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  • James Houser

December 15, 1864 - The Battle of Nashville

Updated: Jun 17, 2021

December 15, 1864. The Confederacy stares into its grave. General John Bell Hood and his Army of Tennessee have trekked into Tennessee in a gambit to undo Sherman’s conquest of Georgia and maybe turn the tide against the Yankees. But at Nashville, with a grab bag of misfit units, General George Thomas will win one of the Union’s most stunning victories. So why does Hood get a fort, and George Thomas doesn’t?

In my readings and research of military history, I’ve gone through cycles of fascination with many different periods and conflicts. I’ve been through my World War II phase, my Napoleon phase, my ancient history and Julius Caesar phase, my medieval phase. Before them all, though, there was my Civil War phase, way back when I was 11 or 12 years old. I recall Civil War facts with an ease and fluidity that just doesn’t happen with almost any other conflict. One of my favorite things to this day about the American Civil War is the vast well of interesting characters and colorful figures, which include some of my favorites – Grant, Lincoln, Sherman, Lee, Early. You may not be able to tell from the thousand Civil War posts I’ve done this year, but it’s one of my favorite subjects, and it’s about to draw to a close.

Back in November, I did a post about General Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign and his decision to make the March to the Sea. The post is readily available on this website. The thing to bring up here is that when I left off, the story was diverging into two plotlines. Sherman and the bulk of his army went one way: southeast, on their famous march through Georgia from Atlanta to Savannah. But his Confederate opponent, the Army of Tennessee under General John Bell Hood, marched in the opposite direction – trying vainly to draw Sherman back out of the Confederate heartland and into Tennessee. On the 21st, I’ll tell the tale of Sherman’s epic venture, but today I tell the story of Hood’s…less epic venture. Because Hood is about to be thrown to the ground and beaten as rarely happens in the annals of war.

In the post above, I described the Atlanta Campaign. In May 1864, Union General Sherman assembled a large army of 100,000 men to drive into Georgia from Tennessee, aiming to take the Confederate capital of Atlanta. Confederate General Joseph Johnston, commanding the Army of Tennessee, fought a series of delaying actions but refused to be drawn into a serious battle. This war of maneuver throughout the mountains of northern Georgia until Sherman had pushed Johnston all the way back to Atlanta in July. President Jefferson Davis, frustrated by Johnston’s constant retreating, replaced him with the aggressive General John Bell Hood.

Hood proceeded to launch the Army of Tennessee in a series of aggressive attacks against Sherman’s armies at every opportunity, and in the process bled himself dry. Sherman was far too ruthless and single-minded to be cowed by these assaults, and slowly broke every single rail line leading into Atlanta. When Sherman seized the last supply line into Atlanta with his victory at Jonesboro, Hood had no choice but to evacuate on September 1, 1864. Sherman entered Atlanta the next day, and that was the ball game.

In his photographs, John Bell Hood looks like nothing less than a tired bloodhound, staring out sadly from the black-and-white daguerreotypes. His image belies his true nature. Hood was one of the most aggressive commanders of the Civil War. He had risen as a brigade and division commander under Robert E. Lee, performing admirable service leading Lee’s Texas assault troops in multiple major battles. But his body paid the price for his ferocity. At Gettysburg, Hood had lost the use of his left arm with a wound; three months later at Chickamauga, his right leg had been blown off by a cannonball. While the going theory is that his grievous injuries caused a gradual mental imbalance, there’s a strong chance that Hood was always unfit for higher command, but this fact didn’t reveal itself until he actually reached it.

Throughout 1864, Hood and his mangled body had served as one of Johnston’s corps commanders in the Atlanta Campaign, and during that whole period he had been scheming for Johnston’s position, claiming he could do better. The only thing he accomplished in the Atlanta Campaign was to nearly wreck the Army of Tennessee in one bloody charge after another. Though some have compared Hood to Robert E. Lee, they could not be more different. Lee never would have resorted to Hood’s political machinations or devious designs. To make the contrast clearer, though: for Lee, Pickett’s Charge was his greatest misjudgment and an everlasting source of shame. For an idea of Hood’s favorite tactics, you could just put Pickett’s Charge on a neverending loop. The imbecilic frontal attack was his preferred method.

With Sherman occupying Atlanta, and outnumbering Hood two to one, there was little chance of retaking the city. Hood only had about 40,000 men to confront Sherman’s 80,000, and Sherman had the benefit of the Union’s overwhelming supply superiority. Hood decided to strike at this supply line, and in October 1864 he led the Confederates north to try and cut off Sherman. But Sherman moved too fast and too aggressively, and Hood was only able to tear up a little of the railroad before he was forced to retreat back into Alabama.

