December 16, 1864 – Major General George H. Thomas renewed his Federal assault on the weakened and demoralized Confederate Army of Tennessee south of Nashville.
Following yesterday’s battle, General John Bell Hood had withdrawn his Confederate army southward to a new defensive line that was shorter and stronger:
- The right (eastern) flank was anchored on Overton (or Peach Orchard) Hill, manned by Lieutenant General Stephen D. Lee’s corps.
- Lieutenant General Alexander P. Stewart’s corps, which had been virtually destroyed in the previous day’s action, held the center.
- The left flank was anchored on a series of hills running south from Compton’s Hill, commanded by Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham’s corps.
Although Hood’s line was strong, the left curled from the west down to the southeast, which would make it vulnerable to enemy fire on three sides. In addition, many of the fortifications were deficient due to time constraints and outright exhaustion after yesterday’s fight.
Thomas, commanding the Federal Army of the Cumberland, regrouped his men to attack once more. Just like yesterday, Thomas planned to probe Hood’s right flank and then launch the main attack on the Confederate left:
- Brigadier General Thomas J. Wood’s IV Corps held the Federal left (east).
- Major General Andrew J. Smith’s XVI Corps held the center.
- Major General John Schofield’s XXIII Corps held the right.
- Major General James B. Steedman’s detachments and Brigadier General James H. Wilson’s cavalry guarded the left and right flanks respectively.
The Federals “bivouacked in line of battle during the night on the ground occupied at dark,” and by morning they were ready to renew their advance. Wood’s Federals joined with Steedman’s to push back Confederate skirmishers on the eastern sector of the field until they reached the Confederate defenses on Overton Hill. Soon Smith’s corps came up on Wood’s right, and Schofield’s men advanced to within striking distance of Compton’s Hill.
Wood prepared to assault Overton Hill, stating, “It was evident that the assault would be very difficult and, if successful, would probably be attended with heavy loss; but the prize at stake was worth the hazard.” Wood ordered his men forward at 3 p.m. He later reported:
“The assaulting force was instructed to move steadily forward to within a short distance of the enemy’s works, and then, by a ‘bold burst,’ ascend the steep ascent, cross the abatis, dash over the rude but strong parapet, and secure the coveted goal.
“The troops were full of enthusiasm, and the splendid array in which the advance was made gave hopeful promise of success. Near the foot of the ascent the assaulting force dashed forward for the last great effort. It was welcomed with a most terrible fire of grape and canister and musketry; but its course was onward. When near, however, the enemy’s works (a few of our men, stouter of limb and steadier of movement, had already entered his line) his reserves on the slope of the hill rose and poured in a fire before which no troops could live.”
The Federals sustained heavy casualties before falling back; the 13th U.S. Colored Troops lost nearly 40 percent of their regimental strength. But just as Thomas hoped, the attack prompted Hood to shift troops from his left to strengthen his right. Meanwhile, Federal artillery pummeled the Confederate defenders.
Around the time that Wood’s probe ended, Brigadier General John McArthur, commanding one of A.J. Smith’s divisions in the Federal center, discovered a weakness in the Confederate line on Compton’s Hill. He consulted with Major General Darius Couch, commanding the division to his right (under Schofield), and later wrote:
“Being informed that he (Couch) had no orders to advance, and fearing that if delayed until next day the night would be employed by the enemy to our disadvantage, I determined to attack, sending word to this effect to the major-general commanding corps.”
A.J. Smith passed the word to Thomas, who approved McArthur’s plan. Schofield agreed to support the assault. McArthur reported:
“The First Brigade, with fixed bayonets, without a cheer or firing a shot, but with firm resolve and without doubting their success, commenced the difficult ascent, and without a halt, although exposed to a murderous fire, which none but the bravest troops could withstand, planted their colors on the very apex of the hill. At the appointed time the Second and Third Brigades… moved forward on the enemy’s works. Their path lay across a cornfield, traversed by stone walls and ditches, which together with the softness of the ground, exposed as they were to a direct fire in front, and enfiladed by batteries on the flanks, for a time held with intense interest the most experienced officers who beheld it; but onward was their motto, and their banners were planted on the works defended by the choicest troops of the rebel army, calling forth the remark of the rebel officers that powder and lead were inadequate to resist such a charge.”
The Confederate left crumbled, and the troops fled south and east in a rout. This forced the Confederates on Overton Hill to follow, and they rushed south toward Franklin to avoid complete destruction. Hood lamented, “I beheld for the first and only time a Confederate army abandon the field in confusion.” Confederate cavalry and S.D. Lee’s rear guard held off the Federal pursuit, which halted at nightfall.
Thomas informed his superiors that the enemy was “hopelessly broken.” He wrote, “I have ordered the pursuit to be continued in the morning at daylight, although the troops are very much fatigued. The greatest enthusiasm prevails.” In two days of fighting, the Federals sustained 3,061 casualties (387 killed, 2,562 wounded, and 112 missing), while the Confederates lost an estimated 6,000 (1,500 killed or wounded and up to 4,500 captured).
The battle’s outcome was never in doubt, as Thomas’s plan to destroy Hood’s army was executed to near perfection. Administration officials would no longer doubt Thomas’s ability or resolve. The only question remaining was whether the once-mighty Confederate Army of Tennessee could ever be an effective fighting force again.
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