Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 03/February/Lieutenant-General S. D. Lee's Report of the Tennessee Campaign

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Southern Historical Society Papers: Volume 3  (1877) 
Lieutenant-General S. D. Lee's Report of the Tennessee Campaign
February 1877

Lieutenant-General S. D. Lee's Report of the Tennessee Campaign, beginning September 29th, 1864.

[Pursuing our policy of giving the preference to reports from original MSS., we publish the following from an autograph MS. of the accomplished soldier who prepared it. So far as we are aware, it has never before been published in any form, and it will be, therefore, an important addition to the material of military students, as well as of deep interest to all desiring to see some account of that campaign.]

Columbus, Mississippi, January 30th, 1865.

Colonel—I have the honor to offer the following as my official report of the operations of my corps during the offensive movement commencing at Palmetto station, Georgia, September 29th, 1864. It is impracticable now, in consequence of the movement of troops and my temporary absence from the army, to obtain detailed reports from my division commanders.

As a corps commander, I regarded the morale of the army greatly impaired after the fall of Atlanta, and in fact before its fall the troops were not by any means in good spirits. It was my observation and belief that the majority of the officers and men were so impressed with the idea of their inability to carry even temporary breastworks, that when orders were given for attack, and there was a probability of encountering works, they regarded it as recklessness in the extreme. Being impressed with these convictions, they did not generally move to the attack with that spirit which nearly always insures success. Whenever the enemy changed his position, temporary works could be improvised in less than two hours, and he could never be caught without them. In making these observations, it is due to many gallant officers and commands to state that there were noticeable exceptions, but the feeling was so general that anything like a general attack was paralyzed by it. The army having constantly yielded to the flank movements of the enemy, which he could make with but little difficulty, by reason of his vastly superior numbers, and having failed in the offensive movements prior to the fall of Atlanta, its efficiency for further retarding the progress of the enemy was much impaired; and, besides, the advantages in the topography of the country south of Atlanta were much more favorable to the enemy for the movements of his superior numbers than the rough and mountainous country already yielded to him. In view of these facts, it was my opinion that the army should take up the offensive, with the hope that favorable opportunities would be offered for striking the enemy successfully, thus insuring the efficiency of the army for future operations. These opinions were freely expressed to the Commanding General.

My corps crossed the Chattahoochee river on September 29th, and on October 3d took position near Lost mountain, to cover the movement of Stewart's corps, on the railroad, at Big Shanty and Altoona. On October 6th, I left my position near Lost mountain, marching via Dallas and Cedartown, crossing the Coosa river at Coosaville October 10th, and moved on Resaca, partially investing the place by four P. M. on October 12th. The surrender of the place was demanded in a written communication, which was in my possession, signed by General Hood. The commanding officer refused to surrender, as he could have easily escaped from the forts with his forces and crossed the Oustenaula river. I did not deem it prudent to assault the works, which were strong and well manned, believing that our loss would have been severe. The main object of appearing before Resaca being accomplished, and finding that Sherman's main army was moving from the direction of Rome and Adairsville towards Resaca, I withdrew from before the place to Snake Creek gap about midday on the 13th. The enemy made his appearance at the gap on the 14th in large force, and on the 15th it was evident that his force amounted several corps. Several severe skirmishes took place on the 15th, in which Deas' and Brantley's brigades of Johnson's division were principally engaged. This gap was held by my command till the balance of the army had passed through Matex's gap, when I followed with the corps through the latter. The army moved to Gadsden, where my corps arrived on October 21st. At this point clothing was issued to the troops, and the army commenced its march towards Tennessee. My corps reached the vicinity of Leighten, in the Tennessee Valley, October 29th. Stewart's and Cheatham's corps were then in front of Decatur. On the night of the 29th I received orders to cross the Tennessee river at Florence, Alabama. By means of the pontoon boats two brigades of Johnson's division were thrown across the river two and a half miles above south Florence, and Gibson's brigade of Clayton's division was crossed at south Florence. The enemy occupied Florence with about 1,000 cavalry, and had a strong picket at the railroad bridge. The crossing at this point was handsomely executed and with much spirit by Gibson, under the direction of General Clayton, under cover of several batteries of artillery. The distance across the river was about one thousand yards. The troops landed, and, after forming, charged the enemy and drove him from Florence. The crossing was spirited, and reflected much credit on all engaged in it. Major-General Edward Johnson experienced considerable difficulty in crossing his two brigades, because of the extreme difficulty of managing the boats in the shoals. He moved from the north bank of the river late in the evening with one brigade, Sharp's Mississippi, and encountered the enemy on the Florence and Huntsville road about dark. A spirited affair took place, in which the enemy were defeated with a loss of about forty killed, wounded and prisoners. The enemy retreated during the night to Shoal creek, about nine miles distant. The remainder of Johnson's and Clayton's divisions were crossed on the night of the 30th and on the morning of the 31st. Stevenson's division was crossed on November 2d. My corps remained in Florence till November 20th, when the army commenced moving for Tennessee, my command leading the advance and marching in the direction of Columbia via Henryville and Mount Pleasant. I arrived in front of Columbia on the 26th, relieving Forest's cavalry then in position there, which had followed the enemy from Pulaski.

