WAS GENERAL THOMAS
SLOW AT NASHVILLE?
WITH A DESCRIPTION OF
The Greatest Cavalry Movement
of the War
GENERAL JAMES H. WILSON'S CAVALRY OPERATIONS IN TENNESSEE, ALABAMA, AND
HENRY V. BOYNTON
Brevet Brig. Gen. U.S.V.; Historian Chickamauga and Chattanooga National
WAS GENERAL THOMAS SLOW AT NASHVILLE ?
A new generation has come upon the stage since our civil war.
It has its own
writers on the events of that struggle. Some of these, careful students as
they are, make proper and effective use of the stores of material which the
Government has collected and published. Others, stumbling upon interesting
dispatches of notable campaigns, read them in connection with the
ill-considered and hasty criticisms of the hot times which brought them
forth, and, finding questions settled twenty years ago, but entirely new to
themselves, they proceed to reveal them as new things to the new generation.
By this process it has recently been announced that General Thomas was slow
at Nashville. To give this echo of thirty-two years ago sufficient voice,
several columns of dispatches--which a quarter of a century since formed the
basis of discussions that demolished the theory they are now brought forward
to sustain--are gravely presented as something new.
Nothing better illustrates this situation than the very familiar story of
the Irishman who assaulted the Jew for the part he took in the Crucifixion,
and upon being remonstrated with upon the ground that the event occurred
eighteen hundred years ago, replied that it was nevertheless new to him, as
he had only heard of it the day before.
That General Thomas was not slow at Nashville is ancient history.
Grant, who was the first to charge it, was also the first to withdraw the
imputation, by declaring in his official report that at the time he had been
very impatient over what appeared as unnecessary delay on the part of
Thomas, "but his final defeat of Hood was so complete that it will be
accepted as a vindication of that distinguished Officer's
The ostensible reason for heralding Thomas as slow--so slow, indeed, as to
require his removal and lead to an order for it--was that he insisted upon
concentrating his infantry force and remounting his cavalry.
Stanton declared that the delay would be till doomsday if Thomas waited for
A consideration of this most important, underlying, and controlling factor
in General Thomas's preparations brings up one of the most brilliant
chapters in our war history, and altogether the most brilliant in the annals
of cavalry operations.
In touching upon General Thomas's persistence in getting his cavalry ready,
it would be very natural for a surface student to quote Secretary Stanton:
"If he waits for Wilson to get ready, Gabriel will be blowing his last
horn," and treat it as conclusive proof of Thomas's dilatoriness and
Stanton's final opinion. But just far enough under the surface to escape the
eyes of historical amateurs, lies the splendid and unparalleled fact that in
eight winter days after the date of that dispatch General James H. Wilson,
Thomas's chief of cavalry, had impressed horses enough, with those furnished
on previous requisitions, to raise the effective mounted force at Nashville
from 5500 to 13,500, and that on the eighth day General Wilson went into
action with 12,000 mounted men, and had besides one brigade of 1500 men
engaged in an independent movement.
At this point a moment's consideration of the real reasons which caused the
outbreak against General Thomas, on the ground that he was slow, will not be
out of place. At City Point it was the perfectly natural but sickening
anxiety lest it should turn out that a great mistake had been made in
letting Sherman march away to the sea, thus possibly opening the way for
Hood to the Ohio. At Savannah it was the same fear, intensified by the
consciousness that Thomas had been left with unprepared forces to contend
against a veteran army which had stubbornly resisted both Thomas and Sherman
during the hundred days from Dalton to Atlanta.
And so, while Thomas, as all who were on the ground knew, was making
superhuman exertions to prepare fully for the task in hand, he was advised
to fight, pressed to fight, ordered to fight, threatened with removal if he
did not fight, and his successor dispatched to relieve him.
underlying cause of it all was the demoralizing fear that Hood might elude
or overthrow Thomas and strike for the Ohio, and the country rise in wrath
to inquire why Sherman, with 62,000 thoroughly equipped veterans, including
a larger force of mounted men than he left behind, had been allowed to march
away from the central theater of war. So great was this fear at Savannah
that even after receiving Thomas's dispatch giving an account of the first
day's battle at Nashville, which resulted in driving Hood's left eight miles
(which movement General Grant characterized as a "splendid success"),
Sherman telegraphed that this attack on Hood "was successful but not
complete": that he awaited further accounts "with anxiety," as Thomas's
complete success was necessary to vindicate his own plan for this campaign.
Throughout all this inside panic in high official circles, only Thomas and
the trusted officers who supported him at Nashville were cool and unmoved in
the memorable crisis.
THOMAS ORGANIZING HIS ARMY.
The concentration and organization of the fragments which finally made up
the force with which he practically annihilated his enemy was one of the
most remarkable accomplishments of the war. It was prosecuted and
consummated in the immediate presence of the enemy, and a large portion of
the work was performed during the continued movement, constant skirmishing,
frequent affairs, and one great battle of an active campaign.
Arriving at Nashville, the first points of
concentration, General Thomas, after careful study of the situation, decided
upon his plan of battle. It included, as one of its essentials, the
remounting of an effective force of cavalry. From the moment his plans were
formed the utmost energy was put forth to prepare for their execution.
Greater or more effective activity was never exerted in the Union army than
was manifest at Nashville throughout this period. Every stroke of effort was
directed toward the predetermined end, with the result which the country
Naturally, the part played by the cavalry in our great battles was often
concealed or minimized, while the infantry operations filled the public eye
and for the time dimmed the credit due to the cavalry arm.
The history of
the war does not afford another case where the cavalry formed the
determining factor, and, notwithstanding this, where it was so largely
overlooked in the distribution of the honors.
It is necessary to a full understanding of the brilliancy, efficiency, and
completeness of Thomas's final movements to have in mind the situation after
General Sherman had marched away from Hood and left Thomas in Tennessee to
stand between that veteran Confederate army and the Ohio.
