December 5, 1864 – General John Bell Hood further weakened his Confederate Army of Tennessee by detaching a force to capture Murfreesboro. Meanwhile, Major General George H. Thomas continued preparing to attack Hood south of Nashville.
Hood’s Confederates sat behind defenses about two miles below Nashville. They faced Thomas’s Federal Army of the Cumberland, reinforced by Major General Andrew J. Smith’s XVI Corps from the Army of the Tennessee, and Major General John Schofield’s XXIII Corps from the Army of the Ohio. Thomas had over 50,000 troops on a 10-mile line. Hood could barely muster 24,000 men along four miles.
Hood requested reinforcements from the Trans-Mississippi Department. He also asked for Major General John C. Breckinridge’s 3,000-man division at Wytheville, Virginia, to take on the Federals at Knoxville. He then weakened his already depleted army even further by dispatching Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest to capture the Federal garrison at Murfreesboro, 30 miles southeast. Forrest’s command included two cavalry divisions under Brigadier Generals Abraham Buford and William H. Jackson, and an infantry division under Major General William Bate. Forrest reported:
“On the morning of the 5th, I moved, as ordered, toward Murfreesborough. At La Vergne I formed a junction with Major-General Bate, who had been ordered to report to me with his division for the purpose of operating against Murfreesborough. I ordered Brigadier-General Jackson to send a brigade across to the Wilkinson pike, and moving on both pikes the enemy was driven into his works at Murfreesborough. After ordering General Buford to picket from the Nashville and Murfreesborough to the Lebanon pikes on the left, and Jackson to picket on the right to the Salem pike, I encamped for the night.”
The next day, Federal gunboats steamed down the Cumberland River to attack Forrest’s shore batteries at Bell’s Mill. The U.S.S. Neosho exchanged fire from 20 to 30 yards, sustaining over 100 hits but eventually driving the Confederates off. Federal Quartermaster John Ditzenback earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for braving the fire to reattach the U.S. flag to the Neosho’s mast after it was shot down.
On the 7th, Forrest approached Murfreesboro and discovered that the Federal garrison was much stronger than expected. He planned for the infantry to hold the Federals in place while the cavalry swept around and attacked from the rear. However, according to Forrest, the infantry “from some cause which I cannot explain, made a shameful retreat, losing two pieces of artillery.”
The cavalry finally came up to halt the Federal advance, but Forrest lost about 200 prisoners and 14 guns in the engagement. Before he could renew the effort to capture Murfreesboro, Hood recalled the infantry to Nashville in preparation for battle against Thomas.
Hoping to gather as many men as possible before taking Thomas on, Hood wrote to the Confederate commander at Corinth, Mississippi, “Send forward at once all men belonging to this army in proper detachments, with officers to preserve discipline and prevent straggling on the march.” Hood then wrote Thomas asking for an informal prisoner exchange. But Thomas replied, “I have to state that, although I have had quite a large number of prisoners from your army, they have all been sent North, and consequently are now beyond my control.”
Meanwhile, Thomas’s superiors were growing increasingly impatient with his refusal to attack Hood. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, wanted Thomas to attack immediately, but Thomas argued that he needed to wait until Brigadier General James H. Wilson’s cavalry was strong enough to match Forrest’s. Grant feared that Forrest might lead Hood’s army in a swing around Thomas into Kentucky and possibly even Ohio. He wrote Thomas on the 5th:
“Is there not danger of Forrest moving down the Cumberland to where he can cross it? It seems to me whilst you should be getting up your cavalry as rapidly as possible to look after Forrest, Hood should be attacked where he is. Time strengthens him, in all probability, as much as it does you.”
“If I can perfect my arrangements, I shall move against the advanced position of the enemy on the 7th instant. If an expedition could be started from Memphis against the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, and thus cut off Hood’s means of supply, he will run the risk of losing his whole army, if I am successful in pushing him back.”
The next day, Grant ordered Thomas, “Attack Hood at once, and wait no longer for a remount of your cavalry. There is great danger of delay resulting in a campaign back to the Ohio River.” Thomas answered, “I will make the necessary dispositions and attack Hood at once, agreeably to your order, though I believe it will be hazardous with the small force of cavalry now at my service.”
This response annoyed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who wrote Grant on the 7th, “Thomas seems unwilling to attack because it is hazardous, as if all war was anything but hazardous. If he waits for Wilson to get ready, Gabriel will be blowing his last horn.”
Grant replied that if Thomas did not attack immediately, “I would recommend superseding him by Schofield, leaving Thomas subordinate.” Grant explained further in a message to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck: “There is no better man to repel an attack than Thomas, but I fear he is too cautious to ever take the initiative,” However, Grant wrote, “If Thomas has not struck yet, he ought to be ordered to hand over his command to Schofield.”
Halleck replied that if Grant wanted Thomas gone, “give the order. No one here will, I think, interfere.” But then Halleck added, “The responsibility, however, will be yours, as no one here, so far as I am informed, wishes General Thomas’ removal.” This gave Grant pause, and he wrote, “I would not say relieve him until I hear further from him.”
This impasse, as well as Hood’s weak siege of Thomas’s army, would continue as temperatures around Nashville plummeted to below freezing.
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