December 8, 1864 – The Federal and Confederate armies south of Nashville continued their standoff, as neither of the opposing commanders was quite ready for battle yet.
Major General George H. Thomas, commanding the Federal Army of the Cumberland, held a 10-mile defense line below Nashville. The line formed a rough semicircle, with both flanks anchored on the Cumberland River. The Federals faced General John Bell Hood’s Confederate Army of Tennessee two miles to the south. The Confederates held a weak line just four miles long.
Both Thomas and Hood planned to attack each other, but both needed time to fully prepare for battle. Hood needed more men from the scattered Confederate commands in the Western Theater, and Thomas needed to strengthen his cavalry, led by Brigadier General James H. Wilson, to confront Hood’s formidable horsemen under Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Thomas, whose army doubled the size of Hood’s and was much better equipped, was under intense pressure to attack the Confederates before they could be reinforced. Thomas knew his superiors looked upon him with suspicion because he was a Virginian, even though he remained loyal to the U.S. after Virginia joined the Confederacy. Regardless, he would not attack until all his resources were available and all details were worked out.
Hood was not faring much better. A brutal cold front swept through Tennessee on the night of the 8th, making life miserable for the ill-clad Confederates. Captain Sam Foster recalled:
“We are suffering more for shoes than anything else, and there is no chance to get new ones. At Brigade Head Quarters there has been established a Shoe Shop, not to make shoes, for there is no leather, but they take an old worn out pair of shoes and sew Moccasins over them of green cow hide with the hair side in. The shoe is put on and kept there, and as the hide dries it draws closer and closer to the old shoe.”
A rash of desertions prompted Hood to have his officers conduct “regular and frequent roll calls…” But this did little to solve the problem, and soon Hood’s demoralized army fell below 24,000 men.
By the morning of the 9th, heavy sleet and snow had formed a solid sheet of ice over the prospective battlefield between the Federal and Confederate armies. Major General Jacob D. Cox, commanding XXIII Corps in Thomas’s army, wrote:
“The weather, which had been good for a week, suddenly changed. A freezing storm of snow and sleet covered the ground, and for two or three days the alternations of rain and frost made the hills about Nashville slopes of slippery ice, on which movement was impracticable.”
Thomas, who had finally planned to launch his long-awaited assault on the 10th, now had to postpone due to the freeze. Unaware of this, Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck and Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant still believed that Thomas was refusing to move because Wilson’s cavalry was not ready. Halleck wrote, “General Grant expresses much dissatisfaction at your delay in attacking the enemy. If you wait till General Wilson mounts all his cavalry, you will wait till doomsday, for the waste equals the supply.”
Thomas replied at 2 p.m. on the 9th. He expressed regret about Grant’s “dissatisfaction at my delay in attacking the enemy. I feel conscious that I have done everything in my power… If he should order me to be relieved I will submit without a murmur. A terrible storm of freezing rain has come on since daylight, which will render an attack impossible until it breaks.” Thomas then wrote Grant:
“I had nearly completed my preparations to attack the enemy tomorrow morning, but a terrible storm of freezing rain has come on today, which will make it impossible for our men to fight to any advantage. I am, therefore, compelled to wait for the storm to break and make the attempt immediately after. Major General Halleck informs me that you are very much dissatisfied with my delay in attacking. I can only say I have done all in my power to prepare, and if you should deem it necessary to relieve me I shall submit without a murmur.”
By the time Grant received this message, he had already decided to replace Thomas. He telegraphed Washington, “Please telegraph order relieving him at once and placing Schofield in command.” Both Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and President Abraham Lincoln approved the order replacing Thomas with Major General John Schofield, commanding the eastern sector of Thomas’s line.
Meanwhile, Thomas held a council of war with his top officers and told them that if the army did not attack soon, he would most likely be replaced. But the officers agreed that an effective attack could not be made until the ground thawed.
During this time, Grant received Thomas’s explanation for the delay and decided to suspend the order removing him from command. Grant explained his decision to his superiors, stating, “I am very unwilling to do injustice to an officer who has done as much good service as General Thomas has, and will, therefore, suspend the order relieving him until it is seen whether he will do anything.” Grant wrote Thomas at 7:30 p.m.:
“I have as much confidence in your conducting a battle rightly as I have in any other officer, but it has seemed to me that you have been slow, and I have had no explanation of affairs to convince me otherwise… I telegraphed to suspend the order relieving you until we should hear further. I hope most sincerely that there will be no necessity for repeating the order, and that the facts will show that you have been right all the time.”
Thus, Thomas was temporarily reprieved. But he still could not give battle to Hood’s suffering Confederate army until the weather improved.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 500; 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 14236-46, 14260-70, 14318-38, 14348-58; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 530-31; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 607-08; Nevin, David, Sherman’s March: Atlanta to the Sea (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 123