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Chapter XIV

  • Hood's motive in attempting the impossible at Nashville
  • -- diversity of opinions concerning that battle -- no orders on record for the battle of December 16 -- that battle due to the spontaneous action of subordinate commanders -- statements in the reports of the Corps commanders -- explanation of the absence of orders -- the Phraseology of General Thomas's report.

the official records, Hood's statement, and Sherman's estimate, made at the time, agree pretty closely in placing Hood's infantry force at about 30,000 men when he crossed the Tennessee and began his advance toward Nashville. He lost a considerable number at Spring Hill on November 29, and over 6000, besides thirteen general officers, at Franklin on November 30. Therefore 24,000 must be a liberal estimate of his infantry strength after the battle of Franklin. The infantry strength of the Fourth and Twenty-third corps did not exceed 22,000 present for duty equipped, of which one brigade (Cooper's) of the Twenty-third was sent by General Thomas to guard the fords of Duck River below Columbia, and did not rejoin the corps until after the battle of Franklin. Hence Hood's infantry force at Columbia and Franklin was nearly one half greater than mine. The disparity in cavalry was still greater at first, but was reduced very considerably by the arrival of cavalry sent from Nashville by General Thomas, especially Hammond's brigade, which arrived in the field on the 29th, too late to assist in holding the line of Duck River. [259]

It follows that Hood had an opportunity to conduct operations against an adversary of, at the most, only two thirds his own strength in infantry and in cavalry—an opportunity such as had never before been presented to any Confederate general. That he thought his chance a very brilliant one is not remarkable. If he could cut off my retreat or force me to a pitched battle, he had full reason to hope for the most decisive results. This fact should be given full weight in connection with the question why Hood did not avoid intrenched positions and make a raid into Kentucky, which he could easily have done at that time, because Thomas was not yet ready to meet him in the open field. The moral effect of such a raid would, of course, have been very great; but it must have proved disastrous in the end, for the reason that Thomas would in a short time have had in Hood's rear a far superior force to cut off his retreat and force him to a decisive battle; whereas if Hood could defeat and seriously cripple, if not destroy, the only organized army in the field then opposed to him, he could afterward attend to Thomas's scattered detachments in succession, or invade Kentucky, as he might think expedient. As Hood was operating in the country of his own friends, he did not lack full and accurate information of the strength and movements of his adversary. Indeed, we were also fully informed in due time of all of Hood's movements, but overestimated his strength because we did not have friends residing in his camps.

But the defeat of Hood at Franklin, and Thomas's concentration of troops at Nashville, completely reversed the situation. When Hood recovered from the blow received at Franklin sufficiently to make any further move, he found himself confronted no longer by an inferior force, but by one of more than twice his own strength in infantry, and not far, if at all, inferior to him in cavalry. The artillery in the field is not specially considered [260] in any of these estimates, because it was ample in quantity and efficient in quality on both sides, and need not be compared. This formidable army was now in Hood's immediate front at Nashville, while the important strategic points of Murfreesboroa and Chattanooga were strongly garrisoned and fortified, and the railroads strongly guarded. It had become too late for Hood even to attempt a raid into Kentucky. Thomas would have been close upon his rear with an army at least twice as strong, with all the important points in Tennessee still securely held. But successful operations against Nashville were far less possible to Hood than an invasion of Kentucky. While no commander could possibly think of destroying his own army by assaulting a fortified place in which the garrison was more than double his own strength, or indulge the hope of any valuable results from a less than half investment of such a place, so bold a commander as Hood might possibly attempt a raid into Kentucky, as the only thing he could possibly do except retreat across the Tennessee River, and thus abandon his cause as lost. It was this view of the situation by General Grant and the authorities in Washington that caused such intense anxiety on account of the delay of General Thomas in attacking Hood at Nashville. It was perfectly evident that Thomas could beat Hood whenever he chose to attack him, and that Hood must be fully aware of that fact. Hence it was naturally apprehended that Hood would either make a raid into Kentucky or else retreat across the Tennessee River without suffering any further damage. To those who were watching Hood closely at Nashville, and especially to those who understood his character, there seemed no ground for either apprehension. All his operations indicated a serious attempt to besiege Nashville, though it was impossible to imagine what he could hope to accomplish, unless it was to wait in the most convenient [261] place while his adversary, with all the great resources of the country at his back, got ready to crush him.

