December 28, 1864 – Major General George H. Thomas decided to end his pursuit of the beaten, demoralized Confederates as they left Tennessee for the last time.
It was a gloomy Christmas for General John Bell Hood’s once-powerful Confederate Army of Tennessee. When he began his campaign in November, Hood had envisioned reclaiming Tennessee and Kentucky, and possibly even invading the North. But since then, his army had suffered crushing defeats at Franklin and Nashville, and now the few remaining men struggled to get across the Tennessee River before the Federals destroyed them once and for all. Yet despite the army’s failures, Tennessee Governor Isham Harris urged President Jefferson Davis not to blame Hood:
“… I have been with General Hood from the beginning of this campaign, and beg to say, disastrous as it has ended, I am not able to see anything that General Hood has done that he should not, or neglected any thing that he should, have done… and regret to say that, if all had performed their parts as well as he, the results would have been very different.”
On the Federal side, Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland had the advantage in numbers and momentum, but the troops were enduring hardships of their own. They had set out to finish off the Confederate army, but they got bogged down in rain, mud, snow, and ice. Nevertheless, Thomas wrote his superiors, “I have my troops well in hand, and well provided with provisions and ammunition, and close upon the heels of the enemy, and shall continue to press him as long as there is a chance of doing anything.”
Brigadier General James H. Wilson’s Federal cavalry probed forward to find a weak spot in Hood’s retreating column, but Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate cavalry held him off long enough for the rest of the Confederates to slip away. Forrest suffered heavy losses on Christmas Day while the Confederates destroyed anything they could not take with them out of Pulaski. Later that day, Hood’s vanguard reached the banks of the Tennessee River at Bainbridge.
A Federal gunboat squadron led by Rear Admiral Samuel P. Lee moved up the Tennessee to try to block the Confederate river crossing. However, as Lee later reported:
“Foggy weather and a rapidly falling river prevented my reaching and destroying Hood’s pontoons at Bainbridge. Bainbridge was not a regular ferry, and my clever pilot thought the water was too swift there for a crossing. Hood must have been sorely pushed to have resorted to such a place on the shoals.”
Besides Thomas and Lee, a third Federal force under Major General James B. Steedman tried to cut Hood off. Steedman’s 5,000 Federals had been sent to Murfreesboro after the Battle of Nashville, and now they were ordered to take the railroad to Decatur, Alabama. The troops began boarding on the 22nd, but due to delays, they did not get there until the 26th, too late to block Hood’s line of retreat.
The Confederates began crossing the river on the 26th while Forrest, supported by some infantry, continued checking the Federal advance. Wilson’s cavalry came up again that day, and according to Forrest:
“Owing to the dense fog, he could not see the temporary fortifications which the infantry had thrown up and behind which they were secreted. The enemy therefore advanced to within 50 paces of these works, when a volley was opened upon him, causing the wildest confusion.”
Forrest then counterattacked with his entire force, forcing the Federals to retreat. This minor victory ended an otherwise disastrous campaign for the Army of Tennessee. Forrest’s men joined the rest of Hood’s demoralized force in crossing the Tennessee to safety. Lee’s gunboats tried getting to the Confederates again on the 27th, but they could only destroy two Confederate batteries at Florence, Alabama, before having to pull back to Eastport, Mississippi, due to rapidly falling waters.
Thomas’s Federals, led by Wilson’s cavalry and followed by Brigadier General Thomas J. Wood’s IV Corps, reached Pulaski on the 28th. By that time, the Confederates had finished crossing the Tennessee, but Thomas did not yet know it. He therefore directed Wilson to ride ahead and destroy the Confederate pontoon bridges. Thomas reported to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck, “I feel confident that he will make every exertion to carry out my orders.”
If Wilson found that the Confederates had already crossed, Thomas wrote that he would continue to “pursue him, if the roads are at all practicable.” Thomas reported that Hood’s army was in a “most deplorable condition,” so he was confident that he could “intercept him at Iuka, if he retreats that way.” But then the situation changed.
That night, Wilson reported that “the last of the enemy crossed the river yesterday evening… there is no necessity of going to the Tennessee River as a matter of pursuit.” When Thomas pressed Wood to lead his infantry in pursuit, Wood replied, “As I have already stated in previous dispatches, the road from Pulaski to the Tennessee River is exceedingly bad, and in my judgment, utterly impracticable as a route for the supply of troops.” Moreover, Thomas’s pontoon bridges were still on the Duck River, 70 miles north. Thomas therefore decided to end the pursuit.
Thomas sent Halleck a report on the campaign, stating that the Federals had virtually destroyed the Confederate army. Prisoners taken reported “that they had orders to scatter and care for themselves.” This indicated that Hood’s force “had become a disheartened and disorganized rabble of half-naked and barefooted men, who sought every opportunity to fall out by the wayside and desert their cause to put an end to their sufferings. The rear guard, however, was undaunted and firm, and did its work bravely to the last.” Thomas then explained why he decided not to continue forward and finish the Confederates off:
“In consequence of the terribly bad weather, almost impassible condition of the roads, and exhausted country, the troops and animals are so much worn down by the fatigues of the last two weeks that it becomes necessary to halt for a short time to reorganize and refit for a renewal of the campaign, if Hood should halt at Corinth. Should he continue his retreat to Meridian, as supposed by many of his officers who have been taken prisoners, I think it would be best for the troops to be allowed till early spring, when the roads will be in a condition to make a campaign into the heart of the enemy’s country.”
Thomas wrote Wood directing “that the pursuit cease, and that you march with your corps to Huntsville, Athens, and vicinity, and there go into camp for the winter.” Thomas directed Major General John Schofield’s XXIII Corps to set up winter quarters at Dalton, Georgia. Thomas told Halleck that he selected these points because “they can be easily supplied, and from which points they can be readily assembled to make a spring campaign.”
This did not sit well with Halleck or Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander. Grant replied, “I have no idea of keeping idle troops in any place,” and Halleck forwarded this message along with one of his own: “General Grant does not intend that your army shall go into winter quarters. It must be ready for active operations in the field.”
But as the year ended, what was left of Hood’s Army of Tennessee was temporarily safe at Tupelo, Mississippi. This was not necessarily the case for Hood himself: President Davis dispatched General P.G.T. Beauregard, commander of the Western Theater, to go to Tupelo and decide whether Hood should be removed from command.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21190, 21207; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 509-10; 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 14855-75, 14895-905, 15816-36; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 536; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 615-16; Nevin, David, Sherman’s March: Atlanta to the Sea (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 144; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 285-86