Preparatory to the march to the sea the great army about Atlanta had been
carefully inspected both as to men and equipments. Every weak man, all
convalescents, those whose terms of service were expiring--in short, all the
"trash," as General Sherman expressed it--were sent to the rear, that is, to
Thomas. All equipments of infantry, artillery, and cavalry were examined,
and every weak or worn piece replaced by new, and all the "trash" either
destroyed or "sent to Thomas." The entire cavalry force was dismounted for
close inspection and for the perfect remounting of Kilpatrick's column.
the sound men whom Thomas received he lost 15,000 by expiration of terms of
service and previous furloughs to vote, within a week after Hood's movement
After this sifting of the armies General Sherman started for the sea with
62,000 veterans, of whom he wrote that "all on this exhibit may be assumed
to have been able-bodied, experienced soldiers, well armed, well equipped
and provided, so far as human foresight could, with all the essentials of
life, strength, and vigorous action." With this force was included the
entire equipment of trains, pontoons, and similar essentials which Thomas,
with great care, had perfected for the army of the Cumberland.
request that he might have his old corps which he had organized, which had
fought under him so long, was refused, and, instead, two small corps were
The nucleus around which General Thomas was to organize an army to take care
of Hood--who from May till November had taxed the offensive resources of
Sherman's three armies--was, the Fourth Corps, General Stanley, with an
effective force of 13,907, and the Twenty-third, General Schofield, with
The means of holding Chattanooga are indicated by the instructions from
Sherman to Steedman, whose troops had almost dwindled away by expiration of
service: "You must organize and systematize the hospitals and men sent back
to Chattanooga. You could use some of them for your forts," and it was
suggested to Thomas: "To make things sure, you might call upon the Governors
of Kentucky and Indiana for some militia, cautioning them against a
stampede." Thomas was so short of men that when Steedman asked for enough
for a small but important garrison, he was obliged to reply: "You might send
a force from the organization of convalescents now being made up by General Cruft at Chattanooga."
To which Steedman replied, "So far, all such
detachments reported from the front [Sherman] are with furloughs, and are
waiting transportation home."
In place of the 15,000 veterans whose terms had expired, Thomas received 12,000
newly enlisted recruits. General A. J. Smith's veteran corps had been
ordered from Missouri, and a great parade has been made of this fact by
those whose interest it was to show that Thomas had been left with a
competent force. But the fact that it did not arrive at Nashville till after
the battle of Franklin, and that Thomas was waiting for it as well as to
remount the cavalry, was not so loudly proclaimed.
However, when Sherman was ready to start for the sea, with Hood's veteran
army concentrated behind him, and Thomas, with the above mentioned elements
of an army scattered over a territory as large as France, had been assigned
to take care of Hood, General Sherman telegraphed Halleck: "I therefore feel
no uneasiness as to Tennessee, and have ordered Thomas to assume the
offensive in the direction of Selma, Ala." And General Grant, after
receiving some inflated figures of a great force left with Thomas,
telegraphed Sherman: "With the force you have left with Thomas, he must be
able to take care of Hood and destroy him." Later, when the anxiety at City
Point referred to in the opening of this paper had become intense, the
margin of force with which General Thomas was really operating was found to
be so small that General Grant suggested that he should "arm and put in the
trenches your quartermaster employees, citizens, etc.," and again, a few
hours later, he was suggesting what he could do "with your citizen employees
CONCENTRATING IN FRONT OF HOOD.
It was under such circumstances and conditions which, after all, are but
faintly shadowed forth by the facts here stated, that General Thomas began
to concentrate his conglomerate forces in Hood's front, and begin under fire
the work of organizing and refitting an army. With superhuman effort, and
such loyal assistance and energy from officers and soldiers as were not
elsewhere exhibited during the war, because not previously required, General
Thomas set about the task of preparing the means of overthrowing Hood.
action and the extreme of prudence were essentials of the situation.
objective of Hood's campaign, under suggestions from President Davis, was
the Ohio River. There was no reserve force in sight or within summoning
distance, or immediately available anywhere in case of reverses.
could not afford to take the slightest risks so long as his own position was
not imperiled. It was not alone the immediate interests confided to his
keeping and defense which hinged upon his success or failure, but both Grant
and Sherman and possibly the Union itself were to stand or fall with such
success or failure. Had Hood succeeded, as at the first he might have
succeeded without fault of Thomas, or even fair ground for reflection upon
him, what would have been said of Sherman for marching off to the sea,
leaving the central West without sufficient protection, or of General Grant
for having allowed him to go?
And because the deliberate, prudent, imperturbable, and always successful
Thomas appreciated the situation, and determined to be ready to annihilate
his enemy before he struck, he was hastily declared to be slow by those he
was preparing to save.
All of General Thomas's troubles at Nashville arose from his adhering, in
the face of threatened removal, to plans of action which made General
Wilson's cavalry an essential factor in the attack on Hood for which he was
energetically preparing. He was looking not only to attack, but to crushing
pursuit. In view of the great preponderance of the enemy's cavalry, which
was then double his own, and led by Forrest, one of the ablest cavalry
generals on either side, effective pursuit without a strong mounted force
would be impossible.
The correspondence with Grant--which grew until an order was issued for
General Thomas's relief by General Schofield, and, when this was held in
abeyance, until a second order for superseding him with General Logan--began
with an order from Grant not to "let Forrest get off without punishment."
