Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas, USA
Gen. John Bell Hood, CSA
Thomas had around 50,000 men against Hood’s 23,000.
Precise losses are unknown, but Hood’s army was shattered.
Following the Battle of Franklin on November 30, the Fourth and Twenty-third Federal infantry corps, temporarily commanded byMaj. Gen. John M. Schofield, hurried northward to join Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas at Nashville. After an eighteen-mile night march, they arrived there on December 1.
Though severely crippled by the loss of approximately 6,000 at Franklin, the Confederate army, commanded by General John Bell HOOD, continued its pursuit of Federal forces, arriving at Nashville on December the 2d. Hood, realizing the city's defenses were too strong for a direct assault with his army of 23,000, took up a position on the heights around the southern outskirts of the city, and close to Federal defenses.
George Thomas had been strengthening the defenses of the city, and organizing his forces since his arrival on October 3d. On the same day that Schofield's exhausted troops stumbled into Nashville, Federal reinforcements in the way of A. J. Smith's XVI Corps of 10,000 arrived from Missouri. Nonetheless, the cautious Thomas felt he was ill-prepared to give battle to the Confederates now confronting him.
General Nathan Bedford Forrest's Confederate cavalrymen were the first to arrive around Nashville on the morning of the 2d, followed by an infantry corps at 2:00 p.m. Hood's depleted ranks stretched themselves in a thin line along a four-mile front, on a series of hills running south of Nashville.
Even after the debacle at Franklin, Hood still felt he was left with few choices of action. He felt he could not cross the Cumberland River without reinforcements, and that he could not turn south to retreat. His only option, in his mind, was to besiege Nashville, await reinforcements and try to draw Thomas out for an attack. Keeping with this plan, Hood immediately detached Maj. Gen. William B. Bate's infantry division and sent them to Murfreesboro to attack the 8,000-man Federal garrison, hoping Thomas would send them reinforcements. On December 11th, Hood sent Forrest and two divisions of cavalry to assist the infantry division at Murfreesboro. This action severely depleted Hood’s ability to patrol or protect his flanks and brought no reaction from Thomas.
While the Confederate army lay around Nashville, U. S. Grant, in Virginia, became increasingly worried over Thomas's slowness in dealing with the enemy in his front. Frequently urging Thomas to attack, Grant envisioned a foot-race between Thomas and Hood to the Ohio River. Although it became obvious that Thomas's command was in jeopardy, he refused to attack until he felt all elements for a victory were in place - specifically, a well-equipped cavalry force.
The city of Nashville had been occupied by Union troops since the capture of Fort Donelson in 1862. Thomas's defensive network consisted of seven forts and redoubts around the city. However, with so many troops present, the Federal lines were pushed beyond this network. The outer perimeter, which Thomas's troops worked tirelessly to strengthen, was an estimated eight miles long. With Smith, Schofield, and other units culled from the area, Thomas had roughly 50,000 troops on hand. This included James H. Wilson's 10,000 mounted cavalrymen.
By the time Thomas wired Grant that he planned for an attack on the 10th, Grant had sent a telegram to Halleck on the previous day with orders to relieve Thomas. Grant then had a change of heart when Thomas wrote of the reason for his delay. However, Grant made it clear that he would order his removal again if Thomas did not attack at first opportunity. Thomas's delay was due to the severe weather conditions. The unseasonably warm weather had changed and become intensely cold on the 8th. By the
next day, the ground was frozen solid and sheets of falling rain had turned to sleet.
While Thomas worked to get his cavalry across the Cumberland River, thinly-clad Confederate soldiers tried to stay alive on the hills overlooking Nashville. One Federal soldier recalled the plight of his enemy, as he looked out at the Confederate line: "the Rebel soldiers...are not as well provided for as we are. Our scouts reported seeing Rebels frozen to death," adding, "I do not feel like rejoicing at their sufferings..."
The winter storm continued unabated, causing Thomas to wire Halleck on December 12th: "...As the whole country is now covered with a sheet of ice so hard and slippery, it is utterly impossible for troops to ascend the slopes, or even move over level ground in anything like order. It has taken the entire day to place my cavalry in position, and it has only been finally effected with imminent risk and many serious accidents, resulting from the number of horses falling with their riders on the roads." Notwithstanding, the cavalry managed to cross the river on the 12th, and warmer temperatures on the 14th finally began melting the ice and snow. Thomas immediately drew up formal orders for an attack to take place on the morning of the 15th.
Hood, expecting an attack momentarily, was attempting to strengthen his vulnerable left flank, having earlier placed the returned division from Murfreesboro on his right flank. He had further weakened his left by pulling a cavalry brigade from it, believing that Federal cavalry was attempting to reinforce urfreesboro. Although Hood now knew that reinforcements from the Trans-Mississippi would not be forthcoming, he did not recall Forrest to Nashville.
Thomas's battle plan called for his main attack to strike Hood's weak left flank, A.P. Stewart's Corps, while simultaneously attacking his right to divert his attention. The Fourth Corps, now commanded by Thomas J. Wood and Smith's corps would lead the attack on the left, while Steedman attacked on Hood's right
flank. Schofield's corps (XXIII) would be held in reserve to support the attack. Though his main attacking force took longer to get into position than anticipated, the Confederates were slowly being pushed back on both flanks. When darkness fell on the evening of the 15th, Hood began forming a new but much shorter battleline.
Thomas suspected that Hood might retreat during the evening, but instead found the Confederates still occupying the hills in the suburbs of Brentwood. At 3 p.m. on the 16th, the Federals launched an attack on Hood's right but were beaten back. On the Confederate left, Thomas's cavalry began driving back Hood's
remaining cavalry division and enveloping Hood's exposed flank. At 4 p.m., an attack on Hood's main line crushed his left and forced his entire line to retreat. The Confederate army was in rout as gray-clad soldiers streamed past Hood's headquarters southward on the Franklin Pike.
Outnumbered and demoralized, the Army of Tennessee continued moving southward, as remnants of S. D. Lee'S corps attempted to hold off their pursuers. Fortunately for Hood, the Federal pursuit was slow in following their beaten foe, allowing them to reach Franklin on the morning of the 17th, and eventually to Bainbridge, Alabama, where they would re-cross the Tennessee River on Christmas Day, 1864.
** Note: At the Battle of Nashville, an estimated 49,700 Federals were engaged against an estimated 23,200 Confederates. Federal losses were reported at 3,061 in killed, wounded and missing, while the Confederate losses were estimated at 1,500 in killed and wounded, and 4,462 in captured.
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American Battlefield Protection Program, Heritage Preservation Services, National Park Service.