After the fall of Atlanta, General John Bell Hood and his 39,000-man Army of Tennessee tried to divert the attention William T. Sherman and his armies. While aggressive maneuvers, pitched battles, and a siege did not stop Sherman, Hood felt that his next best option of slowing Sherman was to threaten his supply lines. This strategy, too, would end in Confederate failure.
Hood maneuvered his army back into north Georgia, across the state line into Alabama, and finally into middle Tennessee. While Sherman half-heartedly pursued Hood at first, it didn’t take the Yankee commander long to realize that Hood was less than a threat, and that Sherman’s armies could live off of the land untouched by the hard hand of war in the Deep South. Thus, Sherman delegated the responsibility of dealing with Hood to two veteran commanders, George Thomas and John Schofield—and their nearly 62,000 Federal soldiers.
Hood’s army dashed into middle Tennessee in November. He stole marches on Schofield and Thomas—all the while aiming for the Union supply depot at Nashville. Hood hoped to destroy Schofield’s force, and then turn on Thomas. Dual victories in this sector could draw Sherman out of Georgia or, in a very long shot, Federal troops away from the Eastern Theater.
After a month of sparring along the Tennessee and the Duck Rivers, on November 28 Hood managed to divide Schofield’s army and surround a portion of it in the riverside town of Columbia, Tennessee. Unfortunately for Hood, the Confederate’s failed to snap the trap shut at Spring Hill, and Schofield’s army escaped to Franklin, Tennessee, arriving early on November 30.
While Schofield set his army to work fortifying its position and rebuilding the bridges across the Harpeth River, Hood moved his army to the outskirts of the town. The Confederate commander focused on the destruction of Schofield’s force at all costs. The Rebel army of some 27,000 men faced the prospect of making a frontal assault over two miles of open ground against a roughly equal foe entrenched behind three lines of breastworks. Unmoved by his subordinates’ objections, Hood ordered the assault.
The Confederate ranks stepped off near 4 p.m. and were immediately torn apart by cannon and small-arms fire. Nevertheless, the line swept forward and quickly overlapped and overwhelmed two poorly positioned Federal brigades half a mile in front of the main line. Charging and yelling mere yards behind the broken Federal men, the Confederates in the center were able to cross the last half-mile of their assault largely unopposed. The Rebels slammed into the Union center with full momentum and splintered the defenders around the Carter House.
Thousands of men now surged into a deadly vortex of combat. The quick reaction of Col. Emerson Opdycke’s Federal brigade, which hurled itself forward into the breach, prevented full-scale disaster. More Confederates entered the fray as butternut soldiers of Alexander P. Stewart’s corps crashed against the western portion of the Federal mainline. Swept by musketry and enfiladed by artillery, the Confederates pressed on until they reached unassailable abatis. The Confederates retreated, reformed, and renewed the attack as many as six times but could not dislodge the Union defenders. As the sun set, with his attempt on the right stalled and the hand-to-hand fighting in the center raging into its third hour, Hood sent forward his left wing. A torchlit assault by the men of Benjamin F. Cheatham’s corps soon came to grief.
The Confederates pulled back across the broad front, leaving thousands of dead and wounded behind. The Battle of Franklin decimated the Army of Tennessee. Fourteen general officers and 55 regimental commanders were listed among the Confederate casualty rolls. Undaunted, Hood continued the campaign to Nashville, where Schofield and Thomas united their forces for the climactic battle of the campaign and of Hood’s career.