Forrest's mounted force was double Wilson's, this was easier to write than
to execute. General Thomas therefore explained the situation fully, showing
that the cavalry of Hatch and Grierson, which were all the reinforcements he
had to depend upon at first, had been turned in at Memphis; that half his
own cavalry had been dismounted to equip Kilpatrick's column for Sherman;
that his dismounted force, which he had sent to Louisville for horses and
arms, was detained there waiting for both, and that as he was greatly
outnumbered both in infantry and cavalry he would be compelled to act on the
defensive. But he added, in closing: "The moment I can get my cavalry, I
will march against Hood, and if Forrest can be reached he shall be
The day after General Schofield's brilliant and effective battle at Franklin,
Thomas made known to Halleck his confidence that Hood could not cross the
Cumberland, and therefore thought it best to wait until Wilson could equip
his cavalry, as he then felt certain he could whip Hood. Next, the
President, through Secretary Stanton, stirred General Grant up by a telegram
stating that Mr. Lincoln felt "solicitous about the disposition of Thomas to
lay in fortifications for an indefinite period, 'until Wilson gets
THE PANIC AT WASHINGTON.
In spite of the plainest statements of the situation, of the great disparity
of forces, of the dictates of prudence to remain on the defensive until he
could strike an effective blow, which he expected to deliver in a few days,
Thomas was prodded and nagged from City Point and Washington as no officer
in command of an army had been before, and treated day by day as if he
needed tutelage. In the last dispatch of the series of clear
explanations,--which under other circumstances than the seething of that
inside panic which a full appreciation of the complications that Sherman's
march to the sea had caused would doubtless have been accepted,--General
Thomas was peremptorily ordered to "attack Hood at once without waiting for
a remount of your cavalry. There is great danger in delay resulting in a
campaign back to the Ohio." This was sent in reply to a telegram of Thomas
showing that there was the greatest activity in getting the cavalry ready,
and he hoped to have it remounted "in three days from this time."
Thomas replied that he would make all dispositions and attack according to
orders, adding, "though I believe it will be hazardous with the small force
of cavalry now at my service." Orders to prepare for attack were immediately
sent out, and dispositions for the attack began.
Meantime a sleet storm came on which covered the country with a glaze of ice
over which neither horses, men, nor artillery could move even on level
ground, to say nothing of assaulting an enemy entrenched on the hills.
same day Halleck telegraphed: "If you wait till General Wilson mounts all
his cavalry you will wait till doomsday, for the waste equals the supply."
And General Grant telegraphed orders relieving Thomas.
telegraphed Halleck that he was conscious of having done everything possible
to prepare the troops to attack, and if he was removed he would submit
without a murmur.
The order of relief was suspended. The sleet storm continued.
All of General
Thomas's officers agreed that it was impracticable to attack.
Some of them
even found it impossible to ride to headquarters because of the ice, and in
the midst of it came an order from Grant: "I am in hopes of receiving a
dispatch from you to-day announcing you have moved. Delay no longer for
weather or reinforcements."
Thomas replied: "I will obey the order as promptly as possible, however much
I regret it, as the attack will have to be made under every disadvantage.
The whole country is covered with a perfect sheet of ice and sleet, and it
is with difficulty the troops are able to move about on level ground."
To Halleck, Thomas replied: "I have the troops ready to make the attack on
the enemy as soon as the sleet which now covers the ground has melted
sufficiently to enable the men to march, as the whole country is now covered
with a sheet of ice so hard and slippery that it is utterly impossible for
troops to ascend the slopes, or even move upon level ground in anything like
order. Under these circumstances I believe an attack at this time would only
result in a useless sacrifice of life."
The reply to this, unquestionably born of the panic to which allusion has
been made, was an order sending General Logan to relieve Thomas.
himself then started from City Point for Nashville to assume general
command. But the ice having melted, he was met at Washington by the news of
The delay that Thomas had insisted upon, in the face of orders twice given
for his relief, gave him the cavalry force he required for the decisive blow
he intended to strike.
While the official inside at City Point and Washington bordered on panic,
everything at Nashville was being pressed forward with activity and
vigilance, and at the same time with deliberation, prudence, and the utmost
imperturbability. At length, and at the first moment possible consistent
with a reasonable expectation of success, the attack began.
THE ATTACK ON HOOD.
The developments of the battle, the energy and success of the pursuit, and
the marvelous results of the whole, namely, the virtual destruction of a
veteran army, reveal at every step what General Thomas had in mind when he
insisted upon waiting till he could remount his cavalry.
In no other battle of the war did cavalry play such a prominent part as in
that of Nashville. In no other pursuit did it so distinguish itself.
Students of the movement will find themselves constantly questioning, as
their investigations proceed, whether, with the force of infantry which
General Thomas had been able to gather, Hood could have been driven from his
position in front of Nashville without the co-operation of the cavalry.
Thomas been obliged to fight without it, as the authorities at City Point
and Washington tried to compel him to do, it is no reflection upon his
infantry to say that there is ground for serious doubt as to the result.
Hood was entrenched on strong ground.
His positions were commanding.
infantry force against him was not sufficient in numbers and experience to
make up for the usual difference due to field works placed as Hood's were
and manned by veterans. Unquestionably Wilson's cavalry was the dominating
and controlling element of the battle. To say this does not detract from the
distinguished infantry generals or their excellent and brilliant work.
General Thomas's plan turned on cavalry work as its directrix.
consultations with General Wilson had been exhaustive. That officer was
charged with reorganizing, remounting, and refitting a great cavalry force,
even as Thomas was organizing a new army--under fire. There had been nothing
like either of those Herculean tasks in any campaign.
Many officers have organized and built up an effective cavalry force in
times of rest and peace, but no one except General Wilson ever did itin the
heat and hurry of a desperate midwinter campaign. And he could not have
succeeded, nor could any man have accomplished it, in the face of the
interferences which were attempted, but for the protection and support of
the peerless and imperturbable Thomas.
When General Thomas felt himself to be ready, or so nearly ready that he
believed success attainable, he delivered the battle of Nashville.
whole career he had never struck a blow till he felt himself ready.
looked upon the lives of his soldiers as a sacred trust, not to be
carelessly imperiled. Whenever he moved to battle, it was certain that
everything had been done that prudence, deliberation, thought, and cool
judgment could do under surrounding circumstances to insure success
commensurate with the cost of the lives of men. And so it came to pass that
when the war ended it could be truthfully written of Thomas alone that he
never lost a movement or a battle.
