October 22, 1864 – General John Bell Hood led his Confederate Army of Tennessee out of Gadsden, Alabama, intending to move north and redeem both Tennessee and Kentucky for the Confederacy.
Hood planned to move 30 miles northwest to Guntersville on the Tennessee River. He would cross that waterway there and then push north. General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederate Military Division of the West over Hood, allowed Hood to commandeer Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry for the campaign. But Forrest was at Jackson, Tennessee, and Hood did not wait for him to join the army before moving out.
The plan was quickly compromised when the Confederates found Guntersville too heavily defended by Federals to penetrate, and the Tennessee too high to cross there. Hood therefore redirected his army toward Decatur, 45 miles west.
Major General William T. Sherman, commanding the Federal forces that had pursued Hood into Alabama, thought that Hood was still at Gadsden. He had received permission to stop chasing Hood and instead march through Georgia to the Atlantic coast. Sherman left the job of dealing with Hood to Major General George H. Thomas, who commanded a portion of his Army of the Cumberland at Nashville.
Sherman notified Thomas that the Confederates might be trying to implement the plan that President Jefferson Davis had recently described in a public speech. He warned Thomas that Hood “may go on to perfect Davis’ plan for invading Tennessee and Kentucky to make me let go of Atlanta. I adhere to my former plan, provided always you can defend the line of the Tennessee. Decatur and Chattanooga must be held to the death.”
Believing that Beauregard had replaced Hood as Confederate army commander, Sherman explained that he would leave a force for Thomas to defend important Tennessee cities such as “Nashville, Murfreesborough, Pulaski, and Columbia.” Thomas was to remain on the defensive “unless you know that Beauregard follows me south. If Beauregard attempts Tennessee it will be from the direction of Decatur.”
Meanwhile, the Federal XV Corps under Major General Peter J. Osterhaus moved toward Gadsden to try learning Hood’s intentions. Skirmishing occurred on the 25th as the Confederates headed west, resulting in the capture of some prisoners. Osterhaus reported:
“The information received, however, from those who fell into our hands and from the citizens was not very definite in regard to General Hood’s movements. All agreed that his army had left Gadsden and moved in a western direction. The exact whereabouts could not be ascertained. Rumor placed them near the Tennessee River.”
Based on this vague information, Sherman informed Thomas that if Hood went to Guntersville, Sherman’s Federals will “be after it.” If Hood continued west toward Decatur, “I must leave it to you for the present and push for the heart of Georgia.” Thomas told Sherman that based on reports from Brigadier General Robert Granger, commanding the Federal District of Northern Alabama, “Hood’s army is threatening to cross the Tennessee River at various places between Guntersville and Decatur.”
On the 26th, Hood’s Confederates arrived outside Decatur and found it too heavily guarded to force a river crossing. Hood therefore redirected his men toward Courtland, another 20 miles west. General Richard Taylor, commanding the Confederate Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana in which Hood was operating, directed Forrest to join Hood’s army. Hood felt that being detoured to the west actually worked to his advantage because it brought him closer to joining forces with Forrest. However, Forrest was caught up in his own operations and was delayed in linking with Hood.
Hood arrived at Courtland the next day, where his engineers informed him that they did not have enough pontoons to span the river. This forced Hood to continue moving west to Tuscumbia, another 25 miles downriver, where he hoped to use a partially demolished railroad bridge to get his army across the Tennessee. The vital element of speed was lost, and the delays gave the Federals time to build defenses.
Beauregard met with Hood near Courtland. He expressed dismay that Hood had moved west without notifying him, and also that he had not yet crossed the river. Hood blamed Forrest for this, reporting, “As I had not a sufficient cavalry force without his to protect my trains in Tennessee, I was compelled to delay the crossing and move farther down the river to meet him.”
Still unaware of Hood’s exact intentions, Sherman led his Federals back toward Atlanta on the 28th. He notified Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck that he would prepare “to carry into effect my original plan” of marching to the sea. In the meantime, “I will await a few days to hear what head he (Hood) makes about Decatur, and may yet turn to Tennessee; but it would be a great pity to take a step backward. I think it would be better even to let him ravage the State of Tennessee, provided he does not gobble up too many of our troops.”
In another update, Sherman told Halleck that he was “pushing my preparations for the march through Georgia.” He then asked Halleck to send reinforcements to Thomas so Sherman’s Federals would not have to return to Tennessee. Sherman wrote, “I do not want to go back myself with the whole army, as that is what the enemy wants.” Privately, Sherman said of Hood, “Damn him! If he will go to the Ohio River, I’ll give him rations. Let him go north, my business is down south.”
Sherman continued preparing to march away from Hood as October ended. He dispatched IV and XXIII corps to reinforce Thomas, which he believed “would enable General Thomas to defend the railroad from Chattanooga back, including Nashville and Decatur, and give him an army with which he could successfully cope with Hood should the latter cross the Tennessee northward.” Sherman reorganized his remaining four corps into two wings:
- XIV Corps under Major General Jefferson C. Davis and XX Corps under Major General Alpheus Williams, formerly part of the Army of the Cumberland, would now be the Army of Georgia, led by Major General Henry W. Slocum.
- XV Corps under Osterhaus and XVII Corps under Major General Francis P. Blair, Jr., remained the Army of the Tennessee, led by Major General Oliver O. Howard.
Meanwhile, Hood’s Confederates continued having problems crossing the Tennessee due to high water and strong Federal defenses. They finally crossed at Tuscumbia and drove Federal cavalry out of Florence. Tuscumbia would be Hood’s headquarters and supply base for the Tennessee incursion. Hood then informed Beauregard that his men lacked food, shoes, and other necessities. This message shocked Beauregard, who thought that Hood would not have begun this campaign without first gathering the necessary supplies. He scrambled to establish a railroad supply line to Tuscumbia.
On the last day of October, Major General David S. Stanley, commanding the Federal IV Corps, received confirmation that the Confederates were crossing the Tennessee at Florence. Stanley’s troops were at Athens, 40 miles east of Hood. Stanley began moving his Federals to Pulaski, Tennessee, where he expected Hood to attack.
As Stanley’s men left, Granger received alarming (but false) reports that the Confederates were targeting Athens. Stanley gave Granger permission to abandon the garrison there if he felt threatened, and he did so. However, as Stanley later reported, “Athens was evacuated on false rumors. At 4 p.m., the same afternoon, by General R.S. Granger’s order, a very considerable amount of public property was destroyed, although no enemy had shown themselves between Elk River and the Tennessee.”
Not only was Hood poised to thrust into Tennessee, but Forrest’s Confederates were threatening vital Federal shipping on the Tennessee at Johnsonville. Sherman later wrote, “There is no doubt that the month of October closed to us looking decided squally; but, somehow, I was sustained in the belief that in a very few days the tide would turn.”
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21106; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 478-82; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 12970-92; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 514-16; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 587, 590-91; Nevin, David, Sherman’s March: Atlanta to the Sea (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20-34