Prelude to the Battle
Siege of Chattanooga
In September 1863, Confederate General Braxton Bragg and his Army of Tennessee were attempting to recapture Chattanooga, Tennessee from Federal forces by besieging the city. Union leaders responded by sending Major General Ulysses S. Grant and reinforcements to Chattanooga with orders to break the siege. After establishing a new supply line into the city, Grant ordered a breakout offensive in late November that successfully drove Bragg’s army back into northern Georgia. With the “Gateway to the South” secured, Union forces prepared to launch an offensive aimed at capturing Atlanta.
Grant’s Umbrella Strategy
Following the breakout at Chattanooga, President Abraham Lincoln promoted Grant to the special rank of lieutenant general and placed him in command of all Union armies. Grant moved his headquarters to Washington, DC, leaving his trusted subordinate, Major General William T. Sherman, in command of federal operations in the Western Theater. Grant’s primary military strategy was a coordinated effort to attack and defeat the two main Confederate armies in the field, the Army of Northern Virginia in the east, under the command of Robert E. Lee, and Bragg’s Army of Tennessee in the west. On May 5, 1864, Grant launched his Overland Campaign in Virginia. Two days later, Sherman opened his Atlanta Campaign in the West.
Using a series of flanking maneuvers, Sherman persistently drove the Army of Tennessee south toward Atlanta. On July 17, 1863, Confederate President Jefferson Davis replaced General Joseph E. Johnston with General John Bell Hood as commander of the Army of Tennessee. Hood proved to be more willing to fight than Johnston, but the results were essentially the same.
By July, Sherman had Hood’s army bottled up in Atlanta. On July 20, Sherman ordered his artillery to bombard Hood’s lines and the city, which still harbored about 3,000 civilians. The shelling lasted for five weeks, but Hood continued to hold on as long as he was receiving supplies.
Toward the end of August, Sherman stopped the flow of supplies into Atlanta. With his main supply line severed, Hood evacuated Atlanta on the night of September 1, burning all military stores and installations. Sherman’s forces occupied the city the next day, ending the Atlanta Campaign.
After evacuating Atlanta, Hood reorganized his forces at Lovejoy’s Station, south of Atlanta, and Sherman chose not to pursue. On September 21, 1864, Hood moved north to Palmetto, Georgia, where he met with President Davis on September 25. Davis and Hood devised a plan to have Hood’s 39,000 soldiers move north toward Chattanooga, destroying Sherman’s supply lines back to Tennessee along the way. Sherman learned of Hood’s intentions when Davis foolishly revealed the plan in a series of speeches on his way back to the Confederate capital at Richmond. Sherman responded by sending Major General George H. Thomas to Nashville on September 29, 1864, to organize all the Union troops in Tennessee. Sherman also sent troops to reinforce the garrison at Chattanooga.
During October, Hood’s infantry and Major General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry conducted a series of raids along the Western & Atlantic Railroad, Sherman’s main supply line from Chattanooga to Atlanta. Sherman’s soldiers quickly repaired the damage, but they could not keep pace with the faster-moving Rebels.
William T. Sherman Divides His Forces
By late October, Sherman convinced Grant to let him “make Georgia howl” by allowing him to march to Savannah rather than chasing Hood around the South. Grant agreed, and Sherman turned the pursuit of Hood over to Thomas and about 60,000 soldiers, 30,000 of whom were in the Nashville area. The other 30,000, commanded by Major General John M. Schofield, moved north from Georgia to join Thomas. Meanwhile, Hood moved into northern Alabama and aimed for Tennessee. He hoped to defeat Thomas near Nashville before he could join forces with Schofield.
Race to Columbia
After waiting to join forces with Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry, Hood left Alabama on November 21, 1864. His goal was Columbia, Tennessee, about midway between Thomas’s army in Nashville and Schofield’s army at Pulaski, about 75 miles south of Nashville. Predicting Hood’s intentions, Schofield raced to Columbia, arriving just hours ahead of the Confederates on November 24. Once there, Schofield’s soldiers built two lines of earthworks south of the town and skirmished with Forrest’s cavalry on November 24 and 25.
On November 26, Hood advanced his infantry but did not attack. Instead, he demonstrated in front of the Union lines, while the bulk of his army crossed the Duck River east of Columbia on November 28. In danger of being outflanked and having Hood’s army cut off access to Nashville, Schofield fell back toward Franklin, setting the stage for the next confrontation at Spring Hill on November 29.
Aftermath of the Battle
Casualties at the Battle of Columbia are unknown because little actual fighting took place. Although Schofield stalled Hood’s advance into Tennessee for five days, the battle was a Confederate victory because Hood eventually forced Schofield to retreat.