It was an unprecedented array for attack. The inner lines about the city
were held by quartermasters' employees. Half the outer, or main line, was
manned mostly by convalescents and new troops; the other, or right of this
line, was occupied by General A. J. Smith's division. Steedman's provisional
division and his two colored brigades were on the extreme left of the front,
and opened the battle. The order of infantry in the line from right to left
was Smith's Corps (Thirteenth), Wood's Corps (Fourth), Schofield's Corps (Twentythird),
and Steedman's troops.
THE CAVALRY IN THE BATTLE.
Wilson's cavalry was massed behind the extreme right. Steedman, on the left,
early December 15, delivered a vigorous and successful attack. It was in the
nature of a feint. Meantime the grand play with the cavalry began. Its part
was the imposing swinging movement of 12,000 mounted men against and around
the Confederate left. Before the short, lowering winter day had closed, this
force had overrun several redoubts on the enemy's left, capturing them and
their artillery by assaults, swept for eight miles over ground of formidable
natural difficulties, and forced itself to the immediate flank and rear of
Hood's main line of works. It rode to its firing lines and fought
The enemy's left being thus effectually turned, the infantry attack in front
was delivered with success, and Hood fell back to a new line, and early the
second day withdrew still further, establishing his right on the Overton
The second day was a repetition of the first. Wilson again swung his cavalry
by a wide detour to the enemy's left and rear, and from the rear assaulted
and carried a portion of his main line, capturing both works and guns.
Thereupon the infantry corps again advanced on the front; the enemy was
everywhere forced back in confused retreat, and instantly the most vigorous
pursuit began, and was kept up that night till midnight, the cavalry
leading. It was resumed at daylight and continued night and day in winter
weather,--rain, slush, snow, and ice,--over a soggy country and mud roads
which were well-nigh impassable, leading through a region which both armies
had gleaned bare with their foraging parties. But even under these
conditions, by Herculean efforts, the most vigorous pursuit was prosecuted
to the Tennessee River. The determined character of this pursuit is well
illustrated by the fact that 6000 cavalry horses were disabled, so rapid and
exhaustive was the work they performed. At the close Hood's army was
practically destroyed. It opened the campaign 55,000 strong. It lost nearly
all its guns and equipments, about 15,000 killed and wounded, and the same
number of prisoners. About 13,000 men of all arms were finally assembled at
Tupelo. Starting toward North Carolina it continued to disintegrate, and
reached the southern line of that State not over 6000 strong. It had
practically disappeared as an army. When it reached Bentonville in Sherman's
front it went into action with only 3953 officers and men of all arms. For
the first time in the war one of the leading veteran armies of the enemy
operating in the open field had been destroyed. This was the direct result
of Thomas's blow at Nashville, and the pursuit which followed.
Thomas was very deeply pained and indignant at the treatment he received
while making the most vigorous preparations for battle which it was possible
to carry forward. He called his officers together during the sleet storm to
tell them of the peremptory order to attack without regard to weather, and
of his reply that the conditions were unfavorable for attack, that it would
be made at the first possible moment, and that if removed, as threatened, he
would submit without a murmur. He found himself fully supported by all of
them. After this meeting was over he called General Wilson aside and said:
"Wilson, they treat me at Washington and at Grant's headquarters as though I
were a boy! They do not seem to think that I have sense enough to plan a
campaign or fight a battle, but if they will only let me alone a few days I
will show them that they are mistaken. I am sure we will whip Hood and
destroy his army, if we go at them under favorable instead of unfavorable
Later, and in spite of his brilliant and complete victory, and the further
fact that such vigorous pursuit as had never before been made by a Union
army was in progress, in midwinter and under more unfavorable circumstances,
too, than a pursuing army had encountered during the war, this nagging from
Washington and City Point continued.
Secretary Stanton alone was immediate, whole-souled,
and continuing in his congratulations and praises. Grant tempered his
message over the "splendid success" with the information that he had reached
Washington on his way to relieve him, but now would not proceed,
and continued: "Push the enemy now and give him no rest until he is
entirely destroyed. Much is now expected." Mr. Lincoln added to his thanks:
"You made a magnificent beginning. A grand consummation is within your easy
reach. Do not let it slip."
In the midst of these proddings, Secretary Stanton suggested to Grant that
Thomas be made a Major General. Grant replied: "I think Thomas has won the
Major-Generalcy, but I would wait a few days before giving it, to see the
extent of damage done.
Next came Halleck, in the midst of the almost superhuman efforts of the
pursuit: "Permit me, General, to urge the vast importance of a hot pursuit
of Hood's army. Every possible sacrifice should be made, and your men for a
few days will submit to any hardship and privation to accomplish the great
result. A most vigorous pursuit on your part is therefore of vital
importance to Sherman's plans. No sacrifice must be spared to attain so
important an object."
THOMAS TURNS ON HIS NAGGERS.
There was one thing in which General Thomas was slow. He was not swift to
give expression to indignation over wrong treatment. To this latter, as the
culmination of the series, he at last responded with this crushing
"General Hood's army is being pursued as rapidly and as vigorously-as
it is possible for one army to pursue another. We cannot control the
elements, and you must remember that to resist Hood's advance into Tennessee
I had to reorganize and almost thoroughly equip the force now under my
command. I fought the battles of the 15th and 16th inst. with the troops but
partially equipped, and notwithstanding the inclemency of the weather and
the partial equipment, have been enabled to drive the enemy beyond Duck
River, crossing the two streams with my troops, and driving the enemy from
position to position, without the aid of pontoons, and with but little
transportation to bring up supplies and ammunition.
"I am doing all in my power to crush Hood's army, and, if it be possible,
will destroy it, but pursuing an enemy through an exhausted country, over
mud roads, completely sogged with heavy rains, is no child's play, and
cannot be accomplished as quickly as thought of.