The force of the enemy occupying Columbia was two corps. They confined themselves to the main works around the city, and their outposts and skirmishers were readily driven in. On the night of the 27th the enemy evacuated Columbia and crossed Duck river. Stevenson's division of my corps entered the town before daylight. After crossing, the enemy took a strong position on the opposite side of the river and entrenched, his skirmishers occupying rifle pits 250 yards from the river. There was considerable skirmishing across the river during the day, and some artillery firing, resulting in nothing of importance.

On the morning of the 29th Johnson's division of my corps was detached and ordered to report to the General Commanding. I was directed to occupy and engage the enemy near Columbia, while the other two corps and Johnson's division would be crossed above and moved to the rear of the enemy in the direction of Spring Hill. The entire force of the enemy was in front of Columbia till about midday on the 29th, when one corps commenced moving off—the other remaining in position as long as they could be seen by us, or till dark. I had several batteries of artillery put in position, to drive the skirmishers of the enemy from the vicinity of the river bank, and made a display of pontoons—running several of them down to the river, under a heavy artillery and musketry fire. Having succeeded in putting a boat in the river, Pettus' brigade of Stevenson's division was thrown across, under the immediate direction of Major-General Stevenson, and made a most gallant charge on the rifle pits of the enemy, driving a much superior force and capturing the pits. The bridge was at once laid down and the crossing commenced. During the affair around Columbia the gallant and accomplished soldier, Colonel R. F. Beckham, commanding the artillery regiment of my corps, was mortally wounded while industriously and fearlessly directing the artillery firing against the enemy. He was one of the truest and best officers in the service.

