An examination of the Battle of Franklin based on Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’

I’ve been blogging on the Battle of Franklin for over ten years.  I’ve published over 1,000 blogposts on this site. This blog has generated more than 500,000 unique page views. I’m often asked why I don’t publish in traditional book format.  My overall digital imprint engages between 10,000 – 15,000 people every month. I’m afraid print-based products would diminish my overall reach.

Most of my Battle of Franklin posts typically have something to do with an original letter, document, or image related to a soldier or civilian who was engaged in the battle in some way. I will continue to publish those kind of posts but after doing this for over ten years its getting harder and harder to find fresh, original material.

Starting today, I’m going to start evaluating the command decisions, especially among the senior military leaders engaged at Franklin, from the perspective of Sun Tzu’s Art of War. I will also engage with Stoker’s The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2010), alongside Tzu’s strategem.

“Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is perhaps the oldest and one of the most widely read classics of military strategy. Published in ancient China an estimated 2,500 years ago, it has remained “the most important military treatise in Asia” according to the historian and translator Ralph D. Sawyer.[1] This classic of Eastern thought draws from Taoist philosophy and addresses the conduct of war and competition between states with poeticism unlike any classic of Western military theory. Thought to be the transcriptions of a general’s advice to his king, The Art of War emphasizes the use of the unorthodox and deception to overcome adversaries without jeopardizing the dynasty’s existence during a period of increase lethality of warfare. Since its ancient origins, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War has become one of the most influential documents on statesmanship and military strategy and is a classic in the East and West.” Text credit

I will place appropriate quotes from Tzu’s military treatise based on the Kindle book: Sun Tzu. The Art of War (Wisehouse Classics Edition) Wisehouse. Kindle Edition. I don’t know how many posts will be forthcoming in this series. I suspect there will be many.

I’m still researching just how well-known or familiar Civil War generals were with Sun Tzu’s Art of War.  It seems I’ve read previously that many would’ve been familiar with Tzu from their training at West Point.

Here are some helpful resources if you engage in this journey with me:

  • Start with chapter one and follow throughout the discussion with this excellent resource by Jessica Hagy.
  • The complete text is found here too.

The military strategy tomes most Civil War general officers would’ve been familiar with include:

  • On War Against Napoleon by Carl von Clausewitz
  • Elements of Military Art and Science by Jomini


Osage orange tree at Carnton

The Federals placed Osage orange branches all along the main line, in front of the breastworks, for obstruction. This osage orange tree is just west of the Carnton home. It was a witness tree to the battle.

Eric Jacobson excerpt (For Cause & For Country)

 The Federal troops viewed the Osage as a potential barrier, and Stiles’ men began chopping it down to construct a crude but effective abatis. They knew the Osage branches, which were thorny and nearly impossible to break, would cause immense grief to anyone attempting to pass through them. The Indianans furiously hacked at the dense and tangled hedge to further shore up their position. One soldier said, “We went out in front and cut and twisted an osage orange fence till it was about impossible to get thru it.” There was so much Osage present that troops on the left of John Casement’s Brigade also put their axes and hatchets to work and began placing it in front of their works. By midmorning Stiles’ Indiana regiments had an impressive abatis stretched along their front, while Casement’s men constructed a more impromptu obstruction. Also, some of the Osage hedge was left lining both the pike and the railroad. An Indiana officer said some of the boughs were even “piled in the road,” apparently a reference to Lewisburg Pike.

Jacobson, Eric A.. For Cause and Country: A Study of the Affair at Spring Hill & the Battle of Franklin (Kindle Locations 4397-4404). O’More Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Foster’s Map of the Franklin battlefield

On November 30, 1864, under the command of General John Bell Hood, the Confederate Army of Tennessee attacked Union troops just south of the small town of Franklin, Tennessee. Union General John Schofield, having passed by the Confederate troops in the dark of night, was attempting to unite his forces with Union forces positioned in Nashville. The process of moving troops and supplies was slowed in Franklin due to the destruction of the county bridge over the Harpeth River. Recognizing this delay could give Confederate forces an opportunity to attack, Schofield directed his troops to dig earthworks and fortify a strong defensive position along a hill on the southern edge of Franklin. This hill was known as Carter Hill and at its apex was the Carter House.

