October 16, 1864 (Sunday)
In the thinking of John Bell Hood (or at least in Hood’s post-war surmisings), his mission was complete. Though he had lost Atlanta, and though that same city was still under Federal control, he had managed to pull William Tecumseh Sherman’s massive army back to the same position it held in May. This was quite a feat, especially if one ignores the fact that, save the temporary occupation of Dalton and the destruction of several lengths of railroad, Sherman’s Federals still controlled everything from Chattanooga to Atlanta.
Still, it was an impressive and bold move, wrought perhaps from desperation, though no less effective than reacting to whatever Sherman might do next. Hood’s only regret was that it did not happen sooner, say, Spring of 1864 when James Longstreet had suggested such a move that would take a gigantic Rebel army to the banks of the Ohio.
But her he was, nearly 100 miles north of Atlanta, and but forty from the Tennessee line. Sherman, however, was closing in – mostly from the north. Hood’s way, it seemed, was blocked. According to his original plan, this wasn’t such an event. He was to draw out Sherman, which he had already done (and then some), select ground over which the Federals must attack, and defeat them. Now, by the plan’s schedule, was time for battle. With Sherman moving toward him, the hour was incredibly neigh.
“I here determined to advance no further towards the Tennessee River, but to select a position and deliver battle, since Sherman had, at an earlier date than anticipated, moved as far north as I had hoped to allure him; moreover I was again in the vicinity of the Alabama line, with the Blue Mountain Railroad in my rear, and I thought I had discovered that improvement in the morale of the troops, which would justify me in delivering battle.”
And so, it seemed, everything was ready for a final dual between Hood and Sherman. Hood, in his post-war memoirs, makes much of this, but in his strangely short official report, written in February of 1865, nothing is said of an invitation to battle. The dispatches to his underlings, as well as to Richmond and P.G.T. Beauregard, department commander, show nothing of a will to fight. He made some mention of drawing his men together and his cavalry to his left flank, but nothing more. Hood, by all contemporary evidence, had already renounced the idea of giving Sherman battle.
Still, in his memoirs, he claims that it was “upon the eve of action,” when he decided to call off the ball. “I considered it important to ascertain by personal inquiry and through the aid of officers of my staff, not alone from corps commanders, but from officers of less rank, whether or not my impressions after the capture of Dalton were correct, and I could rely upon the troops entering into battle at least hopeful of victory.”
The post-war Hood believed that his corps commanders were lying to him about the morale of the troops, but after an inquiry, “the opinion was unanimous that although the Army had much improved in spirit, it was not in condition to risk battle against the numbers reported by General Wheeler.”
And so this revelation brought post-war Hood to the same position as war-time Hood – “in serious thought and perplexity” over what to do. “I could not offer battle while the officers were unanimous in the opposition,” Hood went on in his memoirs. “Neither could I take an entrenched position with likelihood of advantageous results, since Sherman could do the same, repair the railroad, amass a large Army, place [George] Thomas in my front in command of the forces he afterwards assembled at Nashville, and then, himself move southward; or, as previously suggested, he could send Thomas into Alabama, whilst he [Sherman] marched through Georgia, and left me to follow in his rear.”
All of this was true, but it had been true since Hood lost Atlanta. This couldn’t have been some new revelation. These had always been the options open to Sherman and had always been the harsh possibilities Hood faced.
There was, unfortunately for post-war Hood, one cumbersome exception. On this date (and for the ensuing two weeks), Hood had no idea that General Thomas was amassing forces from Nashville. Which was probably why he decided upon his next move.
It was here, according to post-war Hood, that he “conceived the plan of marching into Tennessee with a hope to establish our line eventually in Kentucky, and determined to make the campaign which followed, unless withheld by General Beauregard or the authorities at Richmond.” Beauregard was en route to Hood’s army, and Hood would wait until he came to reveal his new new plan.
For the time being, Hood would retire toward Gadsden, along the Coosa River – a move that didn’t require a plan of any sort. By the next day, he would be nearing Gayesville, and by the time we can again afford to return to the West, he and his army would be in Gadsden receiving a supply of shoes and clothing. He would also be discussing his newest plan with Beauregard, though not before making preparations for such a campaign two days before any discussion would occur. General Hood did not always know what he wanted to do, but when he did, he wouldn’t let such a trifling thing as his superior commander stand in his way.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 39, Part 1, p802, 809; Advance and Retreat by John Bell Hood; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah by Wiley Sword. [↩]