How had it come to this – a breakdown in relations between Grant and Thomas, two of the Union’s best generals? Well, therein lies a tale – and like all Great Tales of Men, it involves a hell of a lot of passive aggression, way too little therapy, and a cameo from Henry Halleck. Grant had been prickly toward Thomas since Shiloh, when Grant was thrown under the bus and Thomas was lauded; at Chattanooga, in turn, Thomas chafed at being “rescued” by Grant, when it was actually William Rosecrans, Thomas’s predecessor, who’d gotten them into that mess. Thomas, a Virginian-born Union general, was also resentful of his relatively slow promotion in comparison to Grant. Then there was the Sherman Factor: Sherman was Grant’s best bud, and had just left Thomas behind to go on his March to the Sea – sure to bring him fame and glory.
But Thomas wasn’t a fan of the Sherman’s March idea. For one thing, Thomas was friendlier to the Southern populace (hey, who WASN’T?), and he knew it would leave him to deal with Hood, who, sure enough, decided not to chase after Sherman but instead strike north for Nashville. Even worse, from Thomas’s POV, Sherman took the best troops with him – and ALL the wagons and cavalry mounts. “Hey, Uncle Billy, have you finished packing yet?” Thomas probably eye-rolled. “And here I thought you were” [does exaggerated air quotes] “‘LIVING OFF THE LAND.’”
The final player in this melodrama was Gen. John Schofield, a Grant sycophant, later head of the Army, and a grade-A asshole. Thomas helped kick Schofield out of West Point a decade earlier for (this is 100% true) drawing dicks on the blackboard. So Schofield held a grudge. It was Schofield who’d blunted Hood’s advance at Franklin a few weeks earlier, and now his troops had hurried back to the Nashville defenses, where Thomas was tirelessly organizing his motley army of scraps and leftovers, which included civilians manning the interior lines. The mingling of veterans and rookies led to some fun interactions. “We’re A.J. Smith’s guerillas,” one grizzled vet told an officer. “We’ve been to Vicksburg, Red River, Missouri, and about everywhere else … and now we’re going to Hell.” How’s THAT for a Hashtag Current Mood?
As Hood’s army began to “besiege” the city, the flow of telegrams from D.C. to Thomas grew increasingly hysterical. Halleck, Stanton, Lincoln, and Grant took turns berating Thomas for not attacking, even though he explained he was short of promised reinforcements and horses. At one point, Grant told Thomas: “Delay no longer for weather or reinforcements,” to which a dumbfounded Thomas replied that “would only result in a useless sacrifice of life.” But the brass in D.C. had gotten into their heads that Hood would march on Ohio, or even Chicago (!). “Contrary to Grant’s belief, Hood was intent on hanging for the winter where he was … and had no design of marching,” wrote James Wilson, Thomas’s cavalry chief. “It was about the wildest undertaking possible to imagine. Here, if at any time during the war, Grant lost his head.”
Thomas’ aides began to smell a rat. Then they intercepted a telegram from Schofield to Grant saying “many officers” thought “Thomas was certainly too slow.” When Thomas saw the message, he “shook his head mournfully,” like a sad teacher catching students passing notes. “I thought, after what I had done in the war, that I ought to be trusted to decide when the battle should be fought,” Thomas said later. “I thought I knew better when it should be fought than anyone could know as far off as City Point,” which was where Grant was headquartered.
Grant was just about to replace Thomas with Schofield – a proposal that shocked Lincoln, who began to think that his new, anxious commander-in-chief was going just a BIT too far – when the Gods of War intervened… And an ICE STORM broke out. For the next few days, nobody could move. The windchill was negative 23 degrees. Wagon wheels stuck to the ground, cannons were covered in ice, horses and men froze to death. “When we walk about, the echo of our footsteps sounds like the echo of a tombstone,” wrote one soldier.
This only made Grant MORE impatient, and he issued an order relieving Thomas. But Halleck, in a rare moment of lucidity, sat on it and said, “C’mon, Ulysses, we can’t fire him during an ICE STORM. He literally CAN’T MOVE. Not in a McClellan kind of way, either – this is legit.” Thomas convened his generals, all of whom (except Schofield) backed his decision to wait. But Grant would not let up, and he was about to head to Nashville himself when the Gods of War cackled again… a warm rain started to fall… and the ground began to thaw.
So on Dec. 15, the leading citizens of Nashville “came out of the city in droves,” an officer wrote. “All the hills in our rear were black with human beings watching the battle, but silent. No army on the continent ever played on any field to so large and so sullen an audience.” I wonder if any of those folks ruminated on the nature of History – how we think it’s all so well-planned, when the reality is it comes down to unpredictable factors like weather, trains, Halleck’s mood, and crudely drawn genitalia on a blackboard leading to 20-year grudges.
Cuz here’s the thing: once Thomas got moving, he was AWFULLY hard to stop. “If he moved slowly,” an officer wrote of Thomas, “he moved with irresistible power; and if he ground slowly, it was like the mill of the Gods.” Tomorrow, I’ll take a closer look at the battle itself, cuz ol’ George Thomas had some tricks up his sleeve – notably, the widespread use of frontline black soldiers in a large-scale Civil War battle, and the innovative deployment of cavalry wielding repeating rifles.
OTD [16 December] in 1864, the second day of the Battle of Nashville opened with John Hood’s Rebel Army of Tennessee pushed back two miles from its previous position, defending a much shorter line anchored on two salient hills at each end.
