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EHISTORY.COM: U.S. CIVIL WAR: "A Nation Divided": May 2000 Issue: [BACK]

A Hard Place for Glory, by Mike Harris

For three days the rain had been relentless, turning the sunken roads into a river of mud and adding to the misery of the columns of marching men. The rain had begun on the sixteenth. Amidst the pandemonium of a demoralized army in flight, the din of artillery and small arms fire, the clamor and screams of frightened beasts and of wounded men, the sky had literally opened up as if the very heavens were weeping at the sight below. Now, three days later, those tears turned to ice and the winds took up a chorus of a devilish howl as the temperatures plummeted, making it insufferable for man and beast.

Hood's battered and bloodied army had just barely escaped total destruction on the hills overlooking the city of Nashville. Hurrying through Franklin, averting their eyes from the formidable breastworks on the edge of town -- another recent scene of carnage, their racing hearts began to slow. In places, their feet had broken through the soft earth and into the shallow graves of their comrades. As Bledsoe's Battery momentarily slowed the Federals in Franklin, Stephen D. Lee's pioneers managed to destroy the railroad trestle bridge, effectively thwarting their pursuers ability to cross the Harpeth River. Though this would gain Hood's soldiers a brief respite, the army still resembled a degenerated mob, held together only by its common misery.

The Confederates had continued to plod southward through the village of Spring Hill on the 18th and reached the south banks of the Duck River in Columbia late in the evening. Upon seeing the ragged remnants of Hood's army, the local citizens closed their doors and windows, not wanting to look on the pitiful sight -- one resident commenting; "they are the worst broke down set I ever saw." With little semblance of military order or worry for punishment, the soldiers looted and plundered freely to feed their famished and emaciated bodies. While settling in for some well-needed rest, the clatter of hooves crossing the army's pontoons over the Duck could be heard. An irate Forrest with his bespattered and weary troopers was arriving from Murfreesboro, after a tedious and circuitous route to rejoin the Army of Tennessee.

The commander of the Confederate Army, General John Bell Hood, appeared to be in a state of shock over the turn of events in Nashville. Hood, who had served as a more than competent brigade and division commander under Robert E. Lee, had replaced Joseph E. Johnston as commander of the Army of Tennessee six months earlier in Atlanta. Losing the use of his left arm at Gettysburg, and undergoing the amputation of his right leg from a wound at Chickamauga, the thirty-three year old Kentuckian had suffered from the physical rigors of the campaign. While his soldiers had fled by him, wild-eyed with panic, a private Stephenson noted Hood's condition; "He seemed overwhelmed by his defeat and sat on his horse, a picture of despair-his head sunk on his breast, reins dangling loosely, an oil cloth blanket draping him, the fierce rain storming on and around him, his drooping horse moving slowly along. If any one looked "whipped" that day, our unfortunate leader certainly did.(Stephenson, pg 34). Stephenson, like others, could see there would be no help from their commander, and so they ran -- ran as if the very devil were on their heels.

Reaching Columbia, Hood seemed to recover his composure and entertained the idea of remaining in Tennessee, despite his defeat at Nashville. One had only to look closely at the condition of his men to know how foolhardy such a decision could be. Though some closely around him agreed that the army should try to hold the Duck River line, his outspoken cavalry commander, Nathan Bedford Forrest minced few words in giving his opinion. If the state could not positively be held, then it should be abandoned. Forrest was also to have added, "Give me Walthall to command a division of infantry and I promise that the army shall retreat in safety." (Garner) Hood wisely elected to take Forrest's advice.

If the retreating Confederates were in a bad way, their pursuers were doing little better. Despite the resounding victory of George H. Thomas's Federals at Nashville, Thomas knew that Grant would expect him to hound the routed enemy until he was brought to bay. Grant's patience with Thomas had been worn thin by Thomas's delay in striking Hood, and there would be little sympathy from him if Thomas failed in the total destruction of Hood's army. To the task of leading the pursuit, Thomas looked to his Chief of Cavalry, Major General James Harrison Wilson.

Wilson, a twenty-seven year old brash and ambitious cavalry officer, may have had his friendship with U. S. Grant to thank for his quick rise in rank, but he had a reputation for getting things done. Wilson also had an ego to match his ambition, and after Forrest had effectively brushed his force aside at Mt. Carmel on November 29th, Wilson had one more reason to succeed in his pursuit of the Confederates.

