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
FFollowing 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 Confederates.
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.
Battle of Columbia
Meanwhile, Hood moved into northern Alabama and aimed for Tennessee. He hoped to defeat Thomas near Nashville before he could join forces with Schofield.
After waiting to join 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. There, the Federals blocked Hood’s advance for five days by controlling an important bridge over the Duck River.
In danger of being outflanked and having Hood’s army cut off access to Nashville, Schofield evacuated Columbia, sending one corps and a supply train twelve miles up the Columbia Turnpike to Spring Hill. Hood responded by sending Forrest’s cavalry east and then north from Columbia to cut off the Union retreat by gaining control of the road north of Spring Hill. By November 29, Hood had two corps and one division across the Duck River east of Columbia poised to block the turnpike south of Spring Hill preventing the retreat of the rest of Schofield’s army.
November 29, 1864 — Clash at Spring Hill
Federals Check Cavalry Attack
On the morning of November 29, Forrest’s cavalry positioned east of Spring Hill, turned to the west, and advanced on the Union soldiers defending Spring Hill. The defenders at Spring Hill checked the Confederate cavalry attack, and Hood ordered Forrest to hold his position until the advancing Confederate infantry arrived.
Confederate Infantry Attacks
Meanwhile, Schofield began his wholesale evacuation of Columbia at around 3:00 p.m. The first Confederate infantrymen began approaching the Columbia Turnpike, south of Spring Hill, around 4:00 p.m. The Southern corps commander in charge, Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham, ordered two divisions, led by Major General Patrick R. Cleburne and Major General William Bate, to attack the Union defenders south of Spring Hill and capture the town.
In the first of several Confederate command blunders, Hood ordered Bate to move west and secure the turnpike. Acting alone, Cleburne’s division proceeded with the attack and pushed the Union defenders back to the southern edge of town, where the Federals stiffened. Encountering unexpectedly heavy fire, the Confederate advance faltered, and Cleburne requested reinforcements.
To the south, Bate’s division reached the turnpike at about 5:30 p.m., where they encountered the lead elements of Schofield’s army retreating from Columbia. Before Bate could engage the retreating Federals or capture the turnpike, he received orders from Cheatham to withdraw and reinforce Cleburne. Cheatham’s concerns about the security of his right flank caused further delays in the Confederate advance. By the time the Confederate leaders restored any sense of order, darkness descended, and Cheatham postponed the final assault until the next day.
Confederate Rest During the Night
The Confederate soldiers were fatigued and hungry after a hard day of marching and fighting. When Cheatham postponed the attack, the Confederates gladly cooked supper and went to sleep, many of them next to the Columbia Turnpike. Hood went to bed at about nine o’clock that night, angered that his soldiers had not secured the turnpike, but confident that his men could accomplish the task the next morning.
Schofield Silently Marches Past Sleeping Confederates
While the Confederates slept, the Yankees moved. Throughout the night, Schofield silently pushed his entire army and supply trains up the turnpike from Columbia, within sight of the campfires of the sleeping Confederates. During the movement, a few Confederates reported signs of activity, but no one investigated. At about 2:00 a.m., a soldier awakened Hood to report that he saw a Union column moving north along the turnpike, but Hood did nothing beyond sending a dispatch to Cheatham to fire on any traffic on the road.
By 6:00 a.m. the next morning, Schofield’s entire army was north of Spring Hill, and his advance units had already reached Franklin, about twenty miles south of Nashville. When Hood awoke on November 30, he was surprised and then enraged to learn that Schofield’s army had escaped. After an angry meeting with his subordinate officers to distribute blame and reprimands, Hood ordered his army to resume its pursuit of Schofield’s army, setting the stage for the Battle of Franklin.
Outcome of the Battle
The battle resulted in a Union victory and there were minor casualties for both sides. The Confederates lost about 500 soldiers killed, missing, and captured, compared with about 350 casualties for the Federals.
The battle was more important for what did not happen than what did. The National Park Service describes the Battle of Spring Hill as “one of the most controversial non-fighting events of the entire war.” Because of poor leadership, miscommunication, and confusion in the Confederate ranks, Hood’s opportunity to isolate and defeat Schofield’s army vanished. With it went Hood’s dream of capturing Nashville and possibly bringing a negotiated settlement to the war by invading Kentucky and Ohio.