In 1962 my decision to apply to Vanderbilt School of Engineering made little or no sense. I had grown up in Savannah, Ga., and knew little about Vanderbilt and even less about Nashville–except that the city was named for my ancestor Francis Nash.
When I informed my high school guidance counselor of my college choice, I was told that I should not aim so high. That did it. I applied, and against all odds, Vanderbilt, my singular choice, accepted me for early admission.
Alexander Heard had just been named Vanderbilt’s chancellor. My mother had dated him as a high school student in Savannah, and she assured me that if I ever landed in jail, “Alex” would get me out.
Despite my excellent prep-school training, I took a beating in Melvyn New’s freshman English class. Words like “trite,” “redundant,” “clichéd,” “hackneyed” and “verbose” continued to appear in red pencil on my English compositions. I was, however, permitted to opt out of Western Civilization–discretion being the better part of valor (another cliché).
Upon my Vanderbilt graduation in 1966, I returned to Savannah and worked there for eight years before moving my family to Nashville, where I had accepted an engineering position. Back in Nashville my interest in Francis Nash and his older brother, North Carolina Gov. Abner Nash (my fourth great-grandfather), led to what would become my all-consuming passion: the American Revolutionary period.
As my interest grew I became acutely aware that the American Revolution is a forgotten war, particularly in the South where it is overshadowed by the War Between the States. Few of this generation can name a single Revolutionary War general other than George Washington and perhaps Lafayette.
Periodically, I would write an article for The Tennessean about Brig. Gen. Nash, who gave his life for his country and his name to Nashville. In 2001 the Francis Nash Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) asked me to address its members on the occasion of its 70th anniversary.
Rather than filing away my talk afterwards, I kept writing. The Tennessee State Archives provided much information about the North Carolina history of the two Nash brothers, and the Library of Congress and the University of Virginia provided online transcriptions of letters that proved invaluable–letters to (and from) Abner and Francis Nash, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and members of the Continental Congress. My book, Patriot Sons, Patriot Brothers (2006, Westview Publishing Inc.), places the lives of Francis and Abner Nash in the historical context of the defense of Philadelphia, the Southern campaign of the American Revolution, the Continental Congresses, the drafting of the North Carolina and U.S. constitutions, the settling of East and Middle Tennessee, and the naming of Nashville, Tenn.
History makes no record of either brother ever visiting the area that would become Middle Tennessee. How, then, did Tennessee’s capital city come to be called Nashville?
My fifth great-grandfather, John Nash, owned a 13,000-acre tobacco plantation in Prince Edward County, Va. His sons, Francis and Abner, sold their inheritance to seek their fortune. Francis relocated to Hillsborough, N.C., in 1763. The two brothers dammed the Eno River, built a grist mill, and invested in several other Hillsborough businesses. Abner moved on to New Bern, where he would become perhaps the best trial attorney in the Province of North Carolina.
Francis was appointed superior court judge at the age of 21. As Hillsborough grew to become the political and cultural center of the province, Francis grew in stature and popularity. Francis married Sarah (Sally) Moore, granddaughter of the colonial governor of South Carolina.
Francis Nash was handsome and athletic and presented a striking image on horseback, according to William Richardson Davie, lawyer, soldier, and founder of the University of North Carolina. History indicates that Francis’ appearance did not go unnoticed by the local barmaids.
As members of North Carolina’s ruling class, with the advantages of birth, wealth, education and marriage, Francis Nash and his brother, Abner, served in the colonial assemblies of Royal Governors William Tryon and Josiah Martin.
In 1771, serving under Gov. Tryon, Francis Nash proved himself courageous in the Battle of Alamance, fighting a band of “regulators”–backcountry farmers who had organized an armed rebellion to protest abuse by the provincial government. Alamance would forever change Francis Nash’s worldview. The king’s governor hanged one of the rebels, James Few, near the battlefield and executed several more regulators in Hillsborough–all without trial.
Over the next five years, Francis Nash attended the not-so-clandestine provincial congresses, where grievances against King George III were debated. When North Carolina signed the Declaration of Independence, Nash was appointed colonel in North Carolina’s Continental Army and later became brigadier general.
After the defense of Charleston in 1776, Nash returned to North Carolina to recruit. He marched his nine regiments, consisting of 2,000 men, north to join George Washington, arriving in Philadelphia in time to attend the first Fourth of July celebration.
