In the aftermath of the Union capture of Atlanta (American Civil War), the Confederate commander, General John Hood, still had a largely intact army. He decided to use that army to harass General Sherman’s long supply line from Atlanta back to Chattanooga. Across September and October 1864, Sherman was forced to chase back and fore along this railroad attempting to find and defeat Hood.
Sherman’s response to this frustration was twofold. First, at the end of September he sent General Thomas back to Nashville with one entire corps from the army at Atlanta. Second, Sherman managed to convince Grant, and through him Lincoln to let him leave Atlanta behind and march east through the heart of Georgia to the Atlantic coast, ‘smashing things to the sea’ in his own words. On 15 November, Sherman and his army of 62,000 men left Atlanta on their famous ‘March to the Sea’.
This left Hood with something of a dilemma. The enemy whose supply lines he was hoping to destroy had simply abandoned them, and marched away. However, even before Sherman made his move, Hood had been planning a grand campaign into Tennessee and beyond to Kentucky (and eventually Virginia, where he would combine with Lee). This could be seen as a similar plan to Sherman’s, but with one key difference. While Sherman’s 62,000 men would outnumber any force the Confederates were able to scrape together in Georgia, Hood’s 40,000 started their campaign outnumbered by Thomas’s 60,000, and with little prospect of being reinforced (like many other Confederate generals in the Tennessee and Kentucky theatres, Hood expected to find thousands of eager new recruits in those states, ready to rush to the colours at the first sight of a Confederate army. He was to be disappointed).
Despite this initial disadvantage, Hood was given one chance of success. Thomas had split his army into two equal sections. 30,000 men remained at Nashville with Thomas, while the other 30,000 were 75 miles further south at Pulaski, under General John Schofield. In theory, this gave Hood a great chance to fight with the advantage of numbers, defeating the divided Union forces in detail.
Hood began his command with an attempt to outflank Schofield, isolating him from Thomas. Unfortunately for him this move was detected. Schofield was able to pull back to the Duck River. Several days of skirmishing followed, before Hood attempted another flanking manoeuvre, this time with two infantry corps and his cavalry force (commanded by Nathan Bedford Forest). Once again this move was detected. Schofield was able to rush two divisions back to the key crossroads at Spring Hill, where they held off a series of Confederate attacks (29 November).
The Confederate failure at Spring Hill allowed Schofield to pull back to a strong position at Franklin. Hood was furious with his army, and the following day insisted on launched a frontal assault on this new Union position. So determined was he to prove that his army was capable of launching an attack that he refused to allow time for his artillery to reach the battlefield.
The Battle of Franklin (30 November) effectively ended Hood’s hopes in Tennessee. The fighting raged from early afternoon to close to midnight, when Schofield disengaged and headed back to Nashville to join Thomas. The Confederate attack had come close to breaking the Union line. General Patrick Cleburne’s division did break part of the line, but they were thrown back with huge losses, including Cleburne, killed during the fighting. Hood lost 6,252 of the 22,000 men that had started the battle, three times Schofield’s losses of 2,326.
Nevertheless, Hood still advanced towards Nashville, even though he was now outnumbered by perhaps as many as two to one (although he may have had as many as 40,000 men at Nashville). His problem now was that he did not think his army would survive a retreat, but nor could it attack Nashville. For the next two weeks he sat in front of Nashville, hoping for reinforcements that never came.
Meanwhile Thomas came very close to being dismissed. Two weeks of preparation looked too long to observers in the north, who began to fear an embarrassing reverse in Tennessee. In fact, Thomas’s careful preparations were about to pay off. On 15 December he launched his attack (Battle of Nashville). While one Union division held down Hood’s right, the bulk of the army attempted to smash his left. Hood managed to hold on across the first day of fighting, and was able to pull back to a shorter line overnight. However, on 16 December Thomas repeated the same strategy. Late in the afternoon of the second day’s fighting, Union cavalry managed to outflank Hood’s left wing. Attacked from front and rear, the Confederate left collapsed, and the rest of the army followed (Although thousands chose to surrender).
A miserable retreat followed. Over the next two weeks only Forrest’s cavalry prevented the entire army from capture. Even so, when Hood’s army finally reached relative safety at Tupelo, Mississippi, only 20,000 men remained. The battle of Nashville and the ensuing retreat had probably cost him close to 15,000 men. His army no longer posed any threat to Union operations. Hood himself resigned on 13 January 1865. News of the destruction of Hood’s army in Tennessee spread around what was left of the Confederacy at about the same time as that of Sherman’s capture of Savannah (22 December). As 1865 began it finally began to dawn on many across the south that the days of the Confederacy were numbered.