Why Franklin matters, 146 years later?

A couple years ago I was engaged in a conversation with Widow of the South author and long time Franklin resident Robert Hicks.  At one point Robert posed this challenge to me.  He said something like, “The question we must be able to answer today . . . is why does Franklin matter?” That question has been racking my brain ever since. It’s what fuels me blogging on Franklin and leading the Facebook Group.

146 years ago today – November 30th – the second battle of Franklin was fought in Williamson County, in the little town of Franklin, Tennessee.  In a day and time when Civil War history is hardly even mentioned in school classrooms and textbooks – even in the very states that were impacted the most by the war – I find it almost incredible that one need even ask this question today, why does the battle of Franklin (30 November 1864) matter? What are the chief lessons we can still learn from this battle that might even benefit us today?

In order to answer this basic question, it is necessary to succinctly summarize this major Civil War battle.

The Civil War – or as some would say . . . the War Between the States, started in April 1861.  The United States Army at the outbreak of the war had a standing Army of about 10,000 soldiers.  That was it. When the first shot was fired over Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861, and effectively started the Civil War, most people, from pundits to politicians, thought that if there was going to be any war it might last for 90 days. Maybe.

Over 3 1/2 years and hundreds of thousands killed Americans later, everyone was wondering when this tragic cloud was ever going to pass. As the 1864 election loomed on the horizon in the fall of 1864 most northerners also thought that the Commander in Chief – Abraham Lincoln – didn’t have a chance of being re-elected as President.

The only realistic chance the Confederate States of America had in winning this long-protracted war in late 1864 was to see Lincoln defeated, and then maybe popular opinion and support in the north would erode enough for the next U.S. president to call an end to the military action and seek a truce with the CSA, thereby officially recognizing the Confederate States of America as a legitimate political entity, instead of being viewed legally by the United States as states that were involved in insurrection.

The worst news possible for the CSA came on November 8, 1864. Lincoln had won re-election. This more than anything – at the time – assured that the cherished Confederate cause would inevitably be lost. Why? Because with Lincoln’s re-election it all-but insured that the North would continue to fight a war against the CSA with now (late 1864) considerably better resources in people and material.  With Lincoln’s re-election, all the North had to do was to virtually outlast the CSA, battle by battle.

Thus, with that background, we come to late 1864 in middle Tennessee in order to set the stage to understand the Nov 30, 1864 battle of Franklin.

In July 1864 CSA President Jefferson Davis replaced General Johnston as the Commanding General of the Army of Tennessee. Johnston was not making the progress Davis desired in Georgia/Atlanta and Davis knew he had a fighter in Kentuckian John Bell Hood. From late July through September Hood would stand up to the Union commanders, including Sherman, but even his tactical victories did not come at a reasonable cost. Hood would lose thousands of men in his first 90 days of command, men he could ill-afford to lose for what would come in the fall.

As General Sherman made the decision to march toward the sea (Nov 15th), and make Georgia howl, Hood decided to head toward middle Tennessee with the hopes of recapturing Nashville, which had fallen in February 1862 to the Union without a shot even being fired.  Hood believed that his Confederate Army of Tennessee (of roughly 23,000 troops in November 1864), which had thousands of native Tennesseans in the ranks and several in leadership, would fight with such heart and vigor that it would nearly be like one Rebel killing five Yankees. Hood believed that a Confederate victory at Nashville would result in a re-invigoration of the Confederate cause, bringing in tens of thousands of new Confederate soldiers all throughout the South, especially Tennessee.

So, Hood’s ultimate goal and prize was Nashville, after all General George H. Thomas only had about 11,000 soldiers defending Nashville.  But a funny-thing happened on the way to Nashville for Hood.  The first was the Spring Hill debacle.

