By Mel Maurer
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved
Whatever hope the rebellious South had for continuing its fight until the North grew tired of the bloody struggle died – not with the surrender of Lee at Appomattox Court House in April 1865 – but rather on the hills outside of Nashville Tennessee, when Confederate General John Bell Hood and his Army of Tennessee were crushed in the last great battle of the Civil War in December 1864.
This last desperate clash of armies that December 15th and 16th, however, was just one of the battles fought in Nashville that month. Commanding Union General George Thomas, while preparing to fight Hood, also had to fight President Lincoln, Secretary of War Stanton, Army Chief of Staff Halleck and Commander in Chief U.S. Grant to retain his job and to confront the enemy according to his plan and timetable. Hood, with his ruined left arm and missing right leg, already struggling with pain, medication, and alcohol, also had to fight a crippling winter storm.
As that December began almost everything was going the Union’s way: Lincoln had been reelected, Grant still had General Robert E. Lee, and his Army of Northern Virginia, under siege at Petersburg while General William T. Sherman was about to take Savannah after his devastating march through Georgia. All was going well, except Hood’s army was marching towards Nashville with 25,000 to 30,000 men (Thomas thought he had a larger force) to take that city and then to move on to threaten Kentucky and Ohio – actions which, even if partially successful, could change the outcome of the war.
Nashville, which fell to the Union without a fight in 1862 after the fall of Ft. Donelson, had grown in importance and population during the war from 30,000 to about 100,000 as it became “a communication, transportation and supply center for Federal military operations in the west.” The South’s failure to even try to retake Nashville during the war was a measure of its inability to defend its territory.
Given Nashville’s extensive fortifications – encircled with forts and redoubts, along with the Cumberland River acting like a moat around some of it, Hood could have taken months to plan an attack with 120,000 men and still have failed. But this was Hood – and nothing would stop him from trying.
Jefferson Davis (“You must first beat him (the enemy)…and advance to the Ohio River”), in picking Hood to replace General Johnston in Atlanta that July, followed Lincoln’s example in his selection of Grant – he needed a fighter and he got one. Hood did fight – first by attacking General William T. Sherman outside Atlanta, and then by invading Tennessee to try to relieve the pressure on Lee in Virginia and the people of Georgia. Despite the great odds against him, he could have achieved some level of success had his tenacity been matched by wisdom.
As the Army of Tennessee made its way towards Nashville, Hood, due to command failures, let General John M. Schofield’s army, sent by Sherman to reinforce Thomas, slip through his lines outside the small town of Spring Hill 30 miles south of Nashville on November 29th. The next afternoon, Hood (“We shall make the flight!”) launched a frontal assault against entrenched Union rear guard positions in Franklin, 18 miles south of Nashville, as Schofield continued his march to reinforce Thomas.
Hood’s army was badly beaten, suffering over 8,000 casualties, including 6 generals killed, in just four hours. In recent years, as the Battle of Franklin has received more attention, it has become popular to treat Nashville as almost an afterthought – a historical mistake. As one writer puts it: “Hood was knocked down at Franklin – but he was knocked out in Nashville.”
Unchallenged on their way, Hood, still dreaming of reinforcements from Texas, reached the outskirts of Nashville and began to prepare a defense for the attack he knew would be coming – but first he and his men would have to fight the weather. Thomas’ men had the same weather but their forts and redoubts were built, most were well rested, all were well clothed, shod and fed, and the delays caused by the soon to be frigid climate worked to Thomas’ advantage giving him time to refit his cavalry. It was a far different story for Hood’s bedraggled army.
The relatively mild Tennessee weather in early December took a sudden turn for the worse the night of the 8th. A cold rain soon turned to snow and by the next morning the ground was frozen, covered with snow and sleet. This was followed by 6 days of rain, freezing rain and sleet – Nashville, and its environs, was encased in ice These conditions were brutal for the mostly barefooted rebels (one historian says only 25 men in the whole army had shoes or parts of shoes on their feet) already severely weakened in Franklin, without warm clothes or much in the way of food and their cannons, caissons and wagons up to their hubs in mud. Demoralized, cold, hungry troops now had to break frozen soil to try to establish defenses for the attack they knew would be coming when the weather broke. It must have seemed that even the Lord was against them. (I once lived through one of these ice storms as a resident in that area – we were paralyzed for days).