As stated in his report, Thomas estimated Hood's strength as being at least equal to his own, and with all the deliberation of his nature, he insisted upon making the full preparations which he considered essential to success not only in battle, but in pursuit of a defeated enemy. From his point of view, Thomas was unquestionably right in his action. How he came to make so great an overestimate of the Confederate strength, in view of the means of information in his possession and the estimate General Sherman had given him before he started for Savannah, it is difficult to conjecture. But the fact is now beyond question that Thomas made all those elaborate preparations to attack an enemy of less than half his own strength, under the belief that his adversary was at least equal in strength to himself. That Hood then knew his own exact strength is a matter of course, and that he did not underestimate the strength of his adversary is almost equally certain. During the two weeks in which his army lay in front of Nashville, if not before, he must have ascertained very closely the strength of the Union forces in his front. Hence Hood's ‘siege’ of Nashville for two weeks could not be regarded otherwise than as a stupendous farce, were it not for the desperate bravery with which he thus kept up the appearance of still fighting for a lost cause rather than be the first to admit by his own action that it was indeed lost. It is now well known that the feeling among the Southern people and that of some of the highest officers of the Confederate government made it impossible for any officer of their army to admit in any public way the failure of the Confederacy until after the enforced surrender of Lee's army in Virginia. Indeed, it required much moral courage on the part of General [262] Johnston voluntarily to enter into a capitulation even after the capture of Lee.

This is unquestionably the explanation of Hood's desperate act in waiting in front of Nashville and inviting the destruction or capture of his army. The crushing blow he there received was like a death-blow delivered by a giant full of strength and vigor upon a gladiator already beaten and reduced in strength nearly to exhaustion. Sherman was not very far wrong when he said that ‘the battle of Nashville was fought at Franklin.’ The gladiator had been reduced to less than one third of his former strength by a long series of combats with a more powerful antagonist all the past summer, and finally by his unexpected repulse at Franklin. It required only one or two more blows from the powerful enemy at Nashville to complete his destruction. Any estimate of the battle of Nashville which fails to take into account the foregoing facts must be essentially erroneous, and it is not doing any honor to the great soldier who fought that battle to compare it with his previous achievements when he heroically met and defeated superior numbers of fresh and vigorous troops.

A wide diversity of opinion has always existed among military men in respect to the battle of Nashville, ranging all the way from the view taken in historical accounts heretofore published to the opinion expressed by General Sherman, in language intended of course to be hyperbolical, namely, that ‘the battle of Nashville was fought at Franklin.’ The truth is to be found somewhere between these two extremes. But the exact truth respecting that battle can perhaps hardly yet be told. I will, however, state such facts of my own knowledge and experience, and make such references to data to be found in the voluminous records, as it seems to me may assist the future historian, together with such comments as I deem appropriate upon the information now available. As will be explained hereafter, some important documents which [263] originally formed part of the records have disappeared therefrom. Their influence upon historical opinion, if ever recovered, may now only be suggested.

It must be observed as a very notable fact that the official records, replete with orders and instructions issued every day, and almost every hour, contain no record whatever of any written order or instructions from General Thomas, given after the close of operations on December 15, for the operations which actually took place the next day. The only indications in the records, so far as I have been able to discover, that any orders were given by General Thomas, either orally or in writing, on the night of December 15, are the following ‘orders of the day’ for the Fourth Army Corps, issued by General Wood after a personal interview with General Thomas that night; the order in writing from General Thomas to General Wilson, December 15; and the despatch from General Wilson to myself, dated December 16, 10:10 A. M. They are as follow:

headquarters Fourth Army Corps, near Nashville, Tenn., December 15, 1864, 11:20 P. M.
Orders of the day for the Fourth Army Corps for to-morrow, December 16, 1864:

If the enemy is in their front at daylight to-morrow morning, division commanders will advance at that time, attack, and carry whatever may be before them. If the enemy retreats tonight, we will follow them. General Elliott, commanding Second Division, will cross to the east of the Franklin pike, then move southward parallel to it. He will deploy two regiments, connect with skirmishers, and the rest of his division will move by flank. General Kimball will follow, then General Beatty. The batteries attached to each division to-day will accompany them to-morrow. Ten ambulances and five ammunition-wagons will follow each division.

