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Chapter 13:

  • Affairs at Nashville Criticised from Savannah.

No sooner had our army reached Savannah than a sickening anxiety set in about headquarters to hear from Nashville. An army of sixty thousand men had marched away from its enemy, leaving him moving toward the North, to be taken care of with what General Sherman calls the ‘somewhat broken forces’ at the disposal of Thomas. Exultation over the ‘great march’ was fast dying away at headquarters. The all-important question there was: Will Hood evade or defeat Thomas, and invade Kentucky and the North? Writing the day after he entered Savannah to General Webster, at Nashville, Sherman said in a letter, referred to in the Memoirs, but not given:
‘I have also from the War Department a copy of General Thomas' dispatch, giving an account of the attack on Hood on the 15th, which was successful, but not complete. I await further accounts with anxiety, as Thomas' complete success is necessary to vindicate my plans for this campaign, and I have no doubt that my calculation that Thomas had in hand (including A. J. Smith's troops) a force large enough to whip Hood in a fair fight was correct.’

There was no peace at headquarters till this doubt was fully resolved, and the painful suspense removed by the news of final and complete victory at Nashville. This victory was full deliverance for General Sherman from the verdict he had recorded as the march began, when he wrote: ‘Should we fail, this march would be adjudged the wild adventure of a crazy fool.’ Had Hood defeated Thomas, or reached the [174] Ohio River, this verdict would assuredly have passed into history.

And so, considering the bearings which the battle of Nashville had upon Sherman's campaign to the sea, his best friends may well be surprised to find his book stained by unjust reflections upon Thomas.

The following extracts from the Memoirs indicate the treatment which this branch of the subject receives:

As soon as the army had reached Savannah, and had opened communication with the fleet, I endeavored to ascertain what had transpired in Tennessee since our departure. * * * *

As before described, General Hood had three full corps of infantry—S. D. Lee's, A. P. Stewart's, and Cheatham's—at Florence, Alabama, with Forrest's corps of cavalry, numbering in the aggregate about forty-five thousand men. General Thomas was in Nashville, Tennessee, quietly engaged in reorganizing his army out of the somewhat broken forces at his disposal. He had posted his only two regular corps—the Fourth and Twenty-third—under the general command of Major-General J. M. Schofield, at Pulaski, directly in front of Florence, with the three brigades of cavalry (Hatch, Croxton, and Capron), commanded by Major-General Wilson, watching closely for Hood's initiative.

This force aggregated about thirty thousand men, was therefore inferior to the enemy; and General Schofield was instructed, in case the enemy made a general advance, to fall back slowly toward Nashville, fighting till he should be reenforced by General Thomas in person. * * * *

Meantime General Thomas had organized the employs of the quartermaster's department into a corps, commanded by the Chief-Quartermaster, General J. L. Donaldson, and placed them in the fortifications of Nashville, under the general direction of Major-General Z. B. Tower, now of the United States Engineers. He had also received the two veteran divisions of the Sixteenth Corps, under General A. J. Smith, long absent and long expected, and he had drawn from Chattanooga and Decatur (Alabama), the divisions of Steedman and of R. S. Granger.

‘These, with General Schofield's army, and about ten thousand good cavalry, under General J. H. Wilson, constituted a strong army, capable, not only of defending Nashville, but of beating Hood in the open field. Yet Thomas remained inside of Nashville, seemingly passive, until General Hood had closed upon him and had intrenched his position. * * * * At that time the weather was cold and sleety, the ground was covered with ice and snow, and both parties for a time rested on the defensive. Thus matters stood at Nashville, while we were closing down on Savannah, in the early part of December, 1864; and the country, as well as General Grant, was [175] alarmed at the seeming passive conduct of General Thomas; and General Grant at one time considered the situation so dangerous that he thought of going to Nashville in person, but General John A. Logan, happening to be at City Point, was sent out to supersede General Thomas. Luckily for the latter, he acted in time, gained a magnificent victory, and thus escaped so terrible a fate.’

It seems never to have occurred to General Sherman that much of this trouble came to General Thomas through the misrepresentations he himself had made to General Grant of Thomas' force, in the dispatch of November 1st, and others of a similar purport.