This nibbling at the Union supply line, though, was not in Hood’s character. He had bigger ambitions. He informed the Confederate high command that he intended to strike into Tennessee, link up with Nathan Bedford Forrest’s roving cavalry unit, and strike for Nashville. This would hopefully draw Sherman after him, back out of Georgia, allowing Atlanta’s loss to be reversed and the city retaken. If not, all to the better! Hood could recapture all of Tennessee, drive north into Kentucky, and even cross into Ohio. These were wild, feverish dreams, but Hood pitched them as a long-shot that could save the Confederacy. Davis reluctantly approved.

There was one big problem: Sherman was not willing to play along. The Union’s fiercest commander had no intention of dancing to Hood’s tune, and this was largely a result of Union numerical superiority. Hood only had 40,000 men, at a time when the Union had almost twice that number just performing guard duty across the occupied Confederacy. They were scattered, true, but if they could be drawn together it would be more than enough to stop Hood and Forrest put together. To accomplish this, Sherman had just the man: today’s hero, George Henry Thomas.

Again, I love these vivid characters, and George Thomas is my favorite lesser-known Civil War general. Unusually for Union officers, he was a Southerner; he and his family had almost been killed by Nat Turner’s slave uprising in southside Virginia in 1831. But Thomas, as a U.S. Army officer, had broken with many of his fellow Southerners and remained loyal to the Union when the Civil War began. For this, he would be shunned by his entire family, including his beloved sisters, who even refused his financial assistance after the war was over. The true tragedy of George Thomas, though, is that he was never really appreciated by the Union either.

Thomas had never been given a lead role in the Civil War, even though he had performed brilliantly in any role. He had won the Union’s first large victory of the war at Mill Springs, Kentucky in 1862. He had fought standout performances at Stones River and especially Chickamauga, where his determined stand on Snodgrass Hill saved the Union Army and earned him the title “Rock of Chickamauga.” Throughout 1864, he had served as the right-hand man to his West Point roommate and old friend Sherman. During the Atlanta Campaign he performed brilliant service not only as a field commander but also in managing the army’s engineering and logistics. All this made him an obvious choice to go back to Tennessee, scrape together whatever he could, and stop Hood’s army once and for all.

But Thomas has never gotten his due in Civil War history. One big reason is that he wasn’t part of Grant’s clique. Ulysses S. Grant had a chosen set of officers he liked and promoted, and Thomas was just never part of this circle; Grant considered Thomas too cautious and too slow. Sherman knew better; Thomas wasn’t slow or cautious, he was THOROUGH. The Rock of Chickamauga pulled his punches. He would wait for the right moment to hit you, but when he did hit you, he wouldn’t need another shot.

As Thomas returned to Nashville, he brought two corps from Sherman’s army – the 4th and 23rd – under General John Schofield. Sherman was determined to let Thomas worry about Hood, while he headed off on his March to the Sea. While Lincoln and Grant expressed concern for Sherman’s decision, worrying about the chaos that Hood might wreak if left alone, Sherman had confidence in Thomas’s ability to deal with Hood and in Hood’s own ineptitude. He even remarked that if Hood wanted to go north, Sherman would give him rations; all the better to lead him into the trap. So as Sherman marched off into Georgia, he left George Thomas with scattered chunks of units stretched across Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri – all the Union could spare to confront John Bell Hood and the Confederacy’s Army of Tennessee.

Let’s just take a moment to appreciate this. Hood led the Confederacy’s largest army, besides Robert E. Lee and his army around Richmond. Sherman not only didn’t consider Hood a real threat by now, he sent George Thomas to build an army from scratch while he marched in a completely different direction. Shows how far the Confederacy had sunk. Hood just wasn’t a priority; Sherman was more interested in destroying Georgia than in destroying the Confederate army. Let Thomas take care of it.

In late October, Hood moved into northern Alabama to prepare for his advance into Tennessee, but Forrest – always one to march to the beat of his drum – didn’t meet the rendezvous. As Hood waited for three weeks for Forrest to arrive, Thomas took the opportunity to organize a defense. He began to call in units from all quarters, including significant numbers of U.S.C.T. (United States Colored Troops) from various garrisons and depots, and begin drilling them near Nashville. To slow Hood when he finally moved out, he sent Schofield with the 4th and 23rd Corps south to stare the Confederates down near Pulaski, Tennessee with 30,000 men to face Hood’s 40,000.