By order of Brigadier-General Wood:

J. S. Fullerton, Lieutenant-Colonel and Assistant Adjutant-General.


headquarters, Department of the Cumberland, Nashville, Tenn., December 15, 1864.
Major-General J. H. Wilson, Commanding Cavalry Corps, Military Division of the Mississippi.
General: I am directed by the major general commanding to say to you that you will remain in your present position until it is satisfactorily known whether the enemy will fight or retreat. In case he retreats, you will move your command on the Hillsborough pike across the Harpeth, and then take the most direct road or roads to the Franklin pike, and endeavor to capture or destroy the enemy's trains in their rear.

I have the honor to be, General, very respectfully your obedient servant,

Robt. H. Ramsey, Assistant Adjutant-General.

Both of these orders indicate a not unnatural state of doubt as to whether the enemy would ‘fight or retreat.’ The former directs what is to be done by the Fourth Corps in either case, while the latter directs what shall be done in case the enemy retreats, but says nothing about what shall be done if he does not retreat.

Hdqrs. Cavalry Corps, Mil. Div. Of the Mississippi, in the field, December 16, 1864, 10:10 A. M.
Major-General Schofield, Commanding Twenty-third Army Corps.
General: The regiment sent to the Granny White pike reports it strongly picketed toward us, with troops moving to our left. This is probably Chalmers's division. I have heard nothing from Johnson this morning; but, from what General Croxton reports, there is no doubt that Chalmers crossed the Hardin pike, moving toward Brentwood. The country on the left of the Hillsboroa pike, toward the enemy's left, is too difficult for cavalry operations. It seems to me if I was on the other flank of the Army I might do more to annoy the enemy, unless it is intended that I shall push out as directed last night.

Very respectfully,

J. H. Wilson, Brevet Major-General. [265]
(Indorsement.) Respectfully forwarded to Major-General Thomas.
J. M. Schofield, Major-General.

This last, while showing that General Wilson had not received at 10:10 A. M. on the 16th any orders from General Thomas later than that above quoted, appears to indicate that he had received some previous order, referred to in the words ‘unless it is intended that I shall push out as directed last night’; for the order above quoted from the records did not indicate any intention that he should ‘push out’ unless the enemy was in retreat.

An order in writing, as heretofore stated, was received by me very soon after dark on the 15th. It has disappeared from the official records, both those of General Thomas and mine. If any other orders were issued by General Thomas, I have no personal knowledge of the fact.

In my judgment, whatever orders were issued by General Thomas on the night of December 15 or in the morning of the 16th are essential to truthful history; and I am sure they must have been more creditable to General Thomas, though they may have been based upon erroneous foresight of the enemy's action, which is necessarily very common in war, than the absence from the records of any orders from him to govern the operations of the army the next day, and the fact, which appears from the records, that some of the troops at least did not receive any orders from General Thomas, at any time, upon which they could act on December 16.

It seems at least strange that this absence of orders given in the night of the 15th or morning of the 16th should have passed without comment, especially in view of the very full orders issued on the 14th and in the night of the 16th. [266]

It will also be observed that General Thomas, in his official report of the battle of Nashville, dated January 20, 1865, makes no mention of any orders issued in the night of December 15 or morning of the 16th. He simply says in that regard: ‘The whole command bivouacked in line of battle during the night on the ground occupied at dark, whilst preparations were made to renew the battle at an early hour on the morrow’; but does not say what those preparations were. Then, after describing what had been done in the forenoon of the 16th, he says: ‘As soon as the above dispositions were completed, and having visited the different commands, I gave directions that the movement against the enemy's left flank should be continued’; but no sub-report mentions the receipt of any such directions. The report then proceeds to give a graphic and, I believe, nearly accurate though brief description of what followed.

It may also be observed that in my official report of the battle of Nashville, dated December 31, 1864, the following appears: ‘In the night of the 15th I waited upon the major-general commanding at his headquarters, and received his orders for the pursuit of the enemy on the following day.’ This report was, of course, before General Thomas when he wrote his own, and had necessarily been read by him and doubtless by some of his staff officers; yet no reference was made in his report to the subject referred to in the words above quoted from mine. These facts from the records may perhaps be accepted as sufficient indication of the general purport of whatever orders were issued in the night of the 15th, after the close of that day's operations, and sufficient evidence that no orders of a general character were given by General Thomas, either oral or written, on the 16th until after he had ‘visited the different commands.’

