December 16, 1864 (Friday)
“I shall attack the enemy again tomorrow, if he stands to fight,” wrote General George Thomas in Washington after the previous day’s battle, “and, if he retreats during the night, will pursue him, throwing a heavy cavalry force in his rear, to destroy his trains, if possible.”
In response, General Grant replied that he had been on his way to Nashville, apparently to personally oversee the attack the he believed Thomas would not make, but “detailing your splendid success of today, I shall go no farther.” His advice was stern: “Push the enemy now, and give him no rest until he is entirely destroyed.”
But the Confederates under John Bell Hood were not yet defeated. Though Thomas wrote home telling that he “whipped” the Rebels, they were not at all whipped. In a line stretching between two high hills, Peach Orchard Hill (also called Overton’s) and Compton’s Hill (later called Shy’s Hill), Hood’s command again entrenched. His embattlements around Peach Orchard Hill, on the Rebel right, curved about its summit, presenting no weakened salient at which to launch an attack. The Confederate left was anchored atop Compton’s Hill, and also curved around to the south. But in so doing, there was a right angle between two division.
General Thomas’ army had “bivouacked in line of battle during the night on the ground occupied at dark,” and come the dawn, the attack was to be renewed. Thomas put forward three corps. On the right was John Schofield, and on the left was Thomas Wood. The center was held by A.J. Smith. The flanks were maintained by James Wilson’s cavalry on the right, and James Steedman’s cobbled together corps of detached units and two brigades of United States Colored Troops.
Come the dawn, Wood’s corps spoke first, driving the Confederate skirmishers east of the Franklin Pike, running south from the city. On they advanced, covering the ground across which Hood’s men retreated the day previous, until his corps discovered the new line of the enemy at Peach Orchard Hill. Wood was soon joined by the forces under Steedman, securing the Union left. With that, Smith’s Corps following, falling in on Wood’s right, spanning best they could the gap between it and Schofield’s command, already in position on the Rebel left at Compton’s Hill from the night before. Wilson’s cavalry, securing the Union right, stretched around Compton’s, and by noon was already in Hood’s rear.
Thomas was in no hurry. He hardly needed to be, having Hood exactly where he wanted him. He spent the morning visiting each of his corps commanders and sussing out the best way to go ahead with the assault. He determined that Schofield’s strike against the Confederate left should be continued, and pushed forward the rest of his forces until they were within 600 yards of the Rebel works.
But he still did not attack. Thomas was hoping that Wilson would gain the rear and fully hold the roads leading south, cutting off Hood’s retreat. With no orders to attack, the Union artillery played absolute hell upon the Rebel position. Wood focused upon Peach Orchard Hill, while both Smith and Schofield battered the right angle upon Compton’s.
Additionally, Schofield ordered a brigade of infantry to accompany Wilson’s cavalry, winding around the final battery on the Confederate left. The artillery also played upon these Rebel guns, eventually forcing the enemy artillery to retire. But the more Schofield looked upon Compton’s Hill, the less he wanted to assault it. The right angle certainly seemed tempting, and it seemed as if the Rebels were shifting troops away from the left in order to counter the Federal troops looming on their right. Thomas still gave no orders, and Schofield continued to hesitate.
General John McArther, born in Scotland and a steel worker from Chicago, was hardly amused by this delay. As he commanded the right-most division in Smith’s Corps, he could see before him that the right angle was ripe for attack. In talking with Darius Couch, who commanded the left-most divison in Schofield’s Corps, he learned that no orders had been given to attack. Nothing, it seemed, was even in the works.
“Being informed that he had no orders to advance,” wrote McArther, “and fearing that if delayed until next day the night would be employed by the enemy to our disadvantage, I determined to attack, sending word to this effect to the major-general commanding corps.”
Smith, his corps commander, sent the orders up to Thomas, who approved the plan. McArthur also wanted Couch’s assistance, but for that, they would have to go to Schofield. With support behind him, Schofield now felt comfortable in ordering the assault. Simultaneously with McArthur and Couch, Schofield ordered his other division, under Jacob Cox, to attack the hill as well.
While this was being sorted, General Wood, on the Union left, decided to attack. “It was evident that the assault would be very difficult,” wrote Wood after the battle, “and, if successful, would probably be attended with heavy loss; but the prize at state was worth the hazard.” His preparations necessarily had to be done in full view of the enemy, which was why Hood ushered troops from his left to his right.
At 3pm, Wood gave the order and forward they went:
“The assaulting force was instructed to move steadily forward to within a short distance of the enemy’s works, and then, by a ‘bold burst,’ ascent the steep ascent, cross the abatis, dash over the rude by strong parapet, and secure the coveted goal.
“The troops were full of enthusiasm, and the splendid array in which the advance was made gave hopeful promise of success. Near the food of the ascent the assaulting force dashed forward for the last great effort. It was welcomed with a most terrible fire of grape and canister and musketry; but its course was onward. When near, however, the enemy’s works (a few of our men, stouter of limb and steadier of movement, had already entered his line) his reserves on the slope of the hill rose and poured in a fire before which no troops could live.”
Wood’s troops had no choice but to give up, and retreated back to their main lines. But this attack ended near when McArthur’s was about to begin. McArther first sent a brigade forward, while Couch issued a brigade to take its place. The other two brigades in McArthur’s division were ordered to advance once the first was halfway to the salient right angle.
“The First Brigade, with fixed bayonets, without a cheer or firing a shot, but with firm resolve and without doubting their success, commenced the difficult ascent, and without a halt, although exposed to a murderous fire, which none by the bravest troops could withstand, planted their colors on the very apex of the hill. At the appointed time the Second and Third Brigades… moved forward on the enemy’s works. Their path lay across a cornfield, traversed by stone walls and ditches, which together with the softness of the ground, exposed as they were to a direct fire in front, and enfiladed by batteries on the flanks, for a time held with intense interest the most experience officers who beheld it; but onward was their motto, and their banners were planted on the works defended by the choices troops of the rebel army, calling forth the remark of the rebel officers that powder and lead were inadequate to resist such a charge.”
Through the shot and shells (as well as through McArthur’s hyperbole), his division devoured the Confederate line, consuming batteries and regiments, until the rear was secured. Once the rout was on, even the troops before Wood’s Corps took flight from Peach Orchard Hill. The Confederate line no longer existed.
“I did not, I might say,” wrote General Hood after the war, “anticipate a break at that time, as our forces up to that moment had repulsed the Federals at every point, and were waving their colors in defiance, crying out to the enemy, ‘Come on, come on.'”
That night, General Thomas gleefully reported the success to Washington. “I have ordered the pursuit to be continued in the morning at daylight, although the troops are very much fatigued. The greatest enthusiasm prevails.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 45, Part 1, p39-40, 133, 346, 438-439; Part 2, p194-195, 210; Advance and Retreat by John Bell Hood; The March to the Sea: Franklin and Nashville by Jacob Cox. [↩]