After narrating the demand on Hardee to surrender Savannah, his refusal and subsequent escape, and the occupation of the city, General Sherman again recurs to Thomas before Nashville, and in more generous terms:

‘Meantime, on the 15th and 16th of December, were fought, in front of Nashville, the great battles in which General Thomas so nobly fulfilled his promise to ruin Hood, the details of which are fully given in his own official reports, long since published. Rumors of these great victories reached us at Savannah by piecemeal, but his official report came on the 24th of December, with a letter from General Grant, giving in general terms the events up to the 18th, and I wrote at once through my Chief-of-Staff, General Webster, to General Thomas, complimenting him in the highest terms. His brilliant victory at Nashville was necessary to mine at Savannah to make a complete whole, and this fact was perfectly comprehended by Mr. Lincoln, who recognized it fully in his personal letter of December 26th, hereinbefore quoted at length, and which I also claimed at the time, in my Special Field Order No. 6, of January, 8, 1865, here given.’ * * * *

In comparing the above statements with the records, it is necessary to go back to the estimate General Sherman placed upon the forces of Hood, and those under the control of Thomas, when the object was to procure General Grant's permission to march for the sea without first destroying Hood.

From Resaca on November 1st, he telegraphed Grant as follows:

As you foresaw, and as Jeff. Davis threatened, the enemy is now in the full tide of execution of his grand plan to destroy my communications and defeat this army. His infantry, about thirty thousand (30,000), with Wheeler [176] and Roddy's cavalry, from seven to ten thousand (7,000 to 10,000), are now in the neighborhood of Tuscumbia and Florence, and the water being low, are able to cross at will. * * * *

General Thomas has near Athens and Pulaski, Stanley's corps, about fifteen thousand strong, and Schofield's corps, ten thousand, en route by rail, and has at least twenty to twenty-five thousand men, with new regiments and conscripts arriving all the time, also. General Rosecrans promises the two divisions of Smith and Mower, belonging to me, but I doubt if they can reach Tennessee in less than ten days. * * * * I have retained about fifty thousand good troops and have sent back full twenty-five thousand, and have instructed General Thomas to hold defensively Nashville, Chattanooga, and Decatur, all strongly fortified and provisioned for a long siege.’ * * * *

The points to be noted in connection with this telegram are, that Hood's forces were then estimated by Sherman at from thirty-seven to forty thousand, while Thomas' troops were stated to be from forty-five to fifty thousand besides new regiments, conscripts arriving all the time, and the two divisions of A. J. Smith.

Instead of Smith's troops reaching Thomas in ten days, they did not reach him for thirty days.

General Sherman instead of retaining fifty thousand troops retained over sixty-two thousand.

Thomas was instructed to hold Nashville defensively.

To write at this late day of General Thomas being in Nashville ‘seemingly passive,’ and ‘quietly engaged in reorganizing his army,’ is, in view of the almost superhuman efforts which he with the ‘somewhat broken forces at his disposal’ was making to prepare for the defeat of Hood, to perpetrate an injustice to the dead which the General of the army could easily have avoided.

And, as if to make this ‘passiveness and quiet’ apparent to all and the more inexcusable, and the great risk which he saw in leaving Thomas to grapple Hood at every disadvantage less apparent, the Memoirs present the estimate given below of Thomas' strength, which agrees neither with the dispatch of November 1st, already quoted, nor with the fact as recorded in the official records. A summing up of the statement will [177] show that it places Thomas' strength of all kinds at from eighty-two thousand seven hundred to eighty-eight thousand seven hundred, besides several garrisons, when in fact the official returns show that the effective force present at the battle of Nashville was fifty-five thousand four hundred and seventy-two, while the dispatch of November 1st fixed it at from sixty-three to seventy thousand.

Says General Sherman, Vol. II, page 162:

He then had at Nashville about eight or ten thousand new troops, and as many more civil employes of the quartermaster's department, which were not suited for the field, but would be most useful in manning the excellent forts that already covered Nashville. At Chattanooga he had General Steedman's division, about five thousand men, besides garrisons for Chattanooga, Bridgeport, and Stevenson; at Murfreesboro he also had General Rousseau's division, which was full five thousand strong, independent of the necessary garrisons for the railroad. At Decatur and Huntsville, Alabama, was the infantry division of General R. S. Granger, estimated at four thousand, and near Florence, Alabama, watching the crossings of the Tennessee, were General Edward Hatch's division of cavalry, four thousand; General Croxton's brigade, twenty-five hundred, and Colonel Capron's brigade, twelve hundred. Besides which General J. H. Wilson had collected in Nashville about ten thousand dismounted cavalry, for which he was rapidly collecting the necessary horses for a remount. All these aggregated about forty-five thousand men.