Thomas meanwhile was under attack by his superiors in Washington and Petersburg for what, in their growing panic at the advancing southern army, was their perception that he was just too slow in taking on Hood. Thomas, although not as ready as he wanted to be, gave into pressure and was going to attack on the 10th when the ice storm hit the area suspending his plans. (“A terrible storm of freezing rain has come today which will make it impossible for our men to fight.”) When Grant (“I was never so anxious during the war as at that time”) heard of further delay, he asked Halleck to draw up orders relieving Thomas, to be replaced by Schofield (who may have been behind misleading information getting to Grant). Halleck resisted (“No one here wishes General Thomas’ removal”) and these orders were never sent.
The six-day weather-related delay finally exhausted Grant’s patience and he ordered General John A. Logan sent west to assume command of Nashville. Logan got as far as Louisville when the weather cleared enough on the 15th for Thomas to finally launch his attack on Hood. Logan was recalled. It’s still uncertain whether Thomas knew how close he came to losing his job.
The battle lines shown on the two maps of the 15th and 16th tell the story of the conflict. It was, according to at least one military authority, “a perfect exemplification of the art of war.” Another authority said: “No battle of the war was better planned and none was so nearly carried out to the letter of the plan as the Battle of Nashville.” General Thomas’ battle plan in this engagement is the only one of the Civil War that is “now studied as a model in European military schools.” It was the only battle of the war that destroyed an army.
Thomas’ forces moved out under cover of an early morning fog and attacked with a diversionary action on Hood’s right, and then hit his thinly defended lines very hard on the left, while holding back reserve units to respond as needed. Hood, without reserves, could only fall back – doing so miles to the south as the first day ended with him barely avoiding a rout. It’s a tribute to the courage of the rebels that, despite their conditions and the losses they sustained the first day, they were able to mount a vigorous defense of their remaining positions the second day. But they could not hold on forever in the face of overwhelming numbers. Their lines broke on Overton Hill and what is now Shy’s Hill. It was then “every man for himself” as the battle finally turned into a rout. Pvt. Owen J. Hopkins of the 182nd Ohio Infantry called Thomas “a God of battles,” writing, “Hood’s demoralized and badly whipped Rebels are flying towards the south…the victory is complete.” The once proud Army of Tennessee would be no more.
Thomas followed in pursuit of the fleeing rebels almost immediately but was hampered by more bad weather – heavy rains that made even streams impassable. Once again he would hear from Halleck stating the obvious. (“Permit me, General to urge the vast importance of a hot pursuit…if you can destroy Hood’s army Sherman can entirely crush out the rebel Military force in the Southern states.”) Finally Thomas, who would have made his life a little easier had he reported on conditions in more detail throughout December, had enough and replied with an angry telegram: “We cannot control the elements…pursuing an enemy through an exhausted country, over mud roads, completely sogged with heavy rains, is no child’s play!” Stanton got Thomas’ message in more ways than one and immediately sent him a telegram assuring him of “the most unbounded confidence in your skill, vigor and determination…to destroy the enemy.” Grant also sent congratulations on the great victory. Thomas would not be bothered again. He continued his pursuit until there was no more army left to pursue.
Mercifully, for the numbers engaged at Nashville (Blue – 50,000 vs. Gray – 23,000), the casualties on both sides were relatively modest (Blue – 3,061 vs. Gray – est. 1,500 with 4,500 captured). Hood had lost his last battle. Thomas won – against Hood and those who tried to interfere with his plans. He would later receive “The Thanks of Congress” for Franklin and Nashville, “one of only 15 army officers so honored during the entire war.” Had the war continued, it was likely that Hood would have been court-martialed for his actions at Franklin.
The North – the United States – was the biggest winner. There would now be no doubt we would remain one country. That fact made this engagement the “most decisive battle of the Civil War” according to Sir Edward Creasy in his Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World. Creasy defined a decisive battle as one “of which a contrary event would have essentially varied the drama of the world in all its subsequent scenes.” Other historians agree: “It was the crushing defeat of the Army of Tennessee at the Battle of Nashville that sealed the fate of the Confederacy.”
References (Click the book title to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.)
The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War by David J. Eicher
The Decisive Battle of Nashville by Stanley F. Horn