the Western Theater of the American Civil War. I found that my ancestor had been wounded twice in The Battle of Atlanta, the second wound in the upper-thigh (usually fatal), leading a rear-guard action out of Atlanta near Jonesboro, Georgia. He would have been presumed to have been beyond help, but a particular nurse from Shelbyville, Tennessee took a special interest in the young Lieutenant. He survived, and they married after the war. Walter S. Bearden practiced law and was a Circuit Judge in Middle Tennessee for many years. He also was very involved with his former Sargent Sumner Archibald Cunningham in the publishing and circulation of The Confederate Veteran Magazine, a collection of Confederate stories of the war. He also was one of the keynote speakers at the dedication of the Confederate monument in the Franklin City Square around the turn of the 20th Century.