General A. J. Smith at that time was in Missouri with the two divisions of the Sixteenth Corps which had been diverted to that quarter to assist General Rosecrans in driving the rebel General Price out of Missouri. This object had been accomplished, and these troops, numbering from eight to ten thousand, had been ordered to Nashville. To these I proposed at first to add only the Fourth Corps (General Stanley), fifteen thousand, and that corps was ordered from Gaylesville to march to Chattanooga and thence to report for orders to General Thomas; but subsequently, on the 30th of October, at Rome, Georgia, learning from General Thomas that the new troops promised by General Grant were coming forward very slowly, I concluded to further reinforce him by General Schofield's corps (Twenty-third), twelve thousand, which corps accordingly marched for Resaca, and there took the cars for Chattanooga. I then knew that General Thomas would have an ample force with which to encounter General Hood any where in the open field, besides garrisons to secure the railroad to his rear, and as far forward as Chattanooga.’

In the earlier quotations of this chapter will be found some [178] generous words spoken of Thomas' success at Nashville, coupled with the statement that, upon learning the result, he wrote through General Webster, ‘complimenting him [Thomas] in the highest terms.’ Though not produced that letter exists in the records, and the part of it in any degree complimentary in its character is as follows:

headquarters Military division of the Mississippi, in the field, Savannah, Ga., December 23, 1864.
General J. D. Webster, Nashville, Tenn.
Dear General: Major Dixon arrived last night, bringing your letter of the 10th December, for which I am very much obliged, as it gives me a clear and distinct view of the situation of affairs at Nashville up to that date. I have also from the War Department a copy of General Thomas' dispatch, giving an account of the attack on Hood on the 15th, which was successful, but not complete. I await further accounts with anxiety, as Thomas' complete success is necessary to vindicate my plans for this campaign, and I have no doubt that my calculation that Thomas had in hand (including A. J. Smith's troops) a force large enough to whip Hood in a fair fight was correct. I approve of Thomas' allowing Hood to come north far enough to enable him to concentrate his own men, though I would have preferred that Hood should have been checked about Columbia. Still, if Thomas followed up his success of the 15th, and gave Hood a good whaling, and is at this moment following him closely, the whole campaign in any division will be even more perfect than the Atlanta campaign, for at this end of the line I have realized all I had reason to hope for, except in the release of our prisoners, which was simply an impossibility.

December 24—I have just received a letter from General Grant, giving a detail of General Thomas' operations up to the 18th, and I am gratified beyond measure at the result.

Show this letter to General Thomas, and tell him to consider it addressed to him, as I have not time to write more now. * * * *

I am, very truly, yours,

W. T. Sherman, Major-General

Perhaps the most glaring instance of injustice to General Thomas found in the book appears on page 209. It is contained in a general letter to Grant upon the situation before Savannah, and plans for a coming campaign, dated in front of the latter place December 16th. It has the following paragraph in regard to Thomas:

I myself am somewhat astonished at the attitude of things in Tennessee. I [179] purposely delayed at Kingston until General Thomas assured me that he was all ready, and my last dispatch from him of the 12th of November was full of confidence, in which he promised me that he would ruin Hood if he dared to advance from Florence, urging me to go ahead and give myself no concern about Hood's army in Tennessee.

‘Why he did not turn on him at Franklin, after checking and discomfiting him, surpasses my understanding. Indeed, I do not approve of his evacuating Decatur, but think he should have assumed the offensive against Hood from Pulaski in the direction of Waynesburg. I know full well that General Thomas is slow in mind and in action, but he is judicious and brave, and the troops feel great confidence in him. I still hope he will outmaneuver and destroy Hood.’

This letter, with the exception of the above extract, was printed in full by General Sherman in the report he placed before the Committee on the Conduct of the War, in May, 1865. The country was still ringing with the praise of Thomas. It would have been a serious thing to print it then; but now, when Thomas is dead, and Sherman is vindicating himself for history, this unjust paragraph is hunted up and given to the world, with the remark (page 207) that the letter now produced ‘is a little more full than the one printed in the report of the Committee on the Conduct of the War, because in that copy I omitted the matter concerning General Thomas which now need no longer be withheld.’

Even if General Sherman believed the paragraph was just when he wrote it, he well knew it to be cruelly unjust when he printed it.

On the 23d of December, only a few days after the date of this letter, he had written General Webster in the one already quoted:

‘I approve of Thomas' allowing Hood to come north far enough to enable him to concentrate his own men, though I would have preferred that Hood should have been checked about Columbia.’

And in the text of his Memoirs, only a few pages in advance of where he reproduces this paragraph, after enumerating all [180] the force available about Pulaski, he writes, as already quoted:

‘This force aggregated about thirty thousand men, was therefore inferior to the enemy; and General Schofield was instructed, in case the enemy made, a general advance, to fall back slowly toward Nashville, fighting till he should be reenforced by General Thomas in person.’

