City's history rests in cemetery
Civil War tours renew interest in landmark
10:32 PM, Sep. 17, 2011
Clyde Thompson talks history at the gravesite of Sally Thomas at the Nashville City Cemetery on Saturday.
The grass was still wet with dew when about 30 people, led by historian Clyde Thompson, set off to explore the Nashville City Cemetery on Saturday.
As the group approached the first headstone, belonging to slave Sally Thomas, who died in 1850, Thompson turned to them. He spoke about Thomas briefly and then changed topics, never losing sight of his overall theme: the Civil War — before, during and after.
“This part of the cemetery is a place where trenches were dug,” Thompson said. “There were so many bodies after the Battle of Nashville that they were buried in mass graves here.”
The bodies, those of Civil War Federal soldiers, have since been removed and reburied at National Cemetery on Gallatin Road in Madison, Thompson said.
“Even in the 1850s, during Sally Thomas’ lifetime, there was chatter, rumors of a war coming,” he said.
In the crowd, local historian Jim Hoobler, a board member of the Nashville City Cemetery Association, as is Thompson, seemed particularly interested in Thomas’ history. Her grave was just marked with a stone in 2009.
“We knew from the records where she was,” he said. “Her story is unique. She had three children. The first two were sired by her master’s son, and the third was sired by Tennessee’s Chief Justice John C. Catron, who was later appointed by Andrew Jackson to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
“When Catron and the court were asked to rule on whether or not slaves were property or persons, he, interestingly enough, voted that they were property, along with the majority of the court.”
A portrait of Catron and his wife hangs in the Tennessee State Museum, said Hoobler, who works there.
“His wife was a lovely woman,” he said. “Sally Thomas must have been a lovely woman as well, but we’ll never know for sure because there are no photographs of her.”
Civil War observance
Thompson, 53, said it took him about a week to prepare for the tour, his first. The hourlong talk was the second of two in the cemetery’s sesquicentennial observance, marking the beginning of the Civil War.
In addition to Thomas, Thompson also focused on the bravery of the 13th Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops, who rushed the Confederate soldiers at the Battle at Peach Orchard Hill in Nashville on Dec. 16, 1864.
Today, Peach Orchard Hill is known as Overton Hill. The battlefield would have been where Father Ryan High School now sits, Thompson said.
“These men came to die,” he said. “When they reached this hill, they let out a yell that sounded like artillery. They reached the top and ran the Confederates out. There were 556 black men in that regiment. Forty percent of them died.”
The tour ended at the grave site of Ella Sheppard Moore, who was born into slavery in 1851 and eventually became one of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers. She died in 1914.
Work 'far from done'
“The City Cemetery is the resting place of Nashville history,” Thompson said. “It’s our duty to keep that history alive. Our work is far from done.”
Since the cemetery’s opening in 1822, there have been 20,000 burials there, according to records.
Some graves remain unmarked, Thompson said. The process of trying to identify who is buried there and where is ongoing, he added.
For Gwen Covington, 58, of Bordeaux, who came to hear Saturday’s lecture, that news made the most impact.
“It’s disheartening to think how much history and people are lost,” she said. “Both of my parents passed away in 2003, and that was hard personally. I can’t imagine being the family member of someone who is lost out here.
Covington said she attended the history tour to support Thompson. She said the two studied together at Cumberland University.
“I had never toured this cemetery before,” she said. “This was nice because not only did I get the tour, but I learned some things in the process.”