The weather was gradually changing, perhaps for the better. For several days, the Union troopers had been pelted with snow and sleet. It had been so harsh that only the woodcutters had been out in the precipitation. With a thaw setting in, the time came to finally move. On December 15, 1864, those troopers who had endured the foul weather would take part in a massive assault on the Confederate lines southeast of the city of Nashville. For Brig. Gen. James Harrison Wilson, his cavalrymen would be shouldering a heavy load in the attack. The next few days would help determine if Wilson was up to the challenge.
Wilson was a native of Illinois and had graduated from West Point in the Class of 1860. By virtue of his placement in the class (sixth) Wilson was assigned to the Topographical Engineers and served in the Pacific Northwest prior to the outbreak of the war. The Chief Engineer of the Port Royal expedition, Wilson would later serve on the staff of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan before being transferred to the Western Theater. Assigned to the staff of Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, Wilson would be made Inspector General of the Army of the Tennessee during the Vicksburg Campaign. Returning to Grant’s staff following the Mississippi city’s fall, Wilson would be promoted to Brigadier General and serve under Grant at Chattanooga. In February, 1864, Wilson was transferred to Washington, D.C. to head the Cavalry Bureau. By the opening of the spring campaign of 1864, Wilson was in command of the Third Division, Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac.
Wilson had proven himself to be an adept engineer and administrator, but he had little experience commanding cavalry in the field. The learning curve would be a sharp one. In the Wilderness, Wilson botched his first assignment of screening the army’s march across the Rapidan, allowing Robert E. Lee to surprise and bring the Yankee movement to a grinding halt. During the Yellow Tavern Raid, Wilson led his division into the teeth of the Richmond defenses, nearly ensnaring the entire cavalry corps. That June, Wilson would lead an ultimately expedition against the Southside Railroad, one of the key lines supplying the city of Petersburg. While attempting to rejoin the rest of the army, his division was nearly cut off and captured. While the failure of the so-called “Wilson-Kautz Raid” lay more at the feet of his superiors than Wilson, he was a favorite of Grant and thus retained his command.
Wilson’s Third Division would be transferred to the Shenandoah Valley later in the summer to augment Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan’s army. Wilson would spearhead the Union infantry advance and cover the army’s left flank at the Battle of Third Winchester. Then on September 30th, Wilson received orders sending him back to the West. At the request of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, Wilson’s next assignment would be as the Chief of Cavalry, Military Division of the Mississippi. Arguably, this elevation in responsibility was more in part for Wilson’s administrative and logistical aptitude, rather than his battlefield accomplishments.
Wilson’s first task in his new role was to prepare and outfit Maj. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick’s division for Sherman’s planned “March to the Sea” through the interior of Georgia. The more pressing situation, however, lay to north in Tennessee. After the fall of Atlanta, John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee had moved into north Georgia in an effort to strike at Sherman’s supply lines and draw Sherman after them. When Sherman refused to abandon his hard won ground, Hood decided to strike into Tennessee. Wilson was needed there, to assist Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas in repelling Hood’s imminent invasion. Joining Maj. Gen. Schofield near Columbia, Wilson and his troopers prepared to meet the enemy.
On November 28, Lieut. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, commanding Hood’s cavalry crossed the Duck River beyond Schofield’s flank near Columbia, Tennessee. Wilson apprised Schofield of the potential threat of being cut off to the north and Schofield set his infantry in motion for Spring Hill the next day. Barely missing a major engagement with Hood in near Spring Hill, Schofield continued to Franklin where he turned to face the Rebels.
On November 30, in one of the great frontal assaults of the war, Hood sent the Army of Tennessee against Schofield’s lines. During the attack, one of Forrest’s division commanded by William Jackson crossed the Harpeth River in the hopes of attacking the Union rear. Waiting for him was one of Wilson’s divisions commanded by Brig. Gen. Edward Hatch. Supporting Hatch was a brigade commanded by Col. John Croxton. Together, this combined force pushed back Jackson and secured the Union left and rear.
Despite repulsing Hood’s attacks, Schofield decided to abandon the field at Franklin and withdraw to join Thomas in the heavily fortified city of Nashville. Arriving there on December 1, the condition of Wilson’s troopers drew first priority. Going into camp at Edgefield, Wilson wrote later “the first week of December was the busiest and most important period in the reorganization of the cavalry forces”. Here, Wilson applied his superb skills in administration. “Clothes were drawn for the men, the horses were rested, reshod and well fed, extra shoes were fitted, new arms were issued, old ones were repaired and equipments of every kind were put in order. As fast as horses were received, they were issued where they would do the most good” he remembered.
Meanwhile, as Wilson rested and refitted, the Army of Tennessee arrived and established a line southeast of the city. Hood’s position covered the major thoroughfares running out of the city. From the Nolensville Pike in the east, the Confederates line stretched across the Franklin and Granny White Pikes, finally ending in the west on the Hillsboro Pike. With the Confederates in position outside Nashville, it would only be a matter of time before the two sides would meet in a desperate engagement that very well determine the outcome of the campaign. For James Wilson, the coming battle would prove whether he could live up to the faith that Grant and Sherman had placed in him.