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Chapter XII

  • After the battle of Franklin
  • -- Tie arrival at Nashville -- General Thomas's greeting -- a refreshing sleep -- services of the cavalry Corps and the Fourth army Corps -- Hood's mistake after crossing Duck River -- an incident of the Atlanta campaign bearing on Hood's character -- an embarrassing method of Transmitting Messages in cipher -- the aggressive policy of the South.

early the next morning (December 1), after receiving at Brentwood oral orders from General Thomas to continue the retreat to Nashville, I lay on the ground until the main body of the troops had passed and I had learned from the cavalry and from the infantry rear-guard that nothing could occur in the rear which would require my attention. I then role forward and reported to General Thomas, whom I found waiting for me at the place he had selected for the Twenty-third Corps in the defensive line about Nashville. He greeted me in his usual cordial but undemonstrative way, congratulated me, and said I had done ‘well.’ I have often thought that I may not have shown due appreciation of his kindness at that moment, for I did not then feel very grateful to him; but he gave no indication that he thought me unappreciative of his approbation. On the contrary, he said in the kindest manner that I appeared ‘tired.’ To which I replied, ‘Yes, I am very tired.’ That was about all the conversation we had that day.

As soon as I saw that my troops were moving into the [227] position he had indicated to the division commanders before my arrival, I rode to the hotel in Nashville, went to bed, and slept from about noon of the 1st, without awaking to full consciousness, until about sunset the next day. I only hope my weary soldiers enjoyed their rest as much as I did mine, for they must have needed it even more. When I awoke after that thoroughly refreshing sleep the annoyance I had felt on account of the embarrassments experienced during the retreat was replaced by reflections of a much more satisfactory character. From that time forward my relations with General Thomas were of the same cordial character as they always had been; and I was much gratified by the flattering indorsement he placed on my official report, of which I then knew the substance, if not the exact words.

The Fourth Army Corps and the cavalry corps of the Military Division of the Mississippi having been under my command during only the few days occupied in the operations between Pulaski and Nashville (November 14 to December 1), no reports of the operations of those two corps were ever made to me after the close of that brief period. Hence it was not possible for me to give any full account of the distinguished services of those two corps. The cavalry were never seen by me. They were far in front or on the flank, doing all the ‘seeing’ for me, giving me information of vital importance in respect to the enemy's movements. How important that information was then regarded may be learned by a perusal of the despatches to and from General Thomas during those days of anxious uncertainty as to the enemy's plans. I believe no cavalry ever performed that important service more efficiently. At no time in that short campaign did I suffer any inconvenience from lack of information that cavalry could possibly give. If it is true that the operations of our cavalry were to some extent influenced by apprehension of a cavalry raid on Nashville or other vital [228] point in our rear, that was only what General Thomas had been apprehending all the time, and to meet which he had assembled eight thousand troops in Nashville, perhaps not informing the commander of his own cavalry of that fact quite as early as he might have done.1

In fact, the redoubtable Forrest had become famous, and his troopers were esteemed a very large factor in the problem then undergoing solution—greater in some respects, as I have pointed out, than the events justified. In my report of the battle of Franklin I gave all the information in my possession of the gallant action of our cavalry in driving that of the enemy back across the Harpeth at the very time when his infantry assault was decisively repulsed.

I have always regarded it as a very remarkable, and to me a very fortunate, circumstance that the movements of my infantry columns were at no time seriously interfered with by the enemy's more numerous cavalry—not even at Spring Hill, where Stanley was attacked by cavalry as well as infantry. Hence I have had no inclination to make any investigation respecting the details of the action of troops, only temporarily under my command, whose gallant conduct and untiring vigilance contributed all that was needed to the complete success of the military operations intrusted to my immediate direction by our common superior, the department commander. I have now, as always heretofore, only words of highest praise for the services of the cavalry corps under my command.

The Fourth Corps was under my own eye nearly all the time; and sometimes, in emergencies, I even gave orders directly to the subordinate commanders, without the formality of sending them through the corps commander. Hence I have spoken of that corps with the same freedom as of my own Twenty-third; and I hope I have not failed [229] to give, so far as the very restricted scope of my account would permit, full justice to that noble corps of veteran soldiers, as well as to its officers. As I have had special occasion to say of the action of Opdycke's brigade and of the 12th and 16th Kentucky of the Twenty-third Corps at Franklin, the conduct of those troops was beyond all praise.

