December 2, 1864 (Friday)
That John Bell Hood’s attack upon John Schofield’s defenses at Franklin was not a Confederate victory was perfectly clear. But it was hardly seen as a Northern triumph. The idea that Schofield tried to defend his position with the river at his back was ludicrous, thought George Thomas, commanding from Nashville. The whole army was fortunate to not have been annihilated at the battle two days previous.
By this date, all of Schofield’s Army of the Ohio was within the entrenchment surrounding Nashville, and Thomas was firmly in command. There they joined the 14,000 men already in the city. When Hood arrived, as surely he would, the Rebels would be facing 38,000 Federals – fully 10,000 more troops than they could field.
Thomas quickly adopted the idea that all he had to do was allow Hood to throw himself against Nashville’s fortifications. Let him dash himself against the Rock of Chickamauga, so to speak. But when he communicated this idea to Washington, Lincoln wasn’t so convinced of this tactic.
In writing to General Grant about the situation, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton relayed the President’s concerns. “This looks like the McClellan and Rosecrans strategy of do nothing and let the rebels raid the country,” he wrote.
Grant was immediately on it. “If Hood is permitted to remain quietly about Nashville,” he began in his letter to Thomas, “you will lose all the road back to Chattanooga, and possibly have to abandon the line of the Tennessee. Should he attack you it is all well, but if he does not you should attack him before he fortifies.”
Thinking toward this advance, Grant suggested that Thomas arm the citizens of Nashville for its defense. With that augmentation, Thomas could “move out of Nashville with all your army and force the enemy to retire or fight upon ground of your own choosing.”
Grant, too, saw the shallow victory at Franklin as a missed opportunity, continuing, “we should have taken the offensive against the enemy where he was.” But in the end, he allowed Thomas to make up his own mind on the matter, though warning “you will now suffer incalculable injury upon your railroads, if Hood is not speedily disposed of. […] Should you get him to retreating, give him no peace.”
In his timely reply, Thomas argued that he could have done little immediately following the battle at Franklin. Schofield, he wrote, was unconvinced that he could hold until reinforcements arrived. Now, however, with Schofield’s troops in Nashville, along with additional troops gathered from across the West, Thomas assured Grant that he had “infantry enough to assume the offensive, if I had more cavalry, and will take the field anyhow as soon as the remained of General McCook’s division of cavalry reaches here, which I hope it will do in two or three days.”
By Thomas’ table, he would be leaving Nashville to assail Hood by the 6th, at the latest. “I earnestly hope, however, that in a few more days I shall be able to give him a fight.” This hardly sounded as hopeful as Grant wished it could be, but what more could be done?
In a subsequent letter from Thomas to Chief of Staff Henry Halleck, Thomas explained that his own infantry was, he believed, equal in number to Hood’s. This was not true, and Thomas’ figures were quite a bit off.
He had learned via scouts that Hood’s troops were moving into a position southwest of the city. “That would be by far the most advantageous position he could take for us, as his line of communication would be more exposed with him in that position than in any other.”
There had even been some worry that Hood would bypass Nashville to make a dash upon the Ohio River. Thomas vowed that this could not happen. “The iron-clads and gun-boars are so disposed as to prevent Hood from crossing the [Cumberland] river….”
Unlike Thomas, Hood was keenly aware of the contrast in numbers. He could field but 21,000 infantry. He did not even have enough men to lay siege to Nashville, let alone attack it. Additionally, for the time being, his artillery was useless, their ammunition expended.
Hood’s choices were limited. He could either retreat or stay near Nashville. Since he would not retreat, staying was all that was left to him. Any other plan was unavailable to him. And so he would wait. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry would probe the Federal lines and flanks, and if Providence favored it, Thomas would make a blunder.
Perhaps what he wanted was to find himself good ground and make Thomas attack him. With the proddings from Washington being what they were, this wasn’t the craziest plan of the war. For now, however, he was content in waiting.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 45, Part 2, p15-18; Advance and Retreat by John Bell Hood; Military Remembrances by Jacob Cox; The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah by Wiley Sword. [↩]