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Shelbyville during the Civil War

By ZOË WATKINS - zwatkins@t-g.com
Posted 7/1/23

Did you know that during the American Civil War, Shelbyville was dubbed “Little Boston”? 

Bedford County archivist Carol Roberts said this was not necessarily the case in …

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Shelbyville during the Civil War


Did you know that during the American Civil War, Shelbyville was dubbed “Little Boston”? 

Bedford County archivist Carol Roberts said this was not necessarily the case in Bedford County but in the city where a business district was just beginning to boom.  

“There was tremendous Union sympathy in the citizens. In fact, when there were elections related to secession, it went through two or three state-level elections and referendums of voting,” said Roberts. Tennessee’s governor at the time, Isham Harris, wanted to push the State to secede, but Shelbyville voted not to, according to Roberts.  

Shelbyville in the mid-19th century consisted mostly of business owners, who “were thrilled the Union troops were coming this way” during the march to Chattanooga.   

“The citizens, though they were Union sympathizers, just went about their business, kind of like today with political conflicts,” Roberts explained.  

From Murfreesboro to Chattanooga 

But Shelbyville saw its share of the battles. In fact, the anniversary of one of Tennessee's major cavalry clashes was last Tuesday, June 27—and it happened in Shelbyville. 

According to Roberts, Shelbyville was posed as the ideal location as a crossroads town between the cities of Murfreesboro and Chattanooga. The nearby railroad, turnpike, and river systems brought both Union and Confederate forces through the Square as well. 

The Courthouse was used as a high point. From the top, you could see Horse Mountain where the Signal Corps. would have been stationed.  

“And the river protected it. You couldn’t just cross this river back here and sneak up on anybody. So, it was a good point to guard,” Roberts said. 

According to the article, “The Battle of Shelbyville” by Sean Michael Chick, “One of the most dramatic and decisive cavalry clashes of the American Civil War occurred at Shelbyville on Sunday, June 27, 1863.” The battle was part of Union Major General William Rosecrans’ Tullahoma offensive. 

Roberts explained that after the Battle of Stones River, around early January in 1863, the Confederate army retreated, their fortifications and people encamped in Shelbyville, a town that Confederate General Braxton Bragg had fortified over the winter. 

But the Union troops under Rosecrans had been assigned from Murfreesboro to Chattanooga—and needed to pass through Shelbyville.  

To the west, Rosecrans sent two divisions to threaten Shelbyville and attack Bragg’s right flank. However, Rosecrans’ entire offensive was slowed down by a great rainstorm that began on June 24 and did not abate stop until July 4, according to Chick.  

But when Union forces began striking a division of Major General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry corps, the Confederates were out of position. That is, Wheeler’s two divisions were stretched thin, according to Chick.  

Bragg heard that the position at Hoover’s Gap in Beechgrove had collapsed. He ordered General Leonidas Polk of the infantry division to give up Shelbyville, and in the early morning, on June 27, the Confederates abandoned Shelbyville. 

That same day, Union forces were told to “dislodge” the enemy from Guy’s Gap, just north of Shelbyville.   

Marshall Thatcher of the 2nd Michigan Cavalry, who witnessed the clash, wrote: “The sun burst through the heavy clouds and shone full in the faces of 10,000 cavalry, in two lines, division fronts; banners flying, bands playing and the command marching in as perfect lines as if on a parade. Such a sight was rare in the history of the war.” 

All these skirmishes in the various gaps throughout the region were meant to hold back the Union headed to Chattanooga.   

According to Roberts, Union troops turned around and used these same barricades of entrenchments by Bragg for their fortification. During the construction of the 437 Bypass, an archaeological dig was conducted and determined some of the placement of trenches, according to Roberts. 

Then, when Shelbyville was captured by Union forces, many City residents were proud to have the Stars and Stripes flying above the courthouse once again. 


There were plenty of vendettas, as well. The article “Bushwhackers Terrorize the City” reports how bushwhackers and guerillas went back and forth with each other on both the Union and Confederate sides.  

If you were Confederate, you terrorized the Union sympathizers, according to Roberts. “Hung them, even,” she added.  

There’s one story about Jacob Moulder, an older fellow from the Unionville area, who went off to join the Union Army. But his poor health sent him home. Upon making it home safely, Confederate sympathizers hung him in his front yard, according to Roberts.   

Skull Camp Bridge 

The story of Major General Wheeler’s cavalry corps. jumping off Skull Camp Bridge—that is, Memorial Bridge off of Belmont Avenue—is probably mostly legend. 

However, the events surrounding it, after Shelbyville’s major cavalry skirmish were real. 

“Put out of your mind interstates and four-lane highways. That turnpike from Murfreesboro to Shelbyville is the largest open road, but there was a narrow gap. So only a few horses and wagons could get through,” Roberts said.  

Wheeler was sent to the area to aggravate Union troops. When they were close to being surrounded and captured, Wheeler had to escape to Tullahoma and Chattanooga via what is now U.S. 130.  General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s calvary was coming from the west, in Columbia, but wasn’t coming on time, Roberts explained.   

“As it happens, that year was the rainiest, wettest, muddiest year. There was mud and trouble, and something blocked the bridge. But he was determined not to get caught. So, he jumped his horse and numerous others of his cavalry and they escaped by fording the river,” Roberts said. 

Considering there are no high bluffs on the Duck near the bridge, that last part is probably an exaggeration. But it has been depicted in Harper’s Weekly magazine and become one of the many legends of America’s Civil War.