November 29, 1864 (Tuesday)
“He therefore will press forward with all possible speed and told me just now confidentially that he would either beat the enemy to Nashville or make him go there at a double quick.” – Bishop Charles Quintard, diary entry about John Bell Hood made November 28, 1864.
“The enemy must give me fight, or I will be at Nashville before tomorrow night.” – John Bell Hood, as recorded by Bishop Quintard on November 29, 1864.
John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee was crossing the Duck River upstream from the Federal position opposite Columbia. Though they did not move until dawn, word from the Northern cavalry had been sent to John Schofield, commanding the Union troops, that the Confederate infantry would splash their way toward his left flank come morning. The message, sent around 1am, did not reach Schofield until around 7am.
Immediately, Schofield reacted by ordering two of the three Fourth Corps division to retreat north to occupy Spring Hill. Soon after, a division from the Twenty-Third Corps was ordered to do the same. This was nearly half of his entire army.
Then, after about an hour, a dispatch from George Thomas, commanding at Nashville, arrived, urging Schofield to remain in his position unless compelled to fall back by the Rebels. Still another arrived, effectively giving Schofield leave to act on his own, falling back if he so chose.
With his mind in a quandary, the Confederate artillery opened upon him from across the river. This made little sense. If Hood was about to appear on the Federal left, how could so much still be in Columbia in his front? This, he could not understand, and had no way of learning. Acting then on Thomas’ word, Schofield rescinded the orders to fall back to Spring Hill. Also, he sent the remaining Fourth Corps division toward the left to see if they could find the fords supposedly being utilized by Hood.
The Rebels had indeed crossed and were now marching along Davis’ Ford Road, which crossed the Duck east of Columbia. The road itself, however, was barely a farm lane, and Hood’s map was woefully inaccurate. After consulting a guide or two, Hood shrugged it off and continued.
Another setback followed. Hood’s scouts reported a large body of Federals on their left. And now, like Schofield, Hood was confused as to what to do. Like Schofield, he had no cavalry at hand to shake out whatever was happening. But with only a bit more caution, though much more anxiety, Hood pressed onward.
The reason that neither side had cavalry was that the two opposing corps of horse soldiers had each other. Nathan Bedford Forrest had convinced the bulk of James Wilson’s Federals to ride hard for Franklin, twice again as far as Spring Hill. With nothing in his front, he pressed for Spring Hill, now a mass of Schofield’s supply wagons, the infantry to guard them and some wayward cavalry.
General David Stanley, commanding the Fourth Corps Division sent toward Spring Hill by Schofield, actually managed to near their destination. They were met by a cavalryman, who warned them of Forrest’s approach, and Stanley deployed all that he had in defense.
Forrest fell upon them, but was at first driven back. Reforming, the Rebel dismounted his host and tried once more, but that was bogged down and went no where. Then, spying Schofield’s supply wagons seemingly ripe for picking, Forrest remounted a regiment and pitched them against it. But they were hewn by the repeating rifles of the Federals. This gave Forrest pause, and soon after a message arrived from Hood, who, now drawing closer, heard the rattle of musketry.
Forrest was to hold, as the van of Hood’s columns was a few miles distant. General Patrick Cleburne’s Division was the first to arrive. It was formed and moved toward Spring Hill, passing Forrest’s left around 3pm. Hood did not bother to consult with Forrest. In the end, neither did Cleburne.
“Up to this time,” recalled Stanley in his report, “it was thought that we had only cavalry to contend with, but a general officer and his staff, at whom we sent some complimentary shells, were seen reconnoitering our position, and very soon afterward General Bradley was assailed by a force which the men said fought too well to be any dismounted cavalry.”
The Rebel attack became a farce, with officers disregarding orders from Hood, and Hood not bothering to see how stiff Stanley’s defenses had become. There was some minor success, but it wasn’t even known about, let alone followed up by Hood or any of his subordinates.
Meanwhile, around Schofield’s headquarters, all was still confusion. Dispatches from Wilson’s Cavalry still flowed in a timely manner, but he had lost Forrest – having no idea at all that his opponent was at Spring Hill. Wilson was convinced that the enemy were making a break for Nashville. Even the artillery bombardment at Spring Hill wasn’t enough to convince him that Forrest was south and not north of him.
Night was soon falling, and the battle still raged to the north at Spring Hill. “Around 3pm,” wrote Schofield after the battle, “I became satisfied the enemy would not attack my position on Duck river, but was pushing two corps direct for Spring Hill. I then gave the necessary orders for the withdrawal of the troops after dark, and took General Ruger’s troops and pushed for Spring Hill to reopen communications with General Stanley, and was followed at a short distance by the head of the main column. I struck the enemy’s cavalry at dark about three miles from Spring Hill, but we brushed them away without difficulty and reached Spring Hill about 7 o’clock.”
It was without difficulty because the Rebels, both with and without Hood’s orders, had pulled back away from the pike linking Schofield’s former position with his new one at Spring Hill.
General Hood, believing that he had in fact seized the pike did not learn the untruth of this before it was too late. Most of his men were ordered to encamp, while he had a lone cavalry division grope forward for the road in question. This was the cavalry so easily brushed away by Schofield. Hood had hoped that he would be able to cut off Schofield before the Federals arrived at Spring Hill. In this, he was mistaken.
As they approached Spring Hill through the dark, the Federal columns passed silently within a quarter mile of the Rebel campfires, glowing ominous in the night. There were, to be sure, even closer calls, such as when they were noticed and fired upon the Southern pickets and skirmishers. But in all, Schofield’s entire army arrived at Spring Hill unnoticed by Hood.
Having slipped by the Rebels, they did not stop, but continued for another twelve miles to Franklin, where they would arrive by the dawn. When Hood would rise the next morning, he would find little before him.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 45, Part 1, p113-114, 342, 753, 1015, 1032, 1108, 1145; Military Remembrances by Jacob Cox;The March to the Sea: Franklin and Nashville by Jacob Cox; Doctor Quintard, Chaplain C.S.A. and Second Bishop of Tennessee by Charles Todd Quintard Advance and Retreat by John Bell Hood; The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah by Wiley Sword. [↩]