James Wilson and the Battle of Nashville, Part II

Major General George Thomas
Major General George Thomas

As Wilson rested and refitted his troopers during the opening days of December, 1864, Maj. Gen. George Thomas was engaged in another battle. This one was not with John Bell Hood, but with his superiors. Throughout the first two weeks of the month, Thomas corresponded with Chief of Staff  Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck in Washington and General in Chief, Lieut. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at City Point, Virginia. The always aggressive Grant had been urging Thomas to attack Hood. Thomas had been keeping Halleck and Grant at bay. He was not going to commit his men to battle until he was ready and could use his cavalry to his fullest advantage. Wilson’s efforts were coming to fruition, but just as he was getting his troopers back into fighting trim, a force struck that Thomas had not anticipated: Mother Nature.

On December 9, the skies opened, further delaying Thomas’ plans for an offensive. Wilson remembered there was “rain, snow and sleet in abundance followed by intense cold covered the ground that night with such a glare of snow and ice as to render it impossible to move cavalry not especially roughshod for the occasion”. The storm continued for five days. On December 14th, the temperatures rose and the rain began to melt the snow on the ground. Thomas decided that he would launch his assault the next day.

Thomas planned to hold Hood in place with a demonstration, while launching a massive turning movement around his left flank. The responsibility for the demonstration fell to Maj. Gen. James Steedman’s Provisional Division. As Steedman attacked, Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson Smith’s XVI Corps, along with Brig. Gen. Thomas Wood’s IV Corps, would make a wide swing to the west. Wilson’s troopers were to be positioned on Smith’s right. Their duty was to flank Hood’s line and if possible, cut into the enemy rear. Wilson would have three divisions, commanded by Brig. Gens. Edward Hatch, Richard Johnson and Joseph Knipe and the brigade of Col. John Croxton at his disposal. Hatch’s division and Croxton’s men would go into the fight mounted, along with one brigade, respectively from Johnson’s and Knipe’s divisions. The remainder of Wilson’s force would go forward on foot.

December 15 opened with a dense fog covering the land. While Steedman’s diversionary assault ground to a halt before the Rebel lines and Wood’s soldiers moved forward and occupied an older Confederate line, since abandoned, Wilson and his troopers navigated the many knolls and ravines that lay in the path of their advance. Moving steadily forward, Hatch’s division encountered Confederate Redoubt #5 astride the Hillsboro Pike. Hatch gave orders to one of his brigade commanders, Datus Coon to assault the fortification. Together with Col. William McMillen’s brigade from the XVI Corps, Coon’s dismounted troopers stormed the redoubt. Wilson remembered that the Federals “broke through the enemy’s infantry…captured the redoubt”.

Carrying this position was significant. Redoubt #5 anchored the left of Hood’s line. The Federal cavalry had gained a foothold on the enemy position and staring straight at them to the north and was Redoubt #4. Inspired by his recent victory, Hatch immediately recognized that the many cavalry and infantry milling about were perfect targets for enemy gunners in Redoubt #4, which stood uphill from Redoubt #5. Ordering the charge, the combined force scrambled out Redoubt #5 and headed for their next target. Redoubt #4 soon fell to the attackers and the troops on the Confederate left under Lt. Gen. Alexander Stewart were in shambles.

To stem the enemy tide, Hood was attempting to rush reinforcements from Maj. Gen. Frank Cheatham’s corps to Stewart’s assistance, but it was of no use. Before Cheatham’s men could arrive, more Federal infantry from the XVI Corps was attacking Redoubt #3, which was to the north of Redoubt #4. The result was much the same as the soldiers in gray abandoned the work in the face of the onrushing enemy. To cap off the day, Smith’s infantry stormed the last fortification guarding the enemy left, Redoubt #2. The Confederates gave way here without putting up much of a fight. Witnessing the success of their comrades, Wood’s infantry moved forward, overrunning Redoubt #1.

