Union Attack – But Not In Nashville

December 7, 1864 (Wednesday)

Maybe they should have replaced Thomas with Rouseau, who attacked when he didn't even mean to.
Maybe they should have replaced Thomas with Rouseau, who attacked when he didn’t even mean to.

To the minds of those in Washington, General George Thomas seemed frozen in Nashville. He had been urged and even ordered to attack, but continued to insist that his cavalry, under James Wilson, was not yet ready.

“Thomas seems unwilling to attack,” wrote Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to General Grant, “because it is hazardous, as if all war was anything but hazardous. If he waits for Wilson to get ready, Gabriel will be blowing his last horn.”

Grant fully agreed in his assessment of the Nashville situation, replying to Stanton that if Thomas did not attack promptly, “I would recommend superseding him by [General John] Schofield, leaving Thomas subordinate.” Grant was hardly a fan of Thomas, but was respectful of his strong suits. The following day, he would write that “There is no better man to repel and attack than Thomas, but I fear he is too cautious to ever take the initiative.” He would go on to again suggest that Schofield be placed in command.

In response, Henry Halleck replied that if Grant wanted Thomas to be relieved from command, “give the order. No one here will, I think, interfere. The responsibility, however, will be yours, as no one here, so far as I am informed, wishes General Thomas’ removal.”

With this complete lack of support, Grant would to give Thomas another chance.

Meanwhile, all was unchanged around Nashville. John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee was relatively unchanged in their position, two miles south of the city. Likewise, Thomas’ entrenchments were unmoving.

But at Murfreesboro, this was hardly the case. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry, along with a division of infantry, had marched southeast from Nashville to take the Federal garrison holding the town. As it turned out, however, their numbers far exceeded what Forrest initially was told. Under the command of Lovell Rousseau, some 5,000 men quickly being surrounded by Forrest’s growing host.

While the Rebels did not come close to matching the Union strength at first, two days previous (December 5), General Hood dispatched two more brigades of infantry from the lines around Nashville. They arrived, giving Forrest 6,500 men.

Forrest immediately positioned one of the newly-arrived brigades on his right, southwest of the town, resting them upon a hill with orders to fortify themselves. On the morning of this date, Forrest tramped up the hill to have a look for himself at the enemy position. When he got there, however, he saw the Federals advancing.

He gave a quick warning to a nearby infantry commander, imploring him to hold the Federals for fifteen minutes. In that time, he would be able to sweep into the Union rear and capture the lot of them.

“Being fully satisfied that his object was to make battle, I withdrew my forces to the Wilkinson pike [northwest of town], and formed a new line on a more favorable position. The enemy moved boldly forward, driving in my pickets, when the infantry, with the exception of Smith’s brigade, from some cause which I cannot explain, made a shameful retreat, losing two pieces of artillery.”

The Federals were not exactly looking for a fight. Rousseau had sent forward about 3,000 men as a reconnaissance in force to suss out Forrest’s intensions. The Rebels, suspecting they were about to be attacked, too flight.

“I seized the colors of the retreating troops and endeavored to rally them,” wrote Forrest shortly after the battle, “but they could not be moved by any entreaty or appeal to their patriotism.”

Forrest then resorted to using his own cavalry. With orders, they mounted and charged headlong into the now advancing Federal lines. This gave the Union troops pause and the fight was over. Forrest lost over 200 as prisoners in this strange occurrence.

The next day, Forrest would wish to at least surround the Federals, but Hood began to recall the infantry, and there was nothing more he could do.

Today's approximate map (same as the 5th)
Today’s approximate map (same as the 5th)

That night, General Thomas, knowing nothing at all of the Murfreesboro fight, reported in to Washington that Hood’s force had not increased since its arrival. This was good news for Thomas, as it meant that there was no hurry to attack. In his message, he wrote about the Navy and Carthage, Mississippi, and only briefly about the situation before him. He did not once even mention the thought of assailing the Confederate works opposing him. 1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 45, Part 1, p755; Part 2, p84, 96-97; The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah by Wiley Sword; The Confederacy’s Greatest Cavalryman by Nathan Bedford Forrest. []
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Union Attack – But Not In Nashville by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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