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Battle of Nashville: Enemies Front and Rear

Originally published by America's Civil War magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Major General George H. Thomas, 48-year-old commander of the Department of the Cumberland, and Brigadier General James H. Wilson, the 27-year-old chief of cavalry of the Military Division of the Mississippi, sat huddled over supper at Nashville's St. Cloud Hotel on the night of December 12, 1864. 'Wilson, the Washington authorities treat me as if I were a boy,' Thomas lamented. 'They seem to think me incapable … of fighting a battle.'

That night, Thomas was a commander faced with too many enemies. A few miles south, Confederate General John Bell Hood's Army of Tennessee stood on the outskirts of Nashville, where a winter storm had coated the hills with a paralyzing blanket of ice and snow. Thomas, meanwhile, was also besieged by demands from Washington, and from Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's headquarters at City Point, Va., to attack Hood or lose his command. 'If they just leave me alone,' he told Wilson, 'I will show them what we can do.' Thomas would be left alone just long enough to deliver on that promise, destroying Hood's Army of Tennessee in the Battle of Nashville on December 15-16, 1864.

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Events foreshadowing the fight at the Tennessee state capital began as Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman set out on his March to the Sea. To protect Tennessee from a thrust by Hood, Thomas was given command of a patchwork army of 29,000 men of the IV and XXIII corps under Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield, along with 6,500 cavalry led by Wilson.

At Spring Hill on November 29, a Rebel trap nearly snapped shut on Schofield. But the next day at Franklin, 18 miles south of Nashville, Hood's 30,000-man army suffered 7,000 casualties in head-on assaults against Schofield's entrenched troops. Still, Hood continued to advance his army toward the defenses of Nashville, where Thomas was concentrating his forces. In addition to Schofield's and Wilson's men, plus 4,000 capital garrison soldiers, Maj. Gen. James B. Steedman's 5,200 troops were marching from Chattanooga and 9,900 Army of the Tennessee veterans, led by Maj. Gen. Andrew J. Smith, were en route from Missouri.

The feud between Thomas and his superiors had begun percolating the morning of the Franklin battle. From Nashville, Thomas wired Schofield that Smith's full force had not yet arrived, asking, 'Do you think you can hold Hood at Franklin for three days longer?' Schofield responded before the battle: 'I do not believe I can. I can doubtless hold him one day, but will hazard something in doing that.' Regarding Maj. Gen. Nathan B. Forrest and his 8,000 troopers, Schofield added, 'I have no doubt Forrest will be in my rear tomorrow … .' Thomas instructed Schofield to be prepared to march to Nashville.

On December 1, Thomas telegraphed Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, chief of staff in Washington: 'I determined to retire to … Nashville … .If Hood attacks me here, he will be more seriously damaged than he was yesterday … .' The next morning, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton wired Grant, the Federal general-in-chief, in Virginia, 'The President feels solicitous about the disposition of General Thomas to lay in fortifications for an indefinite period … the President wishes you to consider the matter.'

The military styles of Grant and Thomas were simply at odds. It was Thomas' men who had smashed the Army of Tennessee atop Chattanooga's Missionary Ridge, but Grant fumed at the general's caution. Nor was Grant alone. At the war's beginning Sherman predicted, '[Thomas] will do it well — he was never brilliant but always cool, reliable, and steady — maybe a little slow.'

After Stanton penned his December 2 message, Grant prodded Thomas, 'If Hood is permitted to remain quietly about Nashville, you will lose all the [rail]road back to Chattanooga … .' Grant soon wired Thomas again and complained, 'After the repulse of Hood at Franklin … we should have taken the offensive against the enemy where he was.' Thomas explained that Schofield had retreated before an attack order could be delivered, and piqued Grant by explaining, 'It must be remembered that my command was made up of the two weakest corps of General Sherman's army and [much] dismounted cavalry … in a few more days I shall be able to give him a fight.'

