December 21, 1864 – Major General George H. Thomas’s Federals struggled to pursue and destroy the rapidly disintegrating General John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee as it retreated south toward Alabama.
The Confederates were in full retreat after their major defeat outside Nashville, fleeing south toward Columbia. Thomas, commanding the victorious Federal Army of the Cumberland, ordered a pursuit to destroy Hood’s army. The infantry had to wait for pontoon bridges to be built so they could move their supply trains over the Harpeth River, but Brigadier General James H. Wilson’s cavalry did not.
Wilson’s horsemen chased the Confederates down the Franklin Pike on the 17th and ran into a hastily assembled Confederate rear guard at Winstead Hill. The Confederates put up a stubborn fight against superior numbers, holding the Federals off long enough for the rest of Hood’s army to retreat through Franklin. One of Hood’s corps commanders, Lieutenant General Stephen D. Lee, was wounded in the foot during the action, and was replaced by Major General Carter L. Stevenson.
The next day, Hood stopped his troops at Columbia and prepared to make a stand on the Duck River. If he could not hold Columbia, any Confederate hope to reclaim Tennessee would be lost. Meanwhile, Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry rode west from Murfreesboro to rejoin Hood’s army. Forrest got into a heated argument with Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham, one of Hood’s corps commanders, over which command would cross the Duck River first. Reports vary as to who won, and by nightfall both Cheatham’s and Forrest’s men were across.
To the north, Wilson’s Federals discovered that the Confederates had destroyed the bridges over Rutherford Creek, and heavy rain made the waterway too swollen to cross. They spent the next few days building a makeshift pontoon bridge out of felled trees and railroad abutments so they could continue their pursuit. The rest of Thomas’s army remained bogged down by the rain, mud, snow, and ice, as well as a lack of a supply train.
The bulk of Hood’s army crossed the Duck River on the 19th. A rear guard skirmished with the Federals along Rutherford Creek as cold rain turned into sleet and then snow. Hood still contemplated holding Columbia, but Forrest advised him, “If we are unable to hold the state, we should at once evacuate it.” Hood determined that his army was in no condition to put up another fight, so he issued orders to abandon Columbia and fall back to the Tennessee River. The Confederates moved out around 3 p.m., with Forrest’s troopers covering the withdrawal. Tennessee was lost.
The next day, the Federal pontoon train arrived, and Thomas directed Major General John Schofield, commanding XXIII Corps, to build a bridge over Rutherford Creek “so that the artillery and trains can cross.” Thomas intended to use his pontoon train to “throw bridges over Duck River early in the morning.” If the Federals could get across the Duck by the end of the 21st, Thomas was “hopeful that the greater part of Hood’s army may be captured, as he cannot possibly get his trains and troops across the Tennessee River before we can overtake him.”
However, the Federal engineer in charge of bridge construction informed Thomas on the 21st:
“I regret to say it will be utterly impossible to finish the bridge today. We are making but slow progress, on account of the high water and the mass of wreck and iron in the stream, which it is next to impossible to remove. Our ropes freeze and stiffen, and the men are scarcely able to hold themselves on the scaffolding on account of the ice. We cannot possibly cross the bridge before tomorrow noon, unless the water falls and weather moderates.”
This left the Federal army stationary between Rutherford Creek and the Duck River. Without their supply train, the Federals had to forage for food, but Wilson’s cavalry had already picked the area clean. On top of this, Thomas started getting messages from Washington expressing renewed dissatisfaction with his perceived slowness in chasing down Hood’s Confederates. Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck wrote:
“Permit me, General, to urge the vast importance of a hot pursuit of Hood’s army. Every possible sacrifice should be made, and your men for a few days will submit to any hardship and privation to accomplish the great result. If you can capture or destroy Hood’s army Sherman can entirely crush out the rebel military force in all the Southern States. He begins a new campaign about the 1st of January, which will have the most important results, if Hood’s army can now be used up. A most vigorous pursuit on your part is therefore of vital importance to Sherman’s plans. No sacrifice must be spared to attain so important an object.”
Thomas’s response reflected his annoyance with his superiors:
“General Hood’s army is being pursued as rapidly and as vigorously as it is possible for one army to pursue another. We cannot control the elements, and, you must remember, that to resist Hood’s advance into Tennessee I had to reorganize and almost thoroughly equip the force now under my command… I am doing all in my power to crush Hood’s army, and, if it be possible, will destroy it; but pursuing an enemy through an exhausted country, over mud roads, completely sogged with heavy rains, is no child’s play, and cannot be accomplished as quickly as thought of.
“Although my progress may appear slow, I feel assured that Hood’s army can be driven from Tennessee, and eventually driven to the wall, by the force under my command; but too much must not be expected of troops which have to be reorganized, especially when they have the task of destroying a force in a winter campaign which was able to make an obstinate resistance to twice its numbers in spring and summer. In conclusion, I can safely state that this army is willing to submit to any sacrifice to oust Hood’s army, or to strike any other blow which would contribute to the destruction of the rebellion.”
Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, tried positive reinforcement to nudge Thomas:
“You have the congratulations of the public for the energy with which you are pushing Hood. If you succeed in destroying Hood’s army, there will be but one army left to the so-called Confederacy capable of doing us harm. I will take care of that and try to draw the sting from it, so that in the spring we shall have easy sailing.”
But Thomas could do little to speed up the pursuit as his men languished in the mud and ice. Federal units that were able to cross the Duck River ran into Forrest’s rear guard, which protected Hood’s retreat toward Pulaski. Rear Admiral Samuel P. Lee, commanding the Federal gunboat squadron on the Tennessee River, tried moving downstream to block Hood’s presumed crossing point at Chickasaw, Alabama. But the water level at Muscle Shoals was too low to pass, and Lee had to withdraw. Thus, it seemed that Hood would escape destruction for now.
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