The enemy left my front about 2.30 A. M. on the morning of the 30th, and the pursuit was made as rapidly as was prudent in the night time. The advance of Clayton's division arrived at Spring Hill about 9 A. M., when it was discovered that the enemy had made his escape, passing around that portion of the army in that vicinity. My corps, including Johnson's division, followed immediately after Cheatham's corps towards Franklin. I arrived near Franklin about 4 P. M. The Commanding General was just about attacking the enemy with Stewart's and Cheatham's corps, and he directed me to place Johnson's, and afterwards Clayton's, division in position to support the attack. Johnson moved in rear of Cheatham's corps. Finding that the battle was stubborn, General Hood directed me to move forward in person, to communicate with General Cheatham, and, if necessary, to put Johnson's division in the fight. I met General Cheatham about dark, and was informed by him that assistance was needed at once. Johnson was immediately moved forward to the attack, but owing to the darkness and want of information as to the locality, his attack was not felt by the enemy till about one hour after dark. This division moved against the enemy's breastworks under a heavy fire of artillery and musketry, gallantly driving the enemy from portions of his line. The brigades of Sharp and Brantly (Mississippians), and of Deas (Alabamians), particularly, distinguished themselves. Their dead were mostly in the trenches and in the works of the enemy, where they fell in a desperate hand to hand conflict. Sharp captured three stand of colors. Brantly was exposed to a severe enfilade fire. These noble brigades never faltered in this terrible night struggle. Brigadier-General Manigault, commanding a brigade of Alabamians and South Carolinians, was severely wounded in this engagement, while gallantly leading his troops to the fight; and his two successors in command, Colonel Shaw was killed and Colonel Davis wounded. I have never seen greater evidences of gallantry than was displayed by this division, under command of that admirable and gallant soldier, Major-General Ed. Johnson. The enemy fought gallantly and obstinately at Franklin, and the position he held was for infantry defence one of the best I had ever seen. The enemy evacuated Franklin hastily during the night of the 30th. My corps commenced the pursuit about 1 P. M. on December 1st, and arrived near Nashville about 2 P. M. December 2d. The enemy had occupied the works around the city. My command was the centre of the army in front of Nashville; Cheatham's corps being on my right and Stewart's on my left. Nothing of importance occurred till the 15th. The army was engaged in entrenching and strengthening its position. On the 15th the enemy moved out on our left, and a severe engagement was soon commenced. In my immediate front the enemy still kept up his skirmish line, though it was evident that his main force had moved. My line was much extended, the greater part of my command being in single rank. About 12 M. I was instructed to assist Lieutenant-General Stewart, and I commenced withdrawing troops from my line to send to his support. I sent him Johnson's entire division, each brigade starting as it was disengaged from the works. A short time before sunset the enemy succeeded in turning General Stewart's position, and a part of my line was necessarily changed to conform to his new line. During the night Cheatham's corps was withdrawn from my right and moved to the extreme left of the army. The army then took position about one mile in rear of its original line. My corps being on the extreme right, I was instructed by the Commanding General to cover and hold the Franklin pike. Clayton's division occupied my right, Stevenson's my centre, and Johnson's my left. It was evident soon after daylight that a large force of the enemy was being concentrated in my front on the Franklin pike. About 9 A. M. on the 16th the enemy, having placed a large number of guns in position, opened a terrible artillery fire on my line, principally on the Franklin pike. This lasted about two hours, when the enemy moved to the assault. They came up in several lines of battle.

