The Battle of Nashville, in December 1864, destroyed an entire Confederate Army and ended the Civil War in what was then the western part of the United States. But today the battle has been largely forgotten.
In February 1862, in one of its first major successes of the Civil War, the Union forces managed to capture Fort Donelson in Tennessee. This left the way open to Nashville, and Federal gunboats sailed up the Cumberland River to capture the city without a shot. Nashville became the first Confederate capitol to surrender. It quickly became an important Union supply center, and the occupying Federal forces constructed a number of defensive positions around the city, including a large cannon fortress at Fort Negley.
Over the next two years, the Confederates suffered several blows. The Battle of Gettysburg placed the South on the strategic defensive, and the Battle of Vicksburg gave the Federals control of the entire Mississippi River valley. General William T Sherman led a Union army through the very heart of the Confederacy, and his “March to the Sea” took him all the way to Atlanta. In September 1864, Confederate General John Bell Hood withdrew his troops and abandoned the city to Sherman.
But Hood wasn’t ready to give up yet. He had developed a reputation for being reckless, and now he was also being driven by desperation. So he formulated a plan that he hoped would pull a victory out of his hat. Marching north from Atlanta, he planned to attack the Union forces in Nashville. This would cut off Sherman’s supply lines and, Hood hoped, force the Federals to leave Atlanta.
Hood’s plan was never realistic. He had only 30,000 men; the heavily-fortified Federals in Nashville already outnumbered him. The Union forces were also reinforced by General George Thomas and his detachment from Atlanta, consisting mostly of rear-area garrison soldiers and a number of “Colored Regiments” made up of African-American volunteers. Hood was outnumbered by over two to one. Nevertheless, he set off for Tennessee.
On the way, he ran into a Union detachment in the city of Franklin, just south of Nashville. The Federals were outnumbered but were heavily dug in, and in a series of frontal charges, Hood lost several thousand men and most of his brigade officers, including five generals. By the time the Confederates reached Nashville in December 1864, they were already battered and disorganized. Hood hastily dug in a defensive line just south of Nashville, anchored on a series of cannon positions known as “redoubts”. He had about 20,000 men. Thomas, inside the Union fortifications, had about 70,000 men.
Hood, implausibly, was still confident of victory. His plan was to build a strong defensive line and goad Thomas into attacking him. It would be a re-play of the Battle of Franklin, but this time, Hood expected, it would be the Union forces that wore themselves out attacking his fortified positions, allowing him to then counter-attack and take the city. But as the Confederates were digging in, a severe winter storm descended. The snow and ice halted everything.
Meanwhile, the Union commander Ulysses S Grant, seeing that the Union forces heavily out-numbered the Confederates, was sending frantic orders to Thomas to attack immediately. After almost two weeks, Grant, who was unaware of the weather conditions in Nashville, concluded that Thomas was needlessly delaying things, and dispatched one of his own subordinate generals with instructions ordering Thomas to attack, and relieving him of command if he didn’t.
Grant’s dispatch was still en route when the weather finally broke on December 15, and Thomas launched his assault against the right end of Hood’s lines, beginning with a cannon barrage from Fort Negley. One by one the Confederate Redoubts were taken, and by the time the fighting temporarily stopped at nightfall, the Confederates had been pushed back about two miles. In the morning the assaults began again, and at about 4pm on December 16, a Union regiment from Minnesota broke through the Confederate strongpoint at Shy’s Hill and rolled behind the lines.
Hood’s entire army collapsed. Almost 6,000 Confederates were killed, wounded or captured; the rest retreated all the way to Mississippi, where General Hood resigned his command in disgrace. It was one of the most lopsided Union victories of the war; the Confederate Army of Tennessee had been destroyed as an effective force, and the Civil War in the “western theater” had essentially ended.
Today, most of the actual battlefield has disappeared under the suburbs of Nashville. But a few key places, including Fort Negley, Confederate Redoubt Number One, and Shy’s Hill, have been preserved as isolated historical parks surrounded by the modern city.