November 24, 1864 (Thursday – Thanksgiving)
Jacob Cox, commanding the Twenty-Third Corps, Army of the Ohio, found himself marching north toward Columbia, Tennessee, along the Duck River. The weather was dark and cold and this was hardly the day for such a tramp.
But it was timely. As they arrived near Columbia, around 7:30am, they were able to beat back a large body of Rebel cavalry that was assaulting the small clutch of Federals guarding the city. Cox’s men interposed themselves between their retreating comrades and the Southern cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest.
“It was close work all around,” wrote Cox after the war. “My men deployed at double-quick along the bank of the creek, and after a brisk skirmish Forrest withdrew out of range.” As the battle ended, even more Federal infantry arrived, securing the city from almost any amount of cavalry. But John Bell Hood’s Confederate infantry, thought Cox, might not be far behind.
John Schofield, who commanded the army, arrived around noon, and did his best not to panic, though his series of letters written to George Thomas, commanding at Nashville, show plainly his ups and downs.
“The most of my troops are here and in position,” he wrote early upon his arrival. “The enemy shown no force but cavalry so far.”
No long later, at 1:39pm, he began to doubt his position. “Do you think it important to hold Columbia?” he asked Thomas. “My force not large enough to cover the town and railroad bridge. I can hold a shorter line covering the railroad bridge, leaving the town and railroad depot outside; but in any case the enemy can turn the position by crossing above or below, and render my withdrawal to the north bank very difficult. Please give me your views soon.”
The reply came that afternoon. “If you cannot hold Columbia,” wrote Thomas, “you had better withdraw to the north bank of the river. […] But it is better, of course, to substantially check the enemy than to run the risk of defeat by risking too much.”
Schofield’s greatest worry was that Forrest would find a way to cross the Duck River and get between him and Nashville. Having not heard from his own cavalry all through the day, he had no idea what Forrest was up to.
With that in the back of his head, he spent much of the day surveying the ground around Columbia and his own defensive position. It did not look so good.
“The line is too long, yet if Hood wishes to fight me on it tomorrow I am willing,” he began in an 8pm letter. “I think he will attack tomorrow, if at all; if he does not, I must prepare to meet any attempt to cross Duck River above or below.”
To accomplish this end, he decided to cover the railroad bridge on the south side of the river (in the city itself) with a division, while crossing the rest of his army to the north side. The troops who had crossed could then guard the fords on either side of Columbia.
“With the fords guarded, as will then be practicable, I think Hood cannot get the start of me. I think it best not to risk much now, for a few days delay, if we concentrate rapidly, will make us strong enough to drive Hood back.”
And then finally, towards the end of the day, Schofield heard from his cavalry, which had been at Lynnville until the late afternoon fighting their Rebel counterparts. “The indications are that Hood gave up his movement on Columbia this morning,” reported Schofield based upon the word of scouts, “and is now going toward Pulaski.”
But this was not so. Hood, who had divided his forces for the march, was planning to rejoin them on the road between Waynesboro and Mount Pleasant. His advance was about nine miles south of the latter town on this night, and the other wing twenty miles farther south. They were, however, now all using the same road. Though strung out for a score of miles, Hood was in the process of concentrating his army.
In the post-war, Hood made it seem like from the start of the march, he was in a race to cut off Schofield from the crossing. This wasn’t so until around noon on this date. He had received word just then that the Federals were leaving Pulaski – which they had done the day before.
“If they have evacuated Pulaski,” went the orders to one of his cavalry divisions, “you will move forward and press them hard on to Columbia.” Hood knew, of course, that some of his cavalry was already fighting near the city, but had no idea they were fighting Jacob Cox’s men.
It would not be until the day following when Hood knew for certain that Pulaski had been abandoned. Then, he wrote to P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the department from Corinth, Mississippi, to “have the railroad repaired to Decatur as soon as possible.” With the mills left untouched by Schofield’s retreating men, Hood grew certain. “I think I will have no difficulty about supplies.”1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 45, Part 1, p314, 348-349, 357, 405, 670, 1016-1018, 1243, 1245; Military Remembrances by Jacob Cox; Advance and Retreat by John Bell Hood; The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah by Wiley Sword. [↩]