The Battle of Nashville Monument: A Symposium
Keynote Address by James Lee McDonough

 

Dr. McDonough discusses a point
with a member of the audience.


Most of the blame for the Union's decisive victory over the Confederate forces of Gen. John Bell Hood at the Battle of Nashville, Dec. 15-16, 1864, lies with the deficiencies of the Rebel commander himself, according to historians.

That's the opinion of history professor and author James Lee McDonough, who presented the keynote address at the Battle of Nashville Monument Symposium, Nov. 5-6, 1998, at the campus of David Lipscomb University.

Speaking before an attentive audience of 100 history buffs, Dr. McDonough explained that the die had been cast for the near-destruction of the Army of Tennessee before the actual battle commenced. He quoted liberally from the works of five preeminent authors who have examined the battle--Thomas Hay, Stanley Horn, Thomas Connelly, Shelby Foote, and Wiley Sword (listed in chronological order of publication).

Four issues stand out above the others in interpreting what transpired during the Battle of Nashville:

  • Hood's decision to confront the Union forces under Gen. George Thomas at Nashville;
  • The deployment of the Confederate lines south of the city;
  • Hood's decision to send part of his force to Murfreesboro prior to battle, and;
  • The faulty preparation of the Confederate left flank both days of the battle.

Was the Battle Over Before It Began?
"The Battle of Nashville was fought at Franklin," declared Union Gen. William T. Sherman after the war. That statement, although provocative and simplistic, holds a grain of truth, stated Dr. McDonough.

Two weeks before Nashville, on Nov. 30, 1864, Hood had ordered a massive frontal assault against fortified Union positions at the town of Franklin, south of Nashville. The six hours of combat, some hand-to-hand, resulted in severe Confederate losses, especially to the officer corps. (The Union forces, under Schofield, immediately drew back north to the safety of Nashville). Hood could have retreated, or bypassed Nashville and invaded Kentucky, but he marched to Nashville and assumed a four-mile-wide line south of the city, waiting for the inevitable attack by Thomas.

Horn contends that Hood's plan to destroy the Union army at Nashville and then move northward to the Ohio River was reasonable "at the time," as evidenced by the anxious behavior of Union General in Chief U.S. Grant regarding the situation. It is likely, however, said Dr. McDonough, that Grant, located far from the Western Theater at the time, overestimated the strength of Hood's forces, numbered at about 22,000.

Hay holds that Hood's chances at Nashville were very slim to begin with, especially since he had dispatched his calvary commander, Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, to confront the 8000-man Union garrison at Murfreesboro. In this regard, Hood's judgement was "warped," according to Hay.

For the same reason, Connelly contends, Hood was ignorant and irrational at Nashville. Evidence indicates that "he simply marched into a trap."

Foote notes that Hood's original rationale for his troop movement from Atlanta to Nashville was to force Sherman to follow him, but by mid-December Sherman was already on his March to the Sea. Hood simply came to Nashville to "await the inevitable attack" by Union forces under Thomas.

Sword holds that Hood's only chance for success was to hope for a monumental blunder by the enemy. Hood blamed others for his mistakes and did not learn from his own failures. Although courageous to the point of recklessness, Hood was a "sad anachronism," a "fool with license to kill his own men." Hood should have resigned after Franklin.

Too Much Territory, Not Enough Men
The second decisive factor was that Hood spread his lines too thin south of Nashville. He covered only four of the eight miles between the bends in the Cumberland River and only three of the seven road approaches to the city. His lines were hastily constructed during times of severe winter weather. The concave shape of the lines produced undesireable "exterior lines of communication," meaning that he could not shift his forces easily. Connelly notes that Hood would have been better off positioning his troops further south, on the high ground of the Overton Hills (Brentwood).

Forrest Sent Away to Murfreesboro
The third factor was Hood's decision to send Forrest, along with the infantry division of Maj. Gen. William Bate, to confront Union forces at nearby Murfreesboro. According to Sword, Hood considered Murfreesboro the key to Nashville, that Thomas would be forced to dispatch his troops from Nashville to reinforce the garrison at Murfreesboro. This did not happen. In fact, Forrest was much needed at Nashville to counter the devastating flanking manuvers of Union cavalryman Brig. Gen. James Wilson.

Horn noted that Hood's decision was "a masterpiece of suicidal thought" and "a massive blunder."

Forrest did not rejoin the Army of Tennessee until two days into the retreat, providing indispensible rear-guard action against the persuing Federals.

Deficiencies on the Left Flank
The fourth factor involves Hood's positions just prior to and during the actual battle. To protect his left flank, Hood constructed five redoubts (small forts) each manned by 150 men and a battery of four cannon. Although valiantly defended, the redoubts proved no match for the sweeping Union assault on the first day. Hood had vastly underestimated the numbers of Union forces at Nashville, perhaps due to poor intelligence.

Also, during the night after the first day's fighting, the Confederates fell back southward and hastily formed their left flank atop Shy's Hill. Their fortifications were built too far back from the brow of the hill, allowing the Federals to approach unseen and unharrassed. This was more of an asset to the Union attackers than the Rebel defenders. Artillery fire and sharpshooters prevented Confederate Maj. Gen. Frank Cheatham from repositioning the defensive works. Also, the hill formed a salient which allowed the Union to fire upon it from three sides. "Shy's Hill was a disaster waiting to happen," said Dr. McDonough. And when Union forces attacked at 4 p.m. on that damp, dreary afternoon, the result was a complete rout of the Confederate forces, who were forced to retreat south all the way to the Tennessee River in Alabama.

Did Gen. Hood have any chance to win at Nashville? Perhaps he might have, if he hadn't made so many fatal mistakes in judgement.

Dr. McDonough, a former resident of Nashville, is a professor of history at Auburn University and author of many books, including Five Tragic Hours: The Battle of Franklin (with Thomas L. Connelly); Chattanooga: A Death Grip on the Confederacy; Stones River: Bloody Winter in Tennessee; and Shiloh: In Hell Before Night.

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