Battle of Nashville
The Battle of Nashville was a two-day engagement in mid-December, 1864 between the Union Army of the Tennessee under Major General George H. Thomas and the Confederate Army of Tennessee under Lieutenant General John Bell Hood. Fought near Nashville, Tennessee in one of the last large-scale battles of the Civil War, Thomas decisively defeated Hood, forcing his battered army out of Tennessee into Mississippi, eventually resigning his command.
Nashville - December 15th
On the morning of December 15th the long anticipated Union offensive was delayed yet again. A thick blanket of fog encased the area and prevented the early morning attack from starting off on time. As the sun rose above the horizon the fog slowly burned off until minimum visibility was achieved.
At 0800 the action began with a diversionary attack on the Confederate right. There a force of five USCT regiments (14th, 16th, 17th, 18th, and 44th) under Colonel Thomas Morgan advanced across a cornfield. Morgan had personally conducted a reconnaissance the previous evening and believed they were facing nothing more than a line of rifle pits. As they crossed the Nashville& Chattanooga railroad they discovered just how wrong he was. Undetected behind a screen of trees was a strongly fortified lunette held by 300 men from Granbury’s brigade and four guns. The Confederates held their fire until Morgan’s parade ground formation was within 30 yards. At short range the Federals were “met by a destructive fire from a battery planted on the opposite side of a deep cut.” Govan’s brigade, taking advantage of the confusion, shifted out of line and poured fire into the mass of soldiers seeking refuge in the cut. The men there were doomed and the rest fled the field. Seeing the developing disaster, Colonel Morgan summoned Colonel Charles Grosvenor and his tiny brigade of reserves to stabilize the situation. They advanced against the now discovered strong point and were bloodily repulsed. The withdrawal of Union troops here was done “in rather a disorderly manner.” They left 825 causalities on the field.
On the far left the Union cavalry, numbering 2100, sat out the morning waiting for the fog to lift. Opposing them was 900 Rebel troopers from Rucker’s brigade under the direct command of BG Chalmers. BG Richard Johnson finally ordered 759 dismounted troopers forward in a comical advance as the men tripped and clanked their way forward still wearing their sabers. The fumbling attack allowed Chalmers to escape. The Confederate center became the target for the heavy siege guns at Fort Negley. For more than two hours they blasted away while Union troops maneuvered into striking position. In the six hours since the battle opened, 13,500 Union troops had managed to accomplish little more than seize lightly defended Montgomery Hill.
Finally Wilson’s dismounted cavalrymen and A. J. Smith’s divisions were in place after a long left wheel march. The attack began just before 1400. In front of the attackers were five redoubts. Unfinished Redoubt No. 5 fell quickly to the advance and two guns from No. 4 had to be directed to fire into it before it too fell to the determined Federal charge. The forts yielded six guns and 150 prisoners.
The Confederate left was now in serious trouble. Manigault’s and Deas’ brigade were stripped from the right and hastily dispatched to firm up the left. They formed a line parallel to the Hillsboro Pike behind a low wall. They were swarmed by masses of blue troops using their Spencer’s to good advantage before they could get organized and fled to the rear. An additional battery taken from Loring’s division dropped trail to steady them at a new position. But again they fled in the face of the Union attack and the guns were captured. Across the entire line, save the extreme right, the Union forces met with success. All five redoubts were overrun and only the shift of Cheatham’s corps to the left and darkness prevented total disaster.
Only to Die – December 16th
The main Confederate line was reorganized about two miles south of the previous day’s position. It was anchored by Overton Hill on the right and Shy’s Hill on the left. Again Steedman’s troops were given the task of leading off the attack. There was no doubt about the strength of this position. The works were fronted by an abatis and could only be approached across a muddy open field. The position was held by Stovall’s brigade of Georgians and two batteries of artillery. The prospects for an easy fight were extremely dim.
Steedman’s lead brigade stepped off about 1500 and immediately got into trouble. Artillery fire began to fall on them as soon as the advance order was given. The 12th USCT was supposed to execute a movement around a clump of trees while the rest of the line waited. The whole line surged forward and the 12th was forced to double quick in order to keep pace. Seeing the men on their left running the 100th USCT began rushing forward, believing that a charge had been called. The mad rush ran directly into the brigade on the right and all was soon chaos. Heavy musketry and charges of canister plowed into them. The men threw themselves into the abatis seeking cover. There they became inviting stationary targets. Hundreds were down dead and wounded. The rest dare not move for fear of exposing themselves. Steedman’s other brigade had no better luck. The 18th Ohio was left on the field alone after the 2nd Battalion of XIV Corps fled the fight again. They barely made it to the base of the hill before retiring.
On Steedman’s right the brigades of Colonel Post and Colonel Streight suffered much the same fate. The slaughter was not over yet, however. The 13th USCT, in the reserve position, had escaped relatively unscathed as the Confederates fought off the front line assault. They managed to break through the protective abates before drawing the attention of the defenders. They charged the fortress with a yell. The entire Confederate line turned on them. Five color bearers were shot down and still they would not stop. Again and again they surged forward only to be driven back. Inside the Confederate defense BG James Holtzclaw was amazed at their courage but saw to his work stating that they came “only to die.” He would later applaud their courage in his after action report. But courage could not take his position. The right had held again.
The left was again threatened by a turning movement by Wilson’s cavalrymen. Govan’s brigade was holding a position at the end of the Confederate line when five regiments of troopers, under Colonel Datus Coon, pushed Chalmers onto a small knoll just south of Shy’s Hill. After some skirmishing the 7th Illinois Cavalry drove Chalmers off and assumed a very threatening position behind Govan. Ector’s brigade, now under the command of Col David Coleman, was quickly pulled out of the main line and retook the hill.
