Prior to the Civil War, a rail line ran from Nashville to Kingston Springs but no farther, which gave the line little military importance. After the Federal seizure of Nashville in February 1862, work began to extend the line westward to Johnsonville on the Tennessee River, to provide another supply line for the Federal armies.
Free blacks as well as former slaves who sought freedom in Union-occupied Nashville were impressed into service by Federal forces to construct the Nashville-Northwestern Railroad from Kingston Springs to Johnsonville. At the completion of the railroad, black laborers were inducted into official U.S. military units. The 12th and 13th U.S. Colored Troops Infantry Regiments guarded the trestles, bridges and blockhouses along the railroad they had constructed. This 78 miles of rail became even more important after Gen. John Hunt Morgan succeeded in burning the south tunnel on the Louisville and Nashville Railroad in Sumner County, TN. Accomplishing this task in as short a time as possible required extensive construction of wooden trestles and bridges. Because such structures were prime targets of the Confederate raiders and guerilla parties, blockhouses and field fortifications were constructed at vulnerable bridges and trestles.
The Johnsonville depot was the western terminus of the Nashville-Northwestern Railroad. It was established at a small community called Knott's Landing which had grown up in the 1850s. It was renamed Johnsonville for Andrew Johnson, military governor of Tennessee and later president of the United States.
Throughout the summer of 1864, Gen. William T. Sherman's army steadily pushed southward against the Confederate army under Gen. Joseph Johnston, though Sherman was not able to pin down the elusive Confederates for a decisive battle. Johnston's tactics of continual withdrawal became increasingly unpopular with Confederate president Jefferson Davis and the Southern people. As a result, Johnston was replaced by Gen. John Bell Hood. Hood made several reckless attacks against the Federals, but he was unable to check their advance. Consequently, the Confederates abandoned Atlanta to Sherman on Johnsonville.
Leaving Corinth, Mississippi, on October 16, 1864, Forrest moved northward along the Tennessee River. By the 28th of October, he had placed artillery along the west side of the river at Paris Landing and Fort Heiman. Orders were to fire at ships headed upstream to Johnsonville since they would be loaded with Federal supplies. Forrest and his men harassed Federal shipping on the river for several days, capturing a gunboat and a steamer.
On November 1, Forrest moved south to attack the Johnsonville depot. On the 4th, the Confederate batteries were in place on the opposite shore at Johnsonville. Nine Federal gunboats from Paducah, Kentucky had been sent down to offer support against the Confederates. Confederate batteries began firing at the newly arrived gunboats, then took aim at the depot itself. As the warehouses began to burn, the Federal forces panicked. Federal Commander Colonel C.R. Thompson was convinced Forrest had a superior force and would soon cross the river to capture the garrison. Though neither assumption was true, Thompson ordered the rest of the supplies destroyed to prevent their capture by the Confederate forces. Forrest pulled out of Johnsonville that night.
During the raid, Forrest's forces destroyed four gunboats, 14 transports, 17 barges, 33 pieces of artillery and 75,000 to 120,000 tons of quartermaster stores. They also captured 150 prisoners and obtained much needed supplies from captured ships. Forrest's losses totaled two men killed and nine others wounded. The loss of Federal property was estimated to be between $2 million and $6 million.
The loss of the depot at Johnsonville did not impact the outcome of the War because Sherman had stockpiled enough supplies for his campaign in Georgia while Federal forces in Nashville relied on the reopened Louisville and Nashville rail line and the Cumberland River to bring supplies. Forrest's campaign against the Nashville-Northwestern line at Johnsonville had been successful, but it had come too late to save the Confederates from defeat.
- from the Tennessee Civil War Railroad Brochure
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