By Ross Massey, BONPS Historian

After the battles for Chattanooga, Union troops pursued the Confederate forces to Atlanta, Georgia. After four unsuccessful attacks against the Union, Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood abandoned Atlanta in September 1864 and retreated into Alabama. There Hood devised an ambitious plan to cut off Union supply lines coming south from Tennessee and starve the Union troops in Georgia into surrender. He planned to take Nashville, which had been occupied by the Federals since early 1862, and then move toward Louisville before joining Gen. Robert E. Lee in Virginia for the Confederacy’s grand assault on Washington, D.C.

John Bell Hood
Hood’s Strategy to Reclaim Tennessee
If Confederate General John Bell Hood had intentionally tried to destroy his army and lose the campaign to take back Tennessee, he could hardly have done a more efficient job. He entered the state with an effective force of about 34,000 men, including Forrest’s cavalry.

After the Battle of Franklin (Nov. 30, 1864), he had just 26,000 left. Before arriving outside “Fortress Nashville,” he further weakened his small army. He sent Forrest with most of the cavalry, reinforced by detachments of infantry, to deal with U.S. forces at Fortress Rosecrans outside Murfreesboro. He even sent a depleted brigade of Missouri Confederate regiments off to build a fort on the Tennessee River.

This left only about 21,000 men at Nashville. He knew the city had been heavily fortified by the U.S. Army, and he could not make another offensive strike like at Franklin. Instead, he threw up defensive works, roughly parallel to today’s I-440, and waited to be attacked.

He hoped to defeat any attacks, then counterattack, and retake the city. Even a victorious defense typically results in enough confusion to rule out immediate counterattacks. So, his plan had very little chance of success.

Hood worsened his situation by making his lines too long. To repel an assault it is desireable to maximize firepower along your lines. Hood’s main line was about five miles long. There were about 20,000 men behind it as his remaining cavalry was detached on his flanks. He had an average of about 4,000 men per mile.

In comparison, at Gettysburg, the U.S. Army had four times as many men in only three miles, for an average of 27,000 men per mile. Hood might have learned a lesson about maximization of firepower, as he had attacked those lines at Gettysburg and had his arm shattered by a bullet.

George Thomas
The Federals Concentrate in Nashville
Opposing Hood’s thin, ragged line was U.S. General George Thomas and his large, well-equipped army.

During this time, Sherman was carrying on an incendiary campaign against the citizens and businesses of Georgia, but before setting on, he had detached Thomas to deal with Hood. Thomas’s job was to assemble an army to hold Nashville and destroy Hood.

The basis of this army was Schofield’s forces, which had battled Hood at Franklin. While they delayed Hood, Thomas had time to pull in various detachments scattered about Tennessee and surrounding states. An entire Army corps was brought from Missouri by a fleet of steamboats. A huge cavalry corps of over 12,000 effectives was organized. Their critical role in the battle was enhanced by a new invention, repeater rifles.

In all, U.S. forces exceeded 70,000 soldiers. Over 55,000 men were used offensively against Hood, while the rest held the fortifications around Nashville.

Yet, for two weeks this army was unable to move, being held up by an early, unseasonable storm of ice and snow. While they waited for a thaw, housed in barracks and tents, Hood’s army waited as well, though with less favorable surroundings.

See Union Fortification Line

See Fortified State Capitol

Suffering and Hardships in the Cold
Valley Forge has long symbolized the pain and suffering endured by the Continental Army in the American colonists’ successful attempt to gain their independence from Britain. Similarly, the Battle of Nashville and the subsequent retreat from Tennessee may well symbolize the Confederate soldier’s misery in their unsuccessful attempt to secure independence from the United States.

Consider that George Washington’s men lacked sufficient food and clothing. He estimated that about 26 percent of his men lacked shoes while snowbound there. Some estimates of shoeless Confederates at Nashville range up to 33 percent. A Mississippi colonel said his heart almost bled seeing the traces of blood on the ground, left “from the barefoot feet of our brave soldiers.”

