Benjamin Franklin Cheatham

Confederate General Benjamin F. Cheatham was born on a plantation near Nashville on October 20, 1820. His maternal ancestors included James Robertson, the founder of Nashville. Cheatham served in the Mexican War as a captain in the First Tennessee Regiment and later as colonel of the Third Tennessee. He participated in the California gold rush, returning home in 1853. Before the Civil War he farmed, served in the Tennessee militia, and was active in Democratic politics.

When Tennessee seceded, Cheatham won an appointment in the Provisional Army of Tennessee, then was commissioned a brigadier general in July 1861. His actions at Belmont in November 1861 won him a promotion to major general in March 1862. For most of the war Cheatham led a division composed largely of Tennessee regiments. Buoyed by devotion to their commander and united by state pride, Cheatham's men acquired an enviable combat reputation in virtually every campaign.

Controversy also dogged Cheatham's Confederate career. He clashed repeatedly with General Braxton Bragg, commander of the Army of Tennessee (June 1862-December 1863). Bragg regarded Cheatham as an incompetent political appointee, resented his close ties to Leonidas Polk, and sought unsuccessfully to have Cheatham removed from command. The relationship degenerated after Bragg accused Cheatham of drunkenness at Murfreesboro. After Chickamauga Bragg stripped most of Cheatham's Tennessee regiments from his command and dispersed them, consigning Cheatham to a much smaller division. Richmond authorities denied Cheatham's request to be relieved from duty, and he returned as a prominent member of the anti-Bragg faction.

One of Joseph E. Johnston's first acts upon replacing Bragg as army commander was the restoration of Cheatham's Tennessee division. The reconstituted command distinguished itself during the Atlanta campaign, particularly at Kennesaw Mountain in June 1864, where they repelled a determined Union assault. After John Bell Hood replaced Johnston, Cheatham led Hood's old corps at Peachtree Creek and the battle of Atlanta. Following William J. Hardee's departure in September 1864, Cheatham assumed command of Hardee's corps and guided it throughout Hood's invasion of Tennessee.

Debate still swirls about Cheatham's actions near Spring Hill on November 29, 1864. His corps was in the advance that day, but he failed to attack the Federals at Spring Hill or block the turnpike between Columbia and Franklin. As a result, after nightfall much of the Union army marched unimpeded northward along the pike while Confederate units encamped nearby. The Union escape enraged Hood, who began a rancorous debate with Cheatham the next morning that extended into the postwar era. At Franklin the next day Cheatham's corps bore the brunt of the fighting and suffered appalling casualties. Cheatham fought at Nashville two weeks later and retreated with the remnants of the army afterwards; he surrendered with Johnston in North Carolina.

After the war Cheatham farmed in Coffee County, lost an 1872 congressional race, and served as superintendent of the state prison system. He was postmaster of Nashville at the time of his death on September 4, 1886.

Suggested Reading

Christopher Losson, Tennessees Forgotten Warriors: Frank Cheatham and his Confederate Division (1990)

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Benjamin Franklin Cheatham
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 20, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018