December 15, 1864 – After numerous delays, Major General George H. Thomas finally launched his long-awaited Federal assault on the Confederate Army of Tennessee south of Nashville.
By this time, General John Bell Hood’s Confederate army held a line partially encircling Nashville from the south in three corps:
- Lieutenant General Alexander P. Stewart’s corps held the left, southwest of Nashville.
- Lieutenant General Stephen D. Lee’s corps held the center, south of Nashville.
- Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham’s corps held the right, southeast of Nashville.
The bulk of Hood’s cavalry had been sent to attack the Federal garrison at Murfreesboro, while his remaining 25,000 men were building fortifications and trying to survive in the bitter cold. Most of these men were exhausted and demoralized.
Thomas, commanding the Federal Army of the Cumberland in Nashville, had been under heavy pressure from his superiors to attack Hood’s Confederates as soon as possible. But Thomas took his time to make sure everything was in place, and then a bitter ice storm delayed his planned assault. The ice started melting on the 14th, and Thomas was finally ready to move his 50,000 well-equipped men out the next morning.
Thomas checked out of his headquarters at the St. Cloud Hotel and rode out to join his troops at the front. At 4 a.m., the bugles sounded and the Federals advanced through heavy fog. Nashville residents came out to watch the fight; Federal Colonel Isaac R. Sherwood recalled, “All the hills in our rear were black with human beings watching the battle, but silent. No army on the continent ever played on any field to so large and so sullen an audience.”
Scouts had informed Hood that a Federal attack might come against his left. However, the initial fighting occurred on his right, as Major General James B. Steedman’s division crossed the Murfreesboro Pike and slammed into Cheatham’s corps at dawn. Unbeknownst to Hood, Steedman’s assault was just a diversion; Thomas really did intend to target Hood’s left.
To the west, Major General Andrew J. Smith’s XVI Corps and Brigadier General Thomas J. Wood’s IV Corps advanced, with Brigadier General James H. Wilson’s cavalry on their flank. Elements of Major General John Schofield’s XXIII Corps were in reserve behind Smith and Wood. The Federals hit Stewart’s overextended corps near midday. According to Major General Edward C. Walthall, commanding the lead division under Stewart:
“About 11 o’clock, the enemy, exposing a large force in my front, concentrated a heavy artillery fire on the redoubt in front of my left, and after keeping it up for about an hour, with great damage to the force within, moved upon it with a heavy body of infantry, enveloped the base of the hill, and by assault carried the position, which was well defended.”
The Federals poured down the Hillsborough Pike and began seizing each of the Confederate redoubts. Walthall reported, “When these redoubts were taken, the enemy moved up in my front and shelled my troops heavily. He made no assault on my position, but threw a force across the pike into the woods near Compton’s house and threatened my left.”
The Confederates slowly gave ground, unable to withstand such a large-scale assault. Wood’s Federals seized Montgomery Hill, while troops from Schofield’s and Wilson’s commands turned the Confederate left flank. Stewart ordered a retreat, and the Confederates pulled back in good order between the Middle Franklin and Franklin pikes. The fighting ended after nightfall.
Hood directed his army to regroup two miles south on a more compact defense line. He could have retreated to save what was left of his army, but he instead opted to make a stand against a renewed Federal drive in the morning. Stewart’s corps was virtually destroyed, so Hood would have to make do with Cheatham on his left, Lee on his right, and the remnants of Stewart’s command in the center. The Confederate line of retreat through Franklin remained open.
From Federal headquarters, Thomas telegraphed Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck at 9 p.m.:
“I attacked the enemy’s left this morning and drove it from the river, below the city, very nearly to the Franklin Pike, a distance about eight miles… The troops behaved splendidly, all taking their share in assaulting and carrying the enemy’s breastworks. I shall attack the enemy again tomorrow, if he stands to fight, and, if he retreats during the night, will pursue him, throwing a heavy cavalry force in his rear, to destroy his trains, if possible.”
Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton sent Thomas a wire celebrating “the brilliant achievements of this day” as “the harbinger of a decisive victory that will crown you and your army with honor and do much toward closing the war. We shall give you a hundred guns in the morning.”
Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, had been on the verge of removing Thomas from command for taking so long to launch the assault. He initially sent Major General John A. Logan to replace Thomas, but then decided to go to Nashville and replace Thomas himself. While traveling through Washington on his way to Nashville, Grant received Thomas’s message from the night before the battle: “The ice having melted away today, the enemy will be attacked tomorrow morning.”
Grant then received the dispatches describing the Federal triumph. Grant wrote Thomas that he intended to come there and remove him from command, but “detailing your splendid success of today, I shall go no farther. Push the enemy and give him no rest until he is entirely destroyed… Do not stop for trains or supplies, but take them from the country as the enemy has done. Much is now expected.”
Grant sent a second message around midnight: “I congratulate you and the army under your command for today’s operations, and feel a conviction that tomorrow will add more fruits to your victory.”
Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 186; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 559; 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 21171-80; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 504; 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 14368-88, 14425-35, 14589-609; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 533; 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. 610-11; 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. 814; Nevin, David, Sherman’s March: Atlanta to the Sea (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 125-26, 128, 130-31; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 285-86, 715