Kentucky-Northern Tennessee, 1864.
Southern Tennessee-Alabama, 1864.
Map of the Franklin–Nashville Campaign
Hood followed up his defeat in the Atlanta Campaign by moving northwest to disrupt the supply lines of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman from Chattanooga, hoping to challenge Sherman into a battle that could be fought to Hood's advantage. After a brief period of pursuit, Sherman decided to disengage and to conduct instead his March to the Sea, leaving the matter of Hood's army and the defense of Tennessee to Thomas. Hood devised a plan to march into Tennessee and defeat Thomas's force while it was geographically divided. He pursued Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield's army from Pulaski to Columbia and then attempted to intercept and destroy it at Spring Hill. Because of a series of Confederate command miscommunications in the Battle of Spring Hill (November 29, 1864), Schofield was able to withdraw from Columbia and slip past Hood's army at Spring Hill relatively unscathed.
Furious at his failure at Spring Hill, Hood pursued Schofield to the north and encountered the Federals at Franklin behind strong fortifications. In the Battle of Franklin on November 30, Hood ordered almost 31,000 of his men to assault the Federal works before Schofield could withdraw across the Harpeth River and escape to Nashville. The Union soldiers repulsed multiple assaults and inflicted over 6,000 casualties on the Confederates, which included a large number of key Confederate generals, doing heavy damage to the leadership of the Army of Tennessee.
Schofield withdrew from Franklin during the night and marched into the defensive works of Nashville on December 1, there coming under the command of Thomas, who now had a combined force of approximately 55,000 men. By and large, his troops were veterans, the IV Corps under Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Wood and Schofield's XXIII Corps having fought in the Atlanta campaign and Maj. Gen. Andrew J. Smith's "Detachment of the Army of the Tennessee" (a part of the recently discontinued XVI Corps had been redesignated with this unusual name on December 6) having fought at Vicksburg, in the Red River Campaign, at the Tupelo against S.D. Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest, and in Missouri against Sterling Price. While Wilson's cavalry had combat experience, most of it had been of the wrong kind at the hands of Nathan Bedford Forrest, John Hunt Morgan, or Joe Wheeler. Only Maj. Gen. James B. Steedman's Division lacked experience. It was composed of garrison troops and railroad guards from Tennessee and Georgia and included eight regiments of United States Colored Troops.
Union forces had been constructing defensive works around Nashville since the time the city was occupied in February 1862. By 1864, a 7-mile-long semicircular Union defensive line on the south and west sides of the city protected Nashville from attacks from those directions. The line was studded with forts, the largest being Fort Negley. The trench line was extended to the west after December 1. The Cumberland River formed a natural defensive barrier on the north and east sides of the city. Smith's troops had arrived by river on November 30, and their transports had been escorted by a powerful fleet of tinclad and ironclad gunboats. Thus, the river barrier was well-defended.
From east to west the defensive line was manned by the Steedman's division, the XXIII Corps, the IV Corps, and Smith's XVI Corps Detachment. Given the fact that the Federal Army was composed of troops from the Army of the Cumberland, the Army of the Ohio, the Army of the Tennessee, the District of Etowah, and the Post of Nashville, the force in Nashville had no official name.
Hood's Army of Tennessee arrived south of the city on December 2 and took up positions facing the Union forces within the city. As he was not nearly strong enough to assault the Federal fortifications, Hood opted for the defensive. Rather than repeating his fruitless frontal attack at Franklin, he entrenched and waited, hoping that Thomas would attack him. Then, after Thomas had smashed his army against the Confederate entrenchments, Hood could counterattack and take Nashville.
The Confederate line of about four miles of fortifications faced the southerly facing portion of the Union line (the part occupied by Steedman and Schofield). From right to left were the corps of Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Cheatham, Lt. Gen. Stephen D. Lee, and Lt. Gen. Alexander P. Stewart. Cavalry commanded by Brig. Gen. James R. Chalmers was off to the southwest of the city. The Confederate left flank was secured by five small detached redoubts, each having two to four guns with garrisons of about 150 men each.
Hood made a serious strategic error before the battle. On December 2, he sent the three brigades of William B. Bate's Division of Cheatham's Corps to attack the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad between Nashville and Murfreesboro as well as the Federal garrison in the latter city. Three days later, he sent an additional two brigades of infantry and two divisions of cavalry, all under Forrest's command, to reinforce Bate. Hood believed this diversion would draw Thomas out of the Nashville fortifications, allowing Hood to either defeat Thomas in detail or to seize Nashville by a coup de main once its garrison was depleted. While the railroad between Nashville and Murfreesboro was broken in a number of places, the Murfreesboro garrison drove off the Confederates in the Third Battle of Murfreesboro (also called the Battle of the Cedars) on December 7. Furthermore, Thomas was not fooled by this diversion, and remained in his fortifications until he was ready to attack on his own terms. Bate's Division and one of the two attached infantry brigades returned to Nashville, but Hood had seriously diminished his already outnumbered forces, and he had also deprived his army of its strongest and most mobile unit, Forrest and his cavalry.