On his way to Nashville – in late November 1864 – Hood’s forces would be engaged by U.S. General John M. Schofield’s forces on November 29th.  Though neither side would lose a lot of men, Hood did lose a real opportunity for a knockout punch of Schofield’s troops at Spring Hill. To make matters worse, the entire US army would awaken before sunrise on the morning of the 30th and make their way toward Nashville.  Schofield knew he had to get his men to Nashville first so he could join up with Thomas and prepare for the inevitable battle at Nashville in December. With most of Hood’s Confederate army still sleeping, the Union army slipped through cracks along the Columbia Pike. The bird had flown the coup!

By the time Hood learned of the Union army’s escape from Spring Hill, it seemed the Rebel commander was more focused on assigning blame to his subordinates than focusing on chasing after the Union army. Seething, sore and perhaps sulking, Hood and his army arrived about 2 1/2 miles outside of downtown Franklin about 1pm on the 30th.  His horse carried his disabled body – lacking one leg – up Winstead Hill so Hood could survey the Harpeth Valley and the position of the Union army.  What he found was not good.

The entire Union army – around 20,000 strong – was also securely entrenched in a roughly two mile arc around the horseshoe shape of the Harpeth River at Franklin.  When Schofield got into Franklin in the early morning hours of the 30th he found the two main bridges had been destroyed by Franklin residents, who had figured on the Union army coming from the north not the south.  Not having time to get his entire army and miles of supply wagons across the raging Harpeth in time, Schofield had no option but to entrench; and entrench they did.

The Union troops had worked feverishly for several hours the morning of the 30th placing breastworks, digging trenches and placing osage orange abatis in front of their lines.  Even as late as 2pm many in the Union army did not think Hood would be so foolish as to assault the defended Union lines.

With just a few more hours of daylight left now, Hood gathered his trusted subordinate Generals in the parlor of Harrison House, about 300 yards behind Winstead Hill, and announced his intention; his Confederate Army would make the nearly two mile open ground march through the Harpeth Valley as it headed north toward the Union line at Franklin. Hood was sure that his men would break through several points in the Union line and eventually drive Schofield’s army into the Harpeth. Though his ultimate goal was Nashville, he believed that the opportunity to drive the Federals into the Harpeth would be victorious and thus render the Spring Hill debacle as irrelevant.

To a man, not a single General under Hood’s command agreed with the assault.  It was viewed as unwise at best and suicidal at worse.  But the CSA Generals manned-up and did their duty with courage and seasoned humility. General Cleburne told a colleague that if “we are to die today, let us die like men.”

The charge would be made with virtually no support from Confederate artillery, across nearly two miles of open ground, against a Union army of 20,000+ securely protected by earthworks and artillery support provided by batteries across the river in Union Fort Granger, among other battery support.

The entire Confederate army lined up east-west across the Harpeth Valley with Winstead and Breezy Hill, intersected by Columbia Pike, being the center. It was now 4 o’clock.  The signal was given, the Confederate bands began playing, and Hood’s brave men started their march toward Franklin.  Within 45 minutes the Confederate assault was in full force.  Initially the Rebels seemed to gain the upper hand as they overwhelmed a couple of Union brigades out in front, about a mile from the main Union line. The Union soldiers, half-stunned and thoroughly scared, fired 6-8 rounds and then ran for their very lives back to the Union main line.  The Rebels were given orders to shoot them in the back.

As the lead Federal troops hastily skeedaddled back to the line, their entrenched comrades could not shoot at their Confederate attackers for fear of friendly fire casualties. By the time many of these men got back to their main line thousands of Rebel troops were so hot on their heels that hand-to-hand fighting broke out within minutes in the hop spots around the Carter House and the Carter Cotton Gin, both very close to the Columbia Pike.

For the next few hours – from five until nine – over 40,000 Americans would fight a horrific battle centered around Fountain Branch Carter’s 280+ acre farm near downtown Franklin. The action was horrific and almost beyond imagination in its atrocities.  At some parts of the Union line, twelve to fifteen separate Rebel charges would be counted. They just kept coming and coming. It was a terrible slaughter for the Confederates. The Federals captured at least 18 Rebel colors or flags during the action.

