During a late November 1864 night, the Confederate Army of Tennessee missed the chance to attack and destroy a retreating Union army near Spring Hill, Tennessee. As one Union general put it, the Federals’ narrow escape was akin to “treading upon the thin crust covering a smoldering volcano.”
The roads that had brought two armies to the drama in Spring Hill originated in Alabama. After the capture of Atlanta by Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s army in September, Confederate General John Bell Hood’s 40,000- man force had been driven into Alabama. When Sherman marched out of Atlanta on November 15 on his March to the Sea, Hood fashioned a grandiose plan to advance into Tennessee to defeat Maj. Gen. George S. Thomas’ 60,000 Yankees and to carry the conflict into Kentucky.
Hood led his veterans north, initially intending to strike Thomas’ advanced force of 30,000 officers and men under Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield at Pulaski, Tenn. Learning of Hood’s movement, Schofield withdrew to Columbia along the Duck River, 40 miles south of Thomas’ command at Nashville. Rebel cavalry approached Columbia on November 24, followed within days by Hood’s infantry and artillery.
During the night of November 28- 29, Rebel engineers laid a pontoon bridge across Davis’ Ford, four miles east of Columbia. Hood was hoping to outflank Schofield’s lines and race north with nearly 20,000 infantrymen to Spring Hill, roughly 10 miles to the Federal rear. At Spring Hill, Hood could block Schofield’s line of retreat and force the Federals to offer battle. As his troops prepared to march on the morning of November 29, Hood boasted, “The enemy must give me fight, or I will be at Nashville before tomorrow night.”
Hood’s flank movement consumed most of the day. Schofield, meanwhile, dispatched an infantry division under Maj. Gen. David Stanley and a supply train of 800 wagons to Spring Hill. Stanley formed a defensive line south and east of the town. Hood accompanied the van of his army and aligned his leading units to seize the Columbia-Franklin Pike, south of the village. Hood, who had lost a leg and the use of one arm in previous battles, retired to a farmhouse in the area.
Corps commander Maj. Gen. Benjamin Cheatham directed the attack. He and Hood had not conferred, and it was Cheatham’s belief that the offensive was to strike Stanley’s lines at Spring Hill, not to seize the turnpike and then sweep north. Union resistance was strong, and the assault bogged down amid the confusion. The Rebels settled in for the night.
Up Columbia-Franklin Pike came the bulk of Schofield’s command. As the Yankees neared Spring Hill and glowing Rebel campfires, blind encounters between Union skirmishers and Confederate pickets triggered bursts of rifle fire. Wind aided the marchers, muffling the sound of their strides on the road. Even so, a Union officer was quite right when he wrote, “Take it all together, we are in a very bad situation.”
By 5 a.m. on the 30th, Schofield’s rear guard had cleared Spring Hill. The Federals halted at Franklin, where troops filed behind works that stretched for two miles, anchored at both ends on the Harpeth River. To their front, open fields extended for about 11⁄2 miles. It was good killing ground.
Hood was “as wrathy as a rattlesnake” when he learned Schofield had escaped, and started his army in pursuit. The Rebels arrived at Franklin in the early afternoon, and Hood prepared for a frontal assault. Cheatham and Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne protested. Hood adamantly rejected their objections. Twenty thousand Southern infantrymen formed ranks, appearing to one Federal soldier like “a huge monster closed in folds of flashing steel.”
The Rebels stepped out into a cauldron of artillery fire and musketry. Their attacks on the Union position never had a chance. In the end, at least 7,000 Confederates would fall. Among the slain were six generals, including Cleburne. The outcome might well have been different but for that one fateful night at Spring Hill.
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.