The Battle of Nashville

The Battle of Nashville
December 14 - 16, 1864

The Battle of Nashville is thought by many scholars to be one of the most decisive battles fought during the Civil War ... "the most complete battlefield victory of the conflict". Yet it is also one of the most under-appreciated episodes of the entire struggle.

The Inns of Granny White is located on this historic battlefield, and the strategic hilltop position on which our neighborhood sits played a critical role in the battle's outcome ...

(Photo used by permission. Fotolia)

By late 1864, momentum was shifting in favor of the Union army, as Major General William Tecumseh Sherman had captured Atlanta and  begun his march south to Savannah. In a desperately-devised plan conceived by Confederate General John Bell Hood, the Army of Tennessee would sweep west and drive into Union territory, taking the strategic city of Nashville along the way. Such a diversion would certainly force Sherman to pull back in response. 

It did no such thing.  Instead, Sherman responded by sending George H. Thomas, the "Rock of Chickamauga," with two corps from the Army of the Cumberland to hold Nashville's fortress positions, including Fort Negley, the largest inland fort built during the war.

Confederate Major General
John Bell Hood

(National Archives)

Although a native of Virginia, Thomas was an officer in the U.S. Army before the war, and chose to fight for the Union. He had a reputation as an unflappable commander, who had seen extensive action at Mill Springs, Perryville and Stones River before earning his greatest recognition for his stand at the Battle of Chickamauga, which prevented the Confederates from pursuing the rest of the fleeing Union army. At the Battle of Chattanooga, two months later, it was men of Thomas' command who secured the victory at Missionary Ridge.

Union Major General
George Thomas
(Library of Congress)

Hood continued his bitterly cold march toward Nashville, still hoping to draw Sherman back from Georgia. Failing that, he hoped to capture the city, then either move north to threaten Ohio River towns or east to join his army with that of his old commander, Gen. Robert E. Lee.

At Spring Hill, Tennessee, as the Confederates prematurely celebrated into the night after surrounding a Union division, their revelry allowed the Federals to escape from their grasp and pass unmolested to Franklin, a small town south of Nashville. Enraged over the missed opportunity, Hood ordered futile frontal assaults at Franklin against entrenched Federals, many of whom were armed with repeating rifles. The Battle of Franklin on November 30 was one of the bloodiest engagements of the entire war, decimating his force and costing him a division commander and four brigadier generals. Undeterred, he continued on to besiege Thomas' significantly larger force at Nashville.

During a week-long December ice storm, Hood constructed works along a five-mile-long road south of the city (now known as Battery Lane). Between the 8,000 men lost at Franklin and those detached under Nathan Bedford Forrest, who had been sent to capture Murfreesboro, Hood's army was down to 20,000 men. He hoped to draw Thomas into attacking him. After repulsing those attacks, Hood reasoned, he would counterattack and take the city. It was a quixotic plan, to say the least.

Thomas outnumbered Hood by almost four to one.  Keeping 20,000 in reserve to garrison Fort Negley and her satellite defenses, he had more than 55,000 troops at his disposal for field maneuvers. 

Back east, Ulysses S. Grant was unaware of the severity of the weather conditions, and had reached the end of his rope with General Thomas, well-known by his nickname of "Old Slow-trot".  Grant mistakenly interpreted the weather delay to be indecision and sent an officer to relieve Thomas of command.

However, before Grant's emissary arrived by  train, the weather broke. Union troops, under the command of Maj. Gen. James Steadman,  maneuvered southeast along the Murfreesboro Road to skirmish with the Confederate right (along Harding Pike) while several Union divisions positioned themselves to sweep from west to east.

The strategy went almost exactly according to Thomas' plan. After driving off a small force west of town, the Federals swung southeast as if on a hinge. They outflanked a group of Confederate redoubts and drove the Rebels southward. When morning dawned on the second day of fighting, the over-extended Confederate line had been compressed into an area between Hillsboro Road to the west and the railroad tracks to the east.

A western bend in the line was anchored on the heights of Shy's Hill. The eastern bend were dug in on the steep slopes of Peach Orchard (Overton's) Hill. Fighting intensified along Peach Orchard Hill, where 2,000 Confederate troops, under the command of Lt. Gen. Steven D. Lee, constructed effective entrenchments along the slopes with massive trees they had cut down and laid end-to-end.  Some 6,000 Federals, including two divisions of USCT, made valiant attempts against the position but were repulsed.

Outer Union line.  Battle of Nashville.
(Library of Congress)

But the vice was beginning tighten, as Union cavalry troops, under the command of Major General James H. Wilson, successfully flanked the Confederate left, crossed from Hillsboro Pike to Granny White Pike, and dismounted where the entrance to the neighborhood now exists.  They climbed the Overton Hills (where Travelers Ridge Drive currently crests ... as well as along the neighborhood private drive).  From this location, Wilson's troops were able to secure a commanding strategic position on the battlefield.

Shy's Hill had become fully encircled. The Confederates were in an exposed and untenable defensive position.

The view of Shy's Hill
from atop Travelers Ridge Drive

Late in the afternoon, as it was turning dark, Union division commander Brigadier General John McArthur (grandfather of Douglas McArthur), observed a great deal of disarray among the Confederate troops defending the hill.  Sensing this opportune moment, he spontaneously led a charge of three brigades up the western slope. Within minutes, they crested the hill while Confederate artillery was being repositioned to fire upon them. The blue line swept over the defenders in a massive rout, killing most of them and initiating a massive retreat of rebels toward Franklin Pike. 

This marked the nadir for the Confederacy in the western theater as the entire army was nearly obliterated. 

The hill only became known as Shy's Hill after the battle. Confederate colonel William Shy, of Franklin, was among the defenders. His body was later found on the hill, bayoneted to a tree and with a bullet hole in his forehead. Controversy still continues over whether Union or Confederate soldiers were responsible.

As darkness and rain fell, hundreds of Union troops, in pursuit of fleeing rebels, streamed past the ruins of Granny White's tavern.  The final melee of the battle took place at midnight between cavalries near Otter Creek.

Hood's army had been crushed, and what remained haphazardly retreated to Tupelo, Mississippi, where the general was relieved of his command on January 23.

For his overwhelming victory, Thomas became one of only 13 officers to receive the Thanks of Congress in the war and was promoted from brigadier general in the regular U.S. Army to major general, U.S. Army.


Unfortunately, there is no National Battlefield or "battlefield park" for the 1864 Battle of Nashville. Much of the battlefield is covered by residential and commercial development south and west of the downtown area. There are, however, several historic sites and a number of road markers signifying battle landmarks.