The fighting around the Carter House and Cotton Gin was most intense.  Hand-to-hand fighting took place here as men from both sides fired their rifles point-blank, then turned their empty rifles around and smashed the butt of their guns into the head of their enemy.  Bayonets were employed. They used axe heads and picks, anything to try and kill their fellow man.  Hand-to-hand fighting, especially in the dark, was very rare in the Civil War. About 85-90% of the primary action at Franklin was fought in the dark.

The Rebel army nearly broke successfully through the Union lines in at least two places but was eventually repulsed by troops of the likes of Opdycke’s Tigers.

By 9’oclock in the evening, the worst fighting was over. Several Confederate Generals lay dead or mortally wounded just outside of the main Union line. The Rebels lost – killed, wounded, missing or captured -around 6,500 of their 23,000 engaged. A staggering number, including some 1,750 killed outright.  The Union numbers were much smaller. They had roughly 2,500 casualties, with less than 200 dead.

Compared to other major battles Franklin was a bloodbath.  The casualty rate at Franklin was four to five times worse than almost every other major action in the long Civil War (1861-1865).  Indeed, some historians say that Franklin was the bloodiest five hours during the Civil War. One can count on one hand the number of other Civil War battles that can begin to compare to the atrocity at Franklin.

Unbelievably, and some might say incredulously, Hood would pick up the remains of his defeated Army of Tennessee in the early days of December and limp into Nashville, once again on the heels of the retreating Union Army under Schofield.  But by mid December the Union Army had a strong numerical advantage over Hood’s CSA men as Schofield’s troops combined strength with Thomas’s men already at Nashville.

Barely two weeks after suffering the horrendous defeat at Franklin, Hood’s Army of Tennessee engaged George H. Thomas’s Union armies at Nashville on December 15-16. Hood would be outnumbered nearly two to one at Nashville and though his men fought valiantly and courageously, the outcome would be no better than Franklin.  Hood lost over 6,000 men at Nashville. The Army of Tennessee was all but obliterated in just two weeks. Hood would retreat back into Alabama in late December and would give command of his men over to General Dick Taylor in mid January.

So, why does the Battle of Franklin matter?

To be fair, we should combine the action at Spring Hill and Nashville into the equation and re-state the question; why does the middle Tennessee campaign (including Franklin) matter?

It meant a lot to the Confederate cause for what it did NOT accomplish.  The middle Tennessee campaign – Spring Hill / Franklin / Nashville – did nothing to bring about Confederate control or capture of Nashville, Hood’s stated objective. Instead, what happened on the rolling fields of the Harpeth Valley and around the hills of Nashville in late 1864 simply brought about the effectual destruction of a once-proud Confederate army and forever rendered the chances of a Confederate re-capture of Nashville null.

As historian Wiley Sword has described the campaign, it was the Confederacy’s “last hurrah”. With the recent re-election of Abraham Lincoln just weeks before Franklin, the defeat of the Army of Tennessee at Franklin-Nashville was an omen that the Confederate cause had run its course – at least in the western theater – and Robert E. Lee would not be able to count on any assistance or support from any Confederate victories or armies west of Richmond any longer.

Within four months after the respective battles of Franklin-Nashville, Lee would surrender to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia.

But why does the Battle of Franklin matter today? 146 years later?

I think Franklin matters today for several reasons.

First, some of the other major battles were fortunate to get their own national military parks, some with thousands of preserved battlefield acres, to commemorate, memorialize and honor their brave dead. Places like Chickamauga, Shiloh, Gettysburg and Stones River. Franklin missed that opportunity over a hundred years ago and therefore this little community has always struggled to tell its story on a national level and thus have the ability to tap into the power of the American psyche.

You won’t find names and places like Little Round Top or Devil’s Den at Franklin.  We don’t have a bloody Wheatfield nor a Sunken Road.  You won’t find Lee or Jackson named at Franklin.  You won’t find Grant or Sherman at Franklin.