Wilson's cavalry, followed by the Fourth Corps of Infantry, commanded by Thomas J. Woods, were having as much trouble with the mired roads and inclement weather as Hood's soldiers. A miscommunication over pontoons had caused an eighteen-hour delay in the pursuit at Franklin. Still, Wilson's troopers had entered Spring Hill just as the last of the Confederate stragglers were leaving on the 18th. Here, the Fourth Corps took the lead in the pursuit, camping seven miles north of Columbia on a miserably wet night.

On the morning of the 19th, when Wilson again resumed the lead, the heavy rains had swollen the Rutherford Creek. The entire day was spent in attempting to build a bridge over the creek, while Cheatham's Corps, along with the help of Forrest's Cavalry, posted sharpshooters to slow their advance and deter the engineers. Wilson's advance units were finally able to reach the north banks of the Duck River in Columbia on the afternoon of the 20th. Unable to cross the river, Edward Hatch's troopers began shelling the town of Columbia.

In addition to the troubles Mother Nature was providing, Wilson had received word that Forrest successfully reunited with the retreating Confederate Army. During the shelling of the town, this report was confirmed when Forrest, accompanied by General Walthall, rode out with a flag of truce. He informed Hatch that Hood had evacuated Columbia, and to continue the shelling would only kill the wounded and citizens of the town.

On the morning of December 20, a dark and bitterly cold day, Hood had summoned his youngest major general, Edward Cary Walthall, to his headquarters. Hood wasted no time in getting to the purpose of his summons. "General Walthall, things are in a bad condition. I have decided to reorganize a rear guard. Forrest says he can't keep the enemy off of us any longer without a strong infantry support, but says he can do it with the help of three thousand infantry with you to command them. You can select any troops in the army. It is a post of great honor, but one of such great peril that I will not impose it on you unless you are willing to take it; and you had better take troops that can be relied upon, for you may have to cut your way out to get to me after the main army gets out. The army must be saved, come what may, and if necessary your command must be sacrificed to accomplish it." (Sanders)

General Edward Walthall

Edward Cary Walthall, a thirty-three year old lawyer from Holly Springs, Mississippi, didn't have to thank any political friends for his promotion to major general during the Atlanta Campaign. His mettle had been tested on many a battlefield, especially at Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge. At Chickamauga, Walthall lost thirty-two percent of his command; at Missionary Ridge it was his command that saved Bragg's Army from destruction. At the latter, Walthall was wounded but refused to leave the field until his men were safely withdrawn from the field. During the battle of Franklin, Walthall had two horses shot from under him during his brigade’s fighting at the Carter house cotton gin. Further evidence of Forrest's respect for Walthall's ability was shown on November 30th, in a statement by Rev. James H. McNeilly, of Quarles' Brigade, after the Federals had managed to escape Hood's trap at Spring Hill; "I saw General Forrest sitting alone on his horse, and I went near him. He seemed to be deeply moved, his face expressive of sorrow, anger, and disgust. Directly General Walthall rode up and saluted him, and then he gave expression to his feelings. These were his very words: 'O General, if I had just one of your brigades, just one, to fling across the road, I could have taken the whole-----shebang.' " (CV, 1918, Franklin-Incidents of the battle, by J. H. M'Neilly) Walthall was described as "personally, very handsome, dignified in bearing, imposing in manner, neat in dress, eloquent in speech ... and kind to the men who served under him." (Garner)

Wasting little time to consider the consequences of commanding the rearguard, Walthall replied to Hood; "General, I have never asked for a hard place for glory nor a soft place for comfort, but take my chances as they come. Give me the order for the troops, and I will do my best. Being the youngest major general in the army, I believe, my seniors may complain that the place was not offered to them, but that is a matter between you and them." With that, General Hood replied: "Forrest wants you, and I want you."

Hearing that Walthall was chosen to command the infantry of the rearguard, one veteran wrote; "and when he drew his sword in command over the rearguard to cover its retreat, there was not a soldier in it who did not believe that he would do it or perish in the effort..." (CV) Forrest himself, when hearing the news, remarked "Now we will keep them back." (CV)

For the rearguard, Walthall chose eight brigades, numbering 1,621 effectives. He then united these brigades into four divisions as follows; Featherston and Quarles, under command of Brig. Gen. Featherston; Ector and Reynolds, under the command of Brig. Gen. Reynolds; Strahl and Maney, under the command of Colonel Field; Smith and Pamer, under command of General Palmer. The Cavalry consisted of Jackson's, Buford's and Chalmers' divisions of cavalry, and Morton's Battery. The entire force fell under the command of General Forrest. (Sanders)