I hope, in urging me to
push the enemy, the department remembers that General Sherman took with him
the complete organizations of the Military Division of the Mississippi, well
equipped in every respect as regards ammunition, supplies, and
transportation, leaving me only two corp
--partially stripped of their transportation to accommodate the force taken
with him--to oppose the advance into Tennessee of that army which had
resisted the advance of the army of the Military Division of the Mississippi
on Atlanta from the commencement of the campaign until its close, and which
is now, in addition, aided by Forrest's cavalry. Although my progress may
appear slow, I feel assured that Hood's army can be driven from Tennessee,
and eventually driven to the wall, by the force under my command, but too
much must not be expected of troops which have to be reorganized, especially
when they have the task of destroying a force in a winter campaign which was
able to make an obstinate resistance to twice its numbers in spring and
summer. In conclusion, I can safely state that this army is willing to
submit to any sacrifice to oust Hood's army, or to strike any other blow
which would contribute to the destruction of the rebellion."
The next day Stanton thus again extended his steady support:
"I have seen to-day General Halleck's dispatch of yesterday and your reply.
It is proper for me to assure you that this department has the most
unbounded confidence in your skill, vigor, and determination to employ to
the best advantage all the means in your power to pursue and destroy the
enemy. No department could be inspired with more profound admiration and
thankfulness for the great deeds you have already performed, or more
confiding faith that human effort could accomplish no more than will be done
by you and the gallant officers and soldiers of your command."
To this Thomas responded in terms which show his deep appreciation of the
only unqualifiedly friendly voice that had reached his ear from those in
"I am profoundly thankful for the hearty expression of your confidence in my
determination and desire to do all in my power to destroy the enemy and put
down the rebellion."
As pertinent to this history it is well to recall two facts: First, Sherman
reached Savannah, having avoided all fortified places, had encountered no
enemy in force during his march, sat down before the city, and awoke one
morning to find that Hardee with his 10,000 men had slipped out of the city
over the river and escaped.
Second, the Army of the Potomac, which had 87,000 present for duty equipped,
and which was not obliged to depend upon quartermasters' employees,
citizens, and convalescents for its reserves, remained quietly in its camps
in front of City Point and in sight of the enemy from November to April,
giving plenty of leisure for complaining that the Army of the Cumberland did
not attack at the dropping of a handkerchief.
With the dispersion of Hood's army General Thomas set about preparing for a
spring campaign which should open at the earliest possible day.
contemplated the assembling and putting in thorough condition an army of
cavalry to penetrate the South under his trusted commander, General James H.
THE CAVALRY AFTER NASHVILLE.
Six divisions of the cavalry corps were put in camp, extending for twelve
miles along the north bank of the Tennessee from Gravelly Springs to
Waterloo Landing. A winter campaign was laid out at army headquarters for
Thomas's army, to begin without rest or refitting--the resting to be done by
proxy in the vicinity of City Point. But owing to rains and unusual floods
this plan for Thomas could not be pursued, and the time was improved for a
vigorous and rapid refitting of his forces.
Early in March a cavalry corps of 27,000 had been gathered.
The men were
veterans. The new equipment collected was excellent, but, with all that the
Cavalry Bureau could do, only 17,000 horses could be provided.
was raised, by drills and every form of perfecting an organization, to a
high state of efficiency. While vigorous efforts were in progress to equip
Hatch's veteran division of 10,000, the orders from Washington and City
Point for forward movement began to pour in on Thomas. While no other
national army was moving, the nine weeks of midwinter which Thomas was using
in most active measures for beginning a crushing campaign were begrudged
him, and he was again prodded to move before he was ready.
breaking up of the cavalry force which had been assembled and prepared with
such great labor began. One division, 5000 strong, was ordered off to Canby
at Mobile, where its operations proved of little consequence, and Thomas was
ordered with 5000 more to make a demonstration on Tuscaloosa and Selma.
General Wilson then urged with great ability and power that the cavalry
should go as a body, with the purpose of destroying the various factories of
war material and breaking the interior lines of communication and supply.
Grant, who had great confidence in Wilson from his long service on his
staff, consented, and the plan, warmly approved by Thomas, was adopted, and
Wilson was started with all the powers of an independent commander.
On the 22d of March Wilson had crossed the Tennessee and started toward
Selma. He had three divisions, Upton's, Long's, and E. M. McCook's.
aggregate strength was 12,500 mounted, and 1500 dismounted to follow till
they could be furnished with captured horses. It was in every sense a
command thoroughly equipped and fully supplied. The divisions marched on
different roads, but the objective of each was Selma. The direct distance
was 180 miles, and the average march of each division to reach it was 250
miles. The streams were still flooded in all directions, and the roads deep
and difficult. The vigor and skill with which all these obstacles were
overcome form a brilliant chapter, not exceeded in kind during the war.
At Montevallo, forty-five miles from Selma, a portion of Forrest's command
was encountered, and, after a dashing fight, forced to retreat.
leader had not been able, as yet, to concentrate his command.
The capture of
a courier with dispatches to Forrest showed Wilson how several columns were
moving to join Forrest, and forces were sent in various directions to check
them, while Wilson's main column rode direct for Selma. It was an exciting
and successful play. Forrest, when reached, was found to have made the best
disposition possible for an inferior force, and maintained a stubborn
resistance. But the Union troopers charged at all points.
fought hand to hand, and received several saber strokes. After the lines
were carried Wilson's column advanced in pursuit twenty
five miles, and bivouacked at night only twenty miles from Selma.
Selma contained a gun foundry, arsenal, and important manufactories of war
material. The place had been sufficiently fortified, as was believed,
against any possible cavalry attack. General Wilson had succeeded in
obtaining accurate plans of these works and of the grounds in front of them.
During the ~lay's advance, which was not retarded by Forrest, these sketches
were shown to all general officers and a plan of attack explained.
result, upon reaching the vicinity of the works, the various brigades went
into position with precision and celerity, and the storming of the
entrenchments began at once. Just as darkness was gathering they were
carried at every point. The resistance was stubborn, but numbers, efficient
organization, equipment, and dash won the day and the city.
