Outfought and outmaneuvered by Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman in Atlanta, Confederate General John Bell Hood evacuated the city in early September 1864 with his beaten but intact Army of Tennessee. Hoping to disrupt Sherman’s lines of supply and communication and lure him out of Georgia, Hood marched west into Alabama and then north to challenge Union forces in Tennessee. Sherman didn’t take the bait. Instead, he sent reinforcements to Nashville to block any Confederate push north, then drove south on his march to the sea.
Hood got off to a good start. Marching into Tennessee with nearly 40,000 men, he trapped and nearly destroyed a Union force of 28,000 under Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield at Columbia. Unfortunately for Hood, at the critical juncture he went to bed, his subordinates stumbled around in the dark and Schofield managed to retreat north. The next morning the Union force was strongly entrenched at Franklin and preparing to withdraw the final 20 miles to Nashville.
On waking, an apoplectic Hood drove his army north in pursuit, reaching the Union fortifications in front of Franklin late in the afternoon of November 30. Without waiting for his entire force to arrive, without the bulk of his artillery and without conducting an effective reconnaissance, Hood ordered a frontal assault on the enemy position. The Union defense, a 2-mile-wide arc anchored at each flank on the Harpeth River, comprised ditches, log abatis and breastworks with strong artillery support. More than 20,000 Rebel infantrymen launched successive attacks against an evenly matched Union force that waited behind the virtually impregnable works. The actions of a well-placed Union reserve managed to repulse an early Confederate breakthrough, and Schofield’s lines held as Hood’s forces hurled themselves against the defenses late into the evening. Under cover of darkness the Union force evacuated its positions and crossed the river, reaching the fortifications around Nashville the next morning.
Hood’s 6,200-plus casualties (almost three times those of Schofield’s force) included more than 12 generals and nearly half of the regimental commanders involved. His crushing losses at Franklin were double those suffered by Maj. Gen. George Pickett during his ill-fated 1863 charge at Gettysburg. Moreover, the battle sealed the fate of Confederate forces in the western theater of the Civil War. Hood dutifully marched to the outskirts of Nashville with his remaining 30,000 men. But time and the odds were against him, and on December 15-16 Union Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas slammed into Hood with 55,000 troops, routing what remained of the Army of Tennessee and eliminating it as an effective fighting force.
Fail to manage the battlefield at your own risk.
Hood came to the fight with just two-thirds of his force and scant artillery support then launched his attack across a 2-mile-wide open field into the strongest part of the Union defense.
You can overdo leading from the front.
The Confederate officers at Franklin certainly led by example —but the foolhardy frontal assault cost Hood most of his senior leadership, destroying morale and crippling command and control.
Don’t forget the reserve.
Hood managed to breach the Union line at Franklin, but he lacked a reserve force to exploit that success. Schofield did hold men in reserve, and they contained the Confederate breakthrough.
Some honors you can do without.
Contribute significantly to an adversary’s victory, and he might name a military installation after you—in this case, Fort Hood, Texas.
First published in Military History Magazine’s January 2017 issue.