Did the Battle of Nashville Seal the Confederacy's Doomed Fate?

Battle of Nashville. Chromolithograph by Kurz & Allison. Library of Congress.
June 13, 2020 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: UnionConfederacyAmerican Civil WarNashvilleTennessee

Did the Battle of Nashville Seal the Confederacy's Doomed Fate?

“The Rebs broke and fled in confusion, leaving everything they had.”

“Oh, the Lord, Henry but didn’t the Rebs get the devil sure enough,” Private Charles Grundy of the 10th Illinois Infantry Regiment wrote to a friend three days after the conclusion of the Battle of Nashville fought December 15-16, 1864. Grundy, an eyewitness to the battle, recorded his observations as he watched Union soldiers shatter the Confederate defenses. “The Rebs broke and fled in confusion, leaving everything they had[,] throwing away guns, knapsacks, and everything else, and our boys after them pelting shot and shell and bullets into their broken ranks, slaying them by the dozen[,] many of them wouldn’t run at all, but surrendered without moving from their works.” Grundy may have been a lowly Union private, but he did not need to be a general to realize that General John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee had ceased to pose any real danger to the Union Army in the western theater. 

In consultation with Lt. Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard, Confederate President Jefferson C. Davis in September 1864 approved Hood’s ambitious plan to invade Union-held Tennessee. Hood hoped that by rapid marches he might be able to seize the railroad and supply hub of Nashville. If he could capture Tennessee’s capital, Hood reasoned, its citizens might revolt against Federal occupation, thus swelling his ranks.

Once Nashville was back under Confederate control, Hood intended to cross the Ohio River and do as much damage as possible in the heart of Union territory. Perhaps he might even be able to turn east and unite with General Robert E. Lee’s besieged army at Petersburg. Once together, they might fall on Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s rear. Once this unified Confederate force crushed Grant, it could then march on Washington, D.C. At that point, Lincoln would have no choice but to negotiate an end to the war.

It was a bold and audacious plan. The most far-fetched aspects of it were clearly beyond the realm of possibility at that stage in the war. But former U.S. Senator from Mississippi Davis was desperate for anything that could provide a spark to the Confederate war effort. He therefore reluctantly gave Hood his blessing.

Hood’s offensive into Tennessee was risky, but if it had succeeded it might have disrupted the Union war effort or even prolonged the war. Grant knew how important it was to destroy Hood’s menacing Confederate army. Initially at least, Hood’s offensive not only tied up Union troops stationed along the Mississippi River and prevented them from cooperating with Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman on his thrust into the Deep South, but it also posed a threat to Union-held Kentucky. If Hood could outmaneuver or outfight Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas at Nashville, Grant would have no choice but to redirect troops to contend with the Army of Tennesee. Grant was so troubled by the threat that he left Virginia and headed to Tennessee to ensure Hood’s defeat. “I was never so anxious during the war as at that time,” said the usually unflappable Grant.

Hood, a 33-year-old Kentuckian, had earned a reputation by 1864 for his bravery, quick action, and ability to inspire his men. Hood was a courageous and efficient brigade and division commander when under supervision, but a poor independent commander. When left to his own devices, he was prone to indulge his impulsive nature, putting his troops at risk.

“Nobody doubted his bravery, but as to his judgment—that was another question,” wrote Lt. Col. Albert G. Brackett of the 3rd U.S. Cavalry. Hood’s career mirrored the careers of French Marshal Michel Ney and Austrian General Ludwig von Benedek, both of whom were promoted beyond their capacity for high command.

Hood ranked 44 out of 52 in the U.S. Military Academy at West Point’s Class of 1853. His first assignment upon graduating was in the harsh wilderness of northern California where the young second lieutenant of cavalry served for two years at Fort Jones. Hood led escorts for surveying parties journeying into the mountains near the Oregon border. 

Second Lieutenant Hood joined the U.S. Second Cavalry Regiment on the Texas frontier in 1855. His superiors in the cavalry regiment included Colonel Albert S. Johnston, Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee, Major William J. Hardee, and, ironically, his future adversary at Nashville, Major Thomas.

