In the final months of 1864, as fall moved relentlessly towards winter, the last great drama of the Civil War's Western Theater took place in central Tennessee. It would pit two opponents with decidedly differing views of war against one another, and see the last major battles to be fought on the far side of the Appalachians. The resulting campaign would, therefore, end a process that had begun at Fort Henry in early 1862 and write the final chapter in the theater that had, for all intents and purposes, decided the war's eventual outcome.
General William T. Sherman had successfully taken the city of Atlanta in September 1864, having pressed steadily against the skillful defensive maneuvering of General Joseph Johnston and the Army of Tennessee, and then finally smashed the offensive counter attacks of Johnston’s successor, General John B. Hood. The loss of this vital industrial center and transportation hub now left the Deep South seemingly at Sherman’s mercy, and the loss was as much psychological as it was military and economic.
In late September, Confederate President Jefferson Davis traveled to Palmetto, Georgia to confer with Hood and develop a strategy for dealing with Sherman's next move. It seemed clear that Sherman would eventually strike out from Atlanta towards either the Gulf coast or the Atlantic. However, the question was what Hood should do to stop him and, frankly, what he was capable of doing. He was facing an opponent who was numerically superior, well supplied, and possessed strong morale. The Army of Tennessee had been battered during Sherman’s offensive against the city. More so, the heavy casualties inflicted upon the army after Hood took command did not make the general very popular with his men. In any case, Davis needed Hood to somehow drive Sherman and all Federal forces out of Georgia and, hopefully, out of Alabama and Tennessee, as well.
Hood's proposal to Davis called for him to move his army north to threaten Sherman’s primary supply line, the railways leading to Chattanooga and Nashville. This, Hood concluded, would force Sherman to either come after the Confederate army or move to the coast, where he could be supplied by sea. If the Union general chose the former, Hood would fall back into the rugged terrain of northern Georgia or Alabama and bring Sherman to battle on ground advantageous to the Confederate army. If, on the other hand, Sherman struck out for the coast, Hood would follow him, continuously destroying his lines of communication, harassing his rear, and eventually forcing Sherman to turn and fight at a place of Hood’s choosing. Hood also foresaw the possibility that Sherman might choose to divide his forces, sending some to Tennessee to guard the Union rear. In that case, Hood proposed to fight the Union forces in Georgia, drive them out, and then deal with the remaining Federal elements in Tennessee.
Davis liked what he heard, but added one proviso: Should Sherman move north to protect the rail lines, he wanted Hood to withdraw to Gadsden, Alabama. Once there, Hood could be resupplied via the railways from southern Alabama, which remained in Confederate hands, while still threatening Sherman. Hood agreed to the president’s idea but, most importantly, he promised Davis that, whatever direction Sherman moved, he and the Army of Tennessee would follow.
Davis departed for Richmond on September 27, 1864, and, two days later, Hood marched his army out of Palmetto towards the line of the Georgia Central Railroad, which linked Atlanta with Chattanooga. Sherman quickly realized that Hood was on the move and marched part of his army north to intercept him. However, the Union general’s cavalry had difficulty locating Hood and, as a result, Sherman was unable to bring him to battle. For his part, Hood moved quickly and screened his movements well. But, Sherman refused to divide his forces as Hood had hoped and, while the two men would play cat and mouse for three weeks, the climactic battle Hood wanted never came to fruition. By October 20, Hood had managed to reach the safety of Gadsden, but Sherman ceased to follow him.
Sherman had decided to take an approach neither Hood nor Davis had foreseen. While Sherman would, indeed, head for the Atlantic and would decide to create a new army to protect Tennessee, the idea of Hood threatening his lines of supply and communication would not concern him. Taking a page from Grant’s Vicksburg campaign, he would abandon any lines of supply, providing for his army via foraging as he struck out for Savannah. He was going to eliminate the need to worry about his supply lines simply by not having any. At the same time, he directed General George H. Thomas in Nashville to assemble whatever forces he could muster into an army and deal with Hood should the Confederate general make a move north into Tennessee.
