December 9, 1864 (Friday)
“In the meanwhile,” wrote George Thomas in his official report, “I was preparing to take the offensive without delay.”
This was almost true. Thomas had indeed delayed, vowing that his forces at Nashville would come out of their entrenchments to attack the Rebels under John Bell Hood in works of their own outside the city. But that day had come and gone with no mention at all coming from Thomas.
General Grant had urged him on while privately trying to have Thomas replaced by John Schofield, commanding the Army of the Ohio filling those same Nashville entrenchments. Grant was given leave to do just that, but was warned that nobody in the administration really cared one way or the other – they simply wanted an attack.
Thomas had been preparing to take the offensive, setting this date for when it would begin. But on the 8th, a winter storm blew in, coating the ground with ice.
“The weather, which had been good for a week, suddenly changed,” wrote Jacob Cox, commanding the Twenty-third Corps, in his memoirs. “A freezing storm of snow and sleet covered the ground, and for two or three days the alternations of rain and frost made the hills about Nashville slopes of slippery ice, on which movement was impracticable. As Hood’s position could only be reached by deployed lines advancing over these hills and hollows, everybody in Thomas’s army felt the absolute necessity of now waiting a little longer, till the ice should thaw. This was not fully appreciated by the authorities in Washington, who connected it too closely with Thomas’s previous wish for more time, and a rapid correspondence by telegraph took place, in which Thomas was ordered to attack at once or to turn over his command to General Schofield.”
The first telegram came from Chief of Staff Henry Halleck. “General Grant expresses much dissatisfaction at your delay in attacking the enemy,” he wrote. One of Thomas’ reasons for the delay was so that the cavalry under James Wilson could get new horses. Hallack, however, wasn’t buying it. “If you wait till General Wilson mounts all his cavalry, you will wait till doomsday, for the waste equals the supply.”
Thomas’s reply came at 2pm. He expressed regret that Grant was upset, but again held that he had “done everything in my power to prepare, and that the troops could not have been gotten ready before this, and if he should order me to be relieved I will submit without a murmur.”
The messages flying between Thomas and Grant flew a bit more slowly, but Thomas told his commander basically the same thing, adding more information about the winter storm. He reiterated that if Grant wished to relieve him, he would “submit without a murmur.”
Though Halleck’s message didn’t even hint that Thomas might be replaced, clearly Thomas felt it coming. In fact, by the time he sent his reply, Grant had already put things in motion, wiring Washington: “Please telegraph order relieving him (General Thomas) at once and placing Schofield in command.” And by the order of the President and the Secretary of War, it was done.
Thomas believed that his reasoning would cause Grant to let him wait out the storm. While he waited for Grant’s next message, he called a council of war. When all were gathered, Thomas only told them that if he did not attack Hood immediately, he would be relieved from command. He never mentioned that he would have to turn over the army to Schofield. He even declined to show the assembled officers Grant’s message. Nevertheless, Schofield spoke up first. He agreed that any attack was impractical until the ice melted. Each of the other officers in turn agreed.
Around 5:30pm, while Thomas and his council met, Grant was still mulling it over. He wrote to Halleck, explaining himself. He had urged Thomas to attack time and again, but no attack came – not even on the 7th, when Thomas had proposed. Not only that, Grant was frustrated that Thomas wouldn’t even give him an explanation. However, Grant must have grown apprehensive about the change.
“I am very unwilling to do injustice to an officer who has done as much good service as General Thomas has,” he wrote in closing, “and will, therefore, suspend the order relieving him until it is seen whether he will do anything.”
With that, all was made as if nothing happened. At 11:30pm, Thomas finally received Grant’s reply, sent four hours earlier. “I have as much confidence in your conducting a battle rightly as I have in any other officer,” he began, “but it has seemed to me that you have been slow, and I have had no explanation of affairs to convince me otherwise.”
The order for Thomas’ removal had been suspended, but Grant informed him that he was still on thin ice. “I hope most sincerely that there will be no necessity of repeating the orders,” he closed, “and that the facts will show that you have been right all the time.” 1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 45, Part 1, p36; Part 2, p114-116; The March to the Sea: Franklin and Nashville by Jacob Dolson Cox; The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah by Wiley Sword. [↩]