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The Pillaged Grave of a Civil War Hero

Col. Wm. Shy Occasionally unusual circumstances arise that call for the excavation of a historic burial. In 1977 the grave of Civil War hero Colonel W.M. Shy was disturbed. Upon examination a body was discovered that was thought to have been a recent murder victim. After a thorough examination, the body was identified as that of Colonel Shy.

A short history leading up to the death of Colonel Shy (pictured at right in a pre-war-dated image) has been included to give the reader an idea of the events preceding his death. The purpose of this paper is to show how professionals, trained in archaeology and related sciences, can assist law enforcement agencies in forensic cases that might otherwise go unsolved

This article consists of three pages of text, and a fourth and final page of photographs.

Colonel William M. Shy, Civil War Hero

By John T. Dowd

The Battle of Nashville

The Civil War was now in its waning months. The North's superior industrial strength and never ending supply of manpower had taken their toll over the downtrodden Confederacy. Everything was going downhill for the Rebels. After the fall of Vicksburg the Union had concentrated practically all its force against the "other Rebel army," the Army of Tennessee. This army was the last hope for the South. It was led by General John Bell Hood who at this time was a physically beaten and emotionally unstable man. He had lost the use of one arm at Gettysburg and lost a leg at the Battle of Chickamauga. He had to be literally strapped to his horse to travel. Hood's condition well depicted the general condition of the Army of Tennessee at this stage of the war.

Hood had taken a severe "licking" at Franklin on November 30, 1864. He had ordered a full frontal assault against Union troops that were entrenched and behind stout breastworks. This suicidal attack was ordered by Hood mainly because he was angry for allowing this same Union force to slip through his fingers the day before, in a trap that had been poorly executed at Spring Hill. He was also a student of the "old school" method of fighting and thought the only honorable way to attack was head on with banners flying. Hood was said to have always associated valor with casualty lists. If this was true then he probably considered the Battle of Franklin a victory, for in one day's fighting there, he suffered a staggering 6,202 casualties. Worse still was his loss in general officers. In no other battle did any army have so many generals killed and wounded. Five Confederate generals were killed outright; six were wounded, one of which soon died; and one was captured (Horn 1965:319)

At daybreak the next day Hood was once more ready to do battle but during the night the Union forces had stealthily left for nearby Nashville. Enraged, Hood hurried to Nashville and entrenched his troops in a threatening position on the hills south of the city. Nashville at this time was probably the best supplied and most fortified city on the North American continent. Over 60,000 well-equipped and battle-ready Union troops were there while Hood had, at the most, 25,000 ill-supplied men, many of whom were sickly and barefooted. Morale was low after the bloody slaughter suffered at the hands of the Federals at Franklin. To consider laying seige to a fortress city such as this, with such an inferior force, shows Hood's desperate state of mind at this time. Hood stretched his thin lines to the limits, then patiently waited for his Union counterpart, General George H. Thomas, to make his move.

On December 15, 1864, the weather broke and the Union forces attacked. The Rebel lines were so weak in many places that the first rush sent them retreating. There were a few spots of stubborn resistance but, as a whole, the outnumbered and decimated Confederates took a beating. As night fell they were giving ground all along their lines. The second day found the Confederate lines much shorter and back some distance from the day before. The extreme right was anchored by a formidable position known as Peach Orchard Hill and the left was anchored by Compton's Hill. Compton's Hill was meant to be the strongest point on the Confederate left but three things were against it from the beginning:

1). Its proximity to the surrounding enemy-held hills made it an easy target. Compton's Hill was subjected to a heavy all day crossfire from three directions. One Union battery, on a hill less than 400 yards to their front, fired over 500 rounds into Compton's Hill on the second day of the battle. Confederate General Stevenson, who witnessed this bombardment, described it as "an artillery fire which I have never seen surpassed for heaviness, continuance, and accuracy" (Horn 1968:119).

2). It was opposite the Federal's strongest point. Schofield was to the front and Wilson's cavalry was on the Confederate's left flank. Wilson's command alone numbered over ten thousand, many with Spencer repeating rifles.

3). The placement of their breastworks was a major engineering blunder. Ector's Texas Brigade had taken position on the hill late in the evening of the first day of the battle. In the darkness and confusion of the evening they placed the entrenchments so near the top of the hill and so far from the steep brow, that the defenders would not be able to fire at the enemy at the very base of the hill. Famous Civil War historian Stanley F. Horn sums it up well when he says: "Thus by this error the steep face of the hill became rather more of an asset to the attackers than the defenders " (Horn 1968:124).

