The Battle of Spring Hill was one of the great lost opportunities of the Civil War, and the modern re-focus of attention onto the war in the West has turned it into one of the great “what ifs?” of the conflict. But as I wrote earlier this month, John Bell Hood probably let an even greater opportunity slip through his fingers by dallying in Alabama for weeks, time that George Thomas used to collect and organize forces to oppose him.
But what if Hood had won a great victory in Middle Tennessee in November 1864, either by invading the state earlier and catching Thomas’s forces completely scattered for defeat in detail, or by pinning and mauling Schofield’s command of IV and XXIII Corps at Spring Hill?
Across The Cumberland
Victory in either case would have eliminated a large chunk of the forces available for use in Middle Tennessee, but the most important part is what Hood likely would have done in the wake of such a major victory. The Army of Tennessee lacked the strength to actually lay siege to Nashville or take the city by assault, but what it could do is cross the Cumberland River, march north of Nashville and get on the Louisville and Nashville railroad line.
The strategy would have been similar to what Bragg intended for his 1862 campaign, namely to draw the enemy army out into the open for a straight fight by cutting off their supplies. Bragg lacked the nerve to carry the plan through.
Crossing the Cumberland would have been a highly risky operation. I’m sure Hood could have tamed Union naval opposition to effect the crossing, but having those gunboats in his rear would have effectively cut off his line of retreat. After Franklin, Hood didn’t dare try such a thing, but if he had won instead of lost he probably would have taken the gamble.
Win Or Lose, They Still Lose
Assuming Hood could beat Thomas in that battle, what then? Thomas would likely have tried to get around for a retreat on Louisville, and failing that he would have fallen back on Nashville. The latter would have resulted in a genuine siege.
As dramatic a reversal of fortunes as that would have been, however, I have a hard time seeing it change the outcome of the war in the slightest. The Confederacy’s fate was sealed by Lincoln’s reelection, and any victory in Tennessee would have come weeks too late to alter that outcome.
Sherman’s bummers appeared on the Georgia coast around the same time as the Battle of Nashville. Most likely Grant would have sent some of his forces to organize in Louisville for a march against Hood, and these forces would have been replaced by Sherman’s troops, brought up to Virginia by sea. Sherman himself would have returned to personal control over his Division of the Mississippi. Another battle would have been fought, the Army of Tennessee either damaged again or outright destroyed, and the destruction of the Carolinas would have gone to Grant as he pursued Lee’s battered and retreating Army of Northern Virginia.