A visit to the Belmont Mansion

On Thursday, Traci and I had the opportunity to deliver a lecture at the Belmont Mansion during Belmont University's Department of History Phi Alpha Theta Honors Society induction ceremony. This was the latest stop in our ongoing book tour in support of Onward Southern Soldiers: Religion and the Army of Tennessee in the Civil War. We felt honored and privileged to speak before an audience of students and faculty who know and understand the work of history intimately. We particularly enjoyed presenting our book at the historic Belmont Mansion on this sesquicentennial year of the Battle of Nashville.

Belmont Mansion occupies a unique place in Nashville's Civil War history. Following the Battle of Franklin in November of 1864, Union troops marched toward Nashville, and by December 1, 1864, their armies surrounded Belmont Mansion. Belmont became the headquarters of the 4th Corps of the U.S. Army of the Cumberland and a Union stronghold during the Battle of Nashville. Belmont's beautiful surroundings inspired G. W. Lewis with the 124th Ohio Infantry to write, “Never before was [an] army headquarters so ornamented with such paintings and marbles. We, on the outside, were equally well off, for the spacious grounds were surrounded by nicely built stonewalls that were worked into the chimneys.”

Belmont Mansion. Author photo.

Two men whose stories we featured in the pages of Onward Southern Soldiers fought in the Battle of Nashville. These soldiers revealed an abiding faith in Divine Providence through their individual writings. Nashvillian Chaplain Henry Daniel Polk Hogan enlisted in the Confederate army on April 29, 1861, on his twenty-first birthday. Hogan served at the Battle of Perryville and the Battle of Stones River. He suffered multiple wounds as a soldier, was taken prisoner and later exchanged and served as the chaplain to his regiment throughout the war. Following the Battle of Nashville, on December 16, 1864, Reverend Hogan conducted Colonel James D. Tillman, then commanding Strahl’s brigade, along with hundreds of his fellow soldiers, through territory familiar to him south of Nashville, thereby avoiding their capture by the Union army. Hogan claimed that a “special act of Providence” allowed him to save these men from capture and possible prison death.

Another Army of Tennessee veteran, Sergeant John Johnston, fought at the Battles of Franklin and Nashville. Having surrendered his studies and clerical calling to enlist in the Confederate army, Johnston chronicled his experiences in a journal throughout the war, and later compiled his journal entries into a memoir. Following the Battle of Nashville, when things looked most discouraging for the Confederate army, Johnston recalled, “I remember that a young man who sat his horse in front of me and who was a stranger to me expressed his great enjoyment of my singing. After all the hardships and perils of the previous days, I was not despondent but was still able to sing. Besides, I always had an abiding faith in God’s providence which sustained and strengthened me under all circumstances.”

Chaplain Henry Daniel Polk Hogan (left) and Sergeant John Johnston (right).
Images courtesy of Gerald and Helen Miller and the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Understanding the significance of religion as a driving motivation to fight in a war driven by the issue of slavery is an important part of the story told in Onward Southern Soldiers. As public historians, we strive to understand the bigger picture told within the narratives left behind by our ancestors, placing these stories into a broader historical context.
 
Following Traci's presentation, I concluded our lecture with a few remarks to emphasize the importance of archives and the records left behind by the soldiers who served in the Army of Tennessee. Without their accounts, we could not have written our book, and without the archivists who care for their letters, diaries and memoirs, these stories would remain untold. The stories of Chaplain Hogan and Sergeant Johnston live on in posterity due in large part to the archives and the caring public historians who ensure that their legacy endures. Archivists are the gatekeepers of history. It is up to us to keep these stories alive for future generations.

It is my sincere hope that some of the students who listened to our lecture will endeavor to become archivists in their chosen field of study. Although knowledge of emerging technologies and born digital records has earned increasing importance in in the field of public history, a keen understanding of the process of interpreting history remains a critical skill. We need more historians in the archives profession.

As Belmont University sends these young aspiring historians into the world, I have faith that my noble profession is in very good hands. Students, your academic accomplishments are inspiring. We're grateful to Dr. Brenda Jackson-Abernathy for her kind invitation to be a part of your induction ceremony and for allowing us to share our story with you.


Gordon Belt is the Director of Public Services for the Tennessee State Library & Archives, and past president of the Society of Tennessee Archivists. On The Posterity Project, Gordon blogs about archives, local history, genealogy, and social media advocacy for archives and cultural heritage organizations. His forthcoming book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory.

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