October 26, 1864 (Wednesday)
William Tecumseh Sherman badly wanted to march to the sea, laying waste to Georgia en route to Savannah. But the Confederate Army of Tennessee, commanded by John Bell Hood stood not in his way, but behind him. There was really no threat that Hood would fall upon his rear, but Sherman wanted to know just what the Rebels were planning before starting the march.
The last he knew, Hood and his command were in Gadsden, Alabama, over 100 miles west of Atlanta. But the last he knew was from nearly a week prior. Though he still believed Hood to be stationary, Sherman had some idea where he might be leaning. With the incorrect news that P.G.T. Beauregard was now in command of the Army of Tennesse, Sherman posited in a letter to George Thomas, commanding the Army of the Cumberland via Nashville, that the new old commander “may go on to perfect Davis’ plan for invading Tennessee and Kentucky to make me let go of Atlanta.”
This was indeed Jefferson Davis’ plan, though Hood would take credit for it from nearly its inception. “I adhere to my former plan,” Sherman continued, “proved always you can defend the line of the Tennessee. Decatur and Chattanooga must be held to the death.” Sherman’s former plan, of course, was the march to the sea. Thomas would be left in command, and though smaller outposts could be neglected and even the railroad to Atlanta abandoned, cities such as “Nashville, Murfreesborough, Pulaski, and Columbia” were to be strengthended.
Thomas was not to do anything but defend the Tennessee line “unless you know that Beauregard follows me south.” Sherman gave Thomas command of all of the troops he was not taking with him to the sea. This was namely the Fourth Corps, once under Oliver Otis Howard, but now commanded by David S. Stanley, a career military man from West Point and a veterain of only the Western Theater of the war.
Before closing his morning letter to Thomas, Sherman predicted that “If Beauregard attempts Tennessee it will be from the direction of Decatur.”
While Sherman was writing to Thomas, word was coming from General Peter Osterhaus, whose Fifteenth Corps had been pushing toward Gadsden to see what they could see. They had been on the campaign since October 13th, following Hood’s then-retreating army toward the small Alabama town. By the 21st, they had reached the Chattnooga River, where he encamped his infantry and sent forward his cavalry.
At first, on the 23rd, the scouts reported that Confederate cavalry was in a strong position at Blount’s places, blocking their way to Gadsden. Upon learning this, Osterhaus broke camp and stepped for the Rebel cavaliers. By the morning of the 25th (the day prior to this date), his infantry reached the Confederate cavalry defenses.
“The works were of a very temporary character and only thinly manned,” wrote Osterhaus. “We hardly had commenced to deploy when they left their works under the flire of our skirmishers. The enemy had no infantry and no artillery at Blount’s plan, but the citizens and negroes assured us that his main force was some four or five miles beyond in Turkeytown Valley.”
Osterhaus made for this ridiculously-named valley, throwing out a regiment of cavalry as they marched closer to Gadsden. When they entered the valley, they were fired upon by Confederate artillery. “They proved to be dismounted cavalry under General Wheeler. They were intrenched and had complete sweet of the open grounds to their front.” The Federals pushed on and eventually pried the Rebels from their position. Without much cavalry of their own, however, they did not come away with many southern prisoners.
“The information received, however, from those who fell into our hands and from the citizens was not very definite in regard to General Hood’s movements. All agreed that his army had left Gadsden and moved in a western direction. The exact whereabouts could not be ascertained. Rumor placed them near the Tennessee River.” This message, Osterhous sent to Sherman, and it arrived in the evening of this date.
Without any clear evidence of the Confederates’ whereabouts, Sherman got conditional. If they moved toward Guntersville, which was northwest of Gadsden, Sherman would “be after it.” However, if they marched on Decatur, as he believed they would, he told Thomas, “I must leave it to you for the present and push for the heart of Georgia.”
Sherman wasn’t the only one who had sent scouts toward the Tennessee River. Thomas, too, had sent some. General Robert Granger commanded the District of Northern Alabama, including Decatur, which was covered by Charles Doolittle of the 18th Michigan.
“At 1:30pm my vedettes reported the enemy advancing on the place,” reported Doolittle. “I immediately directed the different commands to be in readiness for action, and rode out to the advance post on Somerville road to learn the extent of the movement.”
Doolittle saw for himself Hood’s columns forming into line and throwing out skirmishers. He grabbed a nearby cavalry regiment and promised reinforcements. Strangely enough, he was able to hold until dark against what he claimed to be an entire division of 5,000 men. The standoff would last for days. But as soon as he saw waht was before him, Doolittle shot off a message to Granger, who forwarded it to Thomas, who then told Sherman that “Hood’s amry is threatening to cross the Tennessee River at various places between Guntersville and Decatur.”
This did nothing to settle Sherman’s mind. The Rebels were either moving on Guntersville or Decatur – it could hardly be both. In his memoirs, Sherman reduces the story, saying that he learned of Hood’s appearace before Decatur, and sent a reconnoissance toward Gadsden, “which revealed the truth that the enemy was gone…. I then finally resolved on my future course, which was to leave Hood to be encountered by General Thomas, while I should carry into full effect the long-contemplated project of marching for the sea-coast, and thence to operate toward Richmond.”
But in truth, Sherman’s mind was not quite made up. Even on the following day, the 27th, in a letter to Chief of Staff Henry Halleck, Sherman expressed only hope that in a few days he would “Be all ready to carry into effect my original plan.” Sherman assured Halleck: “I will await a few days to hear what head he makes about Decatur, and may yet turn to Tennessee; but it woudl be a great pity to take a step backward. I think it would be better even to let him ravage the State of Tennessee, provided he does not gobble up too many of our troops.”
In another letter to Halleck, which he would pen three hours later, Sherman noted that he was “pushing my preparations for the march through Georgia.” The day after (the 28th), Sherman would ask Halleck to reinforce Thomas so that he might begin his march to the sea – “I do not want to go back myself [into Tennessee] with the whole army, as that is what the enemy wants.” Even on the 29th, Sherman was still proposing his plan, this time to William Rosecrans and General Slocum. In fact, Sherman would not act on his plan until after the opening of November and a quick exchange of telegraphs with General Grant. But that is a story for another day.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 39, Part 1, p696, 701-702, 742-743; Part 3, p448-449, 461-462, 476, 494. [↩]