The report of General Steedman, dated January 27, 1865, says: ‘December 16, at 6 A. M., in obedience to the [267] orders of Major-General Thomas, my command moved on the enemy's works.’ It is not stated whether these orders were oral or written. No copy of them appears in the records, nor any mention of a personal interview with General Thomas or any of his staff. (Steedman was the man who published a falsehood about an alleged telegram from me to Grant about Thomas. See page 296.)

General T. J. Wood's report, dated January 5, 1865, after describing the operations of the morning of December 16, says: ‘After the dispositions above recounted had been made, the commanding general joined me near our most advanced position on the Franklin pike, examined the positions of the troops, approved the same, and ordered that the enemy should be vigorously pressed and unceasingly harassed by our fire. He further directed that I should be constantly on the alert for any opening for a more decisive effort, but for the time to bide events. The general plan of the battle for the preceding day— namely, to outflank and turn his left—was still to be acted on. Before leaving me, the commanding general desired me to confer with Major-General Steedman, whose command had moved out that morning from Nashville by the Nolensville pike, and arrange a military connection between his right and my left.’ This appears from General Wood's report to have occurred a short time before noon, and seems to have been the first information given to any of the corps commanders of the general plan of operations for December 16. General Wood's report does not suggest that even he, who had visited the commanding general the night before, had been given any information about any such general plan; and that statement of Wood's, ‘the general plan of the battle for the preceding day—namely, to outflank and turn his left— was still to be acted on,’ was written many days after the battle, and then did not say that General Thomas had at any time so ordered. [268]

In the report of General A. J. Smith, dated January 10, 1865, occurs the following: ‘About 3 P. M. (December 16) General McArthur sent word that he could carry the hill on his right by assault. Major-General Thomas being present, the matter was referred to him, and I was requested to delay the movement until he could hear from General Schofield, to whom he had sent. . . . General McArthur, not receiving any reply, and fearing that if the attack should be longer delayed the enemy would use the night to strengthen his works, directed the first brigade (Colonel W. L. McMillen, 95th Ohio Infantry, commanding) to storm the hill on which was the left of the enemy's line,’ etc. This statement, which appears to be nowhere dissented from, seems to show very nearly the hour of the day—not very long after 3 P. A.—when was initiated by General McArthur the general attack which resulted in the brilliant and final success of the day; that this initial movement was not made in pursuance of any orders or directions from General Thomas, but, on the contrary, during a period in which General Thomas had requested General Smith to ‘delay the movement.’

General Wilson's report, dated December 21, says: ‘About 4:30 P. M. the enemy, pressed in front, flank, and rear, broke in disorder. Croxton's brigade, which had been held in reserve on the Hillsboroa pike, as soon as the success of these dispositions had become apparent was ordered to march rapidly across the country to the Granny White pike, and beyond the right flank of Hammond's brigade; but owing to the lateness of the hour and heaviness of the road over which he was compelled to move, he secured but few prisoners.’ This report also seems to be silent in respect to any order from General Thomas.

There was another good reason why the cavalry secured but few prisoners at that time: there were very few left to secure behind that part of the line, the infantry having captured nearly all of them. [269]

My own official report, dated December 31, gave the following account of the operations of December 16, to the accuracy of which no exception was taken by General Thomas. The only order therein mentioned as coming from General Thomas was that received in the night of the 15th, ‘for the pursuit of the enemy on the following day.’

