Johnsonville, Tennessee, now known as New Johnsonville, is located about 65 miles west of Nashville and only 30 miles south of the Tennessee/Kentucky border along the east side of the Tennessee River.
In 1864, Johnsonville was an important supply hub for the Union Army, especially for the massive army of General William T. Sherman and his March to Atlanta and on to the Sea. Boats would bring large amounts of supplies (food, ammunition, leather, dry goods, nails, etc.) to the docks at Johnsonville. They were then unloaded and stored in massive deports that stretched nearly a mile along the river, until they could be transported by railroad to Nashville and on south to help supply Sherman’s army.
Union Colonel C.R. Thompson was tasked with operating the docks and protecting the all important depots at Johnsonville. He had about 2,000 troops, part of which was made up the US Colored Troops composed largely of former slaves.
Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest was tasked with destroting and/or capturing the Union depots at Johnsonville. He commanded a force of about 3,500 Confederate troops. Forrest had been on a 23-day raid in the area and managed to capture several Union outposts north of Johnsonville.
Thompson and the Union troops knew that they were the eventual target of a Confederate attack and thought they were prepared. Men were assigned to gun-pits around the perimeter of the depot and artillery was placed on the high ground overlooking the depots. Thompson expected the Confederate attack to come from the land.
On November 3, 1864, Forrest and his Confederate force arrived on the west bank of the Tennessee River opposite of Johnsonville, During the night, the Confederates placed their large cannons on the higher grounds overlooking Johnsonville and dug protective defenses around them. The Union forces in Johnsonville were unaware of the Confederate activity on the opposite bank of the river.
On this day, November 4, 1864, the Confederate cannons began shelling the Union depot across the river. The Confederates had the advantage of higher ground and their exploding shells were well aimed, hitting their targets and setting the depots ablaze. Thompson and the Union artillery tried to return fire but their shells fell short. Thompson ordered several gunboats docked at the port to move into the river and shell the confederate cannons. However, the Confederate artillery were quickly able to fire upon the gunboats, damaging their rudders and controls.
It wasn’t long before the mile-long depots were on fire and a large part of the Union force was busy trying to put out the fires instead of trying to repel the Confederate attack.
On November 5, 1864, most of the depots at Johnsonville had been reduced to smoldering ashes. Forrest had accomplished his goal and destroyed millions of dollars of Union supplies in a matter of a few hours. At day break, some of the Union forces tried to return fire across the river, but unbeknownst to them, Forrest and his Confederate force had already moved away.
A number of the Union troops left at Johnsonville wondered what would happen to them now that the depots had been completely destroyed. They wrote letters to loved ones back home with their questions, the main one of which was when would this devastating war end. The US Colored Troops also wondered what their future held.
Even though the vital Union supplies at Johnsonville had been completely destroyed, Union General Sherman continued his sweep across Georgia and on into South Carolina to Charleston and helped turn the tide of the war in favor of the Union.