The capture of Selma was one of the most remarkable feats in the cavalry
annals of any land. The works contained 24 bastions and a number of strong redans with deep ditches, while the curtains of the four-mile line were
generally stockaded rifle pits. There was besides an interior line of 4
detached forts. The artillery armament of these works was 30 field guns and
two thirty pounder Parrotts. Wilson's attacking
force was 8000. Forrest, for the defense, had half that force of veteran
cavalry, and some 2000 militia, home-guards, and citizens.
The captures were
2700 prisoners, nearly 2000 horses, 32 guns in service, 26 field guns
mounted complete in arsenal, 46 siege guns in the foundry, 66,000 rounds of
artillery ammunition, and 100,000 rounds for small arms.
destroyed the Selma arsenal, with 44 buildings covering 13 acres, filled
with machinery and munitions; powder works comprising 7 buildings, with
14,000 pounds of powder; niter works, with 18 buildings equipped, 3 gun
foundries, 3 rolling mills, and several machine shops, all equipped and
turning out material of war, and vast accumulations of quartermaster and
commissary stores. It was a crushing blow to the Confederacy--this capture
of Selma with its enormous military plant on Sunday, April 2.
The same day
Grant, at the other end of the line a thousand miles away, had broken the
lines at Petersburg, and the evacuation of Richmond began.
THE CAPTURE OF MONTGOMERY.
General Wilson's command remained at Selma about a week, making active
preparations for its next stroke, which was to be against Montgomery, the
former capital of the Confederacy. It was necessary to prepare a thousand
feet of bridging to cross the Alabama River, then at flood tide and filled
with floating debris. Equipments of every kind were looked after and the
most careful refitting of the whole command took place, the Confederate
stores taken offering abundant facilities for such important work.
been horses enough captured to mount the whole command, together with a very
considerable force of negroes for fatigue purposes. With Croxton's brigade
detached and moving by a circuitous route from central Alabama, through
northern Georgia toward Macon, the final objective, the force of the main
column was reduced to 11,000 men.
Upon reaching the outskirts of Montgomery they were met by the officials of
the town and leading citizens, offering surrender without conditions.
followed an astonishment for the people of this capital. The whole force,
marching in close column, with its flags unfurled and music playing, made
its way into and through the city without a marauder leaving its column or a
soldier entering a private house in any quarter uninvited.
And, so far as
information came to the officers of the command, not an insulting word was
spoken. The main portion of the command camped in the vicinity of the city,
while its advance continued rapidly toward Columbus, skirmishing with the
retreating enemy. There was a very considerable capture of steamboats loaded
with military supplies at Montgomery. The halt there, however, was only for
the night, and the next day the main column moved with the greatest celerity
so as to secure a bridge for crossing the Chattahoochee either at Columbus
on the direct road to Macon, or at West Point, further up the river.
By rapid movements, and bold and most brilliant fighting, both the bridge at
Columbus and that at West Point were captured. Though both were prepared for
burning and protected by heavy fortifications well manned by a defending
force, the attacks against these were pushed so vigorously as to make it
impossible for the enemy to fire them.
The bridge-head at West Point was protected by a strong redoubt with a deep
ditch mounting two guns, one a thirty-two pounder, and the work manned by
265 men. This was twice attacked by direct assault, and carried the second
time. The captures were 3 guns, 500 stands of small arms, 19 locomotive
engines, and 240 cars loaded with army supplies, but the greatest importance
of securing a crossing at West Point was that it opened a way direct to
Macon, which could be used for the entire cavalry corps in case the attack
at Columbus should fail.
The main column arrived at Girard, a small town opposite Columbus, early in
the afternoon, finding a heavy line of fortifications protecting three
bridges across the Chattahoochee. Under a vigorous attack upon the lower
bridge the Confederates found it impossible to save it from capture unless
it was destroyed, and set fire to the cotton and turpentine with which it
had been prepared for burning.
It was then decided to make a night attack upon the central bridge, and the
troops were arranged for this desperate work. The lines were very quietly
formed, and moved up to within range of the entrenchments, and at a signal
the assault began. The works were found to be strong and thoroughly
protected with ditches and slashed timber. The enemy, while watchful, was
not expecting a night assault from troops that had not reconnoitered the
fortifications by daylight. They opened fire upon the charging columns, but
in the darkness it was necessarily wild and uncertain.
The Union troops went over the works at many points, and all rushed in haste
toward the bridge, which was the objective point of the attack. It was one
of the most desperate and persistent night fights of the war, but so
thoroughly organized was the attacking force that in spite of the darkness
and confusion it was able to move with sufficient unity to preserve its
columns and formations. Upon the penetration of the works both Union and
Confederate soldiers swept over the bridge toward Columbus, and this was so
crowded with the men of both forces that the enemy holding the works at the
east end of the bridge, and commanding it with artillery, were restrained
from firing till the Union forces made a rush upon them and gained
possession, and Columbus was in full possession of General Wilson's forces.
The next morning it was ascertained that the works had been manned and
defended by 3000 Georgia militia under Generals Howell Cobb and Toombs. The
capture of the city resulted in the destruction of a great quantity of war
material, over 60 guns, the ram Jackson, mounting 6 guns, a large number of
small arms, 125,000 bales of cotton, 15 locomotives, 250 cars, a navy yard
and armory, 2 rolling mills, 1 arsenal and nitre works, 2 powder magazines,
2 iron works, 3 foundries, 1O mills and factories turning out war material,
100,00 rounds of artillery ammunition, and a great quantity of machinery
used in the manufacture of war material.
THE CAVALRY AT COLUMBUS.