As the rearguard encamped near the Pulaski Pike, south of Columbia, on the evening of the 20th, Hood's army continued in dead earnest towards the Tennessee River. Many of the soldiers had thrown their blankets away at Nashville and their uniforms were tattered and torn. With the rain more relentless than the enemy, the bitterly cold temperatures now froze their clothing to their bodies. On the evening of the 20th, the rain had turned to sleet and by the morning of the 21st, the ground was covered with snow. Most of the Confederates were without shoes, some wrapping their feet with rags. There was no marching order, but small, sullen groups of men dragged themselves along as best they could. With their feet swollen, cracking, and blue from frostbite, they left their bloody footprints on the snow covered ground. Some turned out to march in the fields, trying to escape the frozen chuckholes of mud. In their wake, the roadside was littered with the debris of a broken army; wagons, discarded limber boxes, broken pontoons, guns, personal baggage, and anything that would impede their bodies. With their shoulders straining into the wind, their vacant stares resembled those of the dead horses and mules that lay along the roadside, silent witnesses to the passing men. Among their ranks, marched the ghosts of their comrades, left behind in shallow graves at Franklin and Nashville.

The evening of the 20th found Wood's infantry corps staring across the raging waters of the Duck River with no means to cross it. Thomas, from Rutherford Creek, had promised Woods that A. J. Smith would assist in getting the pontoons forward. But due to the horrible weather conditions, the pontoons didn't arrive in Columbia until early morning of the 22nd. Thomas, under a constant barrage of telegrams from Washington and Grant to hurry along, felt the full weight of the task at hand, sharply responding; "...pursuing an enemy through an exhausted country, over mud roads, completely soggy with heavy rains, is no child's play...." (OR 45-1-592)

While Wood's infantry began the building of the pontoon bridge, Forrest's cavalrymen pestered them incessantly with fire from the opposite shore. On three separate occasions, the bridge broke apart, painfully exposing the men to the freezing waters. But by 7:00 p.m., the bridge was completed and the infantry struggled across throughout the frigid night. Wilson's cavalry was scheduled to cross at 5:00 a.m. on the 23rd. But the icy bridge forced them delay crossing until the 24th.

On the 22nd, while Forrest was still in Columbia, word reached him that several hundred Federals had managed to force a crossing of the Duck two miles above the town. Sending a young trooper, J. P. Young, with orders for Armstrong to bring up his brigade, the youth rode six miles in the piercing winds. When he reached Armstrong, the trooper was so frozen that he had to be pulled from the saddle and carried into headquarters. Though Young did manage to whisper, "Boots and Saddles." (Finlay)

Walthall had formed a line of skirmishers across the Pulaski Pike, on the 23rd, where Wood's infantry came upon them. Confronted by a large force, Walthall wisely fell back, marching twelve miles to Lynnville, while Jackson's and Buford's Divisions covered his retreat. (Sanders) Walthall and Forrest camped for the evening in Lynnville, while the Federals encamped along the Pulaski Pike, some five miles south of Columbia. At 7:00 a.m., on the 24th, Wilson's cavalry came trotting past the Federal infantry, once again resuming the lead in pursuit of Hood.

With Walthall and Forrest somewhat relieving the pressure on Hood's foot soldiers, the Army of Tennessee slowly returned to the semblance of a military organization. Intermingled troops sought out their commands and commissaries began to dole out meager rations to the starving soldiers. Yet progress was very slow, delays encountered frequently.

With less than two-thirds of their journey behind them, Hood's infantry approached a steep icy hill in Giles County on the morning of the 23rd. Unable to get Cheatham's wagons up the slippery hillside, Cheatham sought one hundred well-shod men to manhandle them up the hill. Sadly, it was discovered that out of the entire corps only twenty-five men were with good shoes. (OR 45-1-151)

Another dilemma that plagued Hood was having enough pontoons to bridge the Tennessee River when he reached it. All along their route, broken pontoon wagons were an alarming sight to officers and men alike. Hood detailed men to backtrack and retrieve the broken pontoons, along with sending word to Brig. Gen. Philip Roddy's cavalry at Decatur to float their captured Federal pontoons down the river from Decatur to Bainbridge.