Hood ran into trouble in a clash with Comanches in July 1857 at Devil’s River. Outnumbered four to one, his company lost six causalities in the badly handled encounter. In the desperate fighting, he was wounded in the arm by an arrow. His poor showing against the Comanches foreshadowed problems with independent command during the Civil War when the stakes were far greater.

Hood resigned his commission in 1861 to join the Confederacy. He subsequently was named colonel of the 4th Texas Infantry Regiment, which had the distinction of being one of only three Texas infantry regiments serving in Virginia. He performed ably and received his promotion to brigadier general on March 6, 1862. His brigade soon went by the nickname “Hood’s Texas Brigade.”

His performance at Gaines’ Mill on June 27 during General Robert E. Lee’s counteroffensive known as the Seven Days Battle earned him high praise. During that bloody clash along the banks of Boatswain’s Swamp, Hood led his Texas Brigade in a shock charge that pierced the Union center. After the campaign, Hood took over the division when Lee transferred Maj. Gen. William Whiting for his lackluster performance. Hood skillfully handled his division at Second Manassas in August 1862 and at Antietam the following month. As a result, he received a promotion to major general on October 11.

The challenge of leading from the front took a heavy toll on Hood’s body in hard campaigning in two of the most famous battles of the Civil War in 1863. On July 2 at Gettysburg a shell fragment struck Hood’s arm below the elbow, badly damaging the nerves and muscles and permanently depriving him of the use of his left hand. Despite the severe wound, Hood was at the head of his division when Lee sent Longstreet’s corps to north Georgia to assist General Braxton Bragg. It was there during the clash in the woods and fields along Chickamauga Creek that Hood was wounded in the right leg so severely that it had to be amputated four inches below the hip. He subsequently spent the winter of 1863-1864 convalescing in Richmond.

Hood had served ably under Lt. Gen. James Longstreet during 1862 and 1863, and there was every reason to believe he was capable of high command. He was therefore promoted to lieutenant general on February 11, 1864. The promotion was backdated to September 20, 1863, in recognition of his valor at Chickamauga. Hood was told to report to Georgia where he would take command of a corps in General Joseph Johnston’s Army of Tennesee. Hood put in an average performance while serving under Johnston. Johnston favored manuever over head-to-head fighting. Of the Confederate generals serving under Johnston who questioned his conduct of the campaign, Hood was the most vocal critic.

Hood sent letters to the Confederate government in Richmond, Virginia, that were highly critical of Johnston; in so doing, he bypassed the official communication channels. Hoping to get to the bottom of the matter, Davis dispatched General Braxton Bragg, who at that point in the war was serving as the Confederate president’s chief of staff, to interview Johnston and make his own assessment of the situation. Hood kept up his criticism, informing Bragg that he believed that Johnston was ineffective. Hood was not alone, though, in this view of Johnston, for his fellow corps commander in the Army of Tennessee, Lt. Gen. William Hardee, also faulted Johnston for not bringing on a pitched battle before the Confederate army found itself besieged at Atlanta.

On July 17, 1864, Davis removed the cautious General Joseph E. Johnston from command of the Army of Tennessee and replaced him with Hood. The newly minted army commander was promoted to full general the next day. Hood inherited the formidable task of defending Atlanta against the three Union armies under Sherman at the gates of Atlanta. Davis passed over Hardee, a more conservative choice for command of the army, in the hope that Hood would win victories against Sherman’s grand army.

“He is eccentric, and I cannot guess his movements as I could those of Johnston, who was a sensible man and only did sensible things,” Sherman wrote of his new adversary. Hood counterattacked Union forces at Peachtree Creek on July 20, east of the city at Bald Hill in what was known as the Battle of Atlanta on July 22, and again at Jonesboro on August 31-September 1.

None of the three counterattacks loosened Sherman’s grip on the city. The upshot of three pitched battles in such a short period of time was that the Army of Tennessee suffered thousands of casualties that it could ill afford to lose. President Davis still retained Hood in command of the Army of Tennessee despite this disappointing performance and allowed him to proceed with his proposed offensive into Tennessee.