Ector's Brigade was not to suffer the consequences for their poorly-placed entrenchments. The second day Ector's Brigade was ordered to another position and was replaced by a brigade under Brigadier General Thomas Benton Smith. Smith's brigade had not been active in the first day's fighting. They had been sent on detached service with General Forrest to burn and destroy all of the railroad bridges and block-houses between Nashville and Murfreesboro (Official Records Vol. XLV Part 1, 1886:744). They had just arrived back from this service and on the first day of the battle were in reserve on the Confederate right, near the Nolensville Road. This command was made up of what was left of various different brigades. One of these was the 20th Tennessee under the command of Colonel William M. Shy.

The Hills Falls; Colonel Shy Is Killed

Despite all obstacles the afternoon of the second day found the battered Confederates still in possession of Compton's Hill. Surrounded on three sides by thousands of Union soldiers, the marooned Rebels were receiving fire from all angles; many were shot in the back. Around 4:00 P.M. it began to rain. The defenders had not slept. They were tired, cold, wet and hungry, but still they fought on. The rain was now coming down in sheets and it was getting much colder. They knew the enemy was massing at the foot of the hill for a full scale attack but could do nothing about it. Suddenly the massive Federal attack that had been building all day began. There were a few minutes of violent fighting and then it was all over. They came so fast with so many that the small force atop the hill was completely overwhelmed. The entire command of defenders was practically annihilated, only 65 individuals escaped (Horn 1968:127). Colonel William M. Shy and nearly half of his men were killed while bravely defending this hill (later this hill was to be called Shy's Hill as a tribute for his gallant stand and heroic death).

When this strategic hill fell a sea of blue uniforms flooded the Confederate left and a complete rout was started. For the first time ever the Army of Tennessee ran. As darkness fell the Confederate army was in a full scale disorderly retreat. The "other Rebel army" of the Confederacy was no longer a threat to the Union. The Battle of Nashville was over.

The following day a local newspaper listed the following casualities:

The two days fight sums up about as follows, according to our estimates made; Federal loss, killed and wounded, four thousand. Rebel loss, killed and wounded, three thousand, over three thousand prisoners, and thirty guns. (Nashville Daily Press, Dec. 17, 1864).

Colonel William M. Shy

After the battle, Compton's (Shy's) Hill was covered with the dead and wounded from both sides. Among them was Colonel Shy; handsome in life, heroic in death. Dead at the age of 26, a minnie ball in his brain. He had been shot at close range, "his head being powder-burned around the hole made by the shot" (Marshall 1912:522).

William Mabry Shy was born in Bourbon County, Kentucky on May 24, 1838. He was one of ten children. His older brother, James Louis Shy, organized the Perry Guards which became Company G of the 20th Tennessee Infantry. William, or "Bill," as he was popularly known by his comrades, enlisted as a private in Company H of the 20th Tennessee on its inception. He was appointed to the regimental color guards. In the spring, after the Battle of Fishing Creek, he was elected a Lieutenant. He was known to have been a man of quiet disposition, a man of deeds rather than words. He was modest and gentle; always calm and collected in battle. These attributes made him stand out among his men as a leader and at the reorganization of his regiment in front of Corinth, Mississippi, in May, 1862 he was made Captain of Company H. He was promoted to Major of the regiment in 1863 and the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel soon followed, and when Colonel Thomas B. Smith received his commission of Brigadier General, Lt-Col. William M. Shy became Colonel of the Twentieth Tennessee (McMurray 1976:397-399).

(The tombstone on Colonel Shy's grave reads Lt.-Col. but the family might not have known of his latest promotion.)

Word of Colonel Shy's death reached his family. Being unmarried the unpleasant chore of recovering his body fell to his parents. Colonel Shy's mother and father were divided in their sympathies toward the war; she siding with the South and he with the North. These differences were most likely put aside when the tragic news of their son's death reached them. The area around the Shy farm was still in a turmoil due to the recent Battle of Franklin and this confusion was greatly magnified by the retreat and pursuit of the fleeing Confederate army after the Battle of Nashville. For a civilian to obtain permission to travel the busy and cluttered roads into Nashville was near impossible. Fearing to cross through the Union lines the Shy family solicited the help of their close friend, Dr. Daniel B. Cliffe, who held an influential position in the community.