Hatch would have none of that and put his men to work hauling artillery up a nearby hill with ropes. At 1500 the pieces were ready and on order began pounding the Rebel position with plunging fire. Coon’s entire brigade added fire from their Spencer’s to the mix. Chalmers and Coleman abandoned the knoll. The left of the Army of Tennessee was uncovered. Wilson was eager to take advantage of the opportunity but the general attack on this portion of the line had not yet begun. He sought out Thomas and requested that the infantry move forward at once to cover their move on the Confederate rear. At that very moment Hood was further weakening the line on Shy’s Hill. BG Daniel Reynolds brigade was removed and sent down the Granny Smith pike to help Chalmers secure the vital route. Thomas finally unleashed the massive Federal attack directly at Bate’s now overextended line of infantry. Stretched to the breaking point the Confederate line did the inevitable; it broke. One by one the brigades headed for the rear. Their step quickened by the sight of Wilson’s troopers moving to cut off their only escape route. Soon the only intact position on the whole Confederate line was Lee’s on Overton Hill. Lee attempted to rally the fleeing men to no avail. His corps was in great danger of being caught in the huge Federal pincer. They kept the increasingly skittish men in line until it looked like Chalmers would be pushed away from the pike. Even these stalwarts had reached their limit. Seeing nothing but a sacrificial fight ahead these men could no longer be held. A final burst by the attackers, spurred on by the growing confusion in front of them, caused them to make a dash for safety the only reasonable course of action. The once mighty Army of Tennessee had been reduced to a mob of fear crazed men fleeing into the growing darkness. Hood’s great campaign to win back Tennessee was over. Only a hard journey south remained.
Retreat and Rear Guard Action
The routed Army of Tennessee poured south in a driving rain. At Franklin Hood gave command of the rear guard to Lee. He hoped to stall the Federal pursuit long enough to gain some valuable distance for his beleaguered men. At Hollow Tree Gap, about five miles north of Franklin, BG Pettus and BG Stovall waited with their brigades while Chalmers met the enemy in classic cavalry style. The saber and pistol duel masked the fact that the Union troopers were being drawn into a trap. When Chalmers’ men broke contact the infantry unleashed a devastating volley into the 10th Indiana Cavalry. The Federals galloped off in panic leaving 23 killed and wounded and 63 prisoners behind. Flanking columns on each side forced the Confederates to withdraw towards Franklin.
Near Thompson’s Station, MG Stevenson’s men beat back an ill advised saber charge made by 200 men from the 4th United States Cavalry in a wild melee. Nearby BG Buford’s troopers held back the 2nd Iowa Cavalry in a short hand to hand fight before the Confederates again moved south.
The Southern engineers worked feverishly to destroy the bridges at Franklin. They sank the temporary bridge and in a herculean effort managed to topple the railroad trestle into the river. The few Union troops that forded the river were blasted back by Bledsoe’s Battery stationed on Front Street. Unfortunately about 75 men from Holtzclaw’s brigade were trapped on the far side and captured. Thomas mistakenly aided the Confederate cause when he worded his order to his pontoon train to advance down the Murfreesborough Pike. Of course he meant the Franklin Pike and the heavy train was delayed for 18 hours trying to make up the lost distance on muddy roads. Meanwhile, a makeshift bridge was constructed by the 9th Indiana and the chase continued. Forrest rejoined the main body and was placed in command of the rear guard. His force consisted of 1600 infantry, under MG Walthall, and 3000 of his own troopers. Under a flag of truce he met with BG Hatch and convinced him that all the able bodied troops in the city had been evacuated and shelling the city was unnecessary. Hatch stopped the bombardment.
The two would meet again on less friendly terms at Richland Creek. Here Forrest waited with six guns and his entire force of cavalry. A short artillery duel was followed by some heavy skirmishing. In the confused action a solitary member of the 1st Tennessee Cavalry sprinted through the fight and captured Chalmers headquarters flag. Forrest retreated when his position was threatened by a flanking movement.
On Christmas Day the two forces clashed again at Anthony’s Hill. Another well laid trap sent the Union regiments fleeing. The rout was so complete that two brigades of Federal cavalry left a gun of Battery I 4th United States Artillery on the field undefended. It was taken by Forrest’s men.
In the last significant action of the retreat Forrest surprised the Federal cavalry at Sugar Creek. BG Hammond’s brigade was chased across the waist deep creek for a half mile before Forrest’s men gave up the pursuit. Completely routed they suffered 150 causalities. Hood crossed the Tennessee River on the 26th near Bainbridge, Alabama on a bridge partially constructed by LTC Stephen Presstman’s engineers with pontoons left when Union forces evacuated Decatur. In a final insult the entire pontoon train was captured by the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry as it made its way back to the army. The campaign was declared over by MG George H. Thomas on 30 December. Hood resigned his command and left the army on 24 January. Fighting in the west was essentially done.
- OR’s, Volume XLV, Chapter LVII
- The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah – Spring Hill, Franklin, and Nashville, Wiley Sword
- Mountains Touched with Fire - Wiley Sword
- Five Tragic Hours – The Battle of Franklin, James McDonough & Thomas Connelly
- Shrouds of Glory – From Atlanta to Nashville, Winston Groom
- The Warrior Generals – Combat Leadership in the Civil War, Thomas Buell
- Autumn of Glory – The Army of Tennessee 1862-1865, Thomas Connelly