Photo Analysis: USCT at Johnsonville Depot, November 1864. Waiting for a train?

On my visit to Johnsonville last week, one of the markers encountered featured this wartime photo (Original located at LOC’s digital archive):


This is one half of a stereo-view:

To me, this is one of the “classic” photos of the war.  It appears in the “Golden Book of the Civil War,” somewhere around page 181 or so depending on the edition.  So this should be familiar to most.  A busy photo to say the least.

Allow me to explain the setting of this photo.  The camera looked across one of the railroad platforms (foreground) towards one of the side spurs (running from the middle right to the background left), beyond to the horse corral. We see the gate for that corral in the photo:


Turning to the wartime map of the depot:


Looking closer, here’s the general (stress general) direction the camera was looking:


Today, that location looks something like this:


The location I was standing is not exact for the wartime camera point of view.  But you get the idea here – the landscape has changed significantly since the war.  Most notably, the creation of Kentucky Lake submerged significant portions of the depot site.

That’s the “where” part of the photo.  The “when” is given as November 1864 by most sources.  That month saw very significant activity in Middle Tennessee.  Major-General Nathan B. Forrest raided Johnsonville on November 4-5.  Among the units dispatched to respond to Forrest was Battery A, 2nd US Colored Light Artillery, commanded by Captain Josiah V. Meigs.  And that is the unit we are looking at in this photo.  By most accounts Meigs battery performed well that day.  But Forrest was able to inflict substantial damage and won another round against the Federal supply network.

The photo does not capture a lot of damage, but does have a lot of materials strewn about:


Perhaps what we are seeing here is evidence of Federal repairs ongoing at the depot at the time the photo was taken.

Keep in mind that just two weeks after the action at Johnsonville, Lieutenant-General John B. Hood started his march into Middle Tennessee.  So the date of this photo has to fit within a window between those two activities.  The question I post, in the title of this post, is if the battery was waiting for a train to return them to Nashville?

What ever day it was, we know it was wet.  Witness one of the war’s largest mud puddles:


And the platform were the soldiers stood is wet, as if just receiving a fall rain:


The artillerists piled their tack on top of the limbers and cannons:


And yes, the battery had 12-pdr Napoleons.

Likewise, they piled tack upon the caissons:


Wouldn’t want all that tack to get muddy, right?

An officer stands beside the platform, in the mud:


I don’t have any portraits or photos identified as Josiah Meigs to compare here.  Nor can we see any badge of rank to fuel more speculation.  But this would be his “station” with the battery.  His brother, Fielding, also served as an officer in the battery.  So this might be one of the Meigs, if not Josiah himself.

Josiah is an interesting character in his own right.  Some of his story is related on a site dedicated to the story of the 175th and 183rd Ohio Volunteers.  A Tennessean by birth, Meigs was an engineer living in Nashville.  He raised the battery in Nashville during the winter of 1864.  By the fall the battery was mounted, and as we can see from the photo, equipped for field duty.

So you see from this narrative what makes this an exceptional photo study.  We can put together most of the who, what, when, and where of this photo.  And though we might not be able to put names to all the figures…


we have the faces to consider.

Post-Script:  After the war, Meigs moved to Massachusetts.  Among his work was the design of a steam powered mono-rail:

I have not cast my net in that direction, but if his papers are archived somewhere, this might be a fascinating project of study.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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