By John Banks
NASHVILLE, TN — On the foggy morning of Dec. 15, 1864, 18-year-old Private Peter Bailey of the 17th U.S. Colored Troops marched with two other Black regiments and a small white brigade southeast on Murfreesboro Pike from Nashville. For the U.S.C.T., the day’s diversionary attack against the right flank of the Confederates’ Army of Tennessee would be their first major battle of the war.
Many of their white comrades doubted the U.S.C.T’s worth as soldiers. Ultimately, the U.S. Army’s attack was unsuccessful, but the Black troops fought bravely, proving their mettle to the white soldiers.
One hundred and fifty-eight years later, on the very ground where Bailey had advanced with his comrades, his great great grandson Gary Burke helped dedicate a new Civil War Trails marker recognizing the U.S.C.T’s role on Day 1 of the Battle of Nashville.
For Burke, the dedication was deeply meaningful.
“It meant validation as a descendant to be on that hallowed ground and to tell the fuller story not only of African American history but of American history,” he said.
The Civil War Trails marker may be visited on the grounds of STEM Prep High School at 1252 Foster Avenue.
Burke, who lives in Nashville, has a deep interest in his family’s history. His grandfather served in the U.S. Army during World War 1. His father served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. Peter Bailey, formerly enslaved like most of his U.S.C.T comrades, enlisted in the Union Army in spring 1863 in Murfreesboro, Tenn.
The area where Bailey fought on Day 1 of the battle was countryside in 1864. Now it’s a mixed-use area in South Nashville. For years Burke’s father, Wallace, worked at AT&T in the area never knowing that his great grandfather had fought nearby.
Burke, who reenacts with the 13th United States Colored Troops Living History Association, read a short poem entitled
“Men of Blue” at the dedication.
“In fighting combat sometimes hand to hand many of you grew from boy to man,” it reads, in part. “You often saw your enemies eye to eye, the lives that were lost makes my soul cry.”
Dr. Learotha Williams, a scholar of African American, Civil War and Reconstruction, and Public History at Tennessee State University, delivered a speech as well.
“The formerly enslaved and free African American men that were gathered here on this morning understood that violence against them and their loved ones was necessary to keep them enslaved,” he said, “and similarly violence would be necessary to destroy it.”
On Dec. 16, 1864, Day 2 of the battle, Bailey survived savage fighting at Peach Orchard Hill, in the present-day Oak Hill suburb of Nashville. He survived the war, too.
An estimated 38,000 to 43,000 of Bailey’s U.S.C.T comrades died during the Civil War, according to the American Battlefield Trust. Dozens of Black soldiers died at the Battle of Nashville, a major U.S. Army victory.
“Colored soldiers had fought side by side with white troops,” a white officer wrote of the fighting on Day 1. “They had assisted each other from the field when wounded, and they lay side by side in death. … The day that we had longed to see had come and gone, and the Sun went down upon a record of coolness, bravery, manliness, never to be unmade.
“A new chapter in the history of liberty had been written,” he continued. “It had been shown that marching under the flag of freedom, animated by a love of liberty, even a slave becomes a man and a hero.”