Just as this month marks the 150th anniversary of General Sherman’s capture of Savannah, it marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Nashville, when Virginia-born General George Thomas led his forces to a resounding victory over Confederate General John Bell Hood’s army.
I particularly admire those southern-born United States military officers who did not abandon their union loyalties to serve in the Confederate ranks. They had to prove themselves one-better than their fellow officers, as their loyalty to the Union was often called into question. And George Thomas proved himself on more than one occasion.
He built a strong record, defeating Confederate troops led by General George Crittenden at the Battle of Mill Springs in January 1862. He followed up that victory with service at Shiloh, Perryville, and Stones River. He achieved his greatest fame as “the Rock of Chickamauga” in September 1863, when he mounted a stubborn resistance to General Braxton Bragg’s assault on Horseshoe Ridge, allowing other Union troops to retreat to safety.
By the end of 1864, one would think that Thomas’s reputation was secure. While Sherman made his March to the Sea, he left Thomas to deal with John Bell Hood, who planned to march 39,000 Confederate troops north into Tennessee and beyond. In the Battles of Spring Hill and Franklin, Thomas’s forces inflicted devastating casualties on the ever-aggressive Hood, whose numbers had fallen to 26,500 men by the time Hood sought to engage the heavily fortified Union troops at Nashville.
But Lincoln and Grant grew frustrated that Thomas appeared to repeat the same pattern as other Union generals – McClellan at Antietam and Meade at Gettysburg – allowing the Confederates to lick their wounds and recover their strength rather than taking the opportunity to take a major army out of play.
Hood was not looking to retreat and Thomas was nothing like McClellan or Meade. While severe winter weather delayed his movements, Thomas used the time to rest and refit his troops, particularly the cavalry. He moved forward only when the weather cleared, and, even then, a layer of ice still covered the ground. But he had a battle plan in place, and his troops were prepared to execute it.
Even as Grant sent General John Logan to replace a general he and the President thought too reluctant to destroy the enemy, General Thomas employed one corps to pin down Hood’s right and then applied the bulk of his force on Hood’s left. The sunset on December 14 before Thomas’s men could destroy Hood’s army, but after another day of battle, Hood’s army was a mere shell of its former self.
Hood had left Atlanta with 39,000 men. After casualties and desertions, his army arrived in Tupelo, Mississippi, with less than 15,000 men – a force that could not be wholly ignored, but one that could cause little more trouble and deprived Lee of a serious counterweight to keep Union troops occupied outside Virginia. Jefferson Davis’s choice to replace Joe Johnston, John Bell Hood resigned his command. Johnston would return to lead the beleaguered force.
It was Lincoln’s last, of course, but Sherman and Thomas had made December 25, 1864, the President’s best Christmas of the Civil War. Lincoln saw genuine hope that the country’s nightmare was near its end.
Battle of Nashville Then & Now, from the Tennessean: www.tennessean.com/videos/news/local/davidson/2014/12/13/20352329/
- Catton, Bruce. Never Call Retreat. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1965 (republished by Fall River Press, New York, NY, in 2001).
- Foote, Shelby. The Civil War, a Narrative, Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York, New York: Random House, 1958 (First Vintage Books Edition, 1986).
- Foote, Shelby. The Civil War, a Narrative, Red River to Appomattox. New York, New York: Random House, 1974 (First Vintage Books Edition, 1986).
Postscript: Thomas devoted the rest of his life to the United States Army. He assumed command of the Division of the Pacific in 1869. He died of a stroke at the Presidio in 1870.