The Battle of Nashville: Setting the Stage

This entry is part 8 of 10 in the series The Franklin-Nashville Campaign

The Battle of Nashville:

Setting the Stage

The withdrawal of the Union Army from Franklin to Nashville separated the two armies for a two-week period. The Confederate Army of Tennessee had suffered a costly defeat at Franklin and General John Bell Hood chose to change his strategy for the next engagement.

Hood had seen the futility of hurling his soldiers against fixed fortifications. It had cost him dearly at Franklin both in troops and their commanders. At Nashville, he decided to go on the defensive. Arriving outside of the city on December 2, 1864, General Hood ordered his army to build 4 miles of fortifications facing the southerly part of the Union defenses.

Hood positioned his troops from right to left with three infantry corps of Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Cheatham, Lt. Gen. Stephen D. Lee, and Lt. Gen. Alexander P. Stewart. Cavalry commanded by Brig. Gen. James R. Chalmers was off to the southwest of the city. The Confederate left flank was secured by five small detached redoubts, each having two to four guns with garrisons of about 150 men each. All told, the Confederate force numbered about 30,000.

Opposing them was a formidable Union force of approximately 55,000 men under the overall command of Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas. At this point in the war, all of the Union troops were veterans who had seen combat all over the Western Theater. Thomas had two infantry corps under the command of Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield and Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Wood.

There was a “Detachment” from the Army of the Tennessee under Maj. Gen. Andrew J. Smith with three divisions. There was a Provisional “Detachment” under Maj. Gen. James B. Steedman that included two full brigades os U.S. Colored Troops plus other miscellaneous units. The Cavalry Corps was under the command of Maj. Gen. James H. Wilson and included 4 divisions with a total of 7 brigades and attached artillery.

The Union troops had been reinforcing their defensive positions since the city had been taken in 1862. The 7-mile long semicircular Union defensive line protected the city on three sides with the Cumberland River on the north side.

The Union army had at least 35 artillery batteries plus the horse artillery attached to the cavalry. Between the infantry and the artillery, the Union army was able to generate a huge volume of firepower.

Hood saw that his only chance was to draw Thomas out from behind Nashville’s formidable defenses. On December 2nd, Hood sent three brigades  General George Thomasof Maj. Gen. William B. Bate‘s Division (Cheatham’s Corps) to attack the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad between Nashville and Murfreesboro as well as the Federal garrison in the latter city.

Three days later he sent an additional two brigades of infantry and two divisions of cavalry, all under Forrest’s command, to reinforce Bate. While the railroad between Nashville and Murfreesboro was broken in a number of places, the Murfreesboro garrison drove off the Confederates in the Third Battle of Murfreesboro (also called the Battle of the Cedars) on December 7.

Thomas was not fooled by these diversions and was determined to attack Hood at a time and place of his own choosing. Thomas was known as a methodical general who spent a great deal of time preparing his troops for battle. A case in point was his cavalry. Under the command of the 27-year old Wilson, they were not a well-equipped force in either horses or weapons. Thomas needed them to be in top form for their coming fight with Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Cavalry. Furnishing them with the best took time.

Meanwhile, behind his back Schofield was apparently feeding negative reports about Thomas to General Grant. From their positions in Washington and City Point, Lincoln and Grant fretted that Thomas was taking too long. Lincoln said, “This seems like the McClellan and Rosecrans strategy of do nothing and let the rebels raid the country.”

A bitter ice storm hit Nashville on December 8th and its effects lasted until the 12th, postponing any offensive activity. When Thomas had still not moved by December 13, Grant directed that Maj. Gen. John A. Logan proceed to Nashville and assume command if, upon his arrival, Thomas had not yet initiated operations. Logan made it as far as Louisville by December 15, but on that day the Battle of Nashville had finally begun. 

Grant himself left Petersburg on December 14 to take personal command and had only gotten as far as Washington when the battle began. He proceeded no further.

Series Navigation<< The Battle of Franklin: Afternoon and EveningThe Battle of Nashville: December 15, 1864 >>

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