December 26, 1864 (Monday)
“I have my troops well in hand, and well provided with provisions and ammunition,” wrote General George Thomas on Christmas night, “and close upon the heels of the enemy, and shall continue to press him as long as there is a chance of doing anything.”
For most of the infantry on both sides, the past few days had been nothing but marching – slogging their way south from Nashville and Columbia, Tennessee. But for the cavalries, it was a different story entirely. There were constant battles, endless and changeless, between James Wilson’s Federals and Forrest’s Rebels.
And the Confederate rear guard bought John Bell Hood time enough to arrive on the banks of the Tennessee River by Christmas. Hood had crossed the Duck River at Columbia on the 19th “and proceeded on different roads leading towards Bainbridge on the Tennessee. I entertained but little concern in regard to being further harassed by the enemy. I felt confident that Walthall, supported on his flanks by the gallant Forrest, would prove equal to any emergency which might arise. I therefore continued, although within sound of the gun of the rear guard, to march leisurely, and arrived at Bainbridge on the 25th of December.”
The Federals had been held up at the Duck River, and unable to cross it until three days after Hood burned his bridges behind him. First across was the cavalry, and it wasn’t too many day before they caught up with Forrest, slowed by the task of destroying unused ammunition so that it might not fall into Federal hands.
The engagements were short and sharp, with Forrest calling the shots. Though in retreat, there were times when Forrest would even attack. This was his nature, his design, and it bought time for Hood. After a particularly spirited battle on the 24th, Forrest was untouched through Christmas Day, which was spent in Pulaski destroying ammunition. A bridge spanning a nearby creek was also to be destroyed, but the Federals finally caught up, doused the fire.
Still more battle, with a Federal attack and a blackened eye for Forrest, who sustained heavy losses, and even gave up a piece of artillery. But it had allowed the Rebels to get away once more.
Through the fog of morning, on this date, the Federals came again, though slowed by their lack of visibility. Forrest had to but wait as the Federals stumbled blindly.
“Owing to the dense fog,” reported Forrest, “he could not see the temporary fortifications which the infantry had thrown up and behind which they were secreted. The enemy therefore advanced to within fifty paces of these works, when a volley was opened upon him, causing the wildest confusion.”
In this confusion, Forrest charged with nearly three brigades, routing the Federals, who were even pursued for two miles before the chase was called off. Forrest’s men returned to their fortifications and waited for a renewal, but the Federals had had enough, and Forrest feared for his flanks. From that point, it was open road to the Tennessee River, which they trod untouched by the enemy.
This was Forrest at his finest, and though it tasted much like the sweetness of victory, in truth it was bitter. That they could make it to the banks of the Tennessee with little harassment was hardly comfort. Hood’s army had been handily dismantled, mangled and demoralized. And Thomas’ Federals were exhausted. The mud and fighting had left them little able to do anything. They seemed stalled, and Thomas knew he could not catch Hood.
But he was not the only Yankee in pursuit. There was also Admiral S.P. Lee, commanding a small flotilla of gunboats on the Tennessee River. The past two days had seen him steaming his way toward Florence, where the Rebels had crossed into Tennessee weeks ago. It was a good guess that they might recross near the same. On Christmas Day, Admiral Lee chuffed his way closer, but his heavier gunboats were not swift enough.
Selecting two that were of light draft, he glided past Florence, on the word from a Rebel deserter that Hood would be crossing at Muscle Shoals, six miles beyond Florence. But two miles above the town, the small navy encountered a Rebel battery, hidden, to protect the crossing. There were exchanges, but even Lee’s heavy guns could do little against embattled artillery.
The Confederates building the bridge could hear the battle, and some even claimed to see the smoke. So close was the exchange that the could hear the ships’ whistles, and became nervous that their retreat was at an end. But then came silence, and the ships never appeared, slipping away ghostly into the haze of late afternoon.
“Foggy weather and a rapidly falling river prevented my reaching and destroying Hood’s pontoons at Bainbridge,” wrote Admiral Lee to Thomas several days later. Lee tried to explain it away. According to some Federals who had been taken prisoner by Hood’s men only to escape, the Rebels boasted that the gunboats could not get over the shoals before the bridge. “Bainbridge was not a regular ferry,” Lee mentioned, “and my clever pilot thought the water was too swift there for a crossing. Hood must have been sorely pushed to have resorted to such a place on the shoals.” Lee’s clever pilot was not so right, and Hood was not so pushed.
There was still another hope – General James Steedman, whose small force of 5,000 had arrived near Decatur on this date. They had been marching south with the army from Nashville, when, on the 20th, they were ordered to Murfreesboro and thence by rail toward Decatur. The trains were late in coming, and he didn’t disembark until the 22nd. From there, it took four long days to reach the mouth of the Limestone River.
Steedman found there General Robert Granger’s small force, as well as a few gunboats and transports. Seeing the opportunity, Steedman boarded the transports and shuttled his men down toward Decatur. But they were also too late. Though they would not meet the enemy on this date, on the following, Rebel artillery would attempt to thwart their crossing of a lagoon before Decatur. Still, by the end of the 27th, Decatur was all they would gain.
Thomas was hardly optimistic, but in a message to Washington, sent at the close of this day, he vowed that both Wilson’s cavalry and Wood’s infantry “will continue the pursuit zealously.”
By nightfall, most of Hood’s wagons had crossed the Tennessee. Through the night, the infantry would cross, followed then by Forrest. Much of the following day would be needed, and there would come no Federals to threaten their crossing. It would now seem to all that Hood had fully escaped.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 45, Part 1, p732, 758; Part 2, p342, 356, 507; Advance and Retreat by John Bell Hood; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; In the Lion’s Mouth by Derek Smith; The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah by Wiley Sword. [↩]