Perhaps the most fatal decision of the Civil War was made in Gadsden in October of 1864, when the Army of Tennessee, commanded by the dashing Gen. John Bell Hood, encamped here for two days.
Recently driven out of Atlanta, Hood zigzagged his army up through northwest Georgia and northeast Alabama in an effort to confuse his pursuer, U.S. Gen. Sherman.
Hood, a brash young man of 33, devised an ambitious strategy to move his command to Nashville to strike Sherman’s supply line, thus forcing him out of Georgia. Once across the Alabama line, Hood marched directly to Gadsden.
At the Baptist Church on Oct. 20, Hood met with Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, the newly-appointed Military Commander of the West, who was informed for the first time of Hood’s plan to invade middle Tennessee.
Although Hood’s superior, Beauregard was at a disadvantage to discourage the grandiose scheme, since both Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his military advisor Braxton Bragg concurred with it.
With no authority to command, Beauregard resorted to counsel with Hood. He stressed that the plan, although basically sound, had little chance of success unless swiftly executed.
Beauregard noted that there was not sufficient time for Hood to transfer his base to Tuscumbia, near the Memphis and Charleston Railroad.
Hood countered that ample supplies would be available to him in middle Tennessee. If forced to retreat, he was confident that he could make a river cro-ssing anywhere with his pontoon bridges.
The destruction of the railroad near Dalton and Marietta was so thorough, Hood contended, that it would take the federals at least six weeks to repair it. By that time, the Army of Tennessee would be in middle Tennessee, forcing Sherman out of Georgia in order to protect his communications and obtain su-pplies.
Having fulfilled his role as counselor, Beauregard went through the formality of placing his official approval upon the plan. One of Beauregard’s ideas was included in that Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest would come from west Tennessee to provide Hood’s cavalry screen.
While Hood and Beaure-gard conferred, the soldiers of the Army of Tennessee did what they could to amuse themselves, unaware of the mighty drama unfolding about them.
In Gadsden, Hood had approximately 35,000 battle-hardened but ill-equipped troops comprised into four corps.
B.F. Cheatham camped in the area now bounded by Fourth, Fifth, Broad and Chestnut streets. Stephen Lee was in the North Gadsden area, Arnold Elzey was east across the Coosa and A.P. Stewart was along Black Creek. Thus the hamlet of Gadsden, barely numbering 400 souls, was encircled by a ribbon of steel and gray tinged with the red clay smudges of North Alabama soil.
Over 2000 soldiers arrived barefooted, but most of these men were outfitted with new supplies that were sent from Jacksonville via the Blue Mountain Railroad.
When the announcement was made that the army was heading for Tennessee, there arose from the different encampments wave after wave of rebel yells piercing the autumn breezes, signaling an improvement in the mood of the weary soldiers.
One soldier recalled after the war that the “words were like magic. Hood was forgiven, Johnson was forgotten, and a memorable march began.”
Not even the wretched rain-soaked morning that greeted them on the 22nd could dampen the soldiers’ high-spirited march out of Gadsden. The awe-inspiring scene that remained after their departure was captured in words by a correspondent for the Montgomery Daily Mail:
“The army has moved. The troops are gone. The last train has disappeared, and the last soldier has taken his farewell peep of the south side of the Coosa [River]. The shadows of night creep slowly over the scene, and the stars look down in vain for the campfires that answered but yester-night their own resplendent glitter.
“You may hear indeed the clink of a few rusty chains, which are left behind; you may see indeed dim outlines of a few old wagons that did not cross the stream, and now and then you may meet a stray quartermaster groping about in gloom, but the great caravan with its wild menagerie has passed beyond the stretch of eye and ear.”
In the meantime, Sherman had followed Hood into Alabama as far as Gaylesville, where he encamped awaiting his adversary’s next move. Though obviously puzzled by the Confederate movements, Sherman was never seriously fooled or distressed over what would be the outcome of the cat and mouse game with Hood.But at least to satisfy the federal high command, he had to go through the motions of giving pursuit to the mobile Confederates.
At dawn on the 25th, three days after Hood’s departure, Sherman sent a heavily-enforced corps toward Gadsden under Ge-neral Peter I. Osterhaus to test the Confederate strength.
Nearing Leesburg, the federals encountered small pockets of Gen. Joe Whee-ler’s cavalry, which were left in town to create the impression that the entire army was still encamped there.
Wheeler retreated in the face of the federal assault until he reached Turkeytown Valley where he decided to make his stand. Osterhaus stretched out a strong line of skirmishers across the valley and rushed two brigades down the right road.
While Wheeler was thus preoccupied fighting off the assault on his left, a third federal column swept forward under a cover of woods along Lookout Slope and successfully broke the Confederate left flank.
Wheeler managed an orderly retreat into Gadsden, but probably could not have held the place had Osterhaus known that the army was gone. Instead, he withdrew into woods at Turkeytown, about seven miles north of Gadsden.
The siege of Gadsden finally ended on the 27th when Sherman discovered that Hood was near Decatur. After plundering the Chattooga Valley, Sherman turned his face toward Atlanta, and thence beyond to his coveted goal…the sea.
Hood’s advance into Tennessee was beset with trouble and bad timing from the beginning. He departed Gadsden in such haste that he forgot his pontoon bridge that stretched across the Coosa River. Hood had second thoughts about crossing the Tennessee River at Guntersville and instead moved west through Decatur to Tuscumbia, his new base.
Beauregard, who remained in Gadsden two days to clear up final details, knew nothing of this change of direction until he arrived in Guntersville to rejoin the army.
Confident of victory, Hood pushed through Flo-rence and overran Columbia and Spring Hill, Tenn., with little trouble.
At the Battle of Franklin on Nov. 30, 1864, however, Hood gained a hollow victory when 6,000 of his men were killed or wounded in a charge across open field into federal breastworks.
But Hood could not be dissuaded from his obsession to reach Nashville. He gathered his depleted army of 23,000 men together, continued up the pike, and put that federally occupied citadel under siege for two weeks.
Inside those works, Gen. George Thomas waited with 55,000 eager, well-fed and well-equipped troops to throw against the ragged Army of Tennessee.
The Battle of Nashville lasted from December 15 to 16. At 4 p.m. on the second day, the sheer weight of the attacking federal lines flowed through a Confederate salient extending out on Shy’s Hill on Hood’s left. The schism quickly spread from the left into the center, until the hills and fields were filled with a muddy mass of Confederate gray streaming south toward safety.
Pinched with cold and hunger, the Army of Tennessee degenerated into a mob. Hundreds of barefooted men stumbled blindly through the darkness, their footprints leaving a trail of blood down the frozen Franklin Pike.
Ten days later, the reeling and harassed army finally stopped its flight south of the Tennessee River. The high hopes that had wafted into the autumn breezes with the Rebel yells at Gadsden now lay strewn throughout the bloodstained hills and valleys of middle Tennessee.
Little else of military value occurred in Gadsden and Etowah County during the remaining days of the war. Major General E.C. Walthall and his corps spent one night here on Jan. 14, 1865, en route to Decatur to re-enforce Confederate lines. Eleven days later, Major General William B. Bate, also en route to Decatur, stayed overnight with his cavalry. If there were other military activities, then they are lost to history insofar as the author knows.
Tiny Gadsden, which had witnessed two mighty events in the poignant dra-ma of the Civil War, possibly ended the war as she began it, a quiet village on the banks of the Coosa River.