Author’s note: This covers the Battle of Nashville and Hood’s retreat into Mississippi.
The Battle of Nashville
December 1, the day following the battle (Franklin), virtually every house in Franklin was turned into a hospital to accommodate the thousands of Confederate wounded. While the surgeons toiled to cope with the overwhelming numbers of mangled and torn men, Hood urged the remains of his army on to Nashville. It was an army now seriously damaged by the loss of so many. As an example, Company “A” of the 3rd/5th Missouri Infantry could muster only nine men fit for duty. Nevertheless, Lee’s Corps had by this time rejoined the main body and Hood deployed his troops in a defensive line along the hills bordering Nashville on the South as near as possible to the enemy defenses. Lee’s Corps was placed in the center astride the Franklin Pike, Cheatham was on his right extending to the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad, Stewart was on the left with his flank on the Hillsboro Pike where it turned south at Redoubt #1 and continued along the pike connecting Redoubts #2 and #3. Redoubts #4 and #5 were only partially complete and were in advance of the left end of Stewart’s line. The entire line was some four and one-half miles long and consisted of twenty-three thousand men.
Schofield had reached Nashville well ahead of the Rebels and with reinforcements arriving from other areas, Major General George Thomas could muster fifty-five thousand troops. He drew up a battle plan which called for James Steedman’s Division of seventy-five hundred to demonstrate against Hood’s right while the main attack with thirty-three thousand came at Hood’s left. With Steedman on the left, Major General Thomas J. Wood’s IV Corps of fourteen thousand would form in the center and be the pivot of a great wheeling movement, attacking at the salient in the Confederate line where Stewart’s line turned south. Major General Andrew J. Smith’s force of ten thousand five hundred were on Wood’s right, and Brigadier General James A. Wilson’s twelve thousand five hundred cavalrymen, who were all armed with Spencer repeating rifles, guarded the Federal right flank. Schofield’s XXIII Corps of ten thousand were in reserve and were to move up on Smith’s right when the attack began.
Any aggressive move by Thomas was delayed by a winter storm which hit Nashville on December 8, turning the area into a frozen wasteland of snow and sleet. On December 14 Ector’s Brigade, now a mere seven hundred men, was deployed in an advanced position on a ridge north of the Harding Pike and just west of Richland Creek to assist Rucker’s Cavalry as pickets. Colonel Coleman was ordered to hold that position till forced to relinquish it and then fall back the two miles to the main confederate line along the Hillsboro Pike.
Hood had depleted his forces by sending General Forrest and half his cavalry to destroy the railroad at Murfreesborough, twenty-eight miles to the south. On December 10, Cockrell’s Brigade was detached to build a fort at the mouth of the Duck River near Johnsonville, Tennessee. General French had been suffering from an eye infection and had turned over command of the division to Brigadier General Sears on December 13. The three brigades of the division were so depleted, however, that they were placed in the division commanded by Major General Walthall.
On the morning of December 15, the Federal commander George Thomas ordered his attack to commence and the massive turning movement slammed into the Confederate left flank with terrific force. Major De Aragon’s brigade was directly in the path of the main assault and was hit by both Wilson’s cavalry with their repeating rifles and Smith’s infantry. There was only time to fire a few rounds before having to retire to escape being overrun. They fell back to the main line between Redoubts #4 and #5 and fell in between Reynold’s and Cantey’s Brigades. They were in a good position behind a stone wall, but overwhelming numbers of bluecoats broke through the line between them and Cantey’s Brigade, separating them from the rest of the army. The entire line threatened to break at several points so General Stewart ordered Walthall and Loring to withdraw their troops to a new line parallel to the Granny White Pike.
Hood had watched the battle from a vantage point atop a summit now known as Shy’s Hill just west of the Granny White Pike. As the men of Ector’s Brigade passed by, Hood rode down and said to them:
“Texans, I want you to hold this hill regardless of what transpires around you.”
Coleman deployed the brigade along the crest of the hill where they were soon joined by Bate’s Division on the right, and they held the line there till dark.
