November 22, 1864 – General John Bell Hood led his Confederate Army of Tennessee north to confront Major General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio holding the forward Federal line at Pulaski, Tennessee.
Schofield’s 21,000 Federals were the first line of defense against Hood’s anticipated advance from Alabama. When Schofield learned that Hood’s army was moving toward him on the 21st, he ordered his Federals to start falling back the next morning. Major General Jacob D. Cox, commanding Schofield’s XXIII Corps, later wrote:
“The night was a freezing one, the mud was frozen stiff on the surface in the morning, making the worst possible marching for the infantry, while the artillery and horses broke through the crust at every step. Our only consolation was in the reflection that it was as bad for Hood as for us.”
Schofield’s army, which included five infantry divisions, two cavalry divisions, 62 guns, and some 800 wagons, withdrew up the Columbia Turnpike to Lynnville, the first stop on the way to Columbia, a town on the Duck River. The Federals would have to get to the river ahead of the Confederates to keep from being cut off from their main supply base and reinforcements at Nashville to the north.
Hood moved north with his infantry in three columns under Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham and Lieutenant Generals Stephen D. Lee and Alexander P. Stewart. Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry covered Hood’s right. Hood hoped to wedge his Confederates between Schofield’s smaller force and the larger Army of the Cumberland under Major General George H. Thomas at Nashville.
Thomas scrambled to gather every available Federal unit in Nashville. Troops were hurrying from Missouri, and Thomas asked Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton to send any militia he could spare. Thomas also ordered Major General Gordon Granger’s Federals in northern Alabama to concentrate at Stevenson, where they could guard against a potential attack on Chattanooga.
Meanwhile, the Federals won the race to the Duck River, as Cox’s infantry arrived on the morning of the 24th. Forrest’s cavalry was attacking the small garrison at Columbia when Cox’s men reinforced the positions and drove the Confederates off. Cox later wrote, “It was close work all around. My men deployed at double-quick along the bank of the creek, and after a brisk skirmish Forrest withdrew out of range.” The Federals then secured the bridge leading north to Nashville.
Schofield arrived around noon and assessed the situation. Fearing that Hood may soon appear with a superior force, he wrote Thomas:
“Do you think it important to hold Columbia? My force not large enough to cover the town and railroad bridge. I can hold a shorter line covering the railroad bridge, leaving the town and railroad depot outside; but in any case the enemy can turn the position by crossing above or below, and render my withdrawal to the north bank very difficult. Please give me your views soon.”
Thomas replied, “If you cannot hold Columbia, you had better withdraw to the north bank of the river… But it is better, of course, to substantially check the enemy than to run the risk of defeat by risking too much.” Schofield continued inspecting his lines and wrote Thomas at 8 p.m., “The line is too long, yet if Hood wishes to fight me on it tomorrow I am willing. I think he will attack tomorrow, if at all; if he does not, I must prepare to meet any attempt to cross Duck River above or below.”
Schofield directed one division to guard the railroad bridge south of the Duck River, while his remaining divisions crossed to the north bank, where they could guard against Confederate crossings both above and below town. Schofield wrote, “With the fords guarded, as will then be practicable, I think Hood cannot get the start of me. I think it best not to risk much now, for a few days delay, if we concentrate rapidly, will make us strong enough to drive Hood back.”
On the Confederate side, Hood began concentrating his columns on the road leading to Columbia. He received word on the 24th that the Federals were abandoning Pulaski, two days after they had already done so. Hood instructed his cavalry, “If they have evacuated Pulaski, you will move forward and press them hard on to Columbia.”
Hood then informed General P.G.T. Beauregard, the Confederate commander in the Western Theater, that Schofield was retreating. He asked Beauregard to “have the railroad repaired to Decatur as soon as possible… I think I will have no difficulty about supplies.”
As the Confederates began arriving outside Columbia on the 26th, they found the Federals waiting behind strong breastworks and trenches along the Duck River. Hood came up the next day and directed his men to surround the city. Lee’s corps held the left, Stewart held the center, and Cheatham held the right. The left and right were anchored on the river.
Hood expected Schofield to fall back to the north bank to keep between the Confederates and Nashville. He was correct: Schofield’s Federals began withdrawing on the night of the 27th, destroying the railroad bridge and their pontoon bridge to prevent a Confederate crossing at Columbia. As Schofield fell back to more defensible positions, Thomas sent him reinforcements. Hood planned to feint an attack on Columbia from the south while the bulk of his army crossed the Duck River east of town.
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