Nashville: Both Armies Immobilized

December 11, 1864 – Major General George H. Thomas faced increasing pressure from his Federal superiors to attack the Confederate Army of Tennessee south of Nashville, but a bitter cold front prevented that.

The harsh winter storm continued raging throughout the 10th, as Thomas’s Federal Army of the Cumberland and General John Bell Hood’s Confederate army continued glowering at each other from frozen trenches. According to Major General Jacob D. Cox, commanding XXIII Corps in Thomas’s army:

“During the time of the ice blockade, the slopes in front of the lines were a continuous glare of ice, so that movements away from the roads and broken paths could be made only with the greatest difficulty and at a snail’s pace. Men and horses were seen falling whenever they attempted to move across country. A man slipping on the hillside had no choice but to sit down and slide to the bottom, and groups of men in the forts and lines found constant entertainment watching these mishaps… maneuverers were out of the question for nearly a week.”

The freezing weather caused severe hardships among the troops, especially the Confederates, who lacked adequate clothing or shelter for such conditions. Hood wrote his superior, General P.G.T. Beauregard, requesting blankets and 10,000 new uniforms. Hood explained, “The weather is severe, the ground covered with snow, and the men stand much in need of them.”

On the Federal side, Thomas had fallen into disfavor among his superiors for refusing to attack until all his forces were ready. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, had threatened to remove Thomas from command if he did not attack soon, but the storm gave Thomas a brief reprieve. He met with his officers at his St. Cloud Hotel headquarters in Nashville and resolved to attack Hood’s Confederates as soon as the ice melted.

Maj Gen G.H. Thomas | Image Credit: Harper’s Weekly, 17 Dec 1864, Vol. VIII, No. 416

This did not satisfy Grant, who feared that Hood would swing around Thomas’s army and head north into Kentucky or possibly even Ohio. Grant wrote Thomas on the 11th, “If you delay attack longer, the mortifying spectacle will be witnessed of a rebel army moving for the Ohio River, and you will be forced to act, accepting such weather as you find… Delay no longer for weather or reinforcements.”

Thomas responded the next day:

“I will obey the order as promptly as possible, however much I may regret it, as the attack will have to be made under every disadvantage. The whole country is covered with a perfect sheet of ice and sleet, and it is with difficulty the troops are able to move about on level ground.”

By the 13th, Grant finally had enough. He ordered Major General John A. Logan to replace Thomas as army commander. Logan, who was stationed in Washington at the time, was to head to Louisville by rail. If Thomas attacked Hood by the time Logan got there, Thomas would retain his command. If not, Logan was to continue on to Nashville and take over. Earlier in the year, Thomas had lobbied against Logan taking command of the Army of the Tennessee because he had been a politician, not a military officer, before the war. Ironically, Logan was poised to replace the man who opposed him.

Fortunately for Thomas, the temperatures rose and the ice melted on the 14th. He called his officers back to the St. Cloud Hotel at 3 p.m. and announced that they would attack the Confederates the next morning. The troops would wake to reveille at 4 a.m., with the assault starting two hours later, “or as soon thereafter as practicable.” According to Thomas’s plan:

  • Cox’s XXIII Corps, under Major General John Schofield’s overall command, would feint against the Confederate right (east) flank.
  • Major General Andrew J. Smith’s XVI Corps would assemble on the Hardin pike and “make a vigorous assault on the enemy’s left.”
  • Brigadier General Thomas J. Wood’s IV Corps would advance on Smith’s left along the Hillsborough pike to Montgomery Hill.
  • XXIII Corps and all remaining Federal forces would hold Smith’s and Wood’s lines as their men advanced.

To prepare for the assault, seven Federal gunboats steamed down the Cumberland River to destroy Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederates batteries, which threatened Thomas’s left. The gunboats pinned the Confederate gunners down while Federal cavalry swept up from behind and captured their guns.

Thomas issued final orders for next morning’s attack and informed Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck at 8 p.m., “The ice having melted away to-day, the enemy will be attacked to-morrow morning. Much as I regret the apparent delay in attacking the enemy, it could not have been done before with any reasonable hope of success.”

—–

References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 186; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 127-28; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21161; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 500, 502-03; 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 14236-56, 14348-88, 14425-35; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 531-33; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 609-10; Nevin, David, Sherman’s March: Atlanta to the Sea (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 125-26

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