A Georgia lieutenant had a detail of 80 men, and said, “Not a man in that company had shoes on his feet, and many were without a blanket.” A Tennessean said, “We bivouac on the cold and hard-frozen ground, and when we walk about, the echo of our footsteps sound like the echo of a tombstone. The earth is crusted with snow, and the wind from the northwest is piercing our very bones. We can see our ragged soldier, with sunken cheeks and famine glistening eyes.”

While camped at Valley Forge, the Continental Army fought no battles, and found enough timber to contruct log cabins. The unlucky Confederates found themselves encamped on cleared agricultural land, previously stripped of most of its remaining timber by the U.S. Army.

How did they survive?

In 1983, archaeologists digging along the I-440 route provided some answers. They found hearths at only six foot intervals. It is easy to believe a Florida Confederate who said he experienced the coldest weather of his life at Nashville.

Civilians See Soldiers as Their Saviors
Another similarity between Nashville and Valley Forge is the commitment of soldiers from a wide geographic area. The Continental Army had men from all 13 colonies at Valley Forge. Of the eleven Confederate states, only Virginia was not represented at Nashville.

The Old Dominion state had troubles of its own in the city of Richmond. Robert E. Lee knew his ragged army could not hold out indefinitely. Though Virginia was not represented, her sister state of Maryland was, with an artillery battery. Actually, Maryland wanted to be a Confederate state, but Abraham Lincoln had jailed their pro-secession legislators, and even the mayor of Baltimore, to prevent it.

One sad dissimilarity between Valley Forge and Nashville was the citizenship. The determined colonial solider found the region about their camp, outside Philadelphia, unfriendly to them. The citizens around Nashville, on the other hand, were quite friendly. Having endured the occupation by U.S. troops for more than two-and-a-half years, they viewed the Confederate soldiers as their saviors.

Homes all across the countryside welcomed the army. General Hood had excellent accommodations at Traveler’s Rest. Mrs. John Overton said having the Confederate generals dine at her table was the proudest moment of her life. Over at Belle Meade, the cavalry general Chalmers and his staff were treated to snow ice cream.

Haunting Memories of Slaughter
With so many hardships to endure, the Confederate soldier was also burdened with the haunting recent memory of Franklin. They had previously suffered high casualties. In the two days of fighting at Shiloh, the Confederate army had 1,728 killed. Two days of Chickamauga left 2,312 killed. These battlefields covered over 4,000 heavily wooded acres, so that the full impact of the carnage was diluted.

But at Franklin, 1,750 Confederates were killed in one evening, and nearly all in one relatively small, open space, the Carter House lawn and farmyard. After seeing this pointless waste of their friends and relatives, they were expected to fight the Battle of Nashville.

Thomas Makes His Move
Before sunrise, on Thursday, December 15, 1864, General Thomas walked down to the lobby of the Hotel Saint Cloud. He checked out, paying his bill, as if he didn’t anticipate returning. He stepped out onto Church Street, where gas lights burned amidst a heavy fog.

After much strategic planning, with Hood having the courtesy to wait outside the fortifications, Thomas was prepared to go and drive him away. This fog would steal more of the valuable daylight he needed.

At six-thirty, 7,600 U.S. troops began moving out Murfreesboro Pike. The right end of the CS line was anchored in a small dirt fort near the pike, along today’s Polk Avenue, where it can still be seen. It was named Granbury’s Lunette, in honor of the Texas general killed at Franklin. Over 300 of Granbury’s men were there, but so was the corps commander, Nashville’s own General B.F. Cheatham.

As the blue-clad troops approached, Cheatham had the Texans hold their fire until the last possible moment. They unleashed a volley that settled the dispute almost instantly.

But most of the attack force, untested U.S. Colored Troops, went around the lunette and across the Nashville and Chattanooga railroad just below the cut, also visible from Polk Avenue. The Confederates watched them in the fog and arranged a trap. As they crossed the tracks, they were approaching the rear of the CS line. These men did an about-face, as another brigade lit their flank. The result was a panicky retreat which ended this sideshow to the main attack.

