It was fought at Nashville, Tennessee, on December 15–16, 1864, between the Confederate Army of Tennessee under Lieutenant General John Bell Hood and Federal forces under Major General George H. Thomas.
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. This line was studded with forts, the largest of which was 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.
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 that 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.
The city was protected by 55,000 men, who should have precluded further offensive operations, but Hood was determined and his situation was dire. Hood reached Nashville on December 2 and staked out a position south of the city, hoping to draw the Union forces into a costly attack.
Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln urged ranking General George Thomas to attack but he delayed for nearly two weeks, citing freezing weather and limited cavalry support. On December 15th, Thomas finally moved forward.
The Union plan called for a demonstration on the Confederate right while the main assault struck a cluster of earthen redoubts on the Confederate left. The diversionary attack broke against artillery posted along present-day Battery Lane.
The short December day halted the fighting, but Thomas struck again on December 16. This time, the entire Confederate line gave way and sent Hood’s men from the field in a total rout. Only the valiant rear-guard action of General Stephen Lee (1833-1908) prevented complete destruction of the Confederate army.
The western bend in the line was anchored on the heights of Shy’s Hill, the eastern bend atop the steep slopes of Peach Orchard (Overton’s) Hill. Federal assaults against Peach Orchard Hill, which had to be made over the tops of trees that the Confederates had felled on the slopes, met tremendous fire from the 2,000 infantrymen and supporting artillery of Lt. Gen. Steven D. Lee’s Corps.
Some 6,000 Federals, including two divisions of USCT, made valiant attempts against the position but were repulsed. The hill only became known as Shy’s Hill after the battle. Confederate Colonel William Shy, of Franklin, was among the defenders. His body was later found on the hill, bayoneted to a tree, a bullet hole in his forehead. Controversy still continues over whether Union or Confederate soldiers were responsible.