December 19, 1864 (Monday)
They had escaped. It was the only word for it. The retreat wasn’t orderly. It wasn’t by file into line. It was every man for himself, running mad to the Franklin Pike before that too was severed and they were all killed or captured.
Still, some units held together just enough to form a rear guard, barring the Federals from sweeping down from Nashville. Mostly, however, it was the dark which brought an end to the brawl. And it was the dark that gave General John Bell Hood time enough to staunch the bleeding.
It was cavalry, for the most part, that handled the fighting for both armies. James Wilson’s Federals continued to hit the Rebels thrown together by James Chalmers and S.D. Lee, actually fielding some infantry. The bulk of the Confederate cavalry, however, remained near Murfreesboro, under Nathan Bedford Forrest. Soon they too would join the rout.
Though the retreat had been chaos, through the night and to the morning and afternoon of the 17th, some semblance of order returned, as Hood marched his remaining few through Franklin. And it was dark on this day as well that saved them.
A small rear guard of perhaps 700 men was placed along an overflowing stream south of Franklin. They were met by five thousand Federals under Wilson. The Union troops attacked, overlapping the Rebel flanks, but were repulsed. Again and again in the fading light, they tried to hurl themselves across the stream, but when the Rebels took on reinforcements, and the dark became full, they had to let their prey escape.
Before the morning of the 18th, Hood had it in his mind to hold at least at Columbia. And it was there he found himself that night. It was, he believed, really the only way to remain in Tennessee. Perhaps if they established a strong line behind the Duck River, swollen as it was, they might even defeat Thomas’ host. At the very least, they might survive.
That night, Hood and his staff were debating their next move. Dr. Charles Quintard, Hood’s chaplain, was with them and recalled the scene:
“I was glad to find the General bearing up well under the disaster to our arms. It was now a very serious question whether General Hood should hold the line of Duck River, (even if it were possible for him to do so,) or fall back across the Tennessee. One officer remarked to the General in my presence, that while God was on our side so manifestly that no man could question it, it was still very apparent that our people had not yet passed through all their sufferings.
“The General replied that the remark was a just one. He had been impressed with the fact at Spring Hill, where the enemy was completely within our grasp, and notwithstanding all his efforts to strike a decisive blow, he had failed. And now again at Nashville, after the day’s fighting was well nigh over, when all had gone successfully until the evening, our troops had broken and fled.”
All Providence aside, they had to make a decision. Two officers insisted that if the army flew into another retreat, its morale would be crushed as badly as if they were defeated once more on the battlefield. Others played into that, even suggesting that if they could hold Columbia, they might be able to establish a new state government. These were lofty and sleepless days.
General Forrest’s cavalry was also drawing near to Columbia, plodding sixty miles to join with Hood. But at the crossing of the Duck River, there was bedlam. Forrest had tried a different crossing first, finding the water too deep. Now at this ford, he found General Benjamin Cheatham, commanding a division of infantry. Cheathem, too, was trying to cross. Since both arrived at roughly the same time, and since one of these men was Forrest, things quickly flew out of control.
Cheatham insisted that his men cross first. This made some amount of sense, as the cavalry, acting as rear guard, was often the last to cross. But on this day, Forrest wasn’t entertaining such notions. Instead, he drew his pistol, pointed it in Cheatham’s face and said, “If you are a better man than I am, General Cheatham, your troops can cross ahead of mine.”
Apparently, those around both commander, the soldiers and the troopers of the Confederacy, were ready to join their respective commanders in battle against the other. Fortunately, S.D. Lee happened by and was able to put an end whatever the hell was about to transpire. Other reports hold that Forrest’s own staff dragged him screaming from the potential duel. Likewise, reports vary on which command was allowed to cross first, though most agree that it was Chalmers. An irate Forrest finally crossed and bivouacked his command near Columbia.
Finally arriving at this date (the 19th), Hood had passed his entire army across the Duck. Forrest, shaking off the rage of the day before, met with Hood to talk about the retreat. “If we are unable to hold the state,” said Forrest, “we should at once evacuate it.” Some of his men were now engaged alongside Cheatham’s on the banks of Rutherford Creek, holding back the probing Yankee vanguard. The heavy rain mixed with snow, and the rivers overflowed their banks.
Hood ultimately agreed with Forrest. The retreat would begin anew the following morning. By 3pm, Columbia would be deserted, save for the cavalry under Forrest, who would serve as rear guard, holding as long as they might. And it was to the Tennessee River they would march.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 45, Part 1, p655, 757-758; Advance and Retreat by John Bell Hood; Doctor Quintard by Charles Todd Quintard; Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Biography by Jack Hurst; Nathan Bedford Forrest: In Search of the Enigma by Eddy Davison; The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah by Wiley Sword; The Confederacy’s Greatest Cavalryman by Brian Steel Wills; In the Lion’s Mouth by Derek Smith. [↩]