By December 3 Thomas had positioned his infantry in entrenchments that stretched across the south of Nashville and touched the Cumberland River above and below the city. From right to left, Thomas' line was occupied by General Smith's troops; Maj. Gen. Thomas J. Wood's IV Corps; the XXIII Corps, led by Schofield; and Steedman's troops. Wilson's horsemen crossed north of the Cumberland to refit.

Hood, with three battered corps, could not begin to envelope Nashville, but built a line stretching from the Hillsboro Pike eastward to near the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad and Murfreesboro Pike. Hood positioned the troops of Lt. Gen. Alexander P. Stewart on his left, Lt. Gen. Stephen D. Lee's corps in the center and the corps of Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Cheatham on his right.

Despite his disadvantage, the only cavalry he kept with his force was Brig. Gen. James R. Chalmer's division. Forrest's two other cavalry divisions and some of Cheatham's infantry were sent to threaten the Union garrison at Murfreesboro, commanded by Maj. Gen. Lovell H. Rousseau. Hood wanted to force Thomas to come to Rousseau's aid and fight in the open. But Rousseau held out, and Thomas did not budge. The Union commander believed that Forrest commanded 12,000 troopers, nearly double Forrest's actual numbers. Because of that, he continued to wait for Wilson to refit before moving on Hood.

Grant's patience was worn out by December 6. He telegraphed Thomas: 'Attack Hood at once, and wait no longer for a remount of your cavalry. There is great danger of delay resulting in a campaign back to the Ohio River.' Given Grant's direct order, Thomas responded, 'I will make the necessary dispositions and attack Hood at once … though I believe it will be hazardous with [Wilson's] small force of cavalry.'

The next day Grant and Stanton exchanged gloves-off telegrams. Stanton: 'Thomas seems unwilling to attack because it is hazardous, as if all war was anything but hazardous. If he waits for Wilson to get ready, Gabriel will be blowing his last horn.' Grant: 'You probably saw my order to Thomas to attack. If he does not do it promptly, I would recommend superseding him by Schofield … .' Thomas, meanwhile, prepared, but his definition of 'at once' was curious. Wood recorded that Thomas intended to attack December 10.

On December 8, Union Brig. Gen. Jacob D. Cox penned in his diary, 'Freezing sleet and snow, covering the ground with ice and making movements impracticable.' Unaware of Nashville's weather, Grant wired Halleck, 'If Thomas has not struck yet, he ought to be ordered to hand over his command to Schofield.' Thomas' career hung by the barest thread on the 9th, a day during which 3 inches of ice-encrusted snow coated Nashville. Grant again wired Halleck, 'Please telegraph orders relieving [Thomas] at once and placing Schofield in command.' The orders were drawn, but before transmittal, Halleck informed Grant of the storm in Tennessee. Grant recanted, 'I … suspend the order relieving [Thomas] until it is seen whether he will do anything.'

The storm provided Thomas only a brief reprieve. On December 11, when temperatures hit 10 below zero in Nashville, Grant telegraphed Thomas, 'Delay no longer for weather or re-enforcements.' Thomas could only reply, 'I will obey the order as promptly as possible, however much I may regret it, as the attack will have to be made under every disadvantage.'

On December 12, aware that Grant might sack him at any moment, Thomas ordered Wilson, who had 12,500 cavalrymen, perhaps 9,000 with mounts, to return his horsemen to the south side of the Cumberland. At a council of his subordinates, he revealed Grant's order to move regardless of weather, stated his determination to attack only when favorable and then asked opinions. Wilson, Wood, Smith and Steedman all agreed an attack was impossible. Most accounts leave Schofield silent, or vaguely concurring. That evening Thomas wired Halleck, 'It has taken the entire day to place my cavalry in position … I believe an attack at this time would only result in a useless sacrifice of life.' Grant remained unsympathetic and on December 13 impulsively chose a new tact, dispatching Maj. Gen. John Logan to Nashville. If, upon Logan's arrival there, Thomas had not attacked, Logan was to assume command.