At this critical juncture, Hood apparently decided to revise the strategy he had agreed to with Jefferson Davis. His new plan was nothing if not wildly imaginative and highly aggressive, and, thus, very characteristic of John Hood. In Hood’s new vision of operations, he would quickly strike northward into Tennessee, and destroy Thomas’ scattered forces before they had a chance to merge. Then, rather than turning to follow Sherman, he would continue north into Kentucky, rally new recruits, gather supplies, and threaten Ohio. This, in turn, would force Sherman to abandon Georgia and pursue him. Hood could then either turn and fight or, perhaps, even cross the mountains and join with Lee in Virginia.
In late October, he briefed this grandiose plan to his new theater commander, General Pierre Beauregard. Beauregard was shocked, as he pointed out that Hood was abandoning the critical element of his earlier plan and the one considered sacred by both himself and the president: that he would pursue Sherman no matter what. However, after hearing Hood out, Beauregard reluctantly agreed to the plan. Nevertheless, he did insist on one change, ordering Joe Wheeler’s cavalry to be detached from Hood, so they could follow and harass Sherman. Wheeler’s men would be replaced with the cavalry of the legendary Nathan Bedford Forrest, currently operating in western Tennessee.
Over the course of time, Hood has received a lot of criticism for his campaign plan and, at this point, I want to make a couple of things very clear. First, the revised plan was agreed to by both Davis and Beauregard, and both fully supported it in the end. This was not the wild and unsupported plan of one man, as it has been sometimes described. The other key point is that Hood's campaign plan was born of utter desperation and a lack of any options. Pursuing Sherman would have been a fruitless exercise and might have even led to greater potential for a disaster the Confederacy could ill afford. Given the military situation, his audacious plan was probably the only hope the South had. If successful, the potential benefits were huge. If unsuccessful, in many ways, they would be no worse off. Therefore, Hood's plan offered the only way forward.
Hood knew time was of the essence and immediately moved his army north to Guntersville, Alabama to await Forrest’s arrival. Unfortunately, the cavalry’s arrival was delayed by heavy fall rains and flooded rivers, so Hood moved further into northern Alabama to Tuscumbia to allow a quicker union with Forrest. However, when he arrived there on October 31, he found Forrest was still far away, further delayed by heavy rains, which also slowed the delivery of rations critical to the coming campaign. Hood had no choice but to wait for both Forrest and his supplies, a process that would take three weeks. Meanwhile, George Thomas began to assemble his new army and, on November 15, Sherman departed Atlanta to begin his inexorable march to the sea.
As I indicated earlier, Hood and Thomas were men with vastly different approaches to war and, in some ways, no two men could have been more different. John Bell Hood has been described many different ways. Words like reckless, pugnacious, aggressive, hotheaded, mercurial, brave, and resolute have been used to characterize his fundamental approach to war and life. But I believe the word passionate best applies to this native Kentuckian. After all, the only two books he ever checked out from the West Point library while a cadet were Jane Porter’s Scottish Chiefs and Sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy. In many ways, Hood was Quixotic, a romantic, passionate man better suited to another time.
On the battlefield, Hood seemed to follow his heart more than his head. While serving as a brigade and division commander in Longstreet’s corps of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, Hood’s aggressive style was a perfect fit to Lee’s offensive mindset, and he would prove himself a critical asset in the legendary eastern Confederate army. After he was seriously wounded at Gettysburg, he lost the use of his left arm. Following recuperation in Richmond, he returned to command the lead elements of Longstreet’s attack at Chickamauga, where he received an even worse wound, this time in the upper right thigh. The wound shattered his leg and led to amputation. Left with only a small stump, he would be forced to use crutches to walk and had to be strapped into the saddle atop his horse.