Nash served at the Battle of Brandywine Creek and then at Germantown, both in the defense of Philadelphia. At Germantown, as Francis marched his troops behind Washington’s caravan, a 6-pound cannonball flew out of the smoke and fog and over Washington’s head. The ball struck Nash’s horse in the neck and crushed Nash’s thigh. Both fell to the ground, with the brigadier general pinned under the dead horse. Maj. James Witherspoon was killed instantly when the same ball struck him in the head.
George Washington assigned his personal physician to care for Nash, but the general could not be saved. After enduring a bumpy and painful 30-mile wagon ride, Nash died four days later at nearby Towamencin on the road to Valley Forge. He is said to have bled through two feather beds.
Nash’s funeral was attended by American Revolutionary War heroes Washington, Lafayette and Pulaski; Generals Nathanael Greene, Anthony Wayne and John Sullivan; and 11,000 continental soldiers. Francis Nash left behind a wife and two young daughters. What a terrible price this 35-year-old officer paid for our country.
Abner’s slight physique and poor health made him unfit for battle, but he demonstrated no less love for his country than his brother. One contemporary described him as “vehemence and fire” in the courtroom. While Francis Nash fought the king’s army, Abner was serving as the first speaker of North Carolina’s House of Commons.
Following his brother’s death, Abner Nash was elected North Carolina speaker of the senate, and then governor. He was inaugurated governor the very day Charleston fell to the British. His term spanned the debacle at Camden and the successful battles of Kings Mountain, Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse.
In the fall of 1786, Abner, who had endured the ravages of tuberculosis for most of his public life, traveled to New York to represent North Carolina in the Congress. His consumption worsened.
“Congress has not yet elected a President owing to their [sic] being too few States on the floor,” wrote Virginia Congressman William Grayson to James Monroe on Nov. 22. “Mr. Nash of N. Carolina, who lies dangerously ill, is talked of generally, & nothing but his death or extreme ill health I am persuaded will prevent his election [as president of Congress].”
Abner Nash, age 46, died a few days later. Had he lived, he likely would have become president of the Congress, and no doubt would have signed the United States Constitution for North Carolina nine months later.
Tennessee did not become a state until 1796. While Francis Nash was fighting the British and Abner was helping establish a fledgling new government, Daniel Boone was exploring the vast lands to the west. Boone convinced North Carolina judge Richard Henderson that the time was right for western investment, and in 1775 Henderson and several others, including North Carolinian James Robertson, struck a bargain with the Cherokee Indians. For 2,000 pounds sterling and another 8,000 pounds in goods, the Cherokees deeded over more than 20 million acres, which included about two-thirds of present-day Kentucky and much of Middle Tennessee.
Francis Nash had served in Henderson’s court, and two others investors, Thomas Hart and William Johnston, had been associates of Nash in Hillsborough. It is likely that Thomas Hart’s brother and partner, Nathaniel Hart, knew Francis as well. The State Record of North Carolina in 1784 recorded an act calling for the establishment of a town to be called “Nash-Ville, in memory of the patriotic and brave General Nash,” on the Cumberland River near the French Lick.
Two other towns also would come to be named for Francis Nash: Nashville, Ga., and Nashville, N.C.
Francis Nash’s final resting place, however, is at Kulpsville, Pa., a few miles from the place where a cannonball felled him. Many years later, in 1935, Nashville, Tenn., experienced what must have been a media frenzy when a movement to remove Gen. Nash’s body to the city named in his honor caught fire. The Daughters of the American Revolution got involved. There were letters to the editor, telegrams, and even a special telephone exchange set up by Southern Bell to receive votes in favor of the proposed removal. But the body was never moved.
Today Francis Nash’s grave remains in Pennsylvania, where he fought his last battle. The only marker commemorating him in Nashville, Tenn., is a bronze plaque downtown at the Fort Nashborough facsimile on First Avenue.
My ancestor never could have predicted that he would lend his name not only to a city he had never visited, but to an enduring style of music. Nashville’s phone book lists more than 50 households of Nashes. Most, I suspect, do not trace their names back to my ancestors and know little of the man for whom their city is named.
© 2014 Vanderbilt University
Conversation guidelines: Vanderbilt Magazine welcomes your thoughts, stories and information related to this article. Please stay on topic and be respectful of others. Keep the conversation appropriate for interested readers across the map.