On November 19, Hood and Forrest moved out to try and outmaneuver Schofield’s small army. The weather was particularly rough, alternately freezing and melting snow and sleet that turned the roads to mush. The tired, hungry Confederates marched quickly, nearly outmaneuvering Schofield, who realized Hood’s intentions on the evening of November 29. Due to a command snarl by the Confederates at Spring Hill, Schofield was able to slip past Hood’s units in the middle of the night. He moved quietly into a new defensive line around the city of Franklin, Tennessee, digging his troops into prebuilt fortifications with his back to a river.

Hood was furious that his well-laid plans had gone awry, and blamed his generals and the laziness of his troops for the failure to trap Schofield at Spring Hill. This was the other reason for Hood’s poor suitability for higher command: an overemotional toxicity that blamed everyone else for his failures and overreacted to perceived weaknesses. As the Army of Tennessee drew up in front of Schofield’s dug-in lines in front of Franklin, Hood chafed at his army’s perceived failures and ordered an immediate assault all along the Union line.

The resulting Battle of Franklin on November 30, 1864 was a miserable disaster for the Confederates. Five Confederate generals were killed outright, including the beloved Patrick Cleburne, the Irish-born “Stonewall Jackson of the West,” who died leading his men forward on foot. It was a worse decision than Pickett’s Charge. Lee’s July 3, 1863 attack at Gettysburg had crossed a mile of open ground after extensive artillery bombardment and against improvised fortifications; Hood’s attack at Franklin crossed TWO miles of open ground with no artillery bombardment against carefully built earthworks. The result was 6,200 Confederate casualties for only 2,300 Union, and these were losses the South could not afford at this juncture. Overnight, Schofield slipped across the river regardless and marched north to join Thomas. Hood’s mangled army followed.

Hood drew his army, now only around 33,000 men, up in front of Nashville on December 2. After his losses, and his failure to destroy any portion of Thomas’s army at Spring Hill or Franklin, he was nowhere near strong enough to try and attack the city. With Schofield’s arriving units and his assembling forces from all over half the country, Thomas would soon have almost 55,000 men. Hood decided to dig a defensive position and wait for Thomas to attack; his plan was that Thomas would waste his strength attacking Hood’s line, giving Hood the opportunity to counterattack and capture Nashville. After that, Kentucky, Ohio…the possibilities were endless.

As Hood dreamed these magnificent dreams, Thomas was carefully preparing his force to smash the Confederates once and for all. More and more troops and supplies were pouring in, especially valuable cavalry horses. All the Union cavalry in the region had been consolidated into a single corps under General James Wilson, which Thomas was carefully turning into his striking arm for the subsequent battle. Wilson’s cavalry had never operated as a unit before, and many of their men were poorly trained as riders, which would take time to rectify. They would have to fight Forrest, after all, and Forrest was no slouch. So as Hood sat in front of Nashville, Thomas took all the time he needed to get his army ready for battle.

As Thomas made his careful preparations, Ulysses S. Grant was going nuts. Grant and Sherman had always been a stellar team, with each able to trust the other without hesitation, but Grant never had this level of trust in Thomas. From far away, facing Lee near Richmond, it looked to Grant like Thomas was passive and timid, allowing Hood to sit a mile away from Nashville and refusing to attack. Grant sent order after order to Thomas, instructing him to make his strike against the Confederates, and each time Thomas sent a reply giving his reasons for delay: weather, lack of horses, waiting for this or that unit to arrive.

To be fair to Grant, from a distance it looked like Thomas was another McClellan: a good organizer but a man who just didn’t want to fight. It was hard to tell Thomas’s very real, considered reasons for delay apart from the excuses Union commanders had given so often in the past. Grant grew increasingly angry at Thomas’s inaction, and when an ice storm hit on December 7 Grant barely had time for more “excuses.” He sent a general to replace Thomas if he hadn’t attacked by the time the replacement arrived, and even set out himself to take personal command – but when he reached Washington on December 15, he learned that the attack had begun.

Hood had made several mistakes leading up to the battle. For one thing, it was a bad idea to accept battle at Nashville anyway since he was outnumbered so badly. For another, the Confederate line was bent in a concave “C” shape around Nashville – a line too long for the Rebels to hold, and preventing the easy movement of reinforcements. Hood had no reserves, and he had sent Forrest’s cavalry off to try and raid Thomas’s supply line, which would be a fatal error that left him without forewarning when Thomas launched his attack. Above all, though, Hood had parked himself in front of Nashville without any overarching plan. What was he DOING there, besides waiting for the enemy to attack?