Dr. Cliffe had come from Ohio as a boy of thirteen to live with an uncle in Franklin. When war broke out in 1861, Dr. Cliffe served in the Twentieth Tennessee Regiment as General Felix Zollicoffer's Brigade Surgeon. After the Battle of Fishing Creek he was captured because he was unwilling to desert the Confederate wounded in the rear of the battlefield. Dr. Cliffe was allowed to embalm the body of General Zollicoffer, who had been killed in this battle. He accompanied General Zollicoffer's body to Louisville where he was detained for a few days while the General's body went on to Nashville. After Dr. Cliffe returned home he soon became disenchanted with the Confederacy and supported the Union cause. However, he often used his influence whenever possible, to intervene between the Union army and the townspeople (Bowman 1971:106).

Dr. Cliffe made arrangements for his wife, Mrs. Virginia Cliffe, to go to Nashville to recover Colonel Shy's body. Why he sent his wife instead of going himself is not entirely clear. He might have been unable to leave at this time due to the fact that he was urgently needed to tend the many wounded at Franklin. The following information was furnished by Mrs. W.J. Montana of Silsbee, Texas who is "family historian" for the Shy family. It is a quote from her great aunt, Virginia Oliver Bell (who was named for Virginia Cliffe, Dr. Cliffe's wife):

When word came that he (Shy) had been killed, his family was not allowed to go through the Yankee lines to claim his body. A family friend, Virginia Whitfield Cliffe, wife of Dr. Dan Cliffe, took a spring wagon with a negro man to drive and brought his body home. This privilege was accorded her because of Dr. Cliffe's connection in the north. Mrs. Cliffe found him without a stitch of clothing on, shot through the center of his forehead and impaled on a tree with a bayonet. He was buried in the family graveyard, and the marker still (1954) stands, a white shaft in the Buford's cow lot (Montana 19'19). (Mrs. Montana further states that the bayonet and Colonel Shy's canteen are still in the possession of the family.)

Colonel Shy was brought home and laid to rest in the family cemetery at Two Rivers, near Franklin, Tennessee. Since Dr. Cliffe was a good friend of the family and was skilled in the art of embalming, he very likely embalmed the body of Colonel Shy, but since no written proof of this has been found by the author this is only speculation.

There is another story concerning Colonel Shy's body that appears to differ from the story in the Shy family records. At the time of the battle the Felix Compton home was the nearest house to Compton's (Shy's) Hill. Felix Compton's daughter, Mrs. Emily C. Thompson of Birmingham, wrote the following statement for the Confederate Veteran magazine concerning her memories on the matter. It was published in 1912 and states in part:

Colonel Shy fell on the afternoon of December 16. His body, with many others of both armies, was laid upon the front gallery of our home. Shortly afterwards a Federal guard called my attention to Colonel Shy. Then turning back from the face a gray blanket which some kind friend had placed over the body, I saw him as he lay so peacefully there with that cruel hole in his brow (Thompson 1912:522).

This account appears to contradict the other but it is still possible that both stories are true. After the battle the Compton house was used as a hospital. Felix Compton's daughter tells of one hundred and fifty dead and wounded being in their home at one time (Thompson 1912:523).

Mrs. Cliffe could very well have found Colonel Shy's body as stated. The trip from Franklin, in the wintertime by wagon, would have been tiring for Mrs. Cliffe. The most logical place for her to go to rest and freshen up before the return trip would be the Compton house. She may have even stayed the night. Perhaps while there, the body was wrapped in a blanket and laid on the porch. This could have been how Compton's daughter might have seen the body. The reader must bear in mind that the author is only giving a possible explanation for both stories. Both accounts are from reliable sources and cannot be ignored.

If not for his heroic stand and tragic death at the Battle of Nashville, Colonel Shy would be just another forgotten name on the long list of casualties suffered in this senseless battle. When the Battle of Nashville was fought the 20th Tennessee Infantry Regiment was only a mere remnant of what it had been at the beginning of the war. The 20th Tennessee was organized in Middle Tennessee on June 12, 1861. It originally contained 880 men but when paroled at the end of the war on May 1, 1865 at Greensboro, North Carolina, it listed only 34 men. The 20th Tennessee had fought from one end of the Confederacy to the other. Their record shows them engaged in such famous battles as: Fishing Creek, Shiloh, Port Hudson, Murfreesboro, Hoover Gap, Missionary Ridge, Atlanta, Franklin and Nashville (Tennessean's in the Civil War, 1964: 217-219).

Colonel Shy had gallantly commanded his men through all these battles only to be killed in the very last one. If not remembered in history for these other battles he is, nevertheless, one of the most remembered names, with the possible exception of Generals Hood and Thomas, associated with the Battle of Nashville.

On to Part 2