The following morning, December 16, Ector’s Brigade was pulled out of the line and sent to the rear to rest. The Yankees again launched a massive assault on the Confederate left. Attack after attack was repulsed by the Confederate line, but there came a threat by the Yankee cavalry under Wilson which threatened to work their way behind Hood’s line. About midmorning Ector’s Brigade was ordered south to a hill east of the Granny White Pike to block the enemy advance. At 3:00 p. m. Brigadier Daniel H. Reynold’s Brigade was pulled from Walthall’s line to reinforce Ector’s Brigade.
At about the same time the Federals launched another massed assault on Hood’s left flank, throwing their overpowering numbers against Bate’s Division on Shy’s Hill. Soon this division came under simultaneous attack from front, left, and rear and crumbled under the sheer weight of so many. Soon Cheatham’s entire line dissolved under the onslaught shortly followed by the collapse of Lee’s Corps on the right. Stewart’s Corps was the last to give way and the entire army was in full rout. The men of Ector’s and Reynold’s Brigades looked on in what must have been disbelief and horror as the men of the Army of Tennessee ran by in complete disorder and confusion. The two brigades held back the Union cavalry from a gap in the hills to their rear through which the army made their escape . Only then did Reynolds and Coleman withdraw their men to the Franklin Pike.
Hood’s losses in the two days of fighting were approximately two thousand killed and wounded with another forty-five hundred captured. In the retreat fifty-four artillery pieces were abandoned to the enemy. Union commander Schofield expressed his admiration of the men in the Army of Tennessee with these words:
“I doubt if any soldiers in the world ever needed so much cumulative evidence to convince them that they were beaten.”
They still had spirit left, however, for as they marched away from Nashville, many soldiers sang a favorite marching song, “The Yellow Rose of Texas”, to which they had put new verse:
“So now I’m marching southward
My heart is full of woe.
I’m going back to Georgia
To see my Uncle Joe
You may sing about your Beauregard
And sing of General Lee
But the gallant Hood of Texas
Played hell in Tennessee.”
The remnants of the army reformed as best they could three miles south of Nashville and, pursued by the Union cavalry under Wilson, began a headlong flight down the Franklin Pike into a cold, wet night. A rearguard, made up of the infantry brigades of Brigadier Generals Marcellus A. Stovall and Edmund Pettus, along with Chalmers’ cavalry and Captain Hiram M. Bledsoe’s Missouri Battery, did battle with this cavalry the following morning as Hood’s army continued on its way south.
When Major General Forrest got word of the disaster, he rushed from Murfreesborough to intercept the army, catching up with them around Columbia on December 19. He took command of the rearguard, with the stipulation that his cavalry would receive infantry and artillery support. He was assigned nineteen hundred men in eight brigades, commanded by Walthall. This included the remnants of Ector’s and Reynold’s Brigades, who had taken horrendous casualties. Whereas Ector’s Brigade had numbered seven hundred men one week earlier, the two units collectively could muster only five hundred twenty-eight, consolidated under Reynold’s command. This infantry force, along with Bledsoe’s Battery, joined three thousand of Forrest’s cavalrymen under the command of Chalmers, Red Jackson, and Abraham Buford.
The Confederates continued southward, striving to make their way into Alabama and cross the Tennessee River to safety. On December 26, Forrest sprung a trap on the pursuing Yankee cavalry at Richland Creek, seven miles north of Pulaski. There he routed the enemy and put an end to any serious attempt to catch Hood’s army, although the enemy did follow them as far as the Tennessee River.
The Army of Tennessee made its way into Alabama and crossed the river at Florence and Bainbridge, with Cockrell’s Brigade rejoining the army at the latter place on December 26. The men trudged on in what was the coldest winter the area had experienced in years. They endured indescribable suffering as many were barefoot and the frozen ground tore at their feet leaving trails of blood where they passed. Others were without hats, a lucky few possessed worn blankets, and none had tents of any kind. During the grim march many threw away their weapons and deserted.
On December 30 Hood’s army crossed the Tombigbee River and marched to Iuka, Mississippi. They finally arrived at Tupelo, Mississippi on January 10, 1865 and went into winter quarters.