November 28, 1864 (Monday)
“The situation presented an occasion for one of those interesting and beautiful moves upon the chess-board of war, to perform which I had often desired an opportunity.” – John Bell Hood
John Schofield was outnumbered. His Federal Army of the Ohio had slipped across the Duck River at Columbia, Tennessee, burning both the pontoon and railroad bridge behind them. The river itself was flooded, and so the fords, he believed, were a temporary obstacle to John Bell Hood’s Rebel army.
And though a river was between the two forces, Schofield had remained close enough to feel the effects of Hood’s artillery, blasting away at them from the southern shore. There was also Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry.
The night previous, Forrest received orders to cross the Duck somewhere east of Columbia. This they did, though the waters were racing and high. In some places, his men had to actually swim their horses across. At only one ford out of several were they contested.
Col. Horace Capron had that morning sent a scouting party across the river. There, they “drove in the enemy’s pickets, uncovering a heavy column, mounted and marching against them, also a heavy line of skirmishers, and a line of barricades being built, in length to cover a least a regimental front.”
The captain in command of the scouting party was convinced that the Rebels were moving eastward, and the column he espied certainly could have been. “The enemy is not making any demonstrations across the river at present,” wrote Capron in the morning hours, “and, in my opinion, he does not mean to make a serious attempt to cross at either of these fords.”
Capron’s men were responsible for two fords, both near Harison’s Mill on the Lewisburg Pike, about ten miles east of the city. Not too long after writing the above message, Capron shot off another: “My force sent across the Duck River has been driven back to this side by a heavy force, and I am now engaging him across the river.”
The fighting slogged on through the early afternoon at both of Capron’s fords. He could see across the river that he faced at least a brigade. He could also see that Forrest was moving at least another brigade even farther east, greatly outflanking him.
As the afternoon turned darker, Capron saw more than simply cavalry. “There is a heavy force of infantry, cavalry, and artillery pressing us; too strong for us; they are moivng up on our left. I will hold them, if possible.”
Through the day, the Army of the Ohio’s cavalry continued to find new and unmapped fords over which Forrest’s men might cross. This, even though General Schofield had written George Thomas, commanding in Nashville, that he had “all the fords above and below this place well watched and guarded as far as possible.” They seemed limitless and impossible to defend. And even by the end of his morning letter, Schofield seemed to become convinced of this. “I do not think we can prevent the crossing of even the enemy’s cavalry,” he closed, “because the places are so numerous. I think the best we can do is to hold the crossings near us and watch the distant ones.” And though Capron’s stand was impressive, there were simply too many fords to defend against the many columns of Rebels trying to cross.
Capron was ultimately sent packing when one of Forrest’s brigades crossed the river and fell upon their rear. The Federals had to slash their way through the choking lines to their freedom. And ultimately, Forrest’s entire body of cavalry crossed and reunited at the aptly named Rally Hill, thirteen miles northeast of Columbia. There they were remain until morning, leaving the fords clear for Hood’s coming infantry.
By 6pm, Schofield knew of Forrest’s new position. “The enemy’s cavalry in force has crossed the river on the Lewisburg pike, and is now in possession of Rally Hill.” James Wilson, commanding the Union cavalry corps was trying to get ahead of Forrest so that he might block the Rebels from sliding between Schofield’s army and Spring Hill in its rear. Schofield also called for more reinforcements.
General Thomas, however, could not know the extent of Schofield’s peril. At 8pm, he took Schofield on his earlier word that he could hold, ignoring all indications and confessions that he could not. “If you are confident you can hold your present position,” began Thomas, “I wish you to do so until I can get General [A.J.] Smith here. After his arrival we can withdraw gradually, and invite Hood across the Duck River and fall upon him with our whole force, or wait until Wilson can organize his entire cavalry force, and then withdraw from your present position. Should Hood then cross the river we surely can ruin him.”
Thomas gave instructions on how to obstruct fords – a lesson too late in coming. He also assured Schofield that “the cavalry will be able to retard, if not prevent, Hood from crossing, after the roads are thoroughly obstructed, if they do their duty.”
Not long later, (though to Schofield, the wait, with only Thomas’ too-optimistic letter to read, must have been horribly frustrating) Thomas’ replies caught up with the situation at hand. If the cavalry could not hold back the Rebels, “you will necessarily have to make preparations to take up a new position at Franklin, behind Harpeth, immediately, if it becomes necessary to fall back.”
Soon, it would become so. Hood had made up his mind to cross the river come next morning.But Hood’s infantry could not simply swim the rivers – a pontoon bridge had to be laid. This had been delayed and slowed by the roads and oxen driving the wagon. Now, however, it had arrived.
A location was selected about three miles up river from Columbia, and Hood issued orders to march at dawn. Hood himself rode to the bridge and waited for daylight.
But the bridge did not go unnoticed. Federal cavalry had captured one of the Rebels under Forrest as the bridge was being laid. Word traveled to General Wilson, who at 1am sent a dispatch to Schofield. “I think it very clear that they are aiming for Franklin,” went Wilson’s message, “and that you ought to get to Spring Hill by 10am. I’ll keep on this road and hold the enemy all I can.” He predicted that the infantry would begin crossing before daylight. “Get back to Franklin without delay, leaving a small force to detain the enemy,” he nearly ordered his superior officer. This was hardly the time for formalities.
Wilson sent the dispatch with a courier, with the words “Important, Trot!!” emblazoned on the envelope. On through the night he would ride, but to avoid the enemy, he had to go through Spring Hill, and as Jacob Cox wrote after the war, “the way was long, so that the intelligence was only received at daylight in the morning.” 1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 45, Part 1, p1123-1125, 1106-1108, 1143; Military Remembrances by Jacob Cox; The March to the Sea: Franklin and Nashville by Jacob Cox; Advance and Retreat by John Bell Hood; The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah by Wiley Sword. [↩]