Opposing Armies Gather Outside Nashville

December 1, 1864 – Following the Battle of Franklin, the Federals fell back to Nashville as planned, and General John Bell Hood’s demoralized Confederate Army of Tennessee followed.

Major General John Schofield, commanding the Federal Army of the Ohio at Franklin, proceeded with his original plan to withdraw to Nashville, 18 miles north, and join forces with Major General George H. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland. Thomas, the overall commander, was getting supplies from the Cumberland River, and Major General Andrew J. Smith’s 13,000-man XVI Corps was on its way from Missouri to reinforce him.

Major General George H. Thomas | Image Credit: Histmag.org

Thomas forced a semicircular defensive line south of Nashville, with both flanks on the Cumberland. Schofield’s seven-mile train began arriving in Nashville on the morning of the 1st, and his XXIII Corps took up the eastern sector of Thomas’s line. The rest of the line was manned by Brigadier General Thomas J. Wood’s IV Corps until Smith’s corps arrived. Thomas also had support from the gunboats U.S.S. Neosho and Carondelet. Having been under Federal military occupation since early 1862, Nashville was one of the most heavily fortified cities in the Western Hemisphere.

Thomas preferred to stay put and let Hood’s Confederates attack him, at least until he could get Brigadier General James H. Wilson’s cavalry in fighting shape. Thomas telegraphed Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck, “I have two ironclads here, with several gunboats, and Commander Fitch assures me that Hood can neither cross the Cumberland or blockade it. I therefore think it best to wait here until Wilson can equip all his cavalry.”

Hood reported to Richmond that he had won a great victory at Franklin, but it soon became apparent that he had shattered his army. He sustained more losses than “Pickett’s Charge” at Gettysburg, and those who survived were badly disheartened. Nevertheless, Hood tended to his dead and wounded on the morning of the 1st and issued orders to pursue Schofield to the gates of Nashville.

Hood had no more than 24,000 men to take on Thomas, who would have about 53,000 once they all arrived. Hood could either try to lay siege to Thomas’s superior army, or he could bypass it altogether by moving north around Nashville into Kentucky, and then possibly even to Ohio. Hood chose the former.

The Confederates positioned themselves on the Brentwood Hills south of Nashville. Lieutenant General Alexander P. Stewart’s corps held the left (west) flank, Lieutenant General Stephen D. Lee’s corps held the center, and Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham’s corps held the right. Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry monitored both flanks. The Confederates also began building defenses to guard against attacks from Knoxville, Murfreesboro, or Chattanooga.

Hood could stretch his line no more than four miles, while Thomas’s stretched 10 miles. Moreover, Thomas’s Federals held all eight roads leading into Nashville from the south. But if Hood retreated now, he risked pushing his already demoralized army to the brink of mutiny. Hood therefore hoped to bide his time and wait for reinforcements from the Trans-Mississippi. To his benefit, Thomas was not quite ready to fight; this made Federal officials in Washington nervous.

President Abraham Lincoln feared that Hood might skirt around Thomas and raid the North, mimicking Jubal Early’s raid on Washington in July. This prompted Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to write Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, “The President feels solicitous about the disposition of General Thomas to lay in fortifications for an indefinite period. This looks like the McClellan and Rosecrans strategy of do nothing and let the rebels raid the country. The President wishes you to consider the matter.”

Grant quickly wired Thomas: “If Hood is permitted to remain quietly about Nashville, you will lose all the road back to Chattanooga, and possibly have to abandon the line of the Tennessee. Should he attack you it is all well, but if he does not you should attack him before he fortifies.”

Grant sent another message urging Thomas to “move out of Nashville with all your army and force the enemy to retire or fight upon ground of your own choosing.” Grant wrote that after the Battle of Franklin, “we should have taken the offensive against the enemy where he was.” But Grant warned Thomas, “You will now suffer incalculable injury upon your railroads if Hood is not speedily disposed of. Put forth, therefore, every possible exertion to attain this end. Should you get him to retreating, give him no peace.”

Thomas replied that with the arrival of Schofield and A.J. Smith, he now had “infantry enough to assume the offensive, if I had more cavalry, and will take the field anyhow as soon as the remainder of General McCook’s division of cavalry reaches here, which I hope it will do in two or three days.” Thomas explained that he needed more cavalry to match Forrest’s “at least 12,000” horsemen, though Forrest really only had about 6,000. Thomas planned to attack Hood in four days, adding, “I earnestly hope, however, that in a few more days I shall be able to give him a fight.”

Thomas shared a report with Halleck stating that Hood’s army was strongest southwest of Nashville. He wrote, “That would be by far the most advantageous position he could take for us, as his line of communication would be more exposed with him in that position than in any other.” Thomas calmed fears that Hood might bypass him and raid the North, stating, “The iron-clads and gun-boats are so disposed as to prevent Hood from crossing the (Cumberland) river…”

Meanwhile, Hood dispatched Forrest’s cavalry to probe Thomas’s line for weaknesses and raid Federal shipping on the Cumberland. The Confederates captured the troop transports Magnet, Prairie State, and Prima Donna near Bell’s Mill. In retaliation, a squadron of Federal gunboats steamed down the river, shelled the Confederate shore batteries into submission, and reclaimed the transports and prisoners.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 553; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21161-71; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 496-97; 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 13348-58, 14288-98; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 527-29; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 190-91; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 604-05; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 812; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 221; Nevin, David, Sherman’s March: Atlanta to the Sea (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20, 22, 120-21, 123; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 284-86

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