Hood was disappointed that Union forces slipped away, but he recognized that the Union troops had no quick way to cross the Harpeth River. A full frontal assault was launched against the fortified Union position. The attack was sent forward despite Hood’s troops (including the bulk of his artillery) not fully arriving on the field. The rebels charged and suffered horrific losses. Despite significant casualties, portions of the Union earthworks were taken near the Carter House. Confederate troops outnumbered Union troops and this break in the Union Lines was a strategic advantage that could have changed the outcome of the battle except for a counterattack from General Emerson Opdycke that pushed the Confederates back once more and decided the day.

In only five hours, some 1,750 Confederate soldiers and another 200 Union soldiers were killed. There were a total of nearly 9,000 casualties including those killed, wounded or captured, which earned the Battle of Franklin the distinction of the bloodiest five hours of the Civil War. The costs for the Confederate Army were felt beyond just the loss of soldiers. Six confederate generals were killed, another five were wounded, and one was captured. This loss of leadership was pivotal in the sound defeat of the Confederate Army at the Battle of Nashville some two weeks later and effectively ended the western theater of the Civil War.

The story of the Battle of Franklin is both horrible and fascinating. But it has not been without significant preservation efforts that the Carter House and the Franklin Battlefield have been saved from the pressures of adjacent development. More recently, significant sites have even been purchased and structures have been removed to restore the battlefield. The charge of this master plan is to continue these efforts, to direct future reclamation of the Battlefield from development pressures, and to create a plan to tell the stories of the battle that occurred at Carter Hill and of the people that lived in the simple home that became a crucial Civil War battlefield.

Text credit: Carter House Master Plan (n.d.): p. 4

The West Flank at Franklin

Attack of Cheatham & Lee

To the west of the Columbia Pike, Bates Division of Cheatham’s Corps attacked along a front between what is now Natchez Street and West Main Street (Carters Creek Pike). This terrain was characterized by open fields except for a dense grove of locust trees to the southwest of the Carter House. The locust grove was a dense thicket of vegetation and was a natural barrier to the attacking Confederate troops. Advancing after sunset, Bate’s three divisions temporarily broke the Union line but were driven back with heavy losses. Later that evening around 9:00 P.M., Edward Johnson’s Division of Lee’s Corps was ordered to attack and they hit the Union line between the locust grove and Natchez Street. This assault was also unsuccessful and cost Johnson’s Division over 500 casualties.

Today’s Landscape

The landscape comprising the West Flank remained largely open farmland until the late 19th century. By the 1870s several brick and frame dwellings were constructed along Fair Street and West Main Street in the vicinity of the Union earthworks. These dwellings were built within the Hincheyville subdivision and are part of the Hincheyville Historic District.

During the first decade of the twentieth century, a number of new subdivisions were created in the West Flank area. The largest of these was between Columbia Pike and Carter’s Creek Pike. Appropriately named Battle Ground Park, this 1911 addition consisted of fifty-four lots along two blocks directly west of Columbia Pike. The land north of the subdivision was owned by Battle Ground Academy, which was established in 1889 as a boys school, and land to the south was devoted to the fair grounds. In 1909, the Lynnhurst subdivision consisting of eleven lots was established just west of Carter’s Creek Pike (now West Main Street) by the American Land Company. Just north of this, the thirty- six lot Thorner and Cannons Addition was created in 1911 between what is now West Main and Natchez Street. Here Bates’s Division of Cheatham’s Corps and Johnson’s Division attacked the Union front suffering hundreds of casualties.

Text credit:

Franklin Battlefield Preservation Plan (n.d.): p. 16