On November 30, 1864, one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, The Battle of Franklin, was fought a few miles south of Nashville, Tennessee. Although the Battle of Nashville followed a few weeks later, Franklin was in fact the Confederacy’s last hurrah, the last moment when they still had a glimmer of hope of turning the war around. To understand what happened, however, we need to go back a few weeks, when Confederate General John Bell Hood finally moved to invade Tennessee.
Hood hoped to take Nashville, destroy the Union Army there and force General Sherman to turn around and chase after him; after that, who knew–Louisville, the Ohio Valley and beyond. Perhaps under a brilliant tactician like Stonewall Jackson, this grand strategy might have had a solid chance of succeeding. But Hood was no Stonewall; Lee’s right arm had died at Chancellorsville. After much delay and disorganization, Hood began to move North.
Sherman, however, refused to play Hood’s game and gave responsiblity for stopping him to General George Thomas and the Army of the Cumberland. Thomas was in fact one of the South’s greatest generals–save for the fact that he sided with the Union. A Virginian by birth, he chose his nation over his state and fought ably and well throughout the war. But Thomas needed time to gather his troops together behind Fortress Nashville, with its multiple forts and redoubts. In turn, Thomas turned to General Schofield, assigned two infantry and a cavalry corps to his command and ordered him to hold back Hood as long as possible.
It is not generally appreciated to this day the difficulty under which General Schofield labored. Hood was nothing if not aggressive and he saw in Schofield’s small army (in effect the reconstituted Army of the Ohio, although it was technically part of the Army of the Cumberland) an opportunity to defeat the Yankees piecemeal. Schofield, for his part, needed to both keep his army from being cut off and yet hold Hood back as long as possible–no easy task.
Gathering the IV and XXIII Corps near Pulaski, Tennessee, Schofield first raced to beat Hood to Columbia, Tennessee on the north side of the Duck River. For several days he entrenched there as Hood brought his army up and then sought to outflank Schofield and cut off his line of retreat. Even after his position had become untenable, Thomas continued to badger Schofield to hold onto the bridgehead over the Duck River at Columbia.
As Hood crossed the Duck River upstream of Schofield, the Union general dispatched a lone brigade to “observe” Hood. Ambrose Bierce was with present with Post’s brigade observing that day: “As a member of Colonel Post’s staff, I was naturally favored with a good view of the performance…a right pretty spectacle it would have been to one whom it did not concern.”
In fact it did concern Bierce and the rest of Post’s brigade quite a bit as they were too small a force to prevent Hood’s crossing and could easily have been overwhelmed. Watching the Confederate army march past them was nerveracking, “but the unending column of gray and steel gave us no more attention than if we had been a crowd of farmer-folk.”
Apparently, it was also unnerving for Hood to see the Yankees watching his army cross over the Duck River. He dispatched a large part of his force to guard his left flank while the remainder of the army marched straight on to Springhill, which lay along the main road north. Historians have criticized John Bell Hood for being reckless; if anything, he may have been too cautious; his dispatch of a force to guard his flank was not unreasonable, but it well may have cost him ultimate success.
Schofield’s rear guard was still holding Columbia even as his advance guard raced to Springhill to keep Hood from cutting them off. It was a very near thing. Schofield’s force just barely beat off the repeated Rebel attacks on November 29. Much ink has been spent on the Confederate mistakes made at Springhill. Hood blamed his subordinates and his subordinates blamed their commander. In the end, however, the Confederate Army of Tennessee blocked the Union advance (or retreat) to Nashville.
Even though Schofield’s force repulsed Hood’s advance guard, by nightfall the entire Rebel army was sitting astride the road to Nashville. On the morrow, Hood reasonably believed he would either destroy the Yankee army or force it to surrender. But something strange happened; the next morning Hood awoke to find the Yankees had disappeared in the night! Furious, Hood fumed and fussed and cursed and blamed everyone but himself.
Marching north in hot pursuit, Hood had but one idea in his mind: attack! By late on the afternoon of November 30, The Army of Tennessee was lined up as on a parade–all except for their artillery train and cavalry. As he got the bulk of his force across the Harpeth River north of Franklin, Schofield’s rear-guard dug in south of the city. Schofield gave his rear guard orders to withdraw by six pm if they were not attacked. Around 4:30 pm the Confederates attacked the entrenched rear-guard.
By the fall of 1864, the Confederate Army of Tennessee and the Union Army of the Cumberland were the best of enemies. They had fought one another from Kentucky to Georgia and back again and each army full well knew the measure of the other. Both sides knew better than to launch a frontal assault against an entrenched foe. The Federals had learned that lesson well at Kennesaw Mountain earlier in the year. But Hood ordered his army to march across a barren plain in full sight of a well entrenched enemy. Everyone in the Army of Tennessee knew it was folly–all except General Hood, their commander.
Actually, Schofield feared the Rebel cavalry fording the Harpeth River and cutting off his line of retreat far more than an infantry frontal assault. But Hood could think of but one thing: attack the enemy to his front. All subtlety of manuever or outflanking tactics were lost on Hood. In the end the Battle of Franklin was as bloody as it was unnecessary; Hood could have destroyed Schofield had he trusted his cavalry to do its job. Yet, due to the gallantry of his officers and men, the initial assault on the Union line came very near to succeeding. However, by nine that night, thousands were dead on both sides; the Yankees could afford to lose them; Hood could not. He lost five of his best generals and some twenty regimental commanders, plus thousands of others killed or maimed.
Hood was in possession of the battlefield of Franklin and claimed victory; yet still many counted it as a defeat for him. Hood himself described the campaign as “A Forlorn Hope” which in military terms meant it was an intentional sacrifice. General Thomas deserves credit as the victor of the Battle of Nashville, although the man who defeated General Hood on the road to Nashville was his old West Point schoolmate Schofield. While historians still debate the issue, in the end perhaps it was Hood who defeated Hood.