See Battle Map
Main Thrust Comes Against the Left Flank
Across town, on Charlotte Pike, the primary attack was coming out of the fog. U.S. cavalry, assisted by the U.S. Navy on the Cumberland, would attempt to drive CS cavalry off the pike. Most of the U.S. cavalry, however, swung over to Harding Pike, and moved with three corps of infantry toward Hood’s left along Hillsboro Pike around today’s Green Hills Village.

As they approached the pike, an isolated dirt fort named Redoubt Four, stood in their path. It was manned by only 148 Alabamians, with four cannons, but the attackers came to a halt. Bringing up more than 24 cannons, they pounded the tiny fort, still visible today off Abbott Martin Road, for three hours. Then, 7,000 U.S. troops overwhelmed it. Shortly, they would move on, and outflank Hood’s left.

See Battle Map
Hood Reforms His Lines
Hood had watched his left giving way from on top of Shy’s Hill. The sun was low on the horizon, out past Charlotte Pike, where his cavalry was still lunging on. His opponents figured he would retreat that night. But this was the same Hood who had his arm shattered at Gettysburg, and lost a leg at Chickamauga. He would stay, and Shy’s Hill would anchor the left end of his new line.

The new line was much shorter, stretching from Shy’s Hill, alongside today’s Harding Place, over to Peach Orchard Hill, which now overlooks I-65. Thomas would use a similar plan on December 16 to overlap the CS left, around Shy’s Hill, but first, he would test Peach Orchard Hill.

See Battle Map
Second Day Opens On the Right
Peach Orchard Hill, also known as Overton Hill, derived its name from being used as a peach orchard on the property of John Overton, of nearby Traveler’s Rest.

Lieutenant General Stephen D. Lee’s corps held this right end of the CS line with about 2,000 men on and around the hill. As the afternoon began, over 6,000 U.S. infantry began forming for an assault. After a massive artillery barrage, they moved forward at about three o’clock.

As they approached Lee’s line they became entangled in fallen tree tops, laid out to slow them down. As they struggled to get through, CS artillery opened fire, and the infantry rose up and poured out a deadly fire. The attackers were confused, and broke for the rear, ending their part in the battle. Local legend says it would have been possible to walk across the slope of the hill, stepping from one dead Yankee to another.

See Battle Map
Decisive Encounter at Shy’s Hill
Yet the decisive encounter of the battle was just about to unfold at Shy’s Hill. Two U.S. infantry corps, and their cavalry, had been maneuvering for an assault. This force totaled over 40,000 men. About 5,000 CS infantry were on the left flank, with less than 1,500 around Shy’s Hill.

U.S. artillery had already made the hill a trap during the wet, misty afternoon. CS General William Bate said the shells were passing each other over the hill, coming from opposite directions.

His small force on top of the hill, mostly Tennesseans and Floridians, were likely disgusted with their predicament before the four o’clock assault. As the blue-clad troops began crossing open cornfields, they lost men quickly in killed and wounded.

But, as they began their ascent, the slope of the hill actually provided cover. As the tidal wave washed over the top, the overwhelmed Confederates had no time to retreat.

See Battle Map
Confederate Forces Captured
Virtually the entire force was captured. All of the brigade commanders were captured. Georgia’s General Henry Jackson had made it to the stone fence along Granny White Pike, when he was captured by German speaking troops. Major Jacob Lesh, of Florida, was mortally wounded, but lingered until May in the misery of a cold U.S. prison camp.

Tennessee’s General Thomas Benton Smith was struck on the head with the butt of a sword after he surrendered. He lived for almost the next 60 years in a home for the insane due to the blow.

The hill’s namesake, Colonel William Shy, was shot in the forehead at point-blank range. When his family came up from Franklin to get his body, they found it pinned to a tree with a bayonet.

Hood’s Army Retreats
Though the CS line had held elsewhere, the fall of Shy’s Hill collapsed the line like falling dominoes. General Hood watched his army melt before him, retreating down the Franklin Pike. The battle ended Confederate hopes of reclaiming Tennessee.

BACK to Features

BACK to Home Page