The Pillaged Grave of a Civil War Hero
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
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
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.
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)
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 "
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
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).
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.
day a local newspaper listed the following casualities:
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).
William M. Shy
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).
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).
on Colonel Shy's grave reads Lt.-Col. but the family might not have known
of his latest promotion.)
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.
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
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):
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.)
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.
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:
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
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).
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.
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
On to Part 2