How the Army of Tennessee Traveled to NC by Rail in 1865
by Gordon Thorsby
It is not often explained how the Army of Tennessee got to the east in any detail in 1865. Documents are sparse. There is one anecdotal piece.
Hood's Army was virtually destroyed in December,1864 by Gen. George Thomas' Army at Nashville. In the next few weeks, the Hood's remnant of an Army wintered at Tupelo, MS re-equipping and reorganizing. Every man was needed in the east for Lt. Gen Joesph E. Johnston to fight the approaching army of William T. Sherman. How was the Army of Tennessee going to get here? It was an interesting feat?
Hood gave furloughs to some soldiers, especially from Mississippi and many of those that went home never returned. Some Georgia units were sent to that state. Desertions were. high. There were 3500 under Stephen D. Lee, 1200 under Alexander Stewart, and 1900 under Benjamin Cheatham. The number of men for the Army of Tennessee totaled approximately 6600. Other historians place the number closer to 4500 and to put in in perspective, Pickett's division at Gettysburg was about10,000. With Sherman moving into the Carolinas, the AOT had to get to the east on tracks being up in many places.
The small army would need to navigate its way to Augusta where Maj. Gen D.H. Hill was in command of the city, then to go by rail north through Columbia, SC, through to Chester, SC and onto Charlotte where decisions were to be made for the gathering of all available forces. There were problems with getting there.
Rail gauges were not unified. In 1865, and the rail system was in poor shape. The Confederate system was based on a “States rights" philosophy and the concept did not
encourage states working together. To get to Charlotte NC, the AOT used nine different railroads, did a fair amount of walking in between and quite a bit of waiting. In some places troops were ferried across rivers because of burned bridges. The challenge was something that simply could not be accomplished within a reasonable period of time. Maj. Gen D.H Hill managed the transfer of men and supplies as far as Agusta, GA.
The army had to go in one of the most circuitous train rides to transfer a force that was possibly imagined. Actually, the transfer was well accomplished. Lee’s Corps of 3500 started on January 19th, Cheatham’s Corps departed Tupelo on the 25th, two days after Hood’s removal, and Stewart’s Corps departed on the 30th. They achieved the move more quickly than anyone could imagine.
To better illustrate how at least one unit got there:
“Gen Edmund Pettus’ Brigade left 1/19 by rail,“ on the trek of 500 miles, nine different rail lines, crossed the Tombigbee River by ferry, traveled the deep Alabama River by steamboat, the guns went by water, the artillerymen traveled by foot, marched 35 miles from Milledgeville GA to Mayfield, hopped back on card and finished the trip on 1/30.
The trains were almost solely for infantry.” Artillery mostly traveled by water (ie. Columbus GA) as often as possible and because Artillery encumbered too many cars to transport the batteries with their supply of needs. Wagons benefitted from neither rail or water. They simply traveled by use of the roads.
It was identified that the average unit was able to move from Tupelo to Charlotte through what remained of a transportation system in nine days; an accomplishment considering the alternatives at that point in the war.
It wasn’t without problems. There was one derailment with casualties but only one. Desertion was rampant in the process. “As the men traveled, they could see the effects of war on their homelands and it must have pulled on heartstrings. On the way over 900 men in two brigades were not at role call after arriving.” They went home. They were done with fighting. Lt. Colonel Cornelius Walker of the 10th South Carolina reported that the regiment left for Augusta with 233. When they arrived in North Carolina, 45 answered role call.
Unit structure broke down in the movement to get units loaded on cars. When units got to the field and in some cases went into battle (Wyse Forks), they went in under other units. Some men rode on top, others inside and the men rotated to minimize exposure to cold and rain. Five men from the 8th Arkansas froze to death.
The Army of Tennessee made it to Charlotte in time to defend the town for Sherman's move on the city his move was only a feint and he turned for Fayetteville. The Army of Tennessee would meet Sherman yet one more time.
Railroads of the Confederacy, Black, Robert C. III, Wilmington NC 1987
The Battle of Wise’s Forks, by Sokolosky, Wade and Smith, Mark A., Savas Beatie, 2015.
No Such Army Since the Days of Julius Caesar, Smith, Mark A. And Sokolosky, Wade, Savas Beatie, 2017.
Calamity in Carolina, Savis, Daniel T. And Greenwalt Phillip S, Savas Beatie, 2015.
Lecture on Bentonville by Philip Brown, at the Gettysburg Military National Park, National Park Service, 2015.