Columbus was the great manufacturing center of the Confederacy, and this
destruction inflicted irreparable damage. While little was known at the
North of this sweep of Wilson's columns through the industrial centers and
military storehouses of the Confederacy, it is easy to understand that these
fatal blows at vital points of interior military supply added to the
demoralization and discouragement attending the evacuation of Richmond and
the gathering storm about the armies of Lee and Johnson.
The column moved swiftly for Macon, and about eighteen miles out from it the
officer in advance was met with a flag of truce carrying a note from General
Beauregard notifying the commander of the forces of General Sherman's truce
with General Johnston, stating that an agreement had been entered upon that
the contending forces were to occupy their present positions till
forty-eight hours' notice had been given of the resumption of hostilities.
As General Wilson was eight or ten miles in the rear with his main command,
the note was sent to him, and the officer in the advance pushed to and into
Macon, taking possession of the city. When General Wilson
arrived in the city he went at once to the city hall, where Generals
Howell Cobb, Gustavus W. Smith, and others had been confined. General Cobb
demanded that he and his command should be released, and that General Wilson
should retire to where the flag of truce had met his advance. General Wilson
declared that after receiving the note he had lost no time in pushing on to
the head of his column, and found it in full possession of the city. He
could not accept notification of a truce through the Confederate
authorities, as they were not his channel of communication with General
Sherman, and ended the conference by a positive refusal to acknowledge the
armistice, to retire from the town, or to release his prisoners. When he
announced this decision he said to General Cobb that he could conceive of
but one adequate reason for the truce, and that was that Lee's army had
surrendered. Cobb, however, declined to give any information, but General
Smith, to whom Wilson addressed the same remark, answered that Lee had
surrendered, and that peace would soon follow. Thereupon General Wilson
announced his decision to remain at Macon and conduct his future operations
upon the principle that every man killed thereafter was a man murdered.
This interview was held on the 20th of April just before midnight, and was
the first definite knowledge which Wilson's column had obtained of the
events which had occurred in Virginia.
The surrender at Macon included a large number of small guns and a great
quantity of military stores and supplies. The next day the Confederate
authorities opened communication over their own telegraph lines between
Wilson and Sherman, and the former received orders from the latter to desist
from hostilities pending an armistice. Soon after he received orders from
the Secretary of War, through Thomas, to disregard this armistice and resume
operations, but before this order reached him he learned that Johnston had
surrendered all the Confederate forces east of the Mississippi, and that
peace was assured.
The closing act of General Wilson's campaign was the capture of Jefferson
Davis by regiments from his command. Thus ended the most noted cavalry
movement of the war.
The above is of necessity a very concise presentation of the salient points
of General Wilson's remarkable campaign, conducted alone by mounted troops.
It is not claimed that the account is new. I have published it heretofore in
extended form, though not in the press. This briefer story cannot but be a
repetition of the facts and a synopsis of the fuller statement of them. It
is a chapter in our war history than which no other is more replete with
thrilling and brilliant incident, with skillful planning, and bold and
successful execution. No purely cavalry campaign our war approached it in
these features. It is doubtful whether its parallel can be found in the
cavalry annals of any modern nation. And to this general statement should be
added that the officer who commanded it, who was its organizer and its
controlling spirit, the one upon whom General George H. Thomas leaned as one
of his most trusted lieutenants and advisers, was only twenty-seven years
It is not strange that Lee's and Johnston's surrender fixed the attention of
the country and turned it away from General Wilson's campaign. Had these two
events been delayed a month the land would have rung with Wilson's praises
and with new honors for General Thomas. Indeed, had the withdrawal from
Richmond and the events which so quickly followed it been only delayed in
their beginning by a few days necessary to have informed the country of
Wilson's marvelous successes, it is certain that his breaking up of these
interior storehouses of military material, and the destruction of these many
plants for producing more, would have inseparably and largely connected
themselves in the minds of the people with the eastern surrender as cause
It was a campaign whose success would have been the same had Lee been able
to hold on to Richmond, and had Johnston so eluded Sherman as to prolong the
contest in Virginia and North Carolina.
THOMAS'S PLAN THOUGHT OUT AND FOLLOWED.
From the first this cavalry campaign had proceeded according to a clearly
formed plan. It was made after full conference with General Wilson. First,
it was decided that to render an attack upon Hood's line certain of success
a sufficient cavalry force must be in hand to turn his flank. The next
requirement, that of pursuing so effectively as to break up Hood, could not
be met without sufficient cavalry. So General Thomas held on in the face of
what has been related till he was so nearly ready to strike that he felt
certain of success. As a result, the ends in view were attained. The cavalry
flanking circuits made possible the driving of the enemy from his extended
position. The pursuit by a thoroughly equipped cavalry force made possible
and secured the virtual destruction of Hood's army.
The next campaign, urged by Wilson and approved by Thomas, had for its
objective the destruction of the military storehouses and manufactories, and
the fatal crippling of the Confederacy. How complete was the success of this
second campaign the outlines already presented sufficiently attest.
