150 Years Ago This Week: Battle of Nashville

December 1864

Towards the middle of December, Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant, in Washington, sent messages almost daily — through Army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck — to Maj. Gen. George Thomas at Nashville, Tenn., to attack the Confederate Army of Tennessee, commanded by Gen. John B. Hood.

Gen. Grant was growing impatient — mostly overanxious — that Gen. Thomas and the Army of the Cumberland should destroy the Southern troops. Gen. Thomas assured his superiors that he would attack as soon as practicable, but that the severe ice storms at Nashville were hampering his operations. Gen. Grant ordered Maj. Gen. John A. Logan to proceed to Nashville and supercede Gen. Thomas in command of the Federal army there. If Gen. Thomas launched an attack, then Gen. Logan was to be recalled. This took place on Tuesday, Dec. 13.

Having arrived at Ft. MacAllister, south of Savannah, on Dec. 10, Maj. Gen. William Sherman and his 60,000 troops reached the sea on the same day, Dec. 13. He was to make contact with the Union fleet lying offshore from Savannah to resupply his army once Ft. MacAllister was taken. Gen. Sherman ordered the attack to be made around 5 p.m. by Maj. Gen. William Haven’s 15th Corps.

Gen. Sherman watched the attack from a rice mill across the Ogeechee River from the fort. Major George Anderson commanded some 230 men in the fort and, in the assault, sustained 35 casualties. With no hope of reinforcements or assistance from Lt. Gen. William Hardee and the Confederate troops occupying Savannah, Maj. Anderson surrendered the fort, and Gen. Sherman’s troops made contact with the Union naval supply vessels. Savannah was doomed.

The following day, Gen. Thomas wired Washington that the ice on the ground around Nashville had melted, and he would attack Gen. Hood’s troops on Dec. 15. Field orders for the Union advance were issued. In Richmond, President Jefferson Davis wired Gen. Robert E. Lee at Petersburg asking whether any troops could be spared from Petersburg to go to Georgia to oppose Gen. Sherman.

In a heavy early morning fog on Thursday, Dec. 15, Gen. Thomas ordered his troops out of the defense lines at Nashville and attacked Gen. Hood’s Army of Tennessee. While a holding action was made against the Confederate right flank, the main assault involving some 35,000 Union troops attacked the thinly manned Confederate left flank. The intense fighting ended at dark, with the Confederate troops driven back about a mile from their initial positions. Gen. Hood used the night to reinforce and solidly post his shortened lines.

When the news of the day’s fighting reached Washington, Gen. Grant ordered Gen. Logan not to interfere with Gen. Thomas. Gen. Grant had, in the meantime, left his headquarters at City Point, Va., with plans to go to Washington and then to Nashville. He canceled his plans to proceed any farther than Washington.

At 6 a.m. the next morning, Dec. 16, in a wintry mix of rain and snow, Gen. Thomas resumed the attacks on Gen. Hood’s lines. Lt. Gen. Stephen D. Lee’s lines initially held, but the Union onslaught was too much, following a punishing artillery bombardment. The Confederates managed to resist the assaults until midafternoon, when the entire Confederate line was broken and left the field in great confusion.

The Army of Tennessee was decimated, and its effectiveness as a fighting force ended, yet it was not totally destroyed and moved back through Franklin to Columbia, where Gen. Hood halted the retreat. The pursuing Federal troops were stopped north of Columbia by the impassable Rutherford Creek. In Nashville, Gen. Thomas had won an impressive victory in eliminating the major western Confederate army as an aggressive force, and halting the dream of another Southern advance into the North. The fighting for Tennessee’s capital was to be the last major battle of the war in the west.

The week ended with Gen. Hardee, in command of the Confederate troops at Savannah, receiving word from President Davis in Richmond that “Gen. Lee is unable to detach troops from Virginia, and that you should make whatever dispositions needful for the preservation of your Army.” Gen. Sherman dispatched a courier on Dec. 17 under a white flag to Gen. Hardee, demanding that he “surrender the city of Savannah without delay.”

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles

A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.