In the night of the 15th I waited upon the major-general commanding at his headquarters, and received his orders for the pursuit of the enemy on the following day. Our operations during the 15th had swung the right and right center forward so that the general direction of the line was nearly perpendicular to that before the attack; only the right was in contact with the enemy, and was therefore much exposed. Apprehensive that the enemy, instead of retreating during the night, would mass and attack our right in the morning, I requested that a division of infantry be sent to reinforce the right, which was ordered accordingly from Major-General Smith's command. In response to this order, General Smith sent five regiments and a battery (about 1600 men), which were put in reserve near the right. In the morning it was found that the enemy still held his position in our front, of which the hill in front of General Couch was the key, and had thrown up considerable breastworks during the night. He had also increased the force on his left during the night, and continued to mass troops there during the early part of the day. During the morning, therefore, our operations were limited to preparations for defense and cooperation with the cavalry, which was operating to strike the Granny White pike in rear of the enemy. About noon, the troops on my left (Generals Smith and Wood) having advanced and come in contact with the enemy in his new position, the enemy again withdrew from his left a considerable force to strengthen his right and center, when I ordered General Cox to advance in conjunction with the cavalry, and endeavor to carry a high wooded hill beyond the flank of the enemy's intrenched line, and overlooking the Granny White pike. The hill was occupied by the enemy in considerable force, but was not intrenched. My order was not executed with the promptness or energy which I had expected, yet probably with as much as I had reason to expect, considering the attenuated character [270] of General Cox's line and the great distance and rough ground over which the attacking force had to move. The hill was, however, carried by General Wilson's cavalry (dismounted), whose gallantry and energy on that and other occasions which came under my observation cannot be too greatly praised.

Almost simultaneously with this attack on the extreme right, the salient hill in front of General Couch was attacked and carried by General Smith's troops, supported by a brigade of General Couch's division; and the fortified hill in front of General Cox, which constituted the extreme flank of the enemy's intrenched line, was attacked and carried by Colonel Doolittle's brigade of General Cox's division, the latter capturing eight pieces of artillery and 200 to 300 prisoners. These several successes, gained almost simultaneously, resulted in a complete rout of the enemy. The cavalry had cut off his line of retreat by the Granny White pike, and such of his troops as were not captured on the line could only escape by climbing the Brentwood Hills. It is believed all of the artillery along the left and center of the enemy's line fell into our hands. Our troops continued the pursuit across the valley and into the Brentwood Hills, when darkness compelled them to desist, and they bivouacked for the night.

In the histories of the battle of Nashville heretofore published, it appears to have been assumed that the plan of battle issued to the troops before the movement of December 15 was equally applicable to the operations of the 16th, was so understood by the subordinate commanders, and was the authoritative guide for their action during the entire day of the 16th. Hence it has seemed to me necessary to direct attention to the above extracts from the official records, as well as to give my own personal recollections, for the benefit of future historians.

Unquestionably the general plan of battle embraced in the orders of December 14 for the attack on the 15th was well applicable to the situation which actually existed in the morning of the 16th. It was requisite only to direct in what manner the several corps of the army should act in concert in the changed situation of both [271] armies, as had so clearly been done for the 15th, in the situation then existing. But the detailed orders requisite for such joint action given in the plan for the battle of the 15th were absolutely inapplicable in most essential particulars to the situation of the 16th, or to the battle actually fought on that day. In view of the fact that much time had very wisely been spent by General Thomas in remounting his cavalry and in making all other preparations necessary to insure not only the defeat, but the destruction or capture of the enemy, and of the further fact that the operations of the 15th had so damaged the enemy that his retreat that night was thought at least probable, if not certain, it hardly seems possible that General Thomas could have been willing to postpone a renewal of the attack until he could have time to visit ‘the several commands’ in person, and see for himself what the situation actually was the next day, as if the operations he had to determine on and order were the original plans of a battle yet to be opened, instead of the final blow to be struck against an enemy already substantially beaten and quite probably already in full retreat.

The only possible explanation of this very remarkable absence of timely orders from General Thomas for the battle of December 16, and of the long delay on that day, seems to be found in his well-known constitutional habit, sometimes spoken of by his brother officers who had long been familiarly acquainted with him. Unless the opinions of those familiar acquaintances and friends were substantially erroneous, General Thomas's habit of great deliberation did not permit him to formulate in the night of December 15 the comparatively simple orders requisite for the several corps to resume, in the morning of the 16th, the movement ‘against the enemy's left flank,’ which he says he ‘directed’ to be ‘continued’ some time in the afternoon of that day—so late, however, [272] that some of the troops at least, becoming impatient at the long delay, did not wait even for the orders they had asked for, but initiated on their own responsibility the action which resulted in victory before any directions whatever from General Thomas had reached them. Or else, if General Thomas had clearly in his mind the appropriate action of his several corps suggested by the condition of the enemy as he himself had seen it just before dark, or as it might be modified during the night, he must, it would seem, have felt so sure of Hood's retreat in the night that he did not think it worth his while to give any orders except for pursuit. However this may be, it seems to be clearly established by the records that the movements which prepared the way for the final assault, and that assault itself, were both made under the orders of subordinates, and not in obedience to any orders or directions from General Thomas, nor in accordance with any general plan which he had informed them was to be the guide for their action that day.