At dawn on December 14, rain fell in Nashville, and fog swirled off melting snow. Thomas issued orders to his subordinates to prepare for battle the next day and penned a message to Washington, 'The ice having melted away to-day, the enemy will be attacked tomorrow morning … .' But before Thomas' message was sent, the telegraph lines fell dead, and would remain so for 24 hours.

Thomas' battle plan for December 15 called for Smith's veterans to turn Hood's left flank and wheel to hit Stewart's corps along the Hillsboro Pike. Wilson's Spencer carbine–equipped troopers, on the right of Smith, would be in a position to gain the rear of Hood's army if a breakthrough occurred. Wood's IV Corps, to the left of Smith, would push south into the Rebel lines. Schofield's corps was to remain in reserve behind Wood, and Steedman's men were to be posted defensively. Schofield, whose relations with Thomas were turbulent, thought the plan inadequate. Thomas agreed that instead of serving as a reserve to Wood, the XXIII Corps would move farther right to serve a similar role for Smith. And, rather than standing defensively, Steedman would launch a diversionary jab at Hood's right flank.

'The morning of the 15th was dark and somber; a heavy fall of fog and smoke … enveloped every object in darkness,' recorded Wood. Movements began at 4 a.m., but visibility was nonexistent, and Thomas chose to delay. Finally, at 8 a.m., Steedman was instructed to begin his diversion on the Union left. Colonel Thomas J. Morgan's 1st Colored Brigade, with Lt. Col. Charles H. Grosvenor's brigade in support, approached the Rebel flank from the northeast. Colonel Charles R. Thompson's 2nd Colored Brigade advanced from the north. By 10 a.m., Morgan's force had made contact with the Rebels of Captain E.T. Broughton's brigade and Brig. Gen. Daniel C. Govan's brigade. To Morgan's right, canister blasts erupted from a lunette, and Govan's men moved out to pour fire into the Federals' other flank. Morgan ordered Grosvenor's men to charge the lunette, but few reached it before falling back.

It took until 10 a.m. for Wilson and Smith to form and begin their wheel, and it was noon before the Federals approached the Hillsboro Pike and Hood's flank. On the left of Smith's infantry, closest to the pivot with Wood's corps, marched the division of Brig. Gen. Kenner Garrard, and to its right swung Scottish-born Brig. Gen. John McArthur's division. Colonel Jonathan B. Moore's division followed in reserve.

To the right of Smith, Wilson deployed two cavalry divisions. Brigadier General Edward Hatch's division spearheaded the troopers, while the division of Brig. Gen. Joseph Knipe followed. Most of Hatch's men advanced on foot. On the Federal far right, Brig. Gen. Richard W. Johnson's horsemen were assigned to move out the Charlotte Pike to contend with Colonel Edmund W. Rucker's brigade of Chalmers' cavalry. Although the Union troopers enjoyed a 2-to-1 advantage over Chalmers, Johnson would accomplish little on December 15.

Such was not the case with Edward Hatch. In early afternoon, Thomas' wheeling force finally closed on Stewart's refused flank, composed of Maj. Gen. Edward C. Walthall's division plus elements of Maj. Gen. Samuel G. French's division. The Federals discovered that a series of five redoubts had been partially completed to protect Hood's left. Five hundred yards ahead was Redoubt No. 5, defended by four Napoleon cannons and 100 Rebels. Around 2:30 p.m., Hatch turned to brigade commander Colonel Datus E. Coon, calling out, 'Go for the fort.' Colonel William L. McMillan of McArthur's division, on the left of Smith's troops, also ordered his infantry brigade forward.

