The Battle of Spring Hill

This entry is part 5 of 10 in the series The Franklin-Nashville Campaign

The Battle of Spring Hill

General John Bell Hood attempted to deceive Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield into the belief that his Army of Tennessee was still south of the Duck River at Columbia by leaving the greater part of Lt. Gen. Stephen D. Lee’s Corps to demonstrate.Meanwhile, he took the rest of his force east of the town and out of sight of the Union forces crossed the river at Davis’ Ford and headed north to Spring Hill.

Hood’s objective was to cut off Schofield from consolidating his force with the greater part of the Union army at Franklin. Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas had ordered Schofield to march north with his Army of the Ohio (the XXIII Corps) and Maj. Gen. David S. Stanley‘s IV Corps of the Army of the Cumberland.

Map of the Battle of Spring Hill, afternoonHood planned to interpose his force between Schofield and Thomas, hoping to defeat Schofield first and then turn on Thomas at Franklin. Hood’s column included Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Cheatham‘s Corps in the lead, followed by Lt. Gen. Alexander P. Stewart‘s Corps. they were followed by the division of Maj. Gen. Edward “Allegheny” Johnson (Lee’s corps). The Confederate infantry was screened by Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest‘s Cavalry Corps of almost 10,000 troopers who vastly outnumbered Brig. Gen. James H. Wilson‘s Union cavalry.

Click Map to enlarge.

While Wilson’s troopers skirmished with part of Forrest’s cavalry, he frantically sent communications to Schofield about the Confederate turning movement around his flank. Finally, on the morning of November 29, 1864, Schofield realized that the force in front of him was a demonstration to hold him in place.

He immediately ordered Stanley north with the IV Corps division of Brig. Gen. Nathan Kimball, the remainder of Wagner’s division, and the bulk of the Federal reserve artillery. Their mission initially was to protect the trains, but also to hold the crossroads at Spring Hill to allow the entire army to withdraw safely to Franklin.

By 11:30 AM, the Union forces that had accompanied the huge 800-wagon supply train were positioned at Spring Hill. They had formed a defensive arc, primarily facing the north and the east with a short line facing south. To the south, another Union brigade was positioned on a knoll south of McCutcheon’s Creek. Forrest had sent a brigade of dismounted cavalry troopers against the Union force in the north but they were repulsed.

Maj. Gen. Patrick R. Cleburne‘s division of Cheatham’s corps arrived midafternoon on Forrest’s left. The cavalry brigade was low on ammunition and  pulled out of the line, swinging north to block Schofield’s withdrawal. Forrest sent another brigade against the Union troops to the south, thinking that it was a small force. They were driven back with combined rifle and artillery fire.

In the heat of the battle, Hood had ordered Maj. Gen. William B. Bate to take his division on a long march to the Columbia Pike. Unfortunately, he General Patrick Cleburnedidn’t bother to inform Cheatham of this change in Bate’s orders. Cheatham thought that Bate was securing his left at the southern end of his corps. Instead, he was on a two-hour trek across the countryside. The pike was the route that the rest of Schofield’s force was using to withdraw from Columbia to Spring Hill.

By about 5:30 PM, Bate’s lead elements engaged the lead elements of the oncoming Union force. Before they could become fully engaged, a courier from Cheatham ordered Bate to reverse direction and return to his original position, joining Cleburne’s attack.

Back in Columbia, Schofield became convinced at about 3 p.m. that the Confederates would not attack him there and at 3:30 he joined two brigades from Ruger’s division on the march to Spring Hill. He ordered his remaining force to remain until dark and then join him on the march north.

As soon as Schofield departed, Stephen D. Lee began an attack against the Union position. He had considerable difficulty deploying pontoon bridges for the river crossing. By the time the bulk of his two divisions were able to cross, the senior Union commander left behind at Columbia, Brig. Gen. Jacob D. Cox, began his withdrawal and the final troops departed up the Franklin Pike by 10 p.m.

Cleburne began his attack at about 4:00 PM and again there was a miscommunication in orders. Cheatham thought that Cleburne was going to drive in the direction of Spring Hill while Hood had ordered him to sweep west and then turn to block the Columbia Pike. Cleburne’s en echelon attack formation was ineffective on the terrain to his front and only one brigade was able to engage the Union brigade to their front.

Cleburne personally led his Arkansas Brigade forward and flanked the Union troops, forcing them to retreat in disorder. The rest of Cleburne’s Division chased them to the pike where the Confederate advance was stopped short by artillery fire.

Map of the Battle of Spring Hill, after darkBy now, the battlefield was completely dark and Cheatham thought it best to consult with Hood on further moves. Hood was furious that the Columbia Pike was still open and Union troops were moving north toward Spring Hill. Cheatham insisted that he needed Stewart’s assistance to protect his flank. Hood sent a staff officer to direct Stewart to Cheatham’s right flank.

Click Map to enlarge.

Again, we have a Confederate unit receiving conflicting orders from the commanding general. He originally had been directed to move north of Spring Hill and cut off the Federal column. Stewart traveled to Hood’s headquarters for clarification.  He informed Hood that because his men were tired and had been on the move since daylight—it was now 11 p.m.—he had ordered them to bivouac while they waited. Hood accepted the situation and told Stewart to head in the direction of Franklin in the morning after the men had rested.

The Battle of Spring Hill was a minor affair in terms of casualties with the Union forces sustaining 350 total casualties while the Confederates suffered 500 total casualties. However, the several Confederate miscommunications allowed Schofield’s entire command to pass from Columbia to Spring Hill while the Confederates slept.

By 6:00 a.m. on November 30, all of Schofield’s army was well north of Spring Hill and its vanguard had reached Franklin, where it began to build breastworks south of town. In the morning Hood discovered Schofield’s escape, and after an angry conference with his subordinate commanders in which he blamed all but himself for the failure, ordered his army to resume its pursuit, setting up the disastrous Battle of Franklin that afternoon.

Series Navigation<< Hood Moves NorthThe Battle Of Franklin: Pre-Battle Maneuvers >>

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