The battle of the 15th was fought in very close conformity to the plan prepared, some time before the 14th, doubtless by General Thomas himself, though spoken of by General Wood, in his confidential letter of the 14th to Thomas, as ‘our plan,’ and modified at the conference which was called that day upon the suggestion of Wood in that confidential letter, and, as he said, ‘at the instance of Schofield and Smith.’1 But the battle of the 16th appears to have been emphatically a battle of the troops themselves, acting under the independent orders of their own subordinate commanders, with such cooperation and support as they had arranged among themselves, in the absence of any orders or instructions from their common superior.

It seems proper for me to say that I have never claimed for myself any part of the credit due to subordinates [273] that day (December 16). Having failed in the night of December 15 to obtain any appropriate orders for my action, or for the conjoint action of the corps on my right and left, and also to obtain any such orders on the 16th, the only orders I gave were those to support the movements on my right and left initiated by the subordinate commanders there. For this action General Thomas, in his report, gave the full credit due to my troops, and, inferentially at least, more than was due to me. I must also add, in order that there may be no misunderstanding on the subject, that General Thomas also gave full credit to me and to the Twenty-third Corps for the part we took in the battle of December 15.

The only special credit to which I have thought myself entitled in respect to Nashville was for two incidental services which General Thomas did not seem to think worthy even of mention. They were, in fact, only such services as any efficient staff officer possessed of unusual knowledge of the character and habits of the opposing commander could have rendered to General Thomas as well as I could. The two services referred to were the suggestion relative to the change in the details of the plan of battle for December 15, by which the infantry attacking force on our right was increased from about ten thousand to nearly twenty thousand men; and the information I gave to General Thomas, in the night of the 15th, that Hood would not retreat without another fight, about which I had not the slightest doubt, and which seemed to me more important than the information I had given about the relative lengths of the several parts of the enemy's line of defense and of his (General Thomas's) line of attack, as proposed in his written orders. But these little services, not worthy of mention in terms of special praise, seemed to me worthy of record, especially the latter, since I had made a long ride in a dark night, after having already been in the [274] saddle from daylight till dark, to carry that information to the commanding general in person, and try to convince him of its correctness.

A single word signifies sometimes much more than is imagined by him who uses it. If General Thomas had said resumed instead of ‘continued,’ his statement of what he said he ‘directed’ would have corresponded very nearly with what was actually done after those directions were given on December 16. But the continuation, at 3 or 4 P. M. of one day, of action which had been suspended at nightfall the preceding day, hardly accords with the rule of accuracy which is demanded in maturely considered military reports. Indeed, when a military movement is suspended at nightfall on account of darkness, it is properly spoken of as resumed, not ‘continued,’ even at daylight. The word ‘continued’ was used to express what was directed to be done at three or four o'clock in the afternoon—‘the movement against the enemy's left flank’ which was not any movement that had been going on that day and which could therefore be continued, but the movement which, in fact, had ended the day before in a very important success which had materially altered the military situation under which the orders for the previous day had been given. Hence this use of the word ‘continued’ furnishes food for thought. To have resumed, some time in the afternoon, those operations of the preceding day would have been to state that they had been suspended, not only during the night on account of darkness, but during the greater part of the next day for no apparent reason. That would have been manifestly inconsistent with the theory that the operations of the second day were only a continuation of those of the first, all in accordance with the plan of battle published two days before, upon which theory the reports of General Thomas and of some of the sub-commanders appear to have been based. The logical conclusion [275] of this reflection, in view of all the facts now established by the records, seems to be that the plan of battle for December 16 was matured and published to the army, as well as to the world at large, some time after the event.

It may be worthy of note that none of the officers whose reports reveal their ignorance of that plan belonged to the Army of the Cumberland, with which General Thomas had so long been identified.

1 War Records, Vol. XLV, part II, p. 184.

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