Despite these wounds, wounds that would have left a lesser man prostrate, Hood lost none of his aggressive nature. He was a firm believer that his men would be better soldiers if they were used in frontal attacks, and that defensive fighting behind the safety of trenches and barricades made for lesser men. Therefore, when he took over command of the Army of Tennessee from the defensive-minded Joe Johnston, he immediately changed course and ordered a series of brutal offensive attacks against Sherman’s army, with nearly disastrous results. As his army awaited the move into Tennessee, he promised his men a different approach. He deliberately implied that there would be no more direct frontal assaults and that they would fight only when and where they had a distinct advantage. This led one officer from Texas to write that Hood said, “…we will have some hard marching and some fighting, but that he is not going to risk a chance for defeat in Tennessee. That he will not fight in Tennessee unless he has an equal number of men and choice of ground.” Sadly, this was a promise that the ever passionate Hood would not keep.
Waiting across the line in Tennessee was George Thomas. Like Hood, there have been a variety of words used to describe Thomas as a soldier and asa man, among them slow, plodding, cautious, deliberate, steadfast, loyal, brave, and stouthearted. Here, I opt for resolute and professional. George Thomas was a Virginian by birth and, when his native state seceded, there was never a question as to his loyalties. He was a man for whom the oath he had taken on the plains of West Point meant everything, even if it led to irrevocable separation from his family. After he announced his decision to remain in the U.S. Army and fight the rebellion, his sisters turned his picture to the wall, burned all his letters, and never spoke to him again.
Through his steadfast nature and competent abilities as a soldier, Thomas steadily rose in command while serving in the West. He was a corps commander under Rosecrans by the time of the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863, and it was here he would earn his famous nickname, “The Rock of Chickamauga.” As most of Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland disintegrated and fled back to Chattanooga, Thomas lone outnumbered XIV Corps held the line, beating back repeated Confederate attacks and stubbornly holding until they could fall back in order under the cover of darkness. His stand allowed Rosecrans and the army to reach the safety of Chattanooga and likely prevented their complete destruction.
When Rosecrans was relieved and Grant was given overall command in the West, the new theater commander’s first act was to appoint Thomas to command in the besieged city of Chattanooga. Grant had strong reservations about Thomas, reservations that he never relinquished despite Thomas’ performance in the field. Grant saw Thomas as slow and overly cautious, a characteristic he considered fatal in a commander. Grant was almost certainly too harsh in his judgment. George Thomas was not so much cautious as he was deliberate. He would always make certain that, as much as was possible, he was ready to fight and able to fully leverage every possible advantage. Most importantly, however, when he was ready to fight, he would fight with tenacity and resolve. In many ways, given Hood’s passionate, sometimes reckless approach to battle, George Thomas was ideally suited to counter him.
On November 21, Hood finally moved his men across the Tennessee River at Florence, Alabama, and headed for Tennessee. His three undersized corps consisted of 12 divisions with 38,000 men and 108 guns. Rations were still critically short, many of the men had no shoes, and their tattered uniforms barely clung to their backs. To make matters worse, while the rain had stopped, winter had arrived in full force. The ground was frozen hard and a cold wind accompanied by sleet blew in the men’s faces as they marched. However, many soldiers were optimistic. After all, the general had promised them only to fight when it was to their advantage and, besides, with more than 30 of Hood’s regiments being from Tennessee, many looked forward to returning to their home state and driving the hated enemy from its borders.
As Hood began the campaign in earnest, George Thomas was scrambling to assemble an army to oppose him. In early October, he had only about 10,000 troops plus quartermaster personnel in Nashville, with smaller detachments scattered about Tennessee and northern Alabama. Before he departed for Savannah, Sherman had ordered two fresh divisions from St. Louis to hurry east to reinforce Nashville. But, as Hood marched into Tennessee, they had not yet arrived. Thomas also knew that, with Forrest supporting Hood, he would be facing the South’s best cavalry. His own cavalry was not in good shape, so he placed James Wilson, an industrious young general, in charge of trying to reorganize his rather sad collection of troopers into something capable of countering the legendary Forrest.