Instead, Franklin tells its story through the likes of names like Schofield, Strickland and Stiles for the Blue, and the likes of Hood, Cleburne and Forrest for the Rebs.  Our battlefield is hallowed by the likes of Winstead Hill, the Carter farm, the Carter cotton gin, Carnton plantation, the Harpeth River, and McNutt hill.

If Gettysburg got front page attention in the New York Times, the Battle of Franklin has been given sparce mention in the “other news” section on page twenty.  Our story is also not very well known because the cameras of Brady and Gardner never made it to the Cumberland River. The picture media mainly stayed out east in Virginia and Pennsylvania.

The Franklin story of 1864 is special and perhaps matters more for the headlines it is making today.

No other community in America has been more successful in recovering more Civil War battlefield land – assumed forever lost to commercial development – than Franklin has in the past ten years.  No, we don’t have 2,000 acres of pristine battlefield land laden with scores of markers.  Instead, one has to get in one’s vehicle and drive to several points of interest around Franklin to get a sense for the action that took place in our story; stops like Winstead Hill, Cleburne’s Park, the Cotton Gin site, the Carter House, the Lotz House, Fort Granger, Carnton Plantation, and of course McGavock Confederate Cemetery.

The story of Franklin, nearly 150 years later, is being told on the backs of $25 private donations to organizations like Franklin’s Charge and Save the Franklin Battlefield. Its being led by the likes of the Franklin Battlefield Trust and the myriad of Union and Confederate descendant organizations that struggle to raise funds to install another marker at Winstead Hill, to restore a tattered 140 year old Confederate flag, to properly commemorate a marker dedicated to an unknown soldier.

The Franklin story in 1864 was told by the likes of the names of Hood,  Carter, Lotz, Cleburne, Schofield, Stiles, Cox, Courtney and Forrest, among others.

The Franklin story of 2010 is carried on the backs of people named Hicks, Jacobson, Cartwright, Thompson, Warwick, Flagel, Prouty, and Gant, to mention but a few.

The modern story of Franklin is one worthy of all the honor, dignity, and courage of the men who faced one another in the Harpeth Valley in late 1864.

The men who fought on the fields of Franklin in 1864 sacrificed to live the story; nearly 150 years later our generation is called upon to sacrifice to share the story. We will continue to sacrifice our time, talent and treasure to support our community treasures like Carnton, the Carter House, the Lotz House, the Cotton Gin, and the new marker dedicated to the Unknown soldier at Resthaven.

Our story is embodied in the spirit of the two true living sons who came to Franklin in October 2009 to help our community honor and rebury an unknown soldier whose remains were unearthed while a backhoe was laying the foundation for a Chick-fil-A on Columbia Pike. Union son Harold Becker – whose father fought at Franklin – and Confederate son James Brown, Jr., – whose father fought at Gettysburg – brought a spirit of humility, comraderie and dignity to our community last year.

I will never forget the evening they first met in my living room. They embraced one another and then both immediately broke into a sorta mea culpa as they essentially shared the same basic thought and belief they no doubt got from their father; “my father never said a bad word about the Rebels/Yankees. He had nothing but utmost respect for them.

That’s the Franklin legacy. People today from very different backgrounds and communities, united on telling a story that divided us 146 years ago, but brings us together to fight for a cause greater than anyone of us individually can accomplish on our own today.

That’s why Franklin matters . . . .

(Visit FranklinMatters.com to participate in the Battle of Franklin Facebook Group, some 2,600 strong as of Nov 30th, 2011)

2 thoughts on “Why Franklin matters, 146 years later?

  1. Sam Gant

    Kaig McNutt’s blog, “Why Franklin Matters,” comes right to the point and shows well what really does matter. In a concise and precise approach, McNutt lays out the background and the reasons that the Battle of Franklin was important locally and nationally in the latter half of the 1860s and why it continues to be important to us and to the nation even to the 21st Century.

    Sam C. Gant, PhD
    Professor emeritus
    Nashville State Community College


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