- Historic Sites
The Rock Of Chickamauga
Lee. Grant. Jackson. Sherman. Thomas. Yes, George Henry Thomas belongs in that company. The trouble is that he and Grant never really got along.
March 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 2
His original orders were to hound the Army of Tennessee to its death, but Sherman was starting to think about salt water. In propounding his idea for a march to the sea, Sherman elevated military strategy to a higher level. “If we can march a well appointed army right through this territory,” he wrote Grant, “it is a demonstration to the world foreign and domestic, that we have a power which [Jefferson] Davis can not resist. This is not war, but rather statesmanship.”
Grant didn’t like the idea at first. The Army of Tennessee, now under the command of John Bell Hood, was still in the field. But Grant acquiesced when Sherman promised both to sweep to the Atlantic shore and to have Thomas take care of Hood.
The conventional wisdom has it that Sherman was delighted when Davis sacked Joseph E. Johnston and replaced him with Hood late in the Atlanta campaign. Hood was a gallant officer who had left a leg at Chickamauga, but he was known to be an impetuous commander, given to bold and ill-considered action. The memoirs of several Union officers relate how delighted they were at the prospect of a blunderer’s appearing at their front. Most of these sentiments, however, were written well after the war was safely won, and it is possible Sherman may have been made uneasy by the change of command. Joe Johnston had always been Sherman’s patsy. Johnston was a classicist well versed in the history and the art of war. He knew the rules. He knew what was possible and what was not. Johnston understood that Sherman held the whip hand. While looking for just the right opportunity to hit back, which he never seemed to find, Johnston danced to Sherman’s tune. John Bell Hood, on the other hand, was tone-deaf. He did not know the rules and usages of war, and it is unlikely he would have abided by them if he had. He was a dangerous man. He attacked when there was no prospect of victory and didn’t mind running up a big butcher’s bill. Sherman could beat Hood, but it might be expensive. After Kenesaw Mountain, Sherman had become the most parsimonious of field commanders, shunning big battles and direct assaults whenever he could.
Sherman’s decision to split forces was a brilliant one in that it allowed both generals to do what they did best. Sherman, rid of Thomas’s circus tents, could really fly, while Thomas, whose specialty was the calculated sledgehammer blow, could pound the life out of John Hood.
Sherman stripped the Virginian of some of his best troops and headed for the ocean while Thomas turned to face Hood. Thomas might have been well advised if, like Sherman, he had cut off all communication lines with Washington before he started.
After going over some of the same ground they covered on the way to Atlanta, Thomas and Hood met in earnest on the frozen turf outside Nashville. It was a terrible business.
The string was running out for Hood. His battered army was getting hard to hold together, and he was tired of maneuvering to no effect. It was time to say the hell with it and fight. Hood was a gambler, and he decided to trust to what Albert Sidney Johnston had called “the iron dice of battle.” He brought his army to attack Thomas at Franklin. Hood waved aside Nathan Bedford Forrest’s advice to try turning the Union flank and ordered a frontal assault. It was a sad thing to do. At Gettysburg George Pickett had led a charge following an extended artillery bombardment and lost 1,354 men trying to cover one mile. Hood proposed to send his men twice that far with no artillery preparation at all.
Grant grew so upset at what he saw as Thomas’s tardiness that in six days he scribbled out three separate orders relieving him.
“I don’t like the looks of this fight,” said the Confederate general Benjamin Franklin Cheatham. A veteran of the Mexican War who had fought at Belmont, Shiloh, Perryville, Stones River, Chickamauga, and Chattanooga, Cheatham had seen more combat than most men, but he had never seen anything like the afternoon of November 30, 1864, when the Army of Tennessee rose and threw itself on the Union lines at Franklin. For a moment it looked as if the Rebels might pull it off. They ripped into the Union outer defenses, scattering two brigades and capturing eight guns. But it was no go. In a textbook demonstration of how to commit reserves, the Union brigade commander, Emerson Opdycke, without waiting for orders, plugged the gap in a melee of hand-to-hand fighting. Hood kept at it for almost six hours, finally calling off the attack at nine in the evening. More than six thousand Confederate troops, including five generals, had gone down.
After his shattering victory Thomas retired to Nashville to prepare the final knockout. Incredibly, the high command wanted more. Grant, in his Virginia headquarters, did not realize how completely Thomas had control of the situation and was afraid Hood might get loose. He badgered Thomas to attack. But Thomas was having none of it. The weather was too bad and the ground had iced over, making attack difficult. Besides, there were horses to look after and men to equip before fighting again.
“I thought,” Thomas said, “after what I had done in the war, that I ought to be trusted to decide when the battle should be fought. I thought I knew better when it should be fought than anyone could know as far off as City Point, Virginia.”