Thomas’ best and largest force consisted of two corps from Sherman’s army left behind to form the nucleus of his new army. These were the XXIII and IV Corps, a total of 30,000 men under the command of an ambitious 33-year old general named John Schofield. Schofield was one of those officers that peers and superiors soon learn to distrust, the sort of man who sends backchannel communications in which he criticizes the actions of his superiors and recommends their replacement. He was a soldier by training and profession, but a politician by nature. However, he was not entirely without ability and he had a nose for danger. As Hood moved north into Tennessee, his nose told him there was definitely trouble coming and it was headed straight for him.
The danger Schofield sensed came from his position. Schofield’s 30,000 men were at Pulaski, Tennessee, astride the Franklin & Columbia Turnpike leading from Decatur, Alabama to Nashville. Nashville was approximately 60 miles in Schofield’s rear and Thomas had assumed that, once they knew Hood was moving, Schofield could simply retire to the north and join with Union forces in Nashville. Unfortunately for Schofield, both he and Hood realized there was one weakness in Thomas’ plan: the Duck River. That river lay halfway between Pulaski and Nashville, where the turnpike ran through the town of Columbia, Tennessee. If Hood could reach Columbia before Schofield, he could trap him south of the river, prevent his small army from reaching Nashville, destroy it, and then attack Thomas in Nashville.
Schofield quickly got his men and their 800 wagons on the move in a race for Columbia and the Duck River. The sleet had now turned back into rain, making the roads a quagmire, but Schofield drove his men onward. To make matters worse for the retreating Union troops, Forrest’s cavalry began to make concerted attacks on the column’s rear and Wilson’s new and outnumbered cavalry faced the daunting task of trying to fend off the increasingly vicious assaults. Wilson’s efforts were not completely successful and the resulting Union losses were heavy. Still, he slowed Forrest enough to allow Schofield’s small army to reach Columbia on November 27 and secure the river crossing before Hood could get there. The Union troops quickly dug trenches and took defensive positions as Hood’s army arrived to their front from the south.
With night approaching, the rain turned into sleet then snow, and the ground froze once more. Schofield realized that he was not out of danger, as Hood was capable of getting his army across the river via a ford, trapping him. Therefore, as darkness fell, he moved his army to the far side of the river and burned the both of Columbia’s bridges. For his part, John Hood immediately moved into Columbia and decided to wait until morning before sending his army east a few miles, where they would cross the river at a ford secured by Forrest and his cavalry. He would then make a rapid march to Spring Hill, 12 miles north up the turnpike, and, once again, seek to block John Schofield’s path to Nashville.
On November 28, Hood got his army moving while Schofield sat on the high ground across the river from Columbia, seemingly oblivious to the new threat. In the afternoon, he received a series of messages from General Wilson informing him that Forrest’s cavalry was fording the river below Columbia. At 2:10 p.m., Wilson wrote to Schofield’s adjutant:
HDQRS. CAVALRY CORPS, MIL. DIV. OF THE MISSISSIPPI, November 28, 1864--2.10 p.m.
MAJOR: Colonel Capron reports, 11.20 a.m., his force driven back from south side of Duck River by heavy force of the enemy; he is now fighting them across river. I move everything in that direction. Order Stewart's brigade, sent below the town, to join me by the road toward Rally Hill; he will, however, have to keep well to the north, as the force crossing above Huey's also seems heavy, from all I can learn. Maybe Stewart had better go pretty well up to Spring Hill before striking across.
J. H. WILSON, Brevet Major-General.
For some reason, Schofield was slow to respond to this news, despite its obviously ominous nature, and his intransigence continued for the balance of the day. Meanwhile, Hood began moving towards the Union rear. Next, in the early morning hours of November 29, Wilson once again sent additional news to Schofield, which seemed to confirm the worst: Hood was throwing pontoon bridges across the river and his infantry would soon be crossing in an attempt to get in the Union rear and block the turnpike.