On the morning of the 24th, Forrest and Walthall determined that the rearguard should put some distance between the Federals and Hood's army. Walthall was ordered to advance his troops towards Columbia, with cavalry posted on his left and right flanks. Advancing three miles, Walthall came in contact with John T. Croxton's cavalry brigade, leading the Federal advance. A sharp engagement ensued with Walthall holding the Federals in check for two hours before falling back to a position on Richland Creek. (Sanders)

At Richland Creek, Forrest drew up his entire cavalry command, placing six of Morton's field pieces in heavy timber along the road. When Croxton's cavalry found them in their front, Federal artillery was brought up to duel with the Confederate guns. Croxton then dismounted his troopers and worked his way forward, while Wilson ordered Hatch eastward to turn Forrest's flanks. In this fight, General Buford was wounded in the leg, his division placed under the command of General Chalmers.

Although Wilson was unable to turn both flanks, due to the unfordable creek, Forrest ordered a withdrawal at 8:00 p.m. That evening, Forrest and Walthall's men occupied the outer works around the town of Pulaski, where they destroyed a locomotive and five railroad cars. (Sanders) With more than forty miles yet to travel to the Tennessee, Forrest and Walthall planned a Christmas surprise for the Federal Cavalry before retiring for the night.

Wilson became more determined on the 25th, pushing through Pulaski on the heels of the rebels, confidently reporting to Thomas that he had sent the enemy from Pulaski, "on the keen jump," and that Forrest was "literally running away, making no defense whatever." (WS-417)

As Wilson pressed the Confederates, Walthall left the main pike for the road to Bainbridge. Jackson's cavalry division had been ordered to remain in Pulaski as long as possible, destroy the bridges, then fall back on Anthony's Hill, seven miles south of Pulaski.

At Anthony's Hill, Featherston and Palmer, with a brigade of cavalry on each flank, Reynolds, Field and Morton's artillery were put in ambush to await the approach of the Federals. The ground was densely wooded and there was no problem in concealing Walthall's infantry. (Sanders)

When Wilson's cavalry approached, they began firing on the line of skirmishers that Forrest had posted out in front. Dismounting three regiments, the Union troopers pushed rapidly forward a few yards. Suddenly, from behind a rail barricade, the masked Confederates revealed themselves by firing a volley into the faces of the Federal cavalrymen.

Stunned by the onslaught, the Federals fled in disorder, stampeding the units of another brigade behind them. Within minutes, both Federal brigades had been routed, abandoning a single gun of the 4th U. S. Artillery, which had just unlimbered. Featherston and Palmer's men pursued them, capturing the gun, prisoners and a number of horses.

Wilson hurriedly sent word to Wood's to bring up the Fourth Corps. But by the time Wood's arrived, Forrest and Walthall had already withdrawn. Wilson sheepishly wrote, "We have met a slight check, " and spent Christmas Eve explaining to Thomas the loss of his gun. (WS-418)

Forrest and Walthall's men spent Christmas Eve encamped at Sugar Creek, fourteen miles south of Anthony's Hill. At Sugar Creek, the rearguard came upon a large part of Hood's ordnance train, which had been delayed there so that the mules could be used in moving the pontoon train to the river. If the trains were to be saved, Forrest would have to come up with another delay for Wilson's troopers.

On the morning of December 26th, a thick fog enshrouded Sugar Creek, but Wilson's cavalry could be heard fording the shallow waters. Earlier, Forrest's cavalry had been pressed and he sought out Walthall, saying that it would be necessary for the infantry to dispute the Federal advance. (Sanders)

Walthall posted Reynolds and Field in a position between the two crossings of the creek; Featherston, Palmer and Morton were posted in a strong position on the south side of the crossing. The dense fog concealed Reynolds and Field, with the exception of a small force, which was purposely exposed. When the enemy struck, the small force was to fall back on the main line, drawing the Federals into another trap.

Slowly, the dismounted troopers worked their way forward towards a narrow ravine. Finally able to see through the fog, they realized it was too late. A wall of fire erupted in their faces, sending the Federals reeling. The icy waters of the creek impeded their flight, and Reynolds and Field were able to capture nearly all of the dismounted cavalry's horses. With cavalry on both their flanks, Walthall's infantry pursued the enemy for a half a mile before ending their chase.

In regards to this action at Sugar Creek, a Colonel Luke Finlay relates an interesting story. Finlay tells of how Forrest promised the infantry soldiers if they were to put the Yankees to flight at Sugar Creek, that they might ride any of the horses they captured. When the fight was over, and Forrest withdrew, some of Walthall's infantry could be seen riding "with much glee" towards the Tennessee River. Unfortunately, the guards of the pontoon train at the river forced them to turn them over when they reached there. (Finlay)

The route of his men at Sugar Creek had been the final straw for Wilson. He'd had enough and the pursuit of Hood's Army was virtually called off on the evening of the 26th. Wilson estimated that he had lost some 5,000 animals in the pursuit since Nashville, stating: "In all my experience I have never seen so much suffering. " (OR 45-1-567). His men were filthy, exhausted and hungry. At Sugar Creek, he ordered an extended halt, writing "I must get out of this region in three or four days, or we shall leave our horses."

