This Hallowed Ground

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It worried Pap Thomas very little, but it very seriously worried General Grant. Sherman once said, admiringly, that Grant never cared in the least what the opposing army might be doing off out of his sight, but Grant was worrying now; for once in his life he had the jitters. From his headquarters hut at Petersburg it looked as if Hood might be making a wild, desperate thrust that could wholly upset all of the Federal war plans. Grant bombarded Thomas with daily messages demanding that he attack at once.

Thomas replied that it would take a few days to get everything ready and that he would attack as soon as possible; Grant retorted that there must be no more delay, and went so far once as to write out an order relieving Thomas of his command and turning the whole army over to Schofield. The order was not sent, finally, but the fact that it was drafted was significant. Thomas sensed what was in the wind, and when Halleek wired that Grant was highly unhappy about his delay he calmly replied that he had done his best and that “if General Grant should order me to be relieved, I will submit without a murmur.” Then, just as he was ready to attack, a great sleet storm came down, fields and roads were coated with an inch of slick ice, and troop movements became utterly impossible.

The ice lasted for four days, during which time both armies were immobilized. Grant fretted and worried and at last he got hold of General John Logan, who was north at the time, gave him orders relieving Thomas from command, and sent him west.

Logan never quite made it. On December 14—at last—the weather turned warm. There was a steady rain, mud took the place of ice, and Thomas sent off a wire to Halleck: “The ice having melted away today, the enemy will be attacked tomorrow morning.” Then he called in his corps commanders, gave them written orders for the next day’s attack, went over the orders with them in detail—and, finally, went to bed, in the Nashville hotel room he was occupying, leaving word at the desk for a five o’clock call next morning.

Morning came, and Thomas packed his bag, checked out, and rode off to field headquarters. There was a fog on the ground, but it drifted away not long after sunrise and the troops were ready to go. Thomas ordered them forward, sending in two brigades of colored troops to hold Hood’s right, and attacking at the other end of the line with a solid corps of infantry and all of Wilson’s cavalry.

Everything worked. Hood’s line was stretched thin, and the infantry smashed through, the cavalry curled around behind his left flank, and Hood was driven back for two miles, to take a new, last-hope position on a little chain of hills. Thomas renewed the attack the next morning, and although the Confederates put up a stout fight their case was hopeless. Thomas’ 4th Corps swarmed up a hill, crumpling the skirmish line, and driving on for the trenches. Wilson’s cavalry came up on the right, dismounted and acting as infantry—the men had thrown their sabers by the roadside and were working their repeaters like foot soldiers—and, finally, the whole defensive position caved in and Hood’s army fled, leaving most of its artillery behind, while the Yankee cavalry scurried back to reclaim its horses and get off in pursuit.

The victory had been complete. Hood’s army was shattered beyond repair, and there was no refuge for it north of Alabama. Young General Wilson drove his cavalry after the retreating army, in the pitch darkness of a windy, rainy night. General Nathan Bedford Forrest was guarding the Confederate rear, and his men fought savage delaying actions in the bewildering dark, crouched behind fence-rail barricades while the Union cavalry charged in across inky-black fields, nothing visible except the sputtering flames from the carbines—and, at intervals, black tree trunks gleaming in the wet, and dark figures moving in and out, when flashes of lightning lit the night. After midnight Wilson called a halt and put his troopers into bivouac.

At this point Thomas himself rode up at a gallop, and his customary dignity and self-control had evaporated. He greeted Wilson with a whoop.

“Dang it to hell, Wilson, didn’t I tell you we could lick ’em?” he demanded. “Didn’t I tell you we could lick ’em?”

In Louisville, Kentucky, General Logan got news of the victory, put his orders away, and turned around to go back to Washington. And in Washington General Grant himself got the tidings. He had left Petersburg and was on his way to Nashville to come out and see to things personally, and he was stopping overnight in Willard’s Hotel when the telegram reached him. It told the news of the sweeping victory that removed the last possible doubt that the war would be won on schedule. Grant read the telegram, handed it to an aide with the remark, “Well, I guess we will not go to Nashville,” and then dictated a wire to Thomas offering his hearty congratulations.

Wilson’s cavalry kept up the pursuit for ten days, but with the men who remained to him Hood at last got away to the south side of the Tennessee River, at Muscle Shoals. Of the 40,000 with whom he had set out on his invasion he had 21,000 left, most of them in a high degree of disorganization. His army had been practically destroyed. Fragments of it would be used in other fields, later on, but as an army it had ceased to exist. Pap Thomas had shattered it.