General Sherman also knew well that only a portion of the veteran reenforcements ordered to General Thomas had succeeded in reaching Nashville the day of the battle of Franklin, and that the rest did not arrive till the day succeeding that battle.

Among the last dispatches he sent to General Thomas at Nashville, before starting on the March to the Sea, was this order, dated October 31st:

‘You must unite all your men into one army and abandon all minor points if you expect to defeat Hood.’

And the very last dispatch, before starting south, was one notifying Thomas of his belief that all information seemed to indicate that Beauregard (Hood) would attempt to work against Nashville:

‘I can hardly believe that Beauregard would attempt to work against Nashville from Corinth as a base at this stage of the war, but all information seems to point that way.’

Why General Thomas did not turn on Hood at Franklin appears from the following field dispatches from General Schofield, who was fighting a splendid battle at that place:

Franklin, Tenn., November 30, 1864, 12 M.
Major-General Thomas, Nashville.
Your dispatch of 10:25 A. M. is received. I am satisfied that I have heretofore run too much risk in trying to hold Hood in check while so far inferior to him in both infantry and cavalry. The slightest mistake on my part, or failure of a subordinate, during the last three days, might have proved disastrous. I don't want to get into so tight a place again.

I will cheerfully act in accordance with your views if you think it expedient to hold Hood back as long as possible. When you get all your [181] troops together, and in fighting condition, we can whip Hood easily, and I believe make the campaign a decisive one. Before that the most we can do is to husband our strength and increase it as much as possible. * * * *

J. M. Schofield, Major-General

I have just received your dispatch, asking whether I can hold Hood here three days. I do not believe I can. I can doubtless hold him one day, but will hazard something in doing that. He now has a large force, probably two corps, in my front, and seems preparing to cross the river above and below. I think he can effect a crossing to-morrow in spite of all my efforts to prevent, or to-night if he attempts it. A worse place than this for an inferior force could hardly be found. I will refer your question to General Wilson this evening, yet fear he can do very little. I have no doubt Forrest will be in my rear to-morrow doing some greater mischief.

It appears to me that I ought to take position at Brentwood at once. If A. J. Smith's division and the Murfreesboro garrison join me there, I ought to be able to hold Hood in check for some time. I have just learned that the enemy's cavalry is already crossing three miles below. I will have lively times with my trains again.

J. M. Schofield, Major-General.

And, if all thus far related is not enough to show that there was nothing in the situation at Nashville surpassing Sherman's understanding, the terms of the congratulatory order he prints in full a few pages beyond where he records the shock to his powers of comprehension, are conclusive, and a brief extract will suffice:

Generals Thomas and Schofield, commanding the departments to our rear, returned to their posts and prepared to decoy General Hood into their meshes, while we came on to complete the original journey.

‘Almost at the moment of our victorious entry into Savannah came the welcome and expected news that our comrades in Tennessee had also fulfilled nobly and well their part, had decoyed General Hood to Nashville and then turned on him, defeating his army thoroughly, capturing all his artillery, great numbers of prisoners, and were still pursuing the fragments down in Alabama.’

There were several other paragraphs reflecting upon General Thomas, omitted from the letters furnished the Committee on the Conduct of the War, which are now reproduced by General Sherman, but the citation of one is sufficient. [182]

There is a brief letter in the records, not quoted in the Memoirs, which contains a sentence fitted for the close of a chapter on the operations at Nashville and Savannah. Mr. Lincoln had written General Sherman, in a letter before quoted:

‘Now, the undertaking being a success, the honor is all yours; for I believe none of us went further than to acquiesce. And taking the work of General Thomas into the count, as it should be taken, it is indeed a great success. Not only does it afford the obvious and immediate military advantages, but in showing to the world that your army could be divided, putting the stronger part to an important new service, and yet leaving enough to vanquish the old opposing force of the whole (Hood's army), it brings those who sat in darkness to see great light.’

To which General Sherman replied:

‘I am gratified at the receipt of your letter of December 26th, at the hands of General Logan, especially to observe that you appreciate the division I made of my army, and that each part was duly proportioned to its work.’

Two pictures will rise here before the mind. In one appears General Thomas, struggling in the face of a veteran and concentrated enemy, then far outnumbering him at every point, to collect enough fragments to give battle, finally accomplishing the task, and achieving victory.

In the other picture, Sherman, with sixty-two thousand selected men, thoroughly armed and equipped, marches down to the sea unopposed, summons Hardee's ten thousand to surrender, who first refuse, and three days thereafter escape. And yet General Sherman was especially gratified with the conceit that each part of his army was duly proportioned to its work.

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