‘We Cannot Control the Elements’ – The Pursuit of Hood that Wasn’t

December 21, 1864 (Wednesday)

Though the victory of George Thomas’ Federals at Nashville was complete, the pursuit was not going nearly as well as hoped. Weather was much to blame, but was not wholly responsible. Though the rains poured and wagons churned the ice-crusted roads, the Rebels had been able to slip out of harm’s way, crossing the Duck River at Columbia.

George Thomas!
George Thomas!

But they had bridges and the luxury of only slightly flooded streams. By the time the columns from the north descended upon the river, the bridges had been either dismantled or destroyed, and the flooding was much more intense.

Even crossing Rutherford Creek, just north of Columbia and the Duck, was a near impossibility. The train of pontoons which would be strung together to form a bridge was lagging, so the cavalry under James Wilson did their best to fashion a footbridge of their own. This too was impossible until they found the abutments of railroad bridge, which they employed to their ends.

Once complete, the Federals crossed only to realize that they had accidentally spanned the wrong creek and were still on the north side of Rutherford.

When finally they arrived before Columbia, they found themselves too late. The Rebels had made their egress, and the water rushed between them.

Things must have been going better for Thomas on the 20th, as he instructed John Schofield’s Corps to build a bridge over Rutherford Creek, “so that the artillery and trains can cross.” The pontoon bridge was part of that, and he hoped to “throw bridges over Duck River early in the morning.”

Thomas wanted his entire army on the south side of the Duck by nightfall of the 21st, and was “hopeful that the greater part of Hood’s army may be captured, as he cannot possibly get his trains and troops across the Tennessee River before we can overtake him.”

But the bridge was proving yet again troublesome. “I regret to say it will be utterly impossible to finish the bridge today,” wrote L.H. Eicholtz, the engineer slotted for construction. “We are making but slow progress, on account of the high water and the mass of wreck and iron in the stream, which it is next to impossible to remove. Our ropes freeze and stiffen, and the men are scarcely able to hold themselves on the scaffolding on account of the ice. We cannot possibly cross the bridge before tomorrow noon, unless the water falls and weather moderates.”

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

And with the troops, things were more or less falling apart. General Thomas Wood requested 15,000 pairs of shoes and socks for his men still standing at Rutherford Creek, but there was little General Thomas could do. Additionally, since Wood was the lead corps, and the bridge would not be ready, his men were tasked with finding “forage sufficient for two days,” not for themselves, but for the animals attached to the pontoon train.

Wood, clearly frustrated over the lack of bridge, and now this, replied that “very little can be done in that way,” as the “cavalry has pretty effectually scoured the cocuntry and clean up the forage for some distance around us.” He had a few wagons, but if he moved them off of the turnpike, “they would be swamped at once.” And on top of that, he didn’t have any horses.

This new case of the slows was quickly noticed by Washington, and it was Henry Halleck who sent word to prod on General Thomas:

Permit me, general, to urge the vast importance of a hot pursuit of Hood’s army. Every possible sacrifice should be made, and your men for a few days will submit to any hardship and privation to accomplish tbe great result. If you can capture or destroy Hood’s army Sherman can entirely crush out the rebel military force in all the Southern States. He begins a new campaign about the 1st of January, which will have the most important results, if Hood’s army can now be used up. A most vigorous pursuit on your part is therefore of vital importance to Sherman’s plans. No sacrifice must be spared to attain so important an object.

Thomas’ reply displayed his own frustration, both with Washington’s lack of understanding, and the weather. “General Hood’s army is being pursued as rapidly and as vigorously as it is possible for one army to pursue another,” he shot back. “We cannot control the elements, and, you must remember, that to resist Hood’s advance into Tennessee I had to reorganize and almost thoroughly equip the force now under my command. […] I am doing all in my power to crush Hood’s army, and, if it be possible, will destroy it; but pursuing an enemy through an exhausted country, over mud roads, completely sogged with heavy rains, is no child’s play, and cannot be accomplished as quickly as thought of.”

In closing, Thomas was clear – He would do his best:

“Although my progress may appear slow, I feel assured that Hood’s army can be driven from Tennessee, and eventually driven to the wall, by the force under my command; but too much must not be expected of troops which have to be reorganized, especially when they have the task of destroying a force in a winter campaign which was able to make an obstinate resistance to twice its numbers in spring and summer. In conclusion, I can safely state that this army is willing to submit to any sacrifice to oust Hood’s army, or to strike any other blow which would contribute to the destruction of the rebellion.”1


Confederate Secretary of State Judah Benjamin, on this date, laid down on paper why he was supporting Davis’ hope to put slaves into the ranks of the Confederate army – even if it meant their ultimate liberation. It was not, as can be seen, because he thought they should be free.

Without entering into any lengthened discussion of the considerations which should guide our policy on this point, it appears to me enough to say that the negroes will certainly be made to fight against us if not armed for our defense. The drain of that source of our strength is steady, fatal, and irreversible by any other expedient than that of arming the slaves as an auxiliary force. I further agree with you that if they are to fight for our freedom they are entitled to their own. Public opinion is fast ripening on the subject, and ere the close of the winter the conviction on this point will become so widespread that the Government will have no difficulty in inaugurating the policy foreshadowed in the Presidents message.

Matters of this sort are always best settled by degrees, and it is enough for the moment that the Confederacy should become the owner of as many negroes as are required for the public service and should emancipate them as a reward for good services. The next step will then be that the States, each for itself, shall act upon the question of the proper status of the families of the men so manumitted. Cautious legislation providing for their ultimate emancipation after an intermediate stage of serfage or peonage would soon find advocates in different States.

We might then be able, while vindicating our faith in the doctrine that the negro is an inferior race and unfitted for social or political equality with the white man, yet so modify and ameliorate the existing condition of that inferior race by providing for it certain rights of property, a certain degree of personal liberty, and legal protection for the marital and parental relations, as to relieve our institutions from much that is not only unjust and impolitic in itself, but calculated to draw down on us the odium and reprobation of civilized man.

The action of our people on this point will be of more value to us abroad than any diplomacy or treaty making, even if we had the power to treat upon this point. In the absence of the power the President would never consent to open this subject, nor would I consent to be his agent for such a purpose under any circumstances. If the Constitution is not to be our guide I would prefer to see it suppressed by a revolution which should declare a dictatorship during the war, after the manner of ancient Rome, leaving to the future the care of re-establishing formal and regular Government.


  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 45, Part 2, p287, 295-296, 291, 299, 300. []
  2. Official Records, Series 4, Vol. 3, p959-960. []
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‘We Cannot Control the Elements’ – The Pursuit of Hood that Wasn’t by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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