December 15, 1864 (Thursday)
John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee was stretched into somewhat of a half-circle, trying as it might to curl around the Federal-held city of Nashville. His men had dug in, and were in the process of improving the embattlements and redoubts when the morning of this day broke.
Hood’s right was held by Benjamin Cheatham’s Corps, and the center by Stephen Lee’s. It was Alexander Stewart’s Corps that made up the left, refusing its line away from the city and the Federals with a series of several redoubts, still under construction. It was an army numbering no more than 30,000 men, most of whom were suffering the ill effects of the recent cold.
The Confederate defenses were faulty at best. Hood, as was often the Confederate strategy throughout the war, attempted to cover as much ground as he possibly could. Specifically, the trenches covered seven roads and railroads leaving Nashville to the south. With some cavalry and skirmishers extended on the left, four others were within his lines.
Late the night previous, Hood had received word that an attack was expected on his left, coming down the Hillsboro Pike, directly for the redoubts. And so when the foggy gray of morning came upon him, it was to his left he was looking. But on his right, along Cheatham’s lines, came the first sounds of battle.
But a battle was something nobody in Hood’s command expected. It was all a demonstration, he and rest believed. But as the early morning wore on and the fog began to clear, the sounds did not diminish. Hood mounted and rode to his left flank, which was where he believed any attack my come. There, with General Stewart, he saw columns of Federals throwing back his skirmishers and advancing across the open space before his redoubts.
The division under Edward C. Walthall was on fatigue duty and ordered to man the redoubts. It was his duty to span the 1,000-yard gaps between each point, though in Hood’s conception, the redoubts themselves were to be enough to stop the coming attack. While he had all the men he could gather, artillery was lacking. He had only six pieces to his name. Still, he would have to make do.
“About 11 o’clock,” wrote Walthall in his report, “the enemy, exposing a large force in my front, concentrated a heavy artillery fire on the redoubt in front of my left, and after keeping it up for about an hour, with great damage to the force within, moved upon it with a heavy body of infantry, enveloped the base of the hill, and by assault carried the position, which was well defended.”
This Federal troops attacked from the west, but in the melee that followed, Walthall learned that even more were coming from the north, directly down the Hillsborough Pike. To buy some time, a brigade was thrown toward them, but soon after the first redoubt fell, the second was enveloped and the brigade tumbled back for fear of being cut off. But with the flood of Union troops now behind them, the brigade was indeed severed and had to take cover on a nearby hill.
“When these redoubts were taken,” continued Walthall, “the enemy moved up in my front and shelled my troops heavily. He made no assault on my position, but threw a force across the pike into the woods near Compton’s house and threatened my left.”
Walthall was forced to refuse his lines, drawing troops from his right to bolster his left. The attacking Federals, however, did the same, and with their numbers, overlapped the Rebel flank. Not taking the time needed to write out the plea, Walthall sent a messenger to Stewart, letting him know that his line was about to break, and would if he were not reinforced. But Stewart had already sent for reinforcements, and Hood was forced to pull them from his now-less-threatened right. They were coming, if only Walthall could hold.
“By this time,” wrote Stewart, continuing the thread, “the other brigades of Johnson’s divisions [from the right] had come up, but were unable to check the progress of the enemy, who had passed the Hillsborough pike a full half mile, completely turning our flank and gaining the rear of both Walthall and Loring, whose situation was becoming perilous in the extreme. Their positions were maintained to the last possible moment, in the hope that the expected succor would arrive and restore the fight on the left.”
“Troops came,” wrote Walthall, “but the enemy were not checked.” His brigade on the left “was forced back, and it was with great difficulty I withdrew my other two brigades to prevent their capture by the large force he had been opposing, which moved up in their rear.”
Stewart called for a general retreat, which was surprising orderly. They formed between the Granny White [on the map as the Middle Franklin Turnpike] and Franklin Pikes, some at right angles to their previous lines. And it was the dark the drew the battle to a close.
General Hood, now on the scene, began to establish a new line of defense, as it was well clear that another attack would come with the sun. There was much shifting, swapping Lee’s and Cheatham’s Corps and falling back quite a distance.
Hood finally saw that his original line was far too extended, and now intended to form one much more compact. To the rear of his now shattered line was a convenient series of hills. These covered only two roads leading south out of Nashville, but it would have to do. His left would be held by Cheatham’s Corps, on a rise over which the Granny White Pike wound. The center would be Stewart’s, and the right, anchored on Overton Hill, near the Franklin Pike, would be S.D. Lee’s. This fine defensive position would soon be tested.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 45, Part 1, p654, 660, 707, 721-723; Advance and Retreat by John Bell Hood; The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah by Wiley Sword; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly. [↩]