In summarizing this attempt to again direct attention to this wonderful
cavalry campaign, it may be permissible to repeat the form in which I have
heretofore set it forth in a volume (the concluding chapters of Colonel Donn
Piatt's "Life of Thomas") covering the ground of this article at much
It should be remembered forever in the annals of war that Thomas insisted
upon waiting to remount a portion of the (cavalry) corps before he would
consent to deliver battle, and that when he did march forth against the
veteran and almost invincible infantry of Hood, strongly entrenched in his
front, it was the cavalry corps which broke through his left, and wheeling
grandly in the same direction, captured twenty-seven guns from their
redoubts on the first day, and which, continuing its movement on the second
day, enveloped and took in reverse the left and left center of the
Confederate entrenchments, and so shook their entire line as to make it a
walkover for the infantry which Thomas finally hurled against them. It was
the harassing pursuit of Hood by the cavalry corps which, notwithstanding
the rains and sleet of midwinter and the swollen rivers, broke up and
scattered the host which had so confidently invaded Middle Tennessee only a
month before. Pausing on the banks of the Tennessee till the rough edge of
winter had passed, to gather in the distant detachments, to procure
remounts, clothing, and equipments, and to weld the growing force into a
compact and irresistible army corps of horsemen, the cavalry commander, with
the full concurrence of Thomas, the beau ideal of American soldiers, began
his final and most glorious campaign. No historian or military critic can
read the story of the operations which followed without coming to the
conclusion that they were characterized by the most remarkable series of
successes ever gained by cavalry in modern warfare. They illustrate, first,
the importance of concentrating that arm in compact masses under one
competent commander, and in operations of the first importance; second, the
tremendous advantage of celerity of movement, especially in modern warfare,
where improved firearms play such a decisive part; third, that the chief use
of horses, notwithstanding that they may in exceptional cases add to the
shock of the charge, is to transport fighting men rapidly to the vital point
of a battlefield, and especially to the flank and rear of the enemy's
position, or deeply into the interior of the enemy's country against his
lines of supply and communication, and also his arsenals, armories, and
factories; fourth, that the best infantry armed with the best magazine
carbines or rifles make the best mounted troops, irrespective of whether
they be called cavalry, dragoons, or mounted infantry.
When the fact is recalled that the seven divisions of this corps at the
close of the war mustered about 35,000 men for duty with the colors, and
that had the war lasted sixty days longer they could, and probably would,
have been concentrated in Virginia, it will be seen to what a high degree of
perfection the organization had been brought, and that it fully justified
Sherman's declaration that it was by far the largest, most efficient, and
most powerful body of horse that had ever come under his command. But when
the captures of the strongly fortified towns of Selma, West Point, and
Columbus are considered, with all the romantic incidents of night fighting,
together with the surrender of the no less strongly
fortified cities and towns of Montgomery, Macon, and West Point,
carrying with them the destruction of the last and only remaining arsenals,
armories, factories, storehouses, and military munitions and supplies, and
also the destruction of the railways connecting those places with their
bridges and rolling stock, it will be seen that Johnston and his generals
had nothing else left them but to lay down their arms and surrender. It was
no longer possible for them to concentrate an army, or to supply it with
food, or to keep it armed and equipped. With those places and the
manufacturing plants which they contained still in their possession, and
with the railways connecting them still unbroken, they might have collected
together in the Carolinas a force amply able to cope with Sherman, and
possibly to overwhelm him before reinforcements could reach him.
brilliant but erratic leader, with his splendid army, it will be remembered,
had avoided Macon on the one hand and Augusta on the other, both the seats
of important military industries, and by an eccentric and unnecessary
movement from his true line of operations, had gone to Savannah, leaving the
direct railroads and highways behind him open and free for the use of the
remnants of Hood's army and of the other scattered detachments which were
hastening to form a junction with Johnston, now the sole hope of the
Had it not been for Wilson's wide swath of victory and destruction through
and not around the important cities in his way, during which he captured
8500 prisoners and 280 guns, and afterward paroled 58,000 rebel soldiers
belonging to the armies of Lee, Johnston, and Beauregard, it would have been
easy for Johnston and Beauregard, had they been so minded, to continue the
war indefinitely. As it was, to continue it was simply impossible, and for
this the country is indebted, first, to Wilson and his gallant troopers, and
second, to Thomas, who insisted that they should have time to remount and
prepare for the work before them. Neither the army nor the country ever
appreciated that invincible body of horsemen, or their division, brigade,
regimental, end company commanders, or the high character of the enlisted
men, or the performances of the whole at their real worth. There were
officers among them fit for any command that could have been given them, and
as a body they were as gallant and capable soldiers as ever drew saber or
wore uniform. Had the war lasted a few months longer their fame would have
been a household word. The leaders, though young in years, were old in war.
Wilson himself was at the close not yet twenty-eight. Kilpatrick was about
the same age. Upton was several months younger. Winslow, Alexander, Croxton,
La Grange, Watkins, Atkins, Murray, Palmer, Noble, Kitchell, Benteen,
Cooper, Young, Bacon, and Weston were of the younger set, while McCook,
Minty, Long, Hatch, R. W. Johnson, Knipe, Kelly, Hammond, Coon, G. M. L.
Johnson, Spalding, Pritchard, Miller, Harrison, Biggs, Vail, Israel Garrard,
McCormick, Pierce, and Frank White were somewhat older, though none of them
had reached middle life. Harnden, as sturdy as Balfour of Burleigh, and
Eggleston, the type of those who rode with Cromwell at Marston Moor, were
graybeards, but were full of activity and courage. Ross Hill and Taylor,
although captains, were mere boys, but full of experienced valor.
The men in the ranks were mostly from the Western and Northwestern and upper
slave States, and of them it may be truthfully averred that their superiors
for endurance, self-reliance, and pluck could nowhere be found.
were massed at Nashville they believed themselves to be invincible, and it
was their boast that they had never come in sight of a hostile gun or
fortification that they did not capture. Armed with Spencer's, it was their
conviction that elbow to elbow, dismounted, in single line, nothing could
withstand their charge. "Only cover our flanks," said Miller to Wilson, as
they were approaching Selma, "and nothing can stop us !"
In conclusion, it
may be safely said that no man ever saw one of them in the closing campaign
of the war skulking before battle or sneaking to the rear after the action
began. They seemed to know by instinct when and where the enemy might be
encountered, and then the only strife among them was to see who should be
first in the onset. With a corps of such men, properly mounted and armed,
and with such organization and discipline as prevailed among them during
their last great campaign, no hazard of war can be regarded as too great for
them to undertake, and nothing should be counted as impossible except
When the "records" are all published and the story properly written, it will
show that no corps in the army, whether cavalry or infantry, ever inflicted
greater injury upon the "Lost Cause," or did more useful service toward the
reestablishment of the Union. under the Constitution and the laws, than was
done by the cavalry corps of the Military Division of the Mississippi.