The Confederates inside Redoubt No. 5 stood little chance, and Coon's troopers and McMillan's infantry quickly poured into the fort. The captured works became a hot place, because to the north, Redoubt No. 4 had turned its guns on the Federals. Hatch's cavalry and McMillan's infantry charged northward. McArthur also unleashed the brigade of Colonel Lucius F. Hubbard toward the Rebels. The Federals made short work of Redoubt No. 4, and Hubbard's infantry swept past the fort toward Walthall. Realizing he lacked support, and with Redoubt No. 3 ahead, Hubbard paused. Colonel Sylvester G. Hill, commanding McArthur's remaining brigade, however, ordered his men to charge. The brigade overran Redoubt No. 3 and went on to capture Redoubt No. 2. Moments after ordering the charge toward Redoubt No. 2, Hill was mortally wounded.

By midday, Hood had recognized the weight of Thomas' lunge toward his left and ordered two brigades from Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson's division to meet the threat. But the reserves arrived only after Hatch and McArthur had attacked. Walthall, meanwhile, rushed Brig. Gen. Daniel H. Reynolds' brigade from the right of his division's line to the left in order to counter a Union advance across the Hillsboro Pike.

As Hatch and McMillan moved on the redoubts, Brig. Gen. Joseph A. Cooper's XXIII Corps brigade and Knipe's cavalry division advanced. Walthall's Rebels had been badly bloodied attacking the Union lines at Franklin, and little fight was left in them. The same could be said of the reinforcements from Johnson's division. The result was that the Confederate extreme left dissolved.

Maj. Gen. William W. Loring's division, at the center of Stewart's line, fared little better. After noon, when Smith's Union infantry first closed on Stewart's left, Wood pushed his IV Corps southward, and Colonel Sidney Post's brigade of Brig. Gen. Samuel Beatty's division easily took Montgomery Hill, a prominence just north of Redoubt No. 1 that had been occupied only by a skirmish line.

When the Union push on the redoubts began, Wood ordered Brig. Gen. Washington L. Elliot and the adjacent division of Brig. Gen. Nathan Kimball forward. With Colonel Edward H. Wolfe's brigade also approaching from the west, Redoubt No. 1 was overrun, and Loring's line soon disintegrated.

Around 3 p.m., as his left buckled, Hood called for more reinforcements, but they only served to slow the Federals. At 5 p.m., Thomas ordered Wood to push toward the Franklin Turnpike, Hood's best line of retreat. By 6 p.m., Wood had crossed the parallel Granny White Pike and closed to within three quarters of a mile of the Franklin road, but halted because of darkness.

About two miles to the south, Colonel John Mehringer's brigade of the XXIII Corps tangled with Brig. Gen. Matthew D. Ector's brigade, commanded by Colonel David Coleman, which Hood had posted along a hill (soon to become known as Shy's Hill) near the Granny White Pike. In the pitch-black darkness, Mehringer took the Rebels to be a sizable force and halted. The major fighting of December 15 ended with winter's early nightfall temporarily saving Hood's army.

Grant, unaware of events at Nashville, had decided to go to Tennessee, first traveling to Washington, where he arrived on the evening of December 15. With the telegraph to Nashville still down, Grant met with Lincoln, Stanton and Halleck and said he wanted orders replacing Thomas with Schofield sent as soon as possible. Lincoln and Stanton were opposed, but neither overruled Grant. The orders replacing Thomas were drawn and handed to Thomas Eckert, chief of the War Department's telegraph bureau. Lincoln and Stanton frequented Eckert's office, and Eckert knew both men well. Recalling their hesitancy about Grant's order, Eckert chose to wait before sending the message.

At about 11 p.m., Thomas' day-old telegram came in, stating, 'the enemy will be attacked tomorrow.' Moments later, Eckert received another wire describing a'splendidly successful' attack. Eckert jammed Grant's order in his pocket and hurried to Stanton's home. Soon, the men headed for the White House. En route to see Lincoln, Eckert revealed Grant's unsent order. Might he be court-martialed, he asked Stanton? Stanton threw his arm around Eckert, 'The result shows you did right.' Lincoln heartily agreed.