When Grant heard about the Union success on the first day, he was at the Willard Hotel in D.C. (yep, the same place Trump’s coup was plotted in), packing his bags to head east and replace Thomas. After reading the telegram, he said simply: “I guess I will not go to Nashville.” Sure, the methodical Thomas had taken his sweet time to get ready for the assault, hampered by a lack of horses and a weird ice storm that slammed Nashville. But once the weather cleared and he could mount his cavalry, the man dubbed The Rock didn’t stop rollin’ in Music City.
And that’s the difference with Nashville: A lot of Union victories sputtered out after the initial success of driving the Rebels from the field. (Hey, YOU try to convince McClellan to pursue a retreating foe). But once Thomas unleashed his coiled army, there was no letting up. The Battle of Nashville is also notable for the widespread use of United States Colored Troops (USCT) regiments; some 13,000 black soldiers, all told, were in Thomas’ army. While USCT units would achieve more famous feats on other fields, they fought on a far bigger scale here.
The Virginian-born Thomas was actually a fairly progressive guy for the era; indeed, Gen. Oliver Howard, future head of the Freedmen’s Bureau, was an admirer of Thomas’s, who, he wrote, was “constantly giving black women and children protection papers and sending them north.” Still, Thomas harbored doubts about black soldiers’ fighting ability. He wasn’t as awful on this issue as Sherman (or, to a lesser extent, Grant), but he still clung to the conventional wisdom of the time that black troops were best used for garrison duty or small engagements.
Step forward, Colonel Thomas J. Morgan of the 14th USCT. “General Thomas, though a Southerner, and a West Point graduate, was a singularly fair-minded, candid man,” he wrote. “He asked me one day if I thought my men would fight. ‘Give me a chance, general, and I will prove it.’”
He’d get his chance at Nashville. Morgan, a genuinely good dude, tirelessly lobbied his superior, Gen. James B. Steedman, for a leading role in the upcoming battle, until finally, on the night before, Steedman relented and told Morgan, “Tomorrow, I wish you to begin the fight.” So on the first day at Nashville, the 14th USCT, along with the 17th and 44th, stepped out of the fog, drove back the Rebel skirmishers, and attacked earthworks across a field. But they were undone by that most vexing of Civil War battlefield features: an unfinished railroad cut. (Seriously, it’s amazing how many battles were impacted by an unfinished railroad cut running through a field. Gettysburg is the most famous, but it’s enough to make a guy say: “Hey, 19th-century railroad execs: Would it KILL YOU to finish one of these cuts? I’ve got dirt.”)
The railroad cut blocked the USCT’s path under a withering fire. And their white colleagues weren’t much help. Although portions of the 18th Ohio swooped in, most “behaved in the most cowardly and disgraceful manner,” said its general, and soon the Union forces were falling back. But despite the losses, a point was made. “Colored soldiers had fought side by side with white troops,” Morgan wrote later. “They had assisted each other from the field when wounded, and they lay side by side in death … A new chapter in the history of liberty had been written.” The next day, Gen. Thomas J. Wood, who rarely saw a military situation he couldn’t make ENTIRELY about himself, decided to launch an unscheduled attack on the Rebel right, hoping to cut off their line of retreat. This time, the 100th, 12th, and 13th USCT units led the charge.
But their path forward was grim. “It was probably (the Rebels’) strongest position,” said an officer in the 12th. “The slope of the hill was obstructed by tree-tops. The approach was over a plowed field, the heavy soil of which, clinging to the feet, greatly impeded progress.” In other words, it was a suicidal task. And yet, advancing in a hail of bullets, the USCT units kept coming. The 13th’s color guard, in support of the other two USCT units, actually made it to within a few dozen feet of the Rebel works, before halting under the devastating fire.
Wood’s precipitous attack didn’t achieve any military object – except for establishing, even in the eyes of the Rebels, that USCT units were no pushovers. “There were very few who retreated in our front,” wrote a Rebel officer. “We fired as long as there was anything to shoot at.”
And when Union cavalry, led by James Wilson on their newly arrived horses, charged into the Rebel rear, the battle was turned. In a novel move, Thomas had his cavalry troopers dismount, flanked by batteries of horse artillery, and use their repeating rifles to great effect. Now the Rebels were in a real fix, almost surrounded: Artillery boomed at them from the front and sides, cavalry swept their rear, and the infantry began to waver under the unyielding onslaught. Then black troops charged up Overton Hill, one of the last Rebel hold-outs.
“For the first and only time a Confederate army abandoned the field in confusion,” wrote Hood himself, years later. His army was toast; even the Nashville citizens who’d gathered to watch the battle, many of them Reb sympathizers, were so awed by the scene they began to applaud.
After the battle, the story goes, some South Carolina prisoners told Thomas, in extremely rude language, that they would rather die than be led back to Nashville by black soldiers. “Well, you may say your prayers,” Thomas replied, “and get ready to die.” But the lasting image of the Battle of Nashville occurred when Thomas rode to the top of Overton Hill, saw the mass of black and white soldiers lying together dead on the field, and said simply, in the vernacular of the day: “The question is settled; negro soldiers will fight.”
A short time later, a group of black soldiers was marching down the Franklin Pike; Thomas, as general, had the right of way, but he turned his horse to the side of the road, faced the USCT regiments, and removed his hat in silent salute, remaining there until all had passed.
For Thomas, Nashville was vindication. As night fell, he caught up to Wilson, his cavalry chief, and called out: “Is that you, Wilson? Dang it to hell, Wilson, didn’t I tell you we could lick ‘em, didn’t I tell you? Resume the pursuit as early as you can tomorrow morning!”
Look, Nashville will never be held up as one of the most famous Civil War battles; George Thomas ain’t exactly a household name. But it was one of the most crushing victories, in spirit and strategy, that the Union achieved during the war. Thanks in no small part to the USCT.
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