Battle of Columbia
Conflict near Columbia, during Hood’s 1864 Tennessee invasion, constituted a Confederate diversion as part of a maneuver designed to cross the Duck River upstream and interdict the Union army’s line of communications with Nashville. As Gen. John Bell Hood’s army advanced northeastward from Florence, Alabama, Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield’s force quickly withdrew from Pulaski to Columbia, arriving on November 24, just ahead of Forrest’s Rebel cavalry. The Federals built two lines of earthworks south of the town while skirmishing with enemy cavalry on November 24 and 25. Hood advanced his infantry on the following day but did not assault. He made demonstrations along the front while marching two corps of his army to Davis Ford, some five miles eastward on the Duck River. Schofield correctly interpreted Hood’s moves, but foul weather prevented him from crossing to the north bank before November 28, leaving Columbia to the Confederates. The next day, both armies marched north for Spring Hill. Schofield had slowed Hood’s movement but had not stopped him. (NPS summary)
The race to Columbia began when BG Jacob Cox was ordered by Schofield at 0400 on the 24th to rush to Columbia and bolster the 800 man garrison of Ruger’s troops there. Cox was encamped near Lynnville, which he reported had been burned by the 10th Tennessee Cavalry (Union) as retribution for guerilla activity. Cox immediately started north in the “dark and cold”.
Colonel Horace Capron’s beleaguered cavalry brigade spent Thanksgiving Day in a desperate attempt to stall the Confederate advance while Cox rushed to the city. Their efforts barely slowed Forrest but it was just enough. Cox marched into Columbia at 0730 just as Capron’s men collapsed “in hasty retreat”. Cox took up positions across the Mount Pleasant Pike, with “Reilly on right, Henderson center, and Casement left.” The rebel troopers backed off after a “lively skirmish” with the newly arrived infantry. The Federals had beaten Forrest to Columbia literally by minutes. Cox’s men were quickly joined by Moore’s brigade of Ruger’s Division coming in by train from Johnsonville at an opportune moment. Stanley’s IVth Corps began arriving by mid-morning and Schofield’s entire 22,000 man force was present by early afternoon. A set of defensive works was initiated in anticipation of a Confederate attack. Hood’s infantry columns, however, had been badly outpaced by Forrest and lagged well behind. Schofield was given a respite during which he evaluated his position. What he found was not to his liking. Despite orders from Thomas not to abandon the city unless “necessary” he thought a move away from Columbia was called for. He wisely determined that fighting with the Duck River at his back was tactically unsound. His new plan called for the immediate evacuation of all but two divisions to the northern side of the river. He wired Thomas that he regretted the withdraw stating that he would “explain fully in time”.
The rain continued to swell the river and Schofield was forced to alter his movements. MG Stanley reported the attempted crossing on the 26th this way; “the night was so dark and the rain poured down so that no progress could be made crossing the artillery and at midnight the movement was given up”. Only Ruger’s Division and two brigades of Cox had made it across.
Meanwhile, Hood continued north and took up positions outside the city. As his entire infantry force became available a cordon was thrown up in front of the Union works. This freed Forrest who was sent several miles east to rest reorganize, and await the next phase of maneuver. Hood also took time to evaluate his situation and determined that the Federal position at Columbia was too strong to assault head on. A brilliant plan to skirt Schofield by flanking movement was developed and set into motion late on the 27th.
While Confederate preparations were being made Schofield finally managed to get his forces across the swollen river. According to Stanley, “during the night of the 27th the withdrawal to the north side of the river was made very successfully”. Efforts were made to destroy anything that may be of use to Hood’s men. Stanley reported that “the fort and magazine were fired, but the destruction was not very complete”. The Confederates skirmishers detected the Union retreat and advanced into the undefended city at first light. The few remaining citizens greeted them with “the wildest enthusiasm.” They also discovered that the bridge across the river destroyed by a blaze set by the last of Schofield’s retreating troops. The two armies were finally confronting each other with only a thin ribbon of water, the Duck River, separating them.