“I was there. I saw it. My flesh trembles, and creeps, and crawls when I think of it…I cannot describe it. Would to God I had never witnessed such a scene.”
Sam Watkins, private, 1st Tenn Infantry-(writing of the event years later)
It was a beautiful day, late afternoon, in what used to be called “Indian Summer,” November 30, 1864, when the Confederate army of Tennessee, moving North, began to arrive a mile or two due south of the little town of Franklin, Tennessee. The leading units of the long column were made to halt on the dusty road. The soldiers were tired, having just made a hard fifteen mile march from the tiny hamlet of Spring Hill where they had camped the evening before. Though they couldn’t be sure of it, they felt something in the air, a palpable energy, a distinct sense of foreboding. And from the anxious glimpses of sober general and staff officers they sensed it even more.
Still they rested on their rifles for a few minutes and tried to relax. Their common sense knew the hour of the day, that little daylight was left. The army was behind them and in less than two hours it would be dark. No time for infantry to form into battle lines-no sir.
The men in the lead elements of that long column of thirty-five thousand rebels,the majority of whom were veterans, had seen no artillery. Their batteries had to be far behind. If the enemy under General Schofield was dug in and waiting for them up ahead in Franklin, no officer with a “lick of sense” would attack such a well situated enemy force,an army they had been chasing for several days, without a preliminary bombardment of field artillery. Even the headstrong, daring John B. Hood, their youthful one-legged commander, would never order an attack without artillery support and little daylight remaining.
Artillerymen had to be able to see their targets. It was simply too late in the day for the whole gang to get to the battlefield. They’d never arrive in time-way too far back.
No, the men surely breathed a sigh of relief, sure that that they would shortly be sent into the fields stretching on either side of the road, make campfires, and bed down for the night. If a battle was to be fought, it would be tomorrow. And private soldiers had learned to worry about tomorrow when it came, to let the day’s own troubles be sufficient for the day.
To the anxious infantry the anticipated orders to drop bedrolls,break ranks, and make camp never came. Instead at around 4 pm the men of Ben Cheatham’s corps having formed into a two mile long gray line were given orders to advance over the open ground, undulating farmland with hardly a tree or bush to impede their advance or offer cover once the shooting started, toward the Federal works bristling with rifled muskets and artillery ringing the village of Franklin. It was like a huge Sunday afternoon dress parade. Survivors and witnesses later said that it was a splendid sight, with bayonets fixed, bands playing and the colors of each regiment flapping in the breeze. The slow steady tramp of thousands of feet was a “sound” said one “like the low, hollow rumble of distant thunder.”
The Federal troops crouching behind those newly constructed earthworks ringing the village looked at each other in utter bewilderment, stunned that the Rebels would attack such a strong position in such a manner out in open fields with virtually no cover. Officers with field glasses mesmerized by the spectacle, shook their heads in disbelief. Though they had not anticipated such a thing, as veterans of many hot fights, they had wisely prepared for it. Sergeants and officers moved along the lines of nervous infantry steadying them,making sure that they were ready to”greet” their enemy with everything they could throw at them as soon as they came in range, artillery loaded with canister (like a great shotgun) and thousands of rifles, many of them Spencer repeating rifles, accurate up to four hundred yards. And so they did.
It was a god-awful slaughter, most of it fought after dark, a fight that even battle hardened veterans such as Sam Watkins, (quoted above), would remember as the worst of the war- for the Southern soldiers. The carnage lasted approximately five hours, until the Federal forces abandoned their positions and headed for Nashville. The exhausted, bloodied Southern army, shot all to pieces, did not and could not pursue. Six Southern generals, including the gallant “Pat Cleburne”, were killed. The lucky units placed in the rear of the Southern army who had missed out on the battle, marched into the town into a macabre scene in the dark tripping over the bodies of their fallen comrades, hearing the pitiful cries of the wounded from every direction. Even to the veterans, it was like nothing they had ever seen.
Technically, it was a Southern victory. But, like the battle of Bunker Hill in the Revolution, it was the kind of “victory” that could not be celebrated. It had come at a terrible cost. And the Federal army, the fox that they had been chasing and hoped to bag, got away.
Nowadays the town of Franklin is a peaceful but bustling, prosperous community and one would scarcely guess that it had hosted such an event unless he makes a visit to the Carter House, a structure that still bears the scars of the battle, now maintained as a historic site and museum and open to the public. A mile or two away the Carton mansion, where four dead generals were laid out on the back porch is open to the public as well. In a well tended enclosed cemetery on the property over two thousand Confederates lie buried, all casualties of the battle of Franklin. Though most were killed outright, many buried in the Carnton cemetery were men who later died of wounds suffered during that intense fight. On WInstead Hill, where the Southern generals gathered for a brief conference prior to the battle, there are monuments to the fallen generals, a historical tablet or two, and a picnic area.
More Confederates died as a result of the battle of Franklin in five hours than American soldiers have died in ten years of the current Afghanistan war.One can make the case that the final hopes of the Southern Confederacy died at Franklin on November 30, 1864.
A few days later the remnants of the Southern army limped into Davidson County and laid “siege” to the city of Nashville. This time General Hood, his army now depleted and understrength, could only order his men to dig into the hills south of town in a long thin line stretching East to West and hope that his enemy would concentrate his assaults only along a strong portion of his line in as foolish a manner as he had done at Franklin. It was a fool’s hope. His opponent George Thomas, a competent veteran,one of the best officers in Federal army, didn’t oblige. On Dec.15 and 16th his troops made the attack. Thomas had enough men to attack all along the Southern line, the strong and the weak portions. At Shy’s Hill on Dec.16, the weak portion of Hood’s line (on the left) collapsed and like a line of dominoes, the rest of the Confederate line followed suit. By the end of the day Franklin Road and Granny White Pike were jammed with fleeing rebels headed South. They would have to pass again through the town of Franklin where they had been so terribly mauled two weeks before with yet another sad, humiliating story to tell.
The outcome of the Battle of Nashville was never really in doubt. The Southern troops, tired, demoralized, hungry, and freezing, had had it. They fought back as brave as ever but were overrun and sent packing by a much larger, rested, well- armed, well-fed, and well clothed enemy army in a battle described by many historians as the most complete victory of our Civil War. Though the loses in killed and wounded at Nashville were nothing like what had been suffered at Franklin, two to three thousand rebels were captured and thus taken out of the war. The Confederate army that finally stopped it’s retreat and made camp in Alabama after Christmas in late 1864 was a mere shadow of the army that had lined up south of Franklin and launched that furious and tragic assault of November 30. For all practical purposes, the Western theater of the war was over. A little over three months later it all ended with the surrenders of R.E. Lee and J.E. Johnston’s armies in the East.
To learn more about the Battle of Franklin, I highly recommend two books: EMBRACE AN ANGRY WIND by Wiley Sword and THE BLACK FLOWER, a novel by Howard Bahr. And, of course, there is the book quoted above, and already recommended in this blog: CO. AYTCH by our old friend Sam Watkins. He was there and saw it all.