Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Day Clarksville Was Rocked By A Cannonball

Was the last shot of the Civil War actually fired in Clarksville, Tennessee?
According to my late father, Arnold Nelson, the boys of the Odd Fellows Lodge launched the last cannonball of that conflict - in the spring of 1935. There was no political statement attached to the prank. It was just boys being boys - risking lives and limbs to see if they could blow up a cannonball. They could; it did.

Dad was raised in the orphanage which also operated a farm on the bluffs overlooking the Red River in New Providence. The Fraternal Order of ODD Fellows provided orphanages and retirement homes as a benefit to their members.
My grandfather, Albert Sanford Nelson, was an ODD Fellow when he died at the end of the Great Flu Pandemic in October 1920. Dad was born two months earlier on August 9, 1920.

My grandmother, Texas Jane Powers Nelson, left Chattanooga and went back to her hometown of Spring City, Tennessee to try and make life work with nine children - and no father. Her saving grace was also her children's good fortune; sometime in the summer of 1921, the youngest five were shipped off to live with scores of other youngsters in Clarksville whose families had imploded in similar ways. Remember, this was before government assistance - these kids were not forced to burden relatives or become homeless.
My research has not yielded verifying evidence but by the time dad was in his early teens, Bonehead (a euphemistic name my father used at will to label the true perp of any particular crime), found a 70-year old cannonball lodged in the ground of one of their fields.

The cannonball undoubtedly was connected to a minor skirmish in Clarksville following the fall of Fort Donelson in Dover. Ft. Donelson's fall was a pivotal moment in the Civil War . It meant control over southern Kentucky and Middle Tennessee was about to flip to Union control for the balance of the war within the first year of actual fighting.
A desperate and doomed attempt to halt the inevitable happened at the confluence of the Red and Cumberland Rivers - a site proudly named Fort Defiance. While Fort Donelson in Dover was falling in mid-February 1862, native Clarksvillians and soldiers who fled Dover after the fall of Ft. Donelson, threw up battlements and aimed their few cannon at the Cumberland River. They knew Union forces would be moving on Nashville by way of the river below them.
Unfortunately for them, General Ulysses S. Grant, anticipated the possibility of such a ploy and sent cavalry ahead to reconnoiter in advance of a naval movement to Nashville. The brave men left defending Ft. Defiance were taken by surprise and had to surrender before they could turn their cannons around to defend themselves.

Dad and his fellow homeboys (they called themselves homeboys long before street lingo) grew up within romping distance of those battlements and routinely found the odd minnie ball and other trinkets. Finding the cannonball trumped any and all things for a gang of teenagers. They decided to load the cannonball on to a wheelbarrow and stop short of the cliff and - let it fly.
Not only did the bomb detonate - it blew up in front of the mouth of a cave. Their joy turned into horror as the ground shook. Surely they would be caught, beaten and/or imprisoned. They were exonerated by the next day's edition of The Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle which said the previous days tremor was caused by an earthquake.
My dad could embellish a tale with the best but if he made this up completely I'd be stunned. Until somebody out there proves otherwise, I believe my dad.


  1. Mark
    That is an absolutely amazing story! I honestly don't know what was more interesting: the story about the ODD Fellows Orphanage and your family's tale, or the Ft Defiance history.
    Thank you for sharing!

  2. Thank you for reading Sylvia. My goal is to interest and amaze so please spread the word about WTW.