His commander, Gen. Braxton Bragg, considered him unprofessional and nothing more than a political appointee.
Cheatham did have some military credentials. He served in the Tennessee militia and during the Mexican War, he served as a captain in the First Tennessee Regiment and later as colonel of the Third Tennessee.
But he also had connections in Democratic politics and besides his maternal ancestors included famous Tennessee pioneer James Robertson, the founder of Nashville.
While born on a plantation near Nashville, he was more of a farmer than a planter. He was rough around the edges, a factor that helped him survive the California gold rush. He was known as a heavy drinker, which soon got him in trouble with Bragg.
Cheatham, after Tennessee seceded, won a post with the Provisional Army of Tennessee, being commissioned as a brigadier general in July 1861.
He got his first taste of victory Nov. 7, 1861, during the somewhat bizarre battle of Belmont in Mississippi County, Mo. During the conflict, the Confederates defeated (in a sense) then Brig. Gen. U.S. Grant. It was Grant’s first Civil War action too. The future president escaped capture by riding his horse up a plank while the riverboat he was attempting to board pulled away.
“My horse seemed to take in the situation. He put his fore feet over the bank without hesitation or urging, and, with his hind feet well under him, slid down the bank and trotted on board,” Grant wrote.
The event landed Cheatham a promotion to major general and was the beginning of his reputation as a fighter.
During most of the Civil War, Cheatham was a division commander with a unit comprised chiefly of Tennessee regiments. That fact gave his division a special unity and spirit seldom rivaled in the Army of Tennessee. Adding to the mix was his fearlessness. He didn’t lead from behind the ranks.
At Stones River, Cheatham personally led a charge on Union troops holding the Wilkinson Turnpike.
“The impression that General Frank Cheatham made upon my mind ... I will never forget,” wrote Pvt. Sam Watkins of Co. H, 1st Tennessee. “I saw either victory or death written on his face.
“He was leading the charge in person. Then it was that I saw the power of one man, born to command, over a multitude of men then almost routed and demoralized. I saw and felt that he was not fighting for glory, but that he was fighting for his country because he loved that country and he was willing to give his life for his country and the success of our cause,” Watkins wrote.
But Braxton Bragg believed Cheatham’s bravery came from a bottle and formally accused him of drunkenness at Stones River to the point that he fell off his horse while leading his troops.
Even Watkins referred to excessive drinking by the command staff.
“John Barleycorn was general-in-chief. Our generals, and colonels, and captains had kissed John a little too often. They couldn’t see straight. It was said to be buckeye whiskey. They couldn’t tell our own men from Yankees,” he wrote.
When the Confederate skirmish line collided with Union troops, their commanders ordered them to ceasefire, “you are firing on your own men.” Meanwhile, the Federals poured shot into the Rebels, who were a scant hundred yards away.
The fighting was near the James Home on Wilkinson Pike. The house had served as Confederate Corps Commander Leonidas Polk’s headquarters. It withstood the battle only to be burned by vandals in 2003.
Capt. R.F. James, who had been born in the house and was serving on Cheatham’s staff, was sent forward to determine if the troops in question were Confederate or Union.
James was shot and killed less than 50 yards from his home in a moment of terrible irony.
It has been well reported that Bragg tried to blame – after the fact – his failures at Stones River on several of his generals including Polk and Maj. Gen. William Hardee, Maj. Gen. William Breckinridge. Inexperienced Maj. Gen. John P. McCown was found guilty by court martial of disobedience to Bragg’s orders.
The commanding general’s charges against Cheatham put the Middle Tennessean strongly in the “anti-Bragg” camp.
After the battle of Chickamauga, Bragg broke up Cheatham’s command, dispersing his Tennessee regiments and assigned him to a much smaller division. Cheatham asked Richmond to be relieved from duty but that request was denied.
When Gen. Joseph Johnston replaced Bragg, one of his first acts was to restore Cheatham’s Tennessee regiments to his command. Cheatham’s Division fought with distinction in the Atlanta Campaign, particularly at Kennesaw Mountain’s “Dead Angle.”
Johnston’s tactics frustrated CSA President Jefferson Davis so he replaced him with the more aggressive Gen. John Bell Hood. Cheatham led Hood’s former corps at Peachtree Creek and the battle of Atlanta. After Hardee departed the Army of Tennessee in September 1864, Cheatham assumed command of Hardee’s corps and guided it throughout Hood’s disastrous invasion of Tennessee.
Then there was Spring Hill.
What happened on Nov. 29, 1864, is still a topic of heated discussion. Suffice it to say that Cheatham failed to stop or block Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield’s Army of the Ohio from escaping Spring Hill to join the rest of the Union Army of the Cumberland at Franklin.
The argument over Spring Hill was to continue until, and after, both Hood and Cheatham’s deaths.
The following day, Cheatham’s Corps suffered horrible casualties at Franklin. Two weeks later, Cheatham fought at Nashville and retreated with the remnants of the army afterwards; he surrendered with Johnston in North Carolina.
After the war Cheatham farmed in Coffee County, ran for Congress and lost in 1872 and served as superintendent of the state prison system. He was postmaster of Nashville at the time of his death on Sept. 4, 1886.
As a footnote, Cheatham County isn’t named after the Confederate general, the name instead honors Edward Saunders Cheatham, who was speaker of the state Senate when the county was created.