I believe little disputes always arise out of the honorable rivalry which exists between bodies of troops acting together in a great battle. Franklin was no exception to that general rule. For the purpose of ‘pouring oil on the troubled waters’ after Franklin, I said that in my opinion there was glory enough won in that battle to satisfy the reasonable ambition of everybody who was on the field, and of some who were not there, but who were at first given ‘the lion's share’; but if the disputants were not satisfied with that, they might take whatever share of credit was supposed to be due to me, and divide it among themselves. I was then, as I am now, perfectly satisfied with the sense of triumph which filled my soul when I saw my heroic comrades hurl back the hosts of rebellion with slaughter which to some might seem dreadful, but which I rejoiced in as being necessary to end that fratricidal war. It is not worth while to conceal the fact that most earnest patriotism sometimes arouses in the soldier's breast what might seem to be a fiendish desire to witness the slaughter of his country's enemies. Only a soldier of fortune or a hireling can be a stranger to such feelings. Yet I aver that I had not the slightest feeling of personal enmity toward my old friend and classmate General Hood, or his comrades. It was the ‘accursed politicians’ who had led them into such a fratricidal strife who were the objects of our maledictions. But even that feeling has been softened by time, and by reflection upon the deeper and more remote causes of the war, and that the glorious fruits of final [230] victory have amply repaid, and will continue to repay in all time, for all those immense sacrifices and sufferings.

Hood undoubtedly made a mistake in his plan of operations after he crossed Duck River above Columbia on the night of November 28-9. His march on Spring Hill would have been the best if it had succeeded. But he failed to estimate accurately what he could accomplish in a short winter day over a very bad road. In a long day of summer, with that road in the usual summer condition, he might have reached Spring Hill early in the afternoon, with force enough to accomplish his purpose before night, if he had found a single division, or even two divisions, there. But he failed simply because he tried to do what was not possible.

When Hood crossed the river he was not more than five miles (his own journal says three) from the left flank of my position on the north bank. The intervening space was open fields, not much, if any, more difficult for the march of infantry than the dirt road he actually used. If he had moved directly upon my flank, he could have brought on a general engagement about noon, with a force at least equal to mine. In anticipation of such a movement, I sent a brigade toward Huey's Mill to watch Hood's movements, and formed line of battle facing in that direction and covering the turnpike to Spring Hill, for which purpose I detained one of the two divisions of Stanley's corps which, at first, had been ordered to Spring Hill. I was willing to fight Hood in that position, and expected to do so. But I felt relieved when I found he had undertaken the much more difficult task of marching to Spring Hill, where I believed sufficient preparations had been made to oppose him until I could reach that place by a broad macadamized road over which I could march rapidly by day or by night.

I now believe my judgment at that time was correct: that what I had most to apprehend was not an attempt [231] to get in my rear at Spring Hill, but one to dislodge me from my position on Duck River by defeating me in open battle. But I believed I could fight Hood, even where I was, from noon until dark, and then retreat to Spring Hill or Franklin in the night. At least I was willing to try it rather than disappoint the expectation of General Thomas that I would hold Hood in check until he could concentrate his reinforcements. It seems to me clear that Hood's best chance at Duck River was to force a general engagement as early in the day as possible, so as to occupy the attention of all my infantry while his superior cavalry was sent to occupy some point in my rear, and try to cut off my retreat in the night. Perhaps Hood did not appreciate the very great advantage a retreating army has in the exclusive use of the best roads at night, especially when the nights are long and the days correspondingly short—an advantage which cannot be overcome by any superiority of numbers in the pursuing force, except by a rapid circuitous march of a detachment.

As illustrating my accurate knowledge of Hood's character before we ever met in battle, the following incident seems worthy of mention. When Sherman's army, after crossing the Chattahoochee River, was advancing on Atlanta,—my troops being in the center,—General Sherman was on the main road, a little in rear of me. My advance-guard sent back to me an Atlanta paper containing an account of the visit of President Davis, and the order relieving General Johnston and assigning General Hood to the command of the army. General Sherman erroneously says one of General Thomas's staff officers brought him that paper. General Thomas was then off to the right, on another road. I stopped until Sherman came up, and handed him the paper. After reading it he said, in nearly, if not exactly, the following words: ‘Schofield, do you know Hood? What sort of a fellow [232] is he?’ I answered: ‘Yes, I know him well, and I will tell you the sort of man he is. He'll hit you like h—l, now, before you know it.’ Soon afterward, as well described by Sherman, the sound of battle to our right gave indication of the heavy attack Hood's troops made upon Thomas's advancing columns that day, which failed of serious results, as I believe all now admit, mainly if not entirely because Thomas himself was near the head of the column which received the first blow. Soon after, a still more heavy attack was made on the Army of the Tennessee, our extreme left, which resulted in one of the severest and most closely contested battles of the war, and in which the knightly McPherson was killed.

