Category Archives: Battle description

Booknote: Twenty-five Hours to Tragedy; The Battle of Spring Hill and Operations on November 29, 1864: Precursor to the Battle of Franklin

Amazon states:

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 9.11.25 PM.pngTwenty-five Hours to Tragedy: The Battle of Spring Hill and Operations on November 29, 1864 – Precursor to the Battle of Franklin is a compilation of eyewitness testimony linked by narrative telling the story of the great missed opportunity by the Confederate Army of Tennessee on November 29, 1864. Led by General John Bell Hood, a Confederate envelopment around Columbia, Tennessee left Union Major General John McAllister Schofield’s Fourth and Twenty-third Army corps strung out and beyond supporting distance of their wagon train. One lone division that had been sent to Spring Hill to protect the Union Army’s wagon train found itself confronting nearly 25,000 Confederate soldiers by mid-afternoon. While Union Major General David S. Stanley did all in his power to stop the Confederate attack, it seemed nothing could save them. Suddenly the fog of war set in, and as the sun sank on the western horizon, the Confederate high command found itself paralyzed with inaction, indecision, poor judgment and finally darkness. This maneuver forced General Schofield to conduct a harrowing forced march to Spring Hill past nearly 22,000 highly motivated Rebel soldiers within a few hundred yards of Columbia-Franklin Pike as darkness cloaked the field. While the Federals marched into a set Confederate trap that was never fully sprung, Confederate commanders stumbled through the starlight, and the Union army slipped past the lion’s den. The next day brought about the Battle of Franklin – a direct result of Confederate inaction and miscommunication the night before at Spring Hill. Twenty-five Hours to Tragedy is the largest and most in depth account of the actions that took place at Spring Hill. This account adds more testimony and sheds even greater light on a night filled with confusion and disappointment for the Confederate high command. Told by over one-hundred-and-fifty eyewitness participants, the accounts are linked by narrative that place the reader on the field in the midst of enthusiastic Confederate and anxious Union soldiers. The events of November 29, 1864 sealed the fate of the Confederate Army of Tennessee. Only twenty-five hours after the Confederate Army’s arrival on the battlefield of Spring Hill, the decision to assault the heavily defended fortifications at Franklin was made. It was a decision that would not have to be made had the Confederates followed through with their plans at Spring Hill. Follow the armies in their race to Spring Hill, the combat there and the critical decisions that led to the Federal escape and a total Confederate command breakdown in the most devastating blunder of the American Civil War.

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The Battle of Franklin seen through the eyes of a Union soldier in Stiles’ Brigade

What must have it been like to have been able to sit down with a first-hand participant of the Battle of Franklin, within minutes after the battle, and to get his observations?  Fortunately, we don’t have to imagine.  All we need to do is to read the authentic accounts from those who lived through it themselves to know.  One such lucky soldier was Lee Ewing from the 63rd Indiana Infantry.

It is these kind of first-hand accounts that far surpass accounts recorded in official reports, newspapers, and post-war recollections (some decades later).

Captain Addison Lee Ewing (Co I, 63rd Indiana) was on the far left Union flank at Franklin, serving in Stiles’ Brigade.  I have blogged on Ewing many times in the past.  Ewing was from Haubstadt, Indiana – near Evansville – and served throughout the entire war. He kept a personal diary faithfully, recording his observations and reflections every day. He also wrote home a lot.

Several years ago I was very fortunate to acquire a large collection of personal letters and documents that belonged to Ewing. I say fortunate, because there were many times when his personal papers and correspondence, that he kept with him while in the field, was nearly lost or destroyed.  I have three dozen or so letters by him and numerous documents like muster in/out rolls.

I also have a copy of his entire war time diary.  His current living descendants have been most gracious and magnanimous in providing me access and info on their ancestor.

