Battle Of Nashville Summary
Nashville, Davidson County, Tennessee
December 15-16, 1864
Generals / Commanders
Union: George H. Thomas
Confederate: John Bell Hood
Union Army: 70,000
Confederate Army: 21,000
Battle of Franklin
The Battle of Nashville, Tennessee, fought December 15–16, 1864, shattered the Confederate Army of Tennessee and marked the end of major Confederate offensives in the Western theater during the Civil War. It has been called the only perfectly fought battle of the war because it unfolded in greater accordance with the victor’s battle plan than any other clash of that conflict. It is also notable for the large number of United States Colored Troops engaged in the fighting.
On February 25, 1862, following the Battle of Fort Henry and the Battle of Fort Donelson, Nashville became the first Confederate state capital captured by Northern forces. For the rest of the war it was a major Union supply depot.
A Union-loyal resident of Nashville, a former sea captain named William Driver, presented the conquerors with an American flag he called "Old Glory," thereby creating a nickname that would become famous.
Over the course of the next two and a half years, Nashville became the second-most fortified city in America, second only to Washington, D.C. Its works included star-shaped Fort Negley, the largest Union fort west of the nation’s capital. The extensive lines of fortifications were primarily constructed using forced labor of slaves and freemen of color.
In November 1864, Confederate general John Bell Hood, having failed to stop the massive armies led by Major General William Tecumseh Sherman from capturing Atlanta, devised a plan he hoped would force Sherman to pull back. Moving from Georgia into Alabama, he led the Army of Tennessee north into Tennessee to threaten Sherman’s supply line.
Sherman responded by sending George H. Thomas, the "Rock of Chickamauga," with two corps from the Army of the Cumberland to hold Nashville. Sherman, meanwhile, continued his fiery march through Georgia and the Carolinas. Formerly a major general of volunteers, Thomas had been promoted to the rank of brigadier general in the regular U.S. Army, a more meaningful rank for a career army man like him.
A native of Virginia and an officer in the U.S. Army before the war, Thomas had chosen to fight for the Union. He had a reputation as an unflappable commander, who had seen action at Mill Springs, Perryville and Stones River before winning accolades for his stand at the Battle of Chickamauga, which prevented the Confederates from pursuing the rest of the fleeing Union army. Two months later, at the Battle of Chattanooga, it was men of Thomas’ command who routed the besieging Confederates from Missionary Ridge.
Thomas pulled in troops from garrison duties, defending railroads, bridges and supply depots farther north, to supplement his command. Many of these were members of the United States Colored Troops.
Hood determined to assail Nashville, still hoping to draw Sherman back from Georgia. Failing that, he hoped to capture the city, then either move north to threaten Ohio River towns or east to join his army with that of his old commander, Gen. Robert E. Lee.
At Spring Hill, Tennessee, the Confederates allowed a Union division to escape from Columbia and pass by them unmolested to Franklin, a small town south of Nashville. Enraged over this missed opportunity, Hood ordered futile frontal assaults at Franklin against entrenched Federals, many of whom were armed with repeating rifles. The fierce, five-hour Battle of Franklin on November 30 decimated his force and cost him a division commander and four brigadier generals. Undeterred, he continued on and besieged Thomas’ larger force at Nashville.
There, Hood constructed works along a five-mile-long line south of the city. Between the 8,000 men lost at Franklin and those detached under Nathan Bedford Forrest, who had been sent to capture Murfreesboro, Hood’s army was down to about 20,000 men. He hoped to draw Thomas into attacking him. After repulsing those attacks, Hood reasoned, he would counterattack and take the city. It was not a realistic plan.
Thomas had 70,000 blue-clad soldiers, over 55,000 of which he planned to use as maneuver troops, with the rest left to garrison the massive Fort Negley and the rest of the extensive fortifications.
A severe ice storm halted operations until December 15. As the two sides glared at each other from their ice-bound entrenchments, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, unaware of the severity of the weather conditions, repeatedly sent telegrams from the East urging Thomas to move out of his works and attack the enemy.
Thomas had been nicknamed "Old Slow-trot" before the war, when he restrained West Point cadets from galloping their horses. Grant referred to him by that old nickname because he felt Thomas was too slow in his movements in the field. When no action occurred in response to his telegrams, Grant sent an officer to observe the situation; that officer also carried an order relieving Thomas of command.
While Grant’s emissary was still on a Tennessee-bound train, the weather broke. Union troops moved out of their defenses, southeast along the Murfreesboro Road to assail and pin the Confederate right, and west along and between the Charlotte and Harding pikes. The lead troops on the Murfreesboro Road were inexperienced soldiers of the United States Colored Troops. They took shelter from Confederate rifle fire in a railroad cut, only to be enfiladed and cut to pieces by a previously unseen artillery battery. One Confederate soldier wrote disgustedly, "Where were those men’s officers? I did not see a single white body on that field." Other Federal troops of Maj. Gen. James Steedman’s command succeeded in keeping the Confederate right pinned, to prevent reinforcements against the main attack.
The westward movement went almost exactly according to Thomas’ plan. After driving off a small force west of town, the Federals swung southeast as if on a hinge. They outflanked a group of Confederate redoubts and drove the Rebels southward. When morning dawned on the second day of fighting, the over-extended Confederate line had been compressed into roughly the shape of an upside-down U between Hillsboro Road to the west and the Tennessee and Alabama Railroad to the east and a mile or two south of the previous position.
The western bend in the line was anchored on the heights of Shy’s Hill, the eastern bend atop the steep slopes of Peach Orchard (Overton’s) Hill. Federal assaults against Peach Orchard Hill, which had to be made over the tops of trees that the Confederates had felled on the slopes, met tremendous fire from the 2,000 infantrymen and supporting artillery of Lt. Gen. Steven D. Lee’s Corps. Some 6,000 Federals, including two divisions of USCT, made valiant attempts against the position but were repulsed. So many Union soldiers died on the slopes that it was said a person could walk from the top of the hill to the bottom without touching the ground.
Shy’s Hill was a different story. Around 4:00 p.m., two Union corps plus cavalry, over 40,000 men in all, attacked 5,000 under Maj. Gen. William Bate. Confederate artillery had been positioned in such a way that once the advancing Federals reached a certain point on the slope, the guns could not fire at them. The blue line swept over the crest, capturing most of the defenders.
The hill only became known as Shy’s Hill after the battle. Confederate colonel William Shy, of Franklin, was among the defenders. His body was later found on the hill, bayoneted to a tree, a bullet hole in his forehead. Controversy still continues over whether Union or Confederate soldiers were responsible.
With the Shy’s Hill anchor gone, the rest of Hood’s line collapsed and fled toward Franklin. Darkness and exhaustion prevented effective pursuit, and the rag-tag remnants of the Army of Tennessee continued on to Tupelo, Mississippi, where Hood resigned his command on January 23.
For his overwhelming victory, Thomas became one of only 13 officers to receive the Thanks of Congress in the war and was promoted from brigadier general in the regular U.S. Army to major general, U.S. Army.
Battle Of Nashville Articles From History Net Magazines
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