Under the system enforced by the War Department in 1864-5, the commanders of troops in the field were compelled to communicate with each other either in plain language which the enemy could read if a despatch fell into his hands, or else in a cipher which neither of the commanders nor any of their staff officers could decipher. They were made absolutely dependent upon the cipher-operators of the telegraph corps. Of course all this cipher correspondence between commanding generals was promptly transmitted to the War Department, so that the Secretary could know what was going on as well as anybody. Whatever may have been the object of this, perhaps not difficult to conjecture, its effect was to make rapid correspondence in cipher impossible when rapidity was most important and secrecy most necessary. In previous years I and one at least of my staff officers were always familiar with the cipher code, so that we could together, as a rule, quickly unravel a knotty telegram. Indeed, I once had to decipher a despatch to which I had no key, except that I knew from internal evidence that it must be under the War Department code, though written in a different key. It was a despatch from Grant, who was then besieging Vicksburg. It had been sent to [233] Memphis by steamer, and thence by telegraph to St. Louis, the place from which Grant's army drew its supplies. A cipher despatch sent under the circumstances from Grant to me, who was not at that time under his command, must necessarily be of great importance. My staff officer at once informed me that it was in some key different from that we had in use. So I took the thing in hand myself, and went to work by the simplest possible process, but one sure to lead to the correct result in time—that is, to make all possible arrangements of the words until one was found that would convey a rational meaning. Commencing about 3 P. M., I reached the desired result at three in the morning. Early that day a steamer was on the way down the river with the supplies Grant wanted. I never told the general how he came to get his supplies so promptly, but I imagined I knew why he had telegraphed to me rather than to the quartermaster whose duty it was to furnish supplies for his army—and a most capable and efficient quartermaster he was. I had only a short time before voluntarily sent General Grant 5000 men, and I inferred that there was some connection between the incidents.

The immense change in the whole military situation which was produced in a few minutes at Franklin (for the contest there was in fact decided in that time, by the recovery of the breach in the line), and that by a battle which had not been contemplated by either General Thomas or myself (that is, on the south side of the Harpeth River, with that stream in the rear of the army), nor yet by General Hood until he saw the apparent opportunity to destroy his adversary; and the fact that that dangerous situation had been produced and the battle rendered necessary by slight accidents or mistakes which might easily have been foreseen or avoided, cannot, it seems to me, but produce in every thoughtful mind some reflection upon the influence exercised by what is called [234] ‘accident’ or ‘chance’ in war. The ‘fortune of war’ was, upon the whole, always in my favor, in spite of adverse accidents; yet I have always acted upon the principle that the highest duty of a commander is to anticipate and provide for every possible contingency of war, so as to eliminate what is called chance.

Both Johnston and Hood refer in their narratives to the earnest desire of their commander-in-chief, President Davis, that the army they in succession commanded should undertake an aggressive campaign. Johnston demonstrated that, under the circumstances existing while he was in command, such an undertaking could not possibly have been successful. Hood tried it under far more favorable circumstances, and yet he failed, as had every former like attempt of the Confederate armies. The result in every case was costly failure, and in the last overwhelming defeat. How much greater would have been the military strength of the South if those losses had been avoided, and how much greater would have been her moral strength if she had maintained from the start a firm, consistent, and humane defensive policy! How long would the conservative people of the North have sustained the ‘invasion’ of States where the people were fighting only to ‘defend their homes and families’? Did not the South throw away a great moral advantage when it waged aggressive war upon the North? No doubt it was necessary at first, from the secession point of view, to ‘fire the Southern heart’ by attacking Fort Sumter. And, also from that point of view, that attack was fully justifiable because that fort was in ‘Confederate’ territory. The invasions of Maryland and Pennsylvania were far different, and much more so were the relentless guerrilla war waged in the border States, attended with horrible massacres like that of Lawrence, Kansas, which, though no one charges them to the government or generals of the South, were unavoidable incidents [235] of that species of warfare; and the inhuman cruelties incidentally suffered by Union prisoners.

It is true that the slavery question was a very powerful factor in our Civil War, and became more and more so as the war progressed. But opinion on that question at the North was very far from unanimous at the first, and it is a fair and important question how far the growth of sentiment in the free States in favor of emancipation was due to the slaveholders' method of carrying on war.

My desire here is to refer to these questions solely from the military point of view, and for the consideration of military students. The conditions upon which depends success or failure in war are so many,—some of them being more or less obscure,—that careful study of all such conditions is demanded of those who aspire to become military leaders.

1 See Thomas's despatch of 8 P. M., November 29, to Colonel H. C. Wharton, Wilson's staff officer: War Records, Vol. XLV, part i, p. 1146.

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