150 years ago, the eyes of the nation were on Nashville. Early in the Civil War, the Union army had taken control of the city and made it one of their key supply centers. But now a Confederate army was camped just outside of town, ready to try and win it back. And if they did, Northern newspapers warned, they could move into Kentucky or even as far as Cincinnati, Ohio.
But those Southern soldiers probably never had a chance.
The Battle of Nashville started with a waiting game, and for half a month, everyone played. The Union Army waited in barracks in the city proper, the Confederate army camped out in tents and trenches nearby, and the civilian residents watched for signs of when a firefight would begin.
Day after day in her diary, Rachel Carter Craighead wrote of the anticipation, always expecting battle to break out the next morning. Maggie Lindsley focused on the changes the Confederates made the the landscape as every last scrap of wood was scavenged to build a defensive line, or to light small, hidden fires. “The fences are all gone,” she wrote, “and, oh dear! Such an air of desolation to have all landmarks gone.”
The Southerners didn’t dare launch a direct attack because Nashville had become of the most heavily fortified cities on either side of the war. It had been under Union control and military government for almost three years. A string of forts and well-built defensive lines curved around the South side of town, intersecting with the Cumberland River on either end. On the water itself, the US Navy patrolled, watching for threats on the shore.
So the Confederates decided to stop short of those Federal lines and set up their own position, essentially daring the Union to attack. As they did, a cold front moved in, bringing with it sleet, snow and ice. Lipscomb University historian Dr. Tim Johnson says conditions on the Southern line were desperate:
“They’re sitting in their trenches, they’re barefoot, they haven’t eaten in three days. I just wonder how many lost hope even before the battle started.”
Here are the approximate pre-battle Union and Confederate lines, superimposed over a current Google map (click to enlarge):
These were men who’d started their march into Tennessee weeks before without enough supplies. They’d fought some at Spring Hill and suffered a bloodbath at Franklin. Only half made it to Nashville. Now they were waiting, just wondering when they could start fighting.
Growing Union Impatience
The Union’s top brass were wondering, too. The folks in Washington, DC and Virginia didn’t understand that Nashville’s roads and bridges were crusted with ice. General George Thomas tried to explain that his cavalry officer, a General Wilson, couldn’t safely move into place. Every day, he received angry telegrams warning of what the Southerners might do if he didn’t act fast. “General Grant expresses much dissatisfaction,” one read, going on to warn that if he waited to move the cavalry, “you will wait till doomsday.” Others made it clear that orders were being written up that would remove him from command. At one point, it looked as if General Ulysses Grant might leave his siege of Petersburg, Virginia to take control of Nashville himself.
Before that could happen, the weather warmed just enough. On the morning of December 15, after two weeks of biding his time, Thomas struck with what historian Tim Johnson calls a “sledgehammer blow.”
Thomas had roughly three times more men than Confederate General John Hood had. Many of those Union troops were less experienced in battle than their Southern counterparts, but they were well-fed, well-rested, and warmly dressed. Many of the Federals were Midwestern boys accustomed to the cold and eager to see action. There were also black men who had been enslaved on local farms and plantations, some of whom now fought passionately on the very land they’d once been forced to work.
That afternoon, the Southern line crumbled and retreated as the sun went down. In the dark, it wasn’t clear to Union command if they would fight again the next day, or if the Confederates were marching out of town. They couldn’t see that new lines were being formed again, this time in the area we now know as Green Hills. Under cover of darkness, the Southerners built breastworks and moved heavy cannons on to a pair of hills that served as the Eastern and Western anchors for their positions.
When morning came, it all started again. And again, the Union had the advantage of sheer numbers.
Outnumbered And On The Run
In some places on the Western end, Johnson says the ratio of soldiers was 10 or 15 Union for every one Confederate. “You can’t beat back an attack when you are so heavily outnumbered like that,” Johnson says, and the Southerners found that to be true. Their anchor point on Shy’s Hill was captured in the afternoon, and with it, all the large guns that were meant to rain down on the heads of the Federals.
That was the end of it. The Southern line fell like dominos from West to East. Men didn’t wait for orders to retreat, they just ran for the only available exits of Franklin Road and Granny White Pike. Confederate officers Charles Eastman said it only took a half hour for the forces to devolve into “a perfect mob.” Sam Watkins later wrote that “the army was panic-stricken,” comparing the job of commanders trying to regain order to “trying to stop the current of the Duck River with a fish net.”
Tim Johnson tells the story of one confederate officer who was surprised to see a private duck under his horse. “Why are you running?” the officer asked. The soldier’s answer: “Because I can’t fly.”
The Southern army kept running for another week and a half. If there had been any doubt they’d lost the war, the Battle of Nashville beat it out of them. Many in Hood’s Confederate army were Tennessee natives, and as they headed back towards Southern-controlled Alabama, soldiers frequently chose to quietly leave the group and head home. If they’d tried that earlier in the war, they could have been executed for desertion. But now theirs was an army that couldn’t feed or clothe its men, that was dumping wagons and destroying ammunition as it went to lighten the load. So as men drifted away, Johnson says, “no one begrudged them of that because everyone understood.”
Aside from small skirmishes here and there, Nashville marked the end of fighting on the Civil War’s Western front. And really, it could be considered the last major battle of the entire war.
Thanks to Donna Robinson, Wendy Poston, Chuck Cardona, Kyle Bradley and Ed Lambert for voicing the written words of Craighead, Lindsley, the Union headquarters communications, Eastman and Watkins in the audio version of this story.