Despite some fits and starts, at the end of the day, Thomas’ plan for a flank attack had ended in success. All of the Rebel redoubts anchoring the enemy left had fallen. In turn, Hood was forced to abandon his line and fall back to high ground to the south. Hood anchored his right flank on Overton Hill, his left atop Shy’s Hill. There, Hood stubbornly awaited the next Union onslaught.

Wilson could not have been happier with the day’s outcome. His troopers had performed splendidly “in sight of the infantry, which had never seen dismounted cavalry assault a fortified position before”. Wilson was poised to lend his hand again in the next attack.

Thomas planned to replicate his tactics again on December 16, by striking at the Confederate left. Unfortunately for Thomas, his subordinates were not cooperating. Maj. Gen. John Schofield, who had moved up on the Union right, was preoccupied with staying on the defensive. Over on the left, Wood and Steedman attempted to take Peach Orchard Hill but were turned back in a bloody repulse. Wilson was even having a rough time, “the enemy holding on stubbornly”. Eventually, the Federal troopers were able to gain the upper hand and pushed toward the Granny White Pike, beyond the Confederate left. Just when it seemed that the cavalry was about to make another breakthrough, their brother infantrymen struck.

Standing opposite Shy’s Hill was the XVI Corps division commanded by Brig. Gen. John McArthur. The Scotsman, a veteran of many of the Western Theater campaigns, recognized that the position was the key to the Confederate left. After waiting for several hours to receive permission to attack, no instructions came and McArthur decided to go forward on his own volition. His brigades swept up the face of Shy’s Hill. The overwhelming Yankee horde quickly overran the thinly held Rebel line. McArthur had shattered the line, and Hood’s army was running for its collective life. Waiting for many of these soldiers along the Granny White Pike was Wilson’s troopers.

Reacting swiftly to the Confederate collapse, Wilson ordered his men to get mounted in order to pursue the defeated enemy. Wilson remembered that “the distance which separated  the dismounted troopers from their…horses was considerable, and although every man hurried as though his life was at stake, it was pitch dark before they were remounted.” Wilson’s troopers “charged every semblance of a rear guard”.  Eventually, a driving thunderstorm, combined with the night, forced him to call off the pursuit. As Wilson set up headquarters along the pike, Hood’s tattered army limped toward Franklin.

Nashville was a resounding victory for George Thomas. He had stopped Hood’s invasion and secured Tennessee for the Federals. It was also a turning point in the career of James H. Wilson. At Nashville, Wilson had proved the faith of his superiors, particularly of Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman. The gloom of the Wilderness, Yellow Tavern and the raid on the Southside Railroad was something of the past. Wilson had completed his journey from administrator to combat officer. His men had sparked and spearheaded Thomas’ offensive on the first day and had fought very well on the second. Nightfall and the elements probably kept them from doing even more damage to the Army of Tennessee.

Of the fighting on December 15, he would later write “it was an unusual days’ for cavalry. For the first on any American battlefield all the available mounted force…were massed on the flank of an advancing army, making a turning movement…for the first time in our country, horsemen on foot had charged side by side with the infantry”. Wilson would put the tactic of using dismounted cavalry to good use again. In the closing days of the war, Wilson would lead his troopers on a raid through Alabama. During the assault on the city of Selma, part of Wilson’s force would attack dismounted.

Following the end of the conflict, Wilson returned to the Corps of Engineers. In 1870, he resigned from the U.S. Army to oversee the management of several construction and railroad enterprises. When war broke out with Spain in 1898,  Wilson volunteered for the army and served in Cuba and Puerto Rico with the rank of Major General of volunteers. His last military service was in the Boxer Rebellion in China. Retiring from the army, Wilson returned to his home in Wilmington, Delaware. He died on February 23, 1925 and is buried in Wilmington.


3 Responses to James Wilson and the Battle of Nashville, Part II

  1. Excellent article on the work of General Wilson’s cavalry at Nashville. Because it happened so close to Appomattox, Wilson’s raid through Alabama did not receive the credit it should have.

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