On December 15, 1864, he got his wish. Thomas’s plan was masterful and near-perfectly executed, probably the most successful battle plan of the Civil War. The Provisional Division of James Steedman, mostly black troops and garrison units, would launch a diversionary attack against Hood’s right. On the left, the 4th Corps of Thomas Wood and the 16th Corps of A.J. Smith would power into Hood’s left flank, with Schofield’s 23rd Corps behind them ready to exploit. To Hood’s far left, Wilson’s cavalry would scatter the Confederate horsemen and cover the flank of Thomas’s major assault. It was a brilliant, coordinated attack that placed maximum weight at the decisive point, provided for a well-located reserve, and made the best use of his hodgepodge army.

In every other battle of the Civil War, generals and troops who had worked together for years usually failed to bring a battle plan to fruition. At Nashville, George Thomas took an army he had put together in a matter of weeks and achieved the greatest battlefield success of the Civil War.

Steedman’s Provisional Division moved out of the fog at 6 A.M., and two hours later attacked Hood’s right. This strike drew Confederate attention in that direction, especially since the much-loathed “Negro” troops had shown up. Thomas had used Confederate racism as a tactical gambit, waving the black troops like a red cape while he sunk in the killing blow from the west. The sledgehammer blow overran Hood’s first line of works on the left, with Wilson’s cavalry shielding the Union flank from any counterattacks. When the offensive began to stall out, Thomas committed Schofield’s corps to continue past the Confederate flank. The result was a chain reaction of collapses in the Confederate line, and Hood was forced to pull back his whole force to a second set of hills a mile to the rear.

Thomas, having broken Hood’s first line, rearranged his troops that night and stuck with the original plan – the only adjustment being a slight move south. The winter fields of Tennessee were covered in mist, bodies, and debris. Both sides rested as best they could, lying on their packs in the snow, waiting for the decision the next morning. This is where Hood really should have retreated; he stood no chance. But it was not in Hood’s aggressive, confrontational, almost rabid nature. He couldn’t run away. His army might be cowardly, he thought, but he wasn’t. He would stand up to the Yankees, damn all the odds.

The next day, December 16, 1864, the Army of Tennessee died.

Thomas launched his sledgehammer attack once again against the Confederate left, while Steedman waved his cape to the right. The African-American troops performed brilliantly, launching several determined attacks that failed to rout the Confederates but fixed their attention to the right. In the meantime, Thomas adjusted his hands on the handle of his hammer and swung. Not only did three Union corps piledrive into Hood’s left, but Wilson’s cavalry had been sent on a long hook to the left rear. The Confederate flank was caught in a three-way crossfire as Wilson’s troopers rushed forward, dismounted, and began a rapid fire from their Spencer repeating carbines, their black Stetsons rushing forward through a blaze of snow and smoke. By 4 P.M. on December 16, Hood’s left was utterly crushed and his entire line was beginning to crumble. Wilson’s wide flanking move had been the killing blow. The Army of Tennessee fled in panic from Nashville, and Thomas followed.

Much like Napoleon’s army had done, Hood’s Confederates managed to fumble through a series of river crossings and tough escapes, harassed by Wilson’s cavalry the whole way. By the time they reached Mississippi, though, the Army of Tennessee – the Union’s nemesis in the western theater of war since 1861 – was shattered beyond repair. Although Hood blamed the entire defeat on his subordinates and his soldiers, never on himself, his troops had fought as bravely as they always had. Like so many soldiers in the Civil War, it was their leaders who had failed them, not the other way around.

The Battle of Nashville cost the Union around 3,000 casualties, compared with 2,500 Confederate dead and wounded and – most revealingly – almost 4,500 prisoners. The losses in men, artillery and horses ruined the Army of Tennessee as an effective fighting force and killed its morale. Hood could only muster up 15,000 men in January 1865, after the debacle at Nashville, when the Army of Tennessee had begun the campaign with almost 40,000 men. The battle losses alone do not explain this catastrophe. The only conclusion is that the Army of Tennessee had lost hope, and desertion had spiked. Franklin and Nashville accounted for 13,000 casualties between them; the other 12,000 losses in this time frame had simply given up and abandoned the army.

With the Confederates’ last army in the West effectively destroyed, yet another nail was driven into the Southern coffin. Hood asked to be relieved in January 1865, and was given no other command. His terrible strategies and tactics, bitter and poisonous methods of leadership, and denials of reality had cost the South both Atlanta and its last mobile army.

In a way, it’s kind of fitting that the Army’s most legendarily terrible base is named after him – but also, that may be the cause rather than the effect. Why on Earth would we name our largest military installation after someone as cursed as John Bell Hood?

Raise your hands if you think we should rename it Fort Thomas.

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