Benjamin Franklin Cheatham (1820-1886)

Benjamin Franklin Cheatham was born in Nashville, Tennessee, on October 20, 1820. He became a farmer, but maintained a strong interest in military affairs.

Serving as a captain and a colonel of the 3rd Tennessee volunteers in the Mexican War, he became well-known for his abilities as a commander, his boldness and his ferocity as a fighter. Cheatham went on to become a major general in the Tennessee State Militia, but left the state to take part in the 1849 California Gold Rush. He returned to Tennessee in 1853.

Early in the Civil War, Gov. Isham G. Harris, a close friend of Cheatham, commissioned Cheatham a brigadier general, and later a major general, in the Provisional Army of Tennessee. He received a commission in the Confederate Army on July 9, 1861, and was promoted to major general on March 10, 1862.

His Civil War assignments included: major general, Tennessee Militia (prewar); brigadier general, Provisional Army of Tennessee (May 9, 1861); brigadier general, CSA (July 9, 1861); commanding lst Brigade, lst Geographical Division, Department #2 (September 7 - October 24, 1861); commanding 2nd Division, lst Geographical Division, Department #2 (October 24, 1861 - March 9, 1862); major general, CSA (March 10, 1862); commanding 2nd Division, lst Corps, Army of the Mississippi (March 29 - July 2, 1862); commanding lst Division, Army of the Mississippi (July 2 - August 15, 1862); commanding division, Right Wing, Army of the Mississippi (August 15 - November 20, 1862); commanding division, Polk's-Hardee's Corps, Army of Tennessee (November 20, 1862-October 23, 1863, January - July, and September - October 1864); commanding the corps (October 23 - November 1863 and October 1864-April 9, 1865); and commanding division, Hardee's (new) Corps, Army of Tennessee (April 9-26, 1865).

He led the 2nd division of the I Corps under Leonidas Polk at the Battles of Belmont and Shiloh (where he was wounded), and during the defense of Corinth, Mississippi. At Perryville it was Cheatham's division that opened the fight, and throughout that hotly-contested battle pressed steadily forward. Again at Murfreesboro Cheatham's was one of the four divisions which drove the Federals back a distance of between three and four miles, doubling them back upon their center until their line was at right angles to its original position. At Chickamauga we find Cheatham's division attached to the right wing under Leonidas Polk, sustaining the reputation gained on so many former occasions. At the battle of Missionary Ridge, when the Confederate left center had been broken, Hardee threw a part of Cheatham's division directly across the path of the advancing Federals and held the ground until darkness closed the fight.

At the battle of Kenesaw Mountain (June 27), Cheatham's and Cleburne's divisions probably inflicted upon the Federals a heavier loss than they suffered on any other part of the field. In the battles around Atlanta, Cheatham had command of a corps, and in the battle of July 22, his men captured five cannon and five stand of colors. In Hood's final campaign he led his corps into the thickest of every fight.

When William J. Hardee left the army due to conflicts with Braxton Bragg, Cheatham took over the corps for the invasion of middle Tennessee. just before the fight at Franklin the Confederates lost an opportunity to destroy a large portion of John M. Schofield's Union forces at Spring Hill. Instead of attacking, the enemy was allowed to slip by unmolested. He was tried in a military court for culpable errors in the Confederate defeat at Spring Hill, but was cleared of all charges. After the trial, Cheatham returned to military duty in North Carolina, surrendering with it in April of 1865.

General Cheatham's personal appearance was thus described a few years after the war by the historian, E. A. Pollard: "General Cheatham is squarely and firmly built, and is noted for his extraordinary physical strength. He is slightly round-shouldered, and his weight is about two hundred pounds. His height is about five feet eight inches; his eyes are light blue, clear and expressive; his hair, light brown; his complexion, fair; and his moustache—he wears no other beard—very heavy. His forehead is broad and his face expressive of that imperturbable good humor which characterizes him not more in social life than on the battlefield."

Following the Civil War, Cheatham went back to farming in Tennessee, and ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the U.S. House of Representative in 1872. General Grant, who was a personal friend of his, offered him an appointment in the civil service, but he declined. He served four years as superintendent of the State prison. After writing an account of the Spring Hill incident, which was later published, he served as superintendent of the state prison.

From 1885 to his death on September 4, 1886, Cheatham was postmaster in Nashville, Tennessee.