My men reserved their fire till they were within easy range and then delivered it with terrible effect. The assault was easily repulsed. It was renewed, however, with spirit several times, but only to meet each time with a like result. They approached to within thirty yards of our line, and their loss was very severe. Their last assault was made about 3½ P. M., when they were driven back in great disorder. The assaults were made principally in front of Holtzclaw's Alabama, Gibson's Louisiana and Stovall's Georgia brigades of Clayton's division, and Pettus' Alabama brigade of Stevenson's division, and too much credit cannot be awarded Major-General Clayton and these gallant troops for their conspicuous and soldierly conduct. The enemy made a considerable display of force on my extreme right during the day, evidently with the intention of attempting to turn our right flank. He made, however, but one feeble effort to use this force, when it was readily repulsed by Stovall's Georgia and Brantley's Mississippi brigades, which latter two had been moved to the right. Smith's division of Cheatham's corps reported to me about 2 P. M., to meet any attempt of the enemy to turn our right flank; it was put in position, but was not needed, and, by order of the Commanding General, it started to Brentwood about 3½ P. M. The artillery fire of the enemy during the entire day was heavy, and right nobly did the artillery of my corps, under Lieutenant-Colonel Hoxton, perform their duty. Courtney's battalion, under Captain Douglas, was in Johnson's front, Johnson's battalion was in Stevenson's front, and Eldridge's battalion, under Captain Fenner, was in Clayton's front. The officers and men of the artillery behaved admirably, and too much praise cannot be bestowed upon this efficient arm of the service in the Army of Tennessee. The troops of my entire line were in fine spirits and confident of success (so much so that the men could scarcely be prevented from leaving their trenches to follow the enemy on and near the Franklin pike). But suddenly all eyes were turned to the centre of our line of battle near the Gracey White pike, where it was evident the enemy had made an entrance, although but little firing had been heard in that direction. Our men were flying to the rear in the wildest confusion and the enemy following with enthusiastic cheers. The enemy at once closed towards the gap in our line and commenced charging on the left division—Johnson's—of my corps, but were handsomely driven back. The enemy soon gained our rear and were moving on my left flank when our line gradually gave away. My troops left their lines in some disorder, but were soon rallied and presented a good front to the enemy. It was a fortunate circumstance that the enemy was too much crippled to pursue us on the Franklin pike. The only pursuit made at that time was by a small force coming from the Gracey White pike. Having been informed by an aide of the General Commanding, that the enemy were near Brentwood, and that it was necessary to get beyond that point at once, everything was hastened to the rear. When Brentwood was passed, the enemy was only half a mile from the Franklin pike, where Chalmer's cavalry was fighting them. Being charged with covering the retreat of the army, I remained in rear with Clayton's and part of Stevenson's divisions, and halted the rear guard about seven miles north of Franklin about 10 P. M. on the 16th. Early on the morning of the 17th our cavalry was driven in in confusion by the enemy, who at once commenced a most vigorous pursuit, his cavalry charging at every opportunity and in the most daring manner. It was apparent that they were determined to make the retreat a rout if possible. Their boldness was soon checked by many of them being killed and captured by Pettus' Alabama and Stovall's Georgia brigades and Bledsoe's battery under Major-General Clayton. Several guidons were captured in one of their charges. I was soon compelled to withdraw rapidly towards Franklin, as the enemy was throwing a force in my rear from both the right and left of the pike on roads coming into the pike near Franklin and five miles in my rear. This force was checked by Brigader-General Gibson, with his brigade and a regiment of Buford's cavalry under Colonel Shacklett. The resistance which the enemy had met with early in the morning, and which materially checked his movements, enabled us to reach Franklin with but little difficulty. Here the enemy appeared in considerable force and exhibited great boldness, but he was repulsed and the crossing of the Harpeth river effected. I found that there was in the town of Franklin a large number of our own and of the enemy's wounded, and not wishing to subject them and the town to the fire of the enemy's artillery, the town was yielded with but little resistance. Some four or five hours were gained by checking the enemy about 1½ half miles south of Franklin and by the destruction of the trestle bridge over the Harpeth, which was effected by Captain Coleman, the engineer officer on my staff, and a party of pioneers, under a heavy fire of the enemy's sharpshooters. About 4 P. M., the enemy, having crossed a considerable force, commenced a bold and vigorous attack, charging with his cavalry on our flanks and pushing forward his lines in the front. A more persistent effort was never made to rout the rear guard of a retiring column. This desperate attack was kept up till long after dark, but gallantly did the rear guard, consisting of Pettus' Alabama and Cummings' Georgia brigades (the latter commanded by Colonel Watkins) of Stevenson's division, and under that gallant and meritorious officer Major-General C. L. Stevenson, repulse every attack. Brigadier-General Chalmers, with his division of cavalry, covered our flanks. The cavalry of the enemy succeeded in getting in Stevenson's rear and attacked Major-General Clayton's division about dark, but they were handsomely repulsed; Gibson's and Stovall's brigades being principally engaged. Some four or five guidons were captured from the enemy during the evening.

About 1 P. M. I was wounded while with the rear guard, but did not relinquish command of my corps till dark. Most of the details in conducting the retreat from that time were arranged and executed by Major-General Stevenson, to whom the army is much indebted for his skill and gallant conduct during the day. I cannot close this report without alluding particularly to the artillery of my corps. On the 16th, sixteen guns were lost on the lines—the greater portion of them were without horses—they having been disabled during the day; many of the carriages were disabled also. The noble gunners, reluctant to leave their guns, fought the enemy in many instances, till they were almost within reach of the guns. Major-General Ed. Johnson was captured on the 16th; being on foot, he was unable to make his escape from the enemy in consequence of an old wound. He held his line as long as it was practicable to do so. The Army of Tennessee has sustained no greater loss than that of this gallant and accomplished soldier. To all my division commanders, Stevenson, Johnson and Clayton, I am indebted for the most valuable services; they were always zealous in the discharge of their duties.

Although it is my desire to do so, I cannot now allude to the many conspicuous acts of gallantry exhibited by general, field and company officers, and by the different commands. It is my intention to do so in future, when detailed reports are received. To the officers of my personal staff and also of the corps staff, I am indebted for valuable services; they were always at their posts and ready to respond to the call of duty.

I have the honor to be, yours respectfully,

S. D. Lee, Lieutenant-General. 

Colonel A. P. Mason, A. A. G.