November 28, 1864 – General John Bell Hood’s Confederate Army of Tennessee stood poised to attack the Federal Army of the Ohio at Columbia, Tennessee. But miscommunication led to an enormous missed opportunity for the Confederates.
By the morning of the 28th, Major General John Schofield’s Federals had fallen back north, across the Duck River, putting that waterway between themselves and Hood’s Confederates to the south. Hood still looked to attack, while Schofield hoped to avoid a confrontation before he could join Major General George H. Thomas’s Federal Army of the Cumberland at Nashville.
Hood looked to block Schofield from linking with Thomas by sending most of his army across the Duck River east of Columbia. This force would then move northwest around Schofield’s flank, ending up between Schofield and Thomas. Hood patterned this movement after Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s flanking maneuver at the Battle of Chancellorsville, and Hood hoped to match “the grand results achieved by the immortal Jackson.” Hood dispatched Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry and two infantry divisions eastward to find suitable fords across the river.
Confederate gunners launched a diversionary bombardment south of Columbia while Forrest’s cavalry crossed at various fords east of town. The river was so high that some men and horses had to swim across. The Confederates clashed with leading elements of Federal cavalry under Colonel Horace Capron, who reported, “My force sent across the Duck River has been driven back to this side by a heavy force, and I am now engaging him across the river.”
Lieutenant Colonel Stephen W. Presstman, the chief Confederate engineer, oversaw the construction of a pontoon bridge for the infantry to cross. Seeing cavalry and infantry moving beyond his left flank, Capron reported, “There is a heavy force of infantry, cavalry, and artillery pressing us; too strong for us; they are moving up on our left. I will hold them, if possible.”
The Federal cavalry soon discovered that there were too many fords east of Columbia to defend. Schofield notified Major General George H. Thomas, the Federal commander at Nashville, “I do not think we can prevent the crossing of even the enemy’s cavalry, because the places are so numerous. I think the best we can do is to hold the crossings near us and watch the distant ones.”
That night, Thomas told Schofield that if the Confederates outflanked him to the east, “you will necessarily have to make preparations to take up a new position at Franklin, behind Harpeth (River), immediately, if it becomes necessary to fall back.”
Forrest’s Confederates finally drove Capron’s forces off and seized Rally Hill, about 13 miles northeast of Columbia. There they secured the fords so the rest of Hood’s army could cross the Duck River. The troops would cross about three miles above Columbia at dawn on the 29th.
Brigadier General James H. Wilson, commanding the Federal cavalry, learned of Hood’s plan from a captured Confederate. He immediately notified Schofield, “I think it very clear that they are aiming for Franklin, and that you ought to get to Spring Hill by 10 a.m. I’ll keep on this road and hold the enemy all I can… Get back to Franklin without delay, leaving a small force to detain the enemy.”
Spring Hill was a crossroads hamlet on the turnpike leading north to Franklin and Nashville. If Hood could get there before Schofield, he could cut Schofield off from the Nashville supply base. Before dawn, Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham’s Confederate corps crossed the Duck River, followed by the corps of Lieutenant General Alexander P. Stewart. Hood’s third corps under Lieutenant General Stephen D. Lee remained south of Columbia as a diversion.
Schofield received the messages from Wilson and began pulling his Federals back toward Spring Hill, led by Major General David S. Stanley’s IV Corps. Forrest’s Confederates advanced toward Spring Hill and engaged a small defense force before Stanley’s men could arrive and secure both the village and the turnpike for the rest of Schofield’s men.
Major General Patrick R. Cleburne’s Confederate division joined the assault around 3 p.m. Stanley reported, “Up to this time, it was thought that we had only cavalry to contend with, but a general officer and his staff, at whom we sent some complimentary shells, were seen reconnoitering our position, and very soon afterward General Bradley was assailed by a force which the men said fought too well to be any dismounted cavalry.”
The Confederate attack was bogged down by miscommunication, with some troops advancing and others refusing. Hood did not send any reinforcements to break Stanley’s defenses, which held firm. Around this time, Schofield realized that Lee’s Confederates south of Columbia were merely a diversion, and he hurriedly withdrew all his Federals north along the turnpike to Spring Hill and Franklin, 12 miles beyond.
Hood erroneously believed that his Confederates had seized the turnpike. His officers, knowing otherwise, were shocked when Hood ordered them to bivouac for the night rather than continue moving. As the Confederates settled into their camps, the Federals passed them on the turnpike, just 600 yards away, and made their way through Spring Hill unmolested.
This inexplicable failure to stop Schofield’s escape prompted charges and countercharges of dereliction of duty among the Confederate high command. In his official report, Hood wrote, “Major-General Cheatham was ordered to attack the enemy at once vigorously and get possession of the pike, and, although these orders were frequently and earnestly repeated, he made but a feeble and partial attack, failing to reach the point indicated.” But Hood, who had sustained serious wounds in prior battles, may have been too overwhelmed by pain and exhaustion to know exactly what was happening.
Called the “Spring Hill Affair,” this became one of the most controversial non-combat events of the war. And one of Hood’s greatest opportunities to isolate and destroy Schofield’s Federal army was forever lost.
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