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The Battle of Nashville

Introduction: December 15 and 16, 1864

Historians have called the Battle of Nashville one of the most decisive of the Civil War. Union forces had held this strategically important city since February 1862. After losing Atlanta to Sherman in September 1864, Confederate General John Bell Hood moved his Army of Tennessee north, hoping to reclaim Nashville for the Confederacy. It is thought that Hood planned to use Federal supplies captured here and to move on, either through Kentucky and Ohio, splitting the Union in two, or to Virginia to meet up with Robert E. Lee, where the two would take on Ulysses S. Grant. 

Either of these plans, if successful, would have changed the course of the war. But the Battle of Nashville sent Hood's forces running to the south in defeat, ending his hope of saving the Confederacy.

Setting the Stage

During the three years Union forces had occupied Nashville, the city had become a fortified supply center for the Western Theater (everything west of the Appalachians). Nashville was guarded by General George Thomas, a Virginian who had remained loyal to the Union. Thomas had a force of 70,000 soldiers.

While the Union soldiers were better fed and clothed than their Confederate counterparts, life in occupied Nashville was not especially pleasant. With the influx of occupation soldiers and slaves from the countryside, Nashville had grown almost overnight from a small town to a grossly overcrowded city, now waiting out the dreary years of the war.

On the Confederate side, Hood's army was exhausted, having marched from Atlanta since September, fighting along the way. Food and firewood were scarce, and the men were poorly clothed.  Some had no shoes. Combat was fierce and personal—often hand-to-hand. Medical care was crude at best. Physical pain and the presence of disease and death were the norms of living.

The Battle

By December 2, 1864, Hood had advanced to within sight of Nashville. Thomas, cautious and deliberate, waited to attack until he was ready despite nearly continuous nagging over the telegraph from General Grant and President Lincoln, who feared he would lose his advantage if he waited and allowed Hood to fortify himself.

A severe ice storm paralyzed the area on December 8.  A thaw finally came on the 14th and Thomas attacked the next day.  Accompanied by bombardment from Fort Negley on the morning of the 15th, Thomas moved from the river west of town toward the south and east, engaging Confederate forces and pushing them back. 

On December 16th both sides had formed new lines.  During the day, the three main Confederate positions fell like dominoes; first the left at Shy’s Hill, then the center, a few miles to the east.  After the fall of the right position at Peach Orchard Hill, the remaining Confederate forces fled to the south. 

The Union Army pursued for a while, but the battle was over.  Hood’s army had been virtually wiped out.  He resigned his command the following January.  General Thomas was promoted to Major General. 

On April 9, 1865, less than four months after Hood’s defeat, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, effectively ending the war. 

Civil War Markers

The following roadside historic markers erected by Metropolitan Historical Commission and Tennessee Historical Commission designate the main sites of Union defenses, Confederate lines, and actual skirmishes on the first and second days of the Battle of Nashville. Today, the markers stand on the streets of well- tended suburban neighborhoods. In December 1864, the traveler would have seen ruined farms and wilderness and felt the bitter cold of winter.

Federal Defenses

December 15

December 16