Vernon Stevenson finds escape to Murfreesboro

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Restored locomotive from the Nashville/Chattanooga Railroad on display at Centennial Park in Nashville. (Photo courtesy of Gloria Shacklett Christy)


It has been said, “adversity doesn’t build character; it reveals it.”

Fear can paralyze a man, causing him to flee irrationally and selfishly without considering the consequences. Vernon K. Stevenson, foremost visionary and wealthy entrepreneur of the railroads in antebellum Tennessee, had been appointed Quarter Master for the Confederate army in Nashville. In 1861, at the beginning of the Civil War, Stevenson had been charged with the delivery and distribution of supplies to the Confederate army.

By early February of 1862, the fall of Fort Donelson and Fort Henry had thrown the citizens of Nashville into total panic. Many feared the invisible “iron clad” gunboats of the Union army which viciously roamed the waters of the Cumberland would reduce Nashville into ruin and rubble.

The rumor had spread that thousands of Confederates had succumbed to the Union forces. Eight days before the fall of Nashville, Vernon K. Stevenson, other city officials, and even the Confederate General Albert Johnson had abandoned the city without a fight fearing total annihilation.

A little known Confederate colonel, Nathan Bedford Forrest, had escaped from Fort Donelson and Fort Henry leading his troops into Nashville. When he arrived, vast quantities of much needed supplies ― shoes, clothing, and meat had not been transported south. Instead, the unguarded supplies had fallen into the hands of the Union troops. Given that these much-needed supplies were in Stevenson’s charge, Forrest criticized his actions calling them cowardice and self-serving.
The great railroad boom of the 1850’s had contributed to the economic growth in this nation. The “iron horse” had opened up new markets and made railroads a billion dollar industry. Stevenson and many of those early entrepreneurs dreamed of a railroad which stretched from the Northeast to the southern cities, with the center of its system right in Middle Tennessee through Murfreesboro.

Their dream had come to fruition and stirred unprecedented growth and economic development. Stevenson, a proud self-made man, had been successful rising to the top as president of the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad. Stevenson’s determination and zeal for the project led him to England in 1849 to negotiate a contract for the iron rails, chairs, and spikes for the line.

Finally after the Herculean labors and endurance of many, the railroad came to Nashville and became fully operational in February, 1854. His venture had increased the prosperity among the citizens of Middle Tennessee by providing a cheaper access to lucrative long distance markets.

The massive iron wheels of the railroad car twisted and turned as it swerved over the hillside across the landscape and out of sight. Contemplating his circumstances, Stevenson pressed his face against the window chilled by winter’s bitter cold. He could hardly believe the events that were unfolding before him.

With his entire family, all his personal belongings including furniture, horses and carriages, he was escaping Nashville to an unknown destination for safety and refuge somewhere in Middle Tennessee, perhaps Murfreesboro. He and his family would be out of harm's way with friends behind the Confederate lines.

As the whistle began to shriek across the countryside, Stevenson’s trembling face of desperation continued to stare aimlessly out of the window of the train, his esteemed accomplishments now insignificant. His decision to disappear without the completion of the transportation of supplies had left the Confederate troops in a vulnerable and most impossible situation.

“War makes a man desperate. In such times, men cannot be held responsible for their actions. How could anyone blame him,?” he rationalized as he gazed into the puffs of smoke curving and swaying into an already grey, February sky.
Now only eight years after completion, his enterprise ― the fruit of his fame and ambition ― was taking him out of harms way. Nonetheless, he discovered that no amount of wealth and ambition could calm his gnawing fear. He was waging another battle in his soul.

Strangely, the railroad built by Stevenson had become a system that would be used in the War Between the States. All of his honor and prestige had been obliterated. His giant corporation, the Nashville Chattanooga Railroad, had become an object of violent contention. Controlling the railroad would play a critical role in supplying the armies. Both the Confederate and Union armies realized the importance of its use.

Men fear. Even the great and prosperous succumb to fear. In fact, prosperity does not come without many fears. It is through adversity that one discovers personal virtue. Many are crushed by their circumstances, while others find strength and vigor to sustain. So it was for Vernon K. Stephenson. As he rode away to safety near Murfreesboro, he vowed not to be controlled by his circumstances. In fleeing Nashville, he would find another opportunity to serve the Confederacy again.

After the fall of Nashville in February, 1862 to Union forces, the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad came under Union control. The N&C link became a vital link for the Union Army. Vernon K. Stephenson continued to manage and operate a portion of the railroad still located in Confederate territory until the war ended. At the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction many southern railroads went into receivership. The Nashville and Chattanooga is the only southern railroad that did not follow that demise.

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christy, civil war, gloria, railroad, shacklett, train, vernon stevenson
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