At the Willard Hotel, Grant received a telegraph message from Thomas: 'I attacked the enemy's left this morning and drove it from the river … .I shall attack the enemy again to-morrow if [Hood] stands to fight, and, if he retreats during the night, will pursue him, throwing a heavy cavalry force in his rear.' Grant responded: 'I was just on my way to Nashville, but … I shall go no farther. Push the enemy now, and give him no rest until he is entirely destroyed … .Much is now expected.' Stanton, too, wired Thomas: 'I rejoice in … the brilliant achievements of this day … we shall give you a hundred guns in the morning.' The Union command was placated.

But outside Nashville that night, Hood's remaining troops constructed a 2 1/2-mile-long entrenched line among the hills. Cheatham's corps formed on Hood's left, anchoring itself on the hill occupied by Ector's brigade just west of the Granny White Pike. Lee formed on the right, taking a position atop Overton Hill just east of the Franklin Pike. Stewart's decimated troops occupied the center.

Hood had made little effective use of Forrest at Franklin, and with the cavalry officer still raiding near Murfreesboro, he failed to do so the first day of battle at Nashville. Nor did Hood recall Forrest's main cavalry force for the next day's struggle.

That day broke with a light fog and temperatures rising into the 60s. After sunrise, Union troopers clashed with Rebel pickets along the Granny White Pike, reaffirming Hood's presence. Schofield feared a Confederate attack and pleaded for more reinforcements.

During the late morning, as rain moved into the area, Thomas snapped the stalemate on his right by ordering Wilson forward. By noon, Coon's brigade was tangling with Chalmers' horsemen. Chalmers requested help, and Hood sent Ector's brigade from Shy's Hill. A prolonged skirmish ensued until around 3 p.m., when Hatch called up artillery. After about 50 rounds from the big guns had been fired at the Rebels, the Union troopers charged and routed the cobbled-together enemy force. The door to the rear of Hood's army had at long last been opened.

Meanwhile, around 2:45 p.m., Wood attacked the entrenchments on Overton Hill that were occupied by Maj. Gen Henry D. Clayton's division of Lee's corps. Post's brigade hit Overton Hill east of the Franklin Pike, with support from Colonel Abel D. Streight's brigade on its right. Thompson's 2nd Colored Brigade of Steedman's division assaulted Overton Hill on the left of Post, with Grosvenor's brigade supporting.

A strong skirmish line from the 41st Ohio fronted Post's brigade, followed by two battle lines, but the men bumped into the Rebels' abatis and Confederate musket fire decimated their ranks. Post fell, severely wounded. Streight's and Steedman's forces fared no better.

Although Wood's and Steedman's efforts failed, Wilson's troopers pushed eastward behind Hood's army, while McArthur was about to bore his infantry division into Hood's left flank. The Union general believed that Shy's Hill was the vulnerable key to Hood's defenses. The Confederates had placed their line on the topographical, rather than the military, crest of the prominence and had difficulty firing down the slope. McArthur approached Maj. Gen. Darius N. Couch, commanding the division of Schofield's corps placed nearest to McArthur's right, seeking aid in assaulting Shy's Hill. Couch, however, seemed no more interested in advancing than his corps commander.

Undaunted, McArthur ordered his division to prepare to move forward, but Thomas told him to wait until Schofield's forces could cooperate. McArthur, however, did not receive Thomas' instructions to wait. Thus, McArthur's entire division, first McMillan's brigade, then Hubbard's and Colonel William R. Marshall's, would hit the Rebels at a little past 4 p.m. Hood courted disaster by sending four brigades off of Shy's Hill to help beat back Wood and Steedman, and to help blunt Wilson's advance. Only 11 battered brigades from Cheatham's and Stewart's corps stretched around the hill. McMillan's regiments suffered some casualties on their approach, but the steep slope of the hill protected most of them, and they plunged into a maelstrom of fighting with Maj. Gen. William B. Bate's thinly spread division. '[McMillan's] brigade, with fixed bayonets, without a cheer or firing a shot, but with firm resolve … planted their colors on the very apex of the hill,' proclaimed McArthur.

