The affair that eventually became known as Hood’s Tennessee Campaign, that cold agony of winter fighting and marching that remains perhaps the synonym for Civil War hardship, began on a sour note.
John Bell Hood’s frustrations were three. Firstly, his authority as army commander was curtailed by the appointment of General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard over him as departmental commander—an appointment that did not become formal until October 12, 1864, but of which Hood learned from Confederate President Davis on September 28th. A second frustration arose from the fact that Hood’s efforts to tear up the Western & Atlantic Railroad, though at least partially successful, failed to either force Union General William T. Sherman to abandon Atlanta or divide his forces sufficiently as to offer Hood a chance to defeat them in detail. The third frustration stemmed from Hood’s inability to quickly cross the Tennessee River at either Guntersville or Decatur, Alabama, precluding any hope of any early strike against the all-important Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad Bridge at Bridgeport.
Beauregard was equally frustrated by his appointment, for he found it to be neither fish nor fowl. His role was as more of an advisor than a commander, his sphere of authority limited where it concerned Hood’s control over the Army of Tennessee. Hood’s spur-of-the-moment decisions to move his army ever westward after being thwarted at Guntersville and Decatur where taken without consulting Beauregard, and his future plans seemed equally vague.
Hood’s intention was ultimately to draw supplies from Tuscumbia, in the northwest corner of Alabama; from there wagons would have to haul material up through Florence, then Pulaski and Columbia Tennessee. Under the best of circumstances, this plan was optimistic. The Confederates had only recently re-occupied Corinth Mississippi after nearly two years of Federal control. The rail lines into Corinth, and from Corinth to Tuscumbia, were dilapidated. It fell to Beauregard to restore these lines. Even as he did so, however, Beauregard recognized that as a depot, Tuscumbia was too far away to support Hood’s men if they tried to operate against Sherman’s lifeline, the Nashville & Chattanooga.
On November 3, the two men conferred at Tuscumbia. Hood advocated for a strike directly at Nashville. Beauregard worried about what Sherman might do in the meantime. The result was compromise. Hood would go north; but with the exception of one small division, Joseph Wheeler’s Confederate Cavalry Corps would stay in Georgia, shadowing Sherman. This meant finding more cavalry to replace Wheeler, in order to support Hood’s advance and protect his supply lines.
The answer, reasoned Beauregard, lay with Nathan Bedford Forrest. Transferred back to Mississippi late in 1863, Forrest organized and recruited several thousand Rebel horsemen in that state. Forrest’s force and reputation so worried Sherman that during that summer, while the Union general operated against Atlanta, he instructed various Federals to launch expeditions deep into Mississippi in order to keep Forrest busy there, and out of Tennessee.
In early October, while Hood was damaging the Western & Atlantic, Forrest moved first into West Tennessee, and then Middle Tennessee as far as Columbia. The Rebel Raider failed, however, to reach or damage the Nashville & Chattanooga. After a brief refit at Corinth, Forrest returned to West Tennessee, this time aiming to destroy a large Union supply depot along the Tennessee River at Johnsonville, west of Nashville.
Beauregard reasoned that Forrest’s command of roughly 4,000 cavalry could join Hood in Middle Tennessee, replacing the absent Wheeler. Accordingly, the new departmental commander issued orders to Confederate Lieutenant General Richard Taylor detaching Forrest from Taylor’s Department of Alabama and Mississippi and assigning the cavalryman to Hood’s army for the duration of Hood’s expedition.
The only flaw in this reasoning was that Forrest was already embarked on his next raid, and hard to track down. In the first week of November, Forrest was industriously capturing and destroying the Johnsonville Depot, burning vast quantities of supplies; and even capturing a couple of Union river boats for a time.
The weather in early November refused to co-operate with Rebel plans. Cold rains pelted the region for days on end, swelling the Tennessee River and turning roads to mud. foiled in crossing the river up in Tennessee, Forrest marched back to Corinth, there turning west to join Hood at Tuscumbia. The rains made that movement very difficult, and proved especially wearing on Forrest’s animals. While the first elements of Forrest’s corps reached Florence on the 7th, Forrest himself only arrived in Tuscumbia on the 13th, and the last of his men not until the 18th.
Accumulating supplies sufficient for Hood’s army also proved immensely difficult, for the rail line ended 16 miles short of Tuscumbia, and wagons had to haul provisions the rest of the way. Again rain was the complicating factor, and Hood’s army lived hand-to-mouth for much of November. All of this added up to long delay. Beauregard had optimistically informed Richmond that Hood’s invasion would begin by November 9; but Hood’s and Forrest’s men did not depart their camps until the 21st. It had been a full month since Hood’s troops set out from Gadsden, looking to slip across the Tennessee River at Guntersville and fall on Sherman’s supply line like a lightning bolt.
That plan had now become a much more ambitious – and desperate – venture.