Columbia’s most significant combat role occurred November 24 through 29, 1864, during Confederate General John Bell Hood’s campaign to capture Nashville. On a main route between the state capital and the Deep South, Columbia was important in the struggle for control of the area due to its Nashville & Decatur Railroad, its status as Middle Tennessee’s second largest town, and its abundant crop and livestock production. U.S. Brigadier General Thomas Ruger’s eight hundred men had been occupying Columbia, protecting railroad and Duck River bridge crossings. They joined General John M. Schofield’s sizeable incoming army to thwart Hood’s plan.
A series of skirmishes began on November 24. Chalmers’s Division of General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate cavalry repelled the approaching Union cavalry along Mount Pleasant Pike until U.S. Brigadier General Jacob D. Cox’s infantry appeared, ending the rout. Divisions newly arrived from Johnsonville and Lynnville joined in constructing the breastworks along Bigby Creek near the Pike and continued the work on November 25. As the rest of Schofield’s troops arrived, he set up headquarters in the Athenaeum, now a historic site in downtown Columbia, and ordered his army to defend their line from a ridge on the north side of the river toward Rutherford Creek near their supply wagons.
On November 26 Hood arrived and established operations at Ashwood Hall, Colonel Andrew J. Polk’s home, south of Columbia on Mount Pleasant Pike. General Stephen D. Lee (whose command included the hometown “Maury Grays” Company H, First Tennessee Infantry) was sent to attack the Union’s entrenchments on the outskirts of Columbia, but his efforts had little effect on the Federals. The following day, Hood moved his command to the Warfield house on Pulaski Pike, and the remainder of his forces set up positions encircling the city. Forrest’s cavalry rode east for respite outside the lines. Hood decided to go around Schofield to reach Nashville first and ordered Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham’s Corps to cross the river east of Columbia; however, high waters from two days of rain meant a day’s wait for pontoons from Alabama.
Early on November 28, Confederates swarmed into Columbia on the south side of the river, looting and destroying property along the way. By the afternoon, Forrest’s remaining cavalry had crossed to the north side of the river at Huey’s Mill near Lewisburg Pike, and the infantry crossed at Davis’s Ford despite fire from Union soldiers. Brevet Major General James H. Wilson’s small cavalry unit had hastily ridden from Nashville to try to stop Forrest’s advance toward Rally Hill. Wilson gathered his outpost troops from Hardison’s Mill on Lewisburg Pike, regrouped at Hurt’s Crossroads, and the following morning clashed with Forrest near Mount Carmel. Already separated from the main body of the Federal army, Wilson was driven back almost to Franklin.
Also on the morning of November 29, Schofield decided to proceed to Spring Hill, unaware that about twenty thousand Confederates were crossing the river on the east side of town. Supply wagons leading, Federal troops headed north, skirmishing with Rebels along the way. When Confederate General Stephen D. Lee saw blue brigades leaving town, he began withdrawing his artillery contingent to the north side of the river, only to be barraged by U.S. Colonel P. Sidney Post’s infantry ensconced in Greenwood Cemetery.
During the night of November 29, Schofield’s troops continued to Spring Hill, leaving Hood’s encampment a few miles behind. The Confederate failure to disable the Union at Columbia was a missed opportunity that effectively ended the war because, after they left town, Schofield’s men moved north of Hood’s army. That maneuver and luck enabled the Union to withdraw toward Nashville from Spring Hill and Franklin and combine forces with other Federal troops for their decisive victory in the capital.
Wiley Sword, Embrace An Angry Wind: The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah: Spring Hill, Franklin, and Nashville (1992); Jacob D. Cox, The March to the Sea: Franklin and Nashville (1896); James Lee McDonough, Nashville: The Western Confederacy’s Final Gamble (2004).