(OR 45-1-369)

On the morning of the 26th, Hood's engineers had just completed the pontoon bridge, after working through the night. During the day, most of Lee's and Cheatham's men crossed, followed by A. P. Stewart's men on the 27th. After nightfall on the 27th, Forrest's weary troopers clattered across the pontoon bridge. Only Walthall's troops remained to protect the crossing.

On the 28th, Walthall issued orders at 3:00 a.m.: "Featherston's Brigade will move promptly (without further orders) at daybreak across the bridge, to be followed by Field and Palmer. General Reynolds will withdraw his command from Shoal Creek in time to reach the main line by daybreak and leave a skirmish line behind for a half-hour. He will follow Palmer. Ector's Brigade will cover the road until the whole command has passed, and then will follow, leaving a line of skirmishers behind until the rear of the brigade has passed on the bridge." (Sanders)

With the crossing of Walthall's command, the disastrous Tennessee Campaign came to a sad end. Hood's Army, a skeleton of its glorious self just thirty-eight days earlier, continued its march towards Tuscumbia and eventually to Tupelo, Mississippi, before they were able to rest.

Speaking of the pursuit, Thomas would remark that Hood's army was completely demoralized, adding "The rear guard, however, was undaunted and firm, and did its work bravely to the last!" Thomas would receive his promotion to Major General on December the 25th, which he is said to have cast aside, remarking "I earned that a year ago at Chattanooga." (WS)

Major D. W. Sanders, in a speech to the Southern Historical Society, in 1881, remarked, "Walthall with his incomparable infantry, together with the magnificent cavalry and artillery under Forrest, saved Hood's army from annihilation and enabled them to escape south of the Tennessee River." (Sanders-404)

Huddled on the icy riverbanks of the Tennessee, on December 26th, a soldier of the Washington Artillery wondered in amazement at the army's escape from Thomas, writing; "He ought to have captured us all on the river's bank that Christmas Day! True, our rear guard was fighting every day, and Forrest did prodigies of valor, but the wonder is that they were not run over." (Stephenson)

Thus the state, the army’s namesake, was left behind - shrouded in its black veil of mourning, whilst the winter winds once again shifted the tide of war, along with the soil that covered over 8,000 recent graves dug in the bosom of mother earth.

Epilogue:

The war ended for Major-General Edward C. Walthall in North Carolina, as his division joined Joe Johnston at the battle of Bentonville. Walthall was paroled on May 2, 1865, and returned to his beloved Mississippi. After serving as an U. S. Senator for twelve years, Walthall died in Washington on April 22nd. The following day, Members of the House, the Diplomatic Corps, the Justices of the Supreme Court and the President of the United States assembled in the Senate Chambers, where Walthall's body had been placed. After the funeral rites had been administered, a detail was selected to accompany his remains back to Holly Springs, Mississippi, where he is buried today. (Garner)

Describing Walthall as a soldier, General Joe Johnston later declared, that if the war had lasted two years longer, General Walthall would have been chosen commander of all the Confederate armies.

In describing him as a Senator, Senator George F. Hoar of Massachusetts, would say, "If I were to select the one man of all others with whom I have served in the Senate, who seems to be the most perfect example of the quality and character of the American Senator, I think it would be Edward C. Walthall of Mississippi." (Garner)



References:

(WS) Wiley Sword, The Confederacy's Last Hurrah, Spring Hill, Franklin and Nashville, University Press of Kansas

Sanders- Confederate Veteran, Major D. W. Sanders, "Hood's Tennessee Campaign."

Finlay- Confederate Veteran, Col. Luke W. Finlay, "Another Report on Hood's Campaign."

Stephenson- Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes, Jr., "The Civil War Memoir of Philip Daingerfield Stephenson, D. D. " UCA Press of Arkansas

OR's -Official Records of the War of the Rebellion

CV-see reference source in text of M'Neilly above.

Garner-Alf. W. Garner, "Public Services of E. C. Walthall, Mississippi Historical Society Papers.

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EHISTORY.COM: U.S. CIVIL WAR: "A Nation Divided": May 2000 Issue: [BACK]


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