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  • Writer's pictureGordon Thorsby

Modern Day Forensics and the Curious Case of One Col. William Shy, 20th TN CSA

by Gordon Thorsby

The Assault on Compton's Hill

December 15th,1864, had ended with costly gains made against the Confederate lines by Union General George Thomas' forces. Hood’s lines were adjusted during the night and now holding. Thomas' army would now have to assault the strong breastworks again on the sixteenth.

At about 3:30 p.m. Brig Gen John McArthur sent a message to Thomas and XVI Corps that he was ready to attack. Meanwhile, Union Gen. Andrew Smith reported that unless he were given orders to the contrary in the next five minutes, his division was going to attack Compton’s Hill and the Confederate left. Smith also saw that the Confederate lines were being badly battered by Union artillery firing on the Confederate works from nearly every direction. Receiving no response by his imposed deadline, he ordered the charge by three brigades which contained four regiments of Minnesotans, as well as troops from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Iowa.

McArthur began the assault with only the First Brigade. Under the command of Col. William McMillen, the brigade advanced under orders for silence and struggled up the sharp north slope of the hill, using that steepness as their cover. The 10th Minnesota ascended the northeast portion of the hill receiving heavy flanking fire but continued despite taking casualties. With the First Brigade half-way up, McArthur sent the Second Brigade with the 9th Minnesota on the right and the 5th Minnesota on the left. The 10th Minnesota in the first wave breached the line of Finley’s Florida Brigade. The impact carried through to hit Smith’s and Jackson’s Brigades enveloping the rebel line from the rear. The breach precipitated the Confederate collapse and by the time McArthur’s troops achieved the summit, many Confederates had already begun their retreat toward Granny White and Franklin Pike. Any defenders who remained were captured or killed. Its commander, Confederate Col. Lucius F. Hubbard, had two horses shot from under him and sustained a minie ball wound to the neck.

Among those who died fighting was 26-year-old Lt. Col. William L. Shy, commanding the 20th Tennessee under the command of Brig. Gen. Thomas Benton Smith. Shy, who grew up in Williamson County, Tennessee, was killed by a close range shot to his head. His lifeless body was taken to the nearby Felix Compton House and he was laid on the porch with a blanket over him. His parents later came from Franklin to claim his remains. Shy's efforts to hold the hill, and his death on the summit in the setting sun was for naught. Any chance for Hood to be able to strengthen his weakened lines or retreat fell apart.

What was then called Compton's Hill is now called Shy’s Hill for the commander and the brave regiment's futile stand. It was later determined that Shy was shot at point blank range with a .58 caliber minie ball and instantly died. Dead at 26, the family had his body embalmed and buried in a cast iron coffin in a small family cemetery on their property not far away.

On December 24th, 1977, the owner of an antebellum estate called Two Rivers in Franklin, TN

was showing a friend an old family graveyard from the 1800’s and 1900’s when they noticed one plot disturbed. It was the plot of William Shy’s grave. The vandalism was immediately investigated, and a culprit was found who had been seeking valuables.

Forensic experts performed careful exploration of the grave only to discover a headless body in a sitting position on top of the antiquated cast-iron coffin, dressed in what appeared to be a tuxedo jacket, a pleated white shirt, and white gloves. They found that the clothes were simply made from only natural fibers and were completely without labels. The pants were odd, lacing up the sides. Officials thought it to be a recent death.

The forensic scientists were confused as were the police. They brought in a forensic scientist, Dr. Bill Bass to untangle the mess. In the coffin was nothing but a sludge as expected. The reason for sludge is because Tennessee dirt tends to rapidly break down a corpse.

Upon further investigation, Bass identified the remains belonged to a white male, in his mid 20’s to early 30’s and was approximately 5’9”-6’ tall. Due to the presence of pink and decomposing tissue Bass believed that this person had only been dead between six and twelve months. When Bass and others glued other bone fragments together, Bass concluded these to be the skull with the cause of death being from a gunshot wound to the head by a large caliber gun at close range. The entrance wound was in the forehead right above the left eye, and the exit wound was near the base of the skull. What was also evident was that inspection of the man’s dental work revealed a person with six or more cavities and no dental work. It was very unusual for someone dead only twelve months.

Then, they came up with a conclusion that fit. Colonel Shy’s body had been embalmed as befitting a man of his wealth and social status who had been buried in his best suit; the same suit he is seen wearing in the portrait below. The coffin, made of cast iron, was so sturdy that it not only kept all moisture from the body. It also kept out the insect life and oxygen that would have rapidly progressed the decomposition process. The body was on top of the coffin because the vandal had been interrupted.

With this new experience, Dr. Bass started the University of Tennessee’s Anthropology Research Facility (today more commonly known as the Body Farm.)

Shy was re-interred in his metal coffin and it survives at the Carter House in Franklin, Tennessee.

Rest in peace Colonel.


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