Baptists and the American Civil War: September 29, 1863

Maxwell House, Nashville, used as a barracks for Confederate prisoners during the war

Maxwell House, Nashville, used as a barracks for Confederate prisoners during the war

Some casualties of the war take place far away from the battlefields. Today a Union barracks in Nashville, Tennessee collapses, killing a number of Confederate prisoners and injuring hundreds. The collapse of the Maxwell House prison–formerly the unfinished Maxwell Hotel–is blamed on poor construction. Located near the Central Baptist Church, some of the injured are transferred to the church building, which is serving as a hospital.

The following day, the Nashville Daily Press reports of the incident:

One of the most startling and fatal accidents occurred in our city yesterday that we have ever been called upon to chronicle. The scene of the sad disaster, so fraught with human suffering, was the unfinished building, situated on the corner of Church and Cherry streets, known as the Maxwell House, which is used as a barracks for our soldiers. At the time of the accident, about 600 Confederate prisoners were confined there, in the upper or fifth story. At the signal for breakfast, the prisoners rushed to the head of the stairs, on their way to the dining-room, all gaiety and thoughtlessness. The rush was so sudden and their weight so great that the stairs gave way with a loud crash and 100 of the prisoners were suddenly precipitated, with a perfect avalanche of broken and scattering timbers, through two sets of flooring, to the third floor, where they landed one quivering mass of bleeding, mangled humanity. Two (whose names we have been unable to learn) were instantly killed, and the whole of them more or less injured. Many of them were frightfully disfigured, having their legs, arms or heads broken.

The news of the accident spread rapidly through the city, and in a short time the streets in the vicinity were crowded with persons anxious to learn the extend of the terrible affair.

Guards were immediately thrown around the building to prevent the unfortunate sufferers, who were now being removed from the wreck, from [the] crowds. Ambulances were hurried to the spot, and the misguided and suffering Confederates, who had braved the dangers of many a hard fought battle to be maimed for life by an accident, were taken to the prison hospital. Here they were attended by our surgeons and nurses with all the kind and tender care that could have been shown a Federal soldier wounded under the Stars and Stripes fighting for the Union. The secesh ladies also waited on them with an untiring devotion that would reflect honor on a more righteous cause. One of the injured prisoners, a mere stripling, who has been captured several times before, remarked that he “would not care half so much if he had taken his breakfast.”

In another part of the building were some Union refugees, lately arrived from Northern Georgia. Upon the occurrence of the fatal accident, some of the men rushed to the rescue among the foremost. One of them found among the sufferers three of his neighbors from Georgia, who had long since left their homes for the rebel service. Another refugee found his son, who had been conscripted, and of whom he had not heard in 16 months. A third encountered a brother from Texas, from whom he had been separated eight years. Such are the sad and impressive scenes, which can scarcely be called strange in this unnatural war.

Though many of the prisoners were badly hurt and will be crippled for life, we are told that not more than four or five are likely to die from the effects of their injuries.

We will remark that the present efficient commander of the barracks, Capt. Larkin, of the 89th Ohio, is in no way to blame for the accident, for he has frequently warned the inmates of the barrack against crowding around the stairways.

Ultimately, many more die from wounds. One of the wounded but surviving Confederate soldiers, John M. Dickey of the 44th Tennessee Regiment, spends weeks recovering in the Central Baptist Church-turned-hospital. He later recounts the tragedy from his perspective, a version that differs in some details from various newspaper accounts:

I was one of the four hundred Confederate soldiers confined in the Maxwell House (Zollicoffer Barracks), Nashville, Tenn., when that terrible disaster of September 29, 1863, occurred. The accident is described in a Banner of recent date, and the writer says the victims fell to the third floor, also that some of the prisoners were at breakfast. That is incorrect. I was standing near the head of the stairway when breakfast was announced, and the hungry men were crowding when they were stopped by the guard. All at once, the floor gave way, and down we went to the first floor. We fell near where the pool tables were. I fell lengthwise between two joists, and a man fell across me. His brains were scattered over my coat, and the spots were on it when I left prison in 1865. I lay pinned down until the rest of the wounded and dead were cared for. When they prized the rubbish off of me, I was carried into the lobby.

There were one hundred and twenty six of us in the fall, forty five killed outright or died in a short time. One man, a Mr. Dodd, went with me to Rock Island, and died there of his wound. I had this statement from the best authority. John P. White, whom I had known all my life, visited me almost daily. He was a merchant in Nashville at the time and long afterwards. He said there were one hundred and twenty six.

I was surprised to see in the Banner that we fell only to the third floor.

I was taken to the Central Baptist Church, which was used as a hospital, and it was twenty two days before I could stand up. After sixty five days, I was sent to the penitentiary, and from there to Rock Island Prison, Barrack No.44, from which I was discharged May 4, 1865….

I will never forget how the guards pushed the good women of Nashville with their bayonets (they were bringing bandages and trying to relieve the crippled men), but they were ordered to do so by the officers. I always have loved the women of Nashville, and hope they will be rewarded for their goodness in trying to relieve those poor sufferers.


Sources: “Terrible Accident at the Maxwell Barracks: 100 Confederate prisoners killed and Frightfully Wounded-Strange Meetings Incidents, etc.,” Nashville Daily Press, September 30, 1863 (link); John M. Dickey, “The Maxwell House Disaster in War Times,” Civil War Nashville (link); “Maxwell House Stairway Collapse,” in Allen R. Coggins, Tennessee Tragedies: Natural, Technological, and Societal Disasters in the Volunteer State, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2011, pp. 131-132 (link); image (Nashville Public Library, Digital Collections)