Thomas Calls off the Pursuit of Hood

December 29, 1864 (Thursday)

Thomas: If Hood is right here in my pocket, I shall pursue him all winter long....
Thomas: If Hood is right here in my pocket, I shall pursue him all winter long….

General George Thomas was not having a good day, finding it much different than the day previous. That was the day he entered Pulaski, Tennessee and learned that William Tecumseh Sherman had taken Savannah, Georgia.

In celebration, he ordered a 100-gun salute to be fired from the remaining and heavy artillery still at Nashville. The army was even sent notice in hopes of boosting their spirits and to urge them on in their pursuit of John Bell Hood’s Confederates.

This had been a day of hope. Though his progress was slow, he was certain that Hood could still be caught up to and defeated.

Thomas had sent forward the cavalry under James Wilson, who had been ordered to destroy Hood’s pontoons so as to prevent him from crossing the Tennessee River. “I feel confident that he will make every exertion to carry out my orders,” wrote Thomas to Halleck on the beautiful day that was the 28th of December. Thomas spurred on his cavalry commander, telling him that he and General Thomas Wood, commanding the corps of infantry following closely, that they had “a glorious chance to do efficient service.”

Even if Hood had crossed the Tennessee, Thomas vowed that he would “pursue him, if the roads are at all practicable.” From scouts and locals, Thomas had learned that Hood’s army was in a “most deplorable condition,” and wanted to “intercept him at Iuka, if he retreats that way.”

Today's approximate map.
Today’s approximate map.

Things were looking up. The march had been slow and rather horrible, but Hood was within reach and the long arm of Thomas, both Wilson and Wood, were wonderfully close to grasping the remnants of the Rebel army.

But then came this day. As it turned out, neither Wilson nor Wood were all that close to clutching the retreating Rebels. The past evening, Wilson learned that “the last of the enemy crossed the river yesterday evening [the 27th],” he concluded that “there is no necessity of going to the Tennessee River as a matter of pursuit.”

In turn, Wood wrote to Thomas, who received it on this fateful day. “As I have already stated in previous dispatches,” penned Wood, “the road from Pulaski to the Tennessee River is exceedingly bad, and in my judgment, utterly impracticable as a route for the supply of troops.” Wood concluded that he would remain in Lexington, Tennessee and wait for his supplies and rations to catch up with him.

Thomas wasn’t exactly devastated, but he knew this would not go over well in Washington. To make matters more or less worse, he also received a message from Admiral S.P. Lee, explaining that he got close to Hood’s pontoon bridge, but just couldn’t make it all the way. Thomas was close, but so far.

And so Thomas swallowed whatever pride remained, and wrote to General Henry Halleck in Washington. He peppered the start with the best of news. Admiral Lee had destroyed this and that, and some of Hood’s wayward troops had no idea where the main army was, “that they had orders to scatter and care for themselves.” Portions of the river had been blocked and Hood had been forced to use other crossings. On top of that, the railroad was up and running all the way to Decatur! So far, so good for General Thomas!

But then came the bad news: “In consequence of the terribly bad weather, almost impassible condition of the roads, and exhausted country, the troops and animals are so much worn down by the fatigues of the last two weeks that it becomes necessary to halt for a short time to reorganize and refit for a renewal of the campaign, if Hood should halt at Corinth. Should he continue his retreat to Meridian, as supposed by many of his officers who have been taken prisoners, I think it would be best for the troops to be allowed till early spring, when the roads will be in a condition to make a campaign into the heart of the enemy’s country.”

Hood: I'm fading fast!
Hood: I’m fading fast!

Thomas concluded that he would encamp his army at Eastport, Huntsville, and Dalton “where they can be easily supplied, and from which points they can be readily assembled to make a spring campaign.”

And though it seemed like Thomas held out some hope of a continued pursuit if Hood cooperated, he immediately called off the march. To Wood’s Fourth Corps, he directed “that the pursuit cease, and that you march with your corps to Huntsville, Athens, and vicinity, and there go into camp for the winter.” To John Schofield’s Twenty-third Corps, he “ordered the pursuit to cease” and for them to march to Dalton for the winter.

It was finished. Hood had been defeated, but allowed to escape. Still, Hood’s fate, as well as Thomas’, was yet to be decided.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 45, Part 2, p388, 389, 394, 403, 407; In the Lion’s Mouth by Derek Smith; The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah by Wiley Sword. []
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