Again, despite this news, Schofield was unmoved. As the morning of November 29 dawned, the one unit left behind in Columbia by Hood kept up a constant bombardment of artillery fire, convincing Schofield that Hood still intended to attack across the river to his front, which was exactly what Hood wanted him to believe. Meanwhile, Hood, with one corps in the lead, was already headed towards the turnpike and Spring Hill. Schofield did decide to have General Stanley send two divisions from the IV Corps north towards Spring Hill, but that was his sole move in response to Wilson’s repeatedly urgent appeals.
However, as fate would have it, this small move by Schofield proved a pivotal one. The Union troops moved rapidly up the pike and the lead brigade, led by Colonel Emerson Opdycke, a tough commander from Ohio, reached Spring Hill in time to fight off a determined attack by Forrest’s cavalry. General Stanley hurried the remainder of his lead division to join Opdycke’s brigade and, by 3:00 p.m., the Union troops were dug in and ready. Hood’s corps under General Cheatham drew up southeast of the town and, with a better than 2 to 1 advantage, Hood seemed assured of taking the vital crossroads.
However, as Cheatham’s men went forward, nothing went right. Forrest had not scouted the Federal positions and, therefore, the lead Confederate infantry under General Patrick Cleburne did not have accurate information on where Stanley’s line was placed. As a result, Cleburne’s men headed in the wrong direction and ended up presenting their exposed right flank to the Federal troops rather than coming at them head-on. As Union artillery and rifle enfiladed the Southern lines with deadly effect, Cleburne was forced to withdraw. Cheatham called for reinforcements but none could get into position before nightfall. Hood called off the attack and ordered the men to bivouac for the night. The attack on Spring Hill could wait until morning. However, what followed was one of the most bizarre incidents of the war.
With the news of Cheatham’s attack on Stanley’s isolated division at Spring Hill, John Schofield finally figured out that he had been totally outmaneuvered by Hood. He had only one course of action: Pull out and hope that he could somehow get his men up the turnpike and past Hood’s army. Remarkably, as nightfall approached, Union scouts reported that the pike was still open—John Hood failed to order anyone to block it. The Confederate army was encamped nearby, at some places within 100 yards of the road. But, inexplicably there was not so much as a single Southern sentry watching the turnpike. Schofield’s men quietly stole up the road to Spring Hill, muffling every sound and even throwing blankets down on the wooden bridges to quiet the sounds of tramping feet and the wheels of hundreds of wagons. By 7:00 p.m., the lead Union brigades had already passed Hood’s army and made it to Spring Hill. Captain James Sexton of the 72nd Illinois Infantry remembered the fateful night years later.
We were in such close proximity to the Confederates, that we could see their long line of campfires as they burned brightly; could hear the rattle of their canteens; see the officers and men standing around the fires; while the rumbling of our wagon train on the pike, and the beating of our own hearts were the only sounds we could hear on our side.
During the night, several reports reached Hood indicating that someone had seen or heard movement on the pike. However, in each case, Hood dismissed the report, pulled up his blanket, and remained snugly warm in his cot for the night. Meanwhile, the balance of 25,000 Federal troops marched past his army in the darkness to safety.
By sunrise, Schofield’s entire force had reached Franklin, eight miles beyond Spring Hill. When Hood was informed of Schofield’s escape, he was livid, blaming everyone but himself for the turn of events. Even years later, he would write that the errors of his generals, in particular Cheatham, had destroyed the most brilliant military maneuver of his career. Worst of all for the men of his army, Hood’s anger now caused him to change his mind on how the Army of Tennessee would fight the campaign. The real problem, he decided, was that his men were soft and afraid to fight. This, he further concluded, was a lingering symptom from Joe Johnston’s preference for fighting from behind the protection of fortifications. The cure, he resolved, was to send his men into battle via the frontal attack. With his promise to his men now irrevocably broken, Hood set out to catch John Schofield and bring him to battle before he could reach Nashville.