During the close combat, Confederate Lt. Col. William M. Shy, commanding a group of fragmented Tennessee regiments, fought on until felled by a bullet to the head. In death, he gave his name to the hill. As Federals swarmed over Shy's Hill, Wilson's troopers approached Cheatham's refused left and rear, and the combined weight of the Federal forces approaching from the south, west and north unraveled the Confederate Army of Tennessee. Claimed Bate, 'The [Rebel] lines lifted from either side as far as I could see almost instantly and fled in confusion.' Most of the butternut-clad soldiers tried to reach the Franklin Pike, where, according to Bate, 'the whole army seemed to be one heterogeneous mass, and moving back without organization.' Wood recalled that the Union advance 'rushed forward like a mighty wave, driving everything before it.' Everything, that is, except Lee, who had vigorously attempted to hold his corps together. His divisions of Johnson and Maj. Gen. Carter L. Stevenson broke, but Maj. Gen. Henry D. Clayton's division, the last in Hood's line, retreated with enough cohesion to offer some resistance to the onrushing IV Corps.

As Clayton's troops slowed the Federals on the Franklin Pike, Chalmers and his battered horsemen struggled to hold back Wilson's cavalry on the Granny White Pike. Just as on the 15th, nightfall proved to be the Rebels' lone salvation, and Wilson decided not to pursue. Over on the Franklin Pike, Wood stopped a mile north of Brentwood Pass. Lee's fragile Rebel rear guard paused at 10 p.m., about seven miles north of Franklin.

The Battle of Nashville was at its end. As his troopers halted for the night, Wilson heard a galloping horse approaching from the north and made out the bulky shape of his commander. 'Dang it to hell, Wilson, didn't I tell you we could lick 'em,' exclaimed an unusually animated Thomas.

Over the two days of fighting, Thomas' forces had suffered 3,061 casualties. In return, the Federals had captured nearly 8,000 Confederates, killed or wounded another 2,300 and claimed 53 pieces of artillery. The Army of Tennessee was virtually destroyed.

For 10 days following the Battle of Nashville, Thomas' Federals chased and skirmished with Hood's remaining troops through Franklin, Columbia and Pulaski, crossing the Harpeth and Duck rivers. The return of rain and then snow, a misdirected Union pontoon train, and a rear guard of Forrest's full cavalry and a force of hand-picked infantry under Walthall all conspired to foil Thomas' attempts to bag Hood.

Hood's escape rekindled Grant's ire. On December 29, after Hood had crossed the Tennessee River, Thomas reported to Halleck, 'In consequence of the terribly bad weather, almost impassable condition of the roads, and exhausted country … it becomes necessary to halt for a short time to reorganize and refit.' Thomas suggested he would wait until 'early spring' to resume. Halleck wired Grant, 'There is very little hope of [Thomas] doing much further injury to Hood's army … .You will perceive that he is disposed to postpone further operations … this seems to me entirely wrong.' Grant shot back, 'I have no idea of keeping idle troops in any place.'

Over the next few months, at Grant's direction, Schofield's XXIII Corps joined Sherman in the Carolinas, and Smith's troops were transferred to Mississippi. Wilson's powerful cavalry force would operate largely independently for the remainder of the war. The IV Corps, last vestige of Thomas' Army of the Cumberland, would move to East Tennessee in March 1865 to keep Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia from escaping to the west.

In spring 1865, Grant wrote his friend Sherman, 'Knowing Thomas to be slow beyond excuse, I depleted his army … .' Thomas became little more than a departmental administrator. Despite being nicknamed the 'Sledge of Nashville,' getting a January 1865 promotion to major general in the Regular Army and receiving the thanks of Congress for his Nashville victory, George H. Thomas' fighting days in the Civil War were over.

 

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