I have examined and studied Ewing’s diary entries and letter content in which he specifically commented or described what took place at Franklin (30 Nov 1864) from his perspective.  For our purposes here I have distilled my comments by using a simple web tool called TagCloud to determine what words (or word clusters) were most prominent in Ewing’s diary and letters as he was commenting on his experience at Franklin.  One of the key values of this type of analysis is that it is fresh, unfiltered and as authentic as it gets.  Ewing recorded nearly 1,000 words related to his account and observations of the Battle of Franklin.

The main word cluster or semantic domain for Ewing was line or works.  This makes perfect sense.  The 63rd Indiana was on the far left Union flank, as one can see on the map. They were sandwiched between the 128th and 120th Indiana Infantries, respectively.  All part of Stiles’ Brigade, these Hoosier boys protected the far left Union flank, buttressed up against the railroad track and the Harpeth River. Stiles’ men would be assaulted by Loring’s Division, hundreds of Confederates from Scott’s and Featherston’s Brigades.

When Ewing and his men first arrived in Franklin in the early morning hours of the 30th he says that, “We drew rations and made coffee and was lined up in position where we proceeded to throw up temporary works as we often had done.”  Part of that temporary works, besides typical head logs, was the resourceful use of osage orange branches along this line.  Osage orange branches are very hard and prickly. They were often used as natural “barbed wire” for fencing and containing cattle at the time.  Ewing continues, “Our lines was extended from the Harpeth River above town to the river just below, and of a horse-shoe shape.”

Several hours before the battle started (about 4pm on the 30th), Ewing and several of his men were placed several hundred yards in front of the main federal line on picket duty. Ewing wrote in his diary on the 30th, “Myself and company however were placed out on picket and had dug some rifle pits to spend the night.”  However, the skirmishers of the 63rd Indiana did not have the opportunity to engage in typical pre-battle skirmishing action, as Ewing recounts, “There was no skirmishing by us, for the Rebs formed two lines of battle and came dashing out of the woods in fine style, a skirmish line in front and one in the rear.  I yelled to my skirmish line to fall back to the works and started myself.”

It probably took between 15-20 minutes for Loring’s men to reach the Federal position where Stiles’ men were.  Four Federal infantry units under Israel Stiles awaited the advance from Scott’s and Featherston’s units.  Ewing and his men made it back behind their works before the first Confederate charge from Scott-Featherston took place. Ewing describes the exact moment when that clash between the two armies took place, “When the advancing line came up within range the infantry behind the works, a sheet of flame leaped forth with death and wounds in it for hundreds of the brave men fighting for an ignoble cause.”

What took place for the next 3-4 hours in this area of the field can hardly be described as anything short of hellish. But let Ewing’s words serve as an authentic account of what took place, “The whole scene of action was soon covered with smoke that but little could be seen in detail.  For about a dozen times the Rebs was led to charge, only to be repulsed with great slaughter.  Many of their banners were planted upon our works with the most heroic determination but was met with as determined resistance.”

December 11, 1864 letter by 63rd Indiana officer still reflecting on Battle of Franklin

My Dear Wife,

Day before yesterday I commenced a letter to you but it was so cold yesterday and this morning that I didn’t get it finished for this morning’s mail.  But I have just got yours of Dec 4th and glad to hear from you as I always am, but when the interval between letters gets long as was the case this time I get anxious. You had evidently not got the two or three letters I have written since the Franklin battle. Yes I was there in command of our Brigade skirmish line when the battle commenced.  But our Heavenly Father has spared me through another fierce conflict where many fell, more worthy than I. It is impossible for me to give you any real idea of the fierceness of the charge of the Rebbles. Or the gallantry with which it was met by the boys in blue. You will find by perusing my journals many little insights of a soldier’s life which I do not give in letters.  I hope you will not give it to others to read and criticize nor criticize it too closely yourself, for I know you will make many allowances when I come to tell you the circumstances under which it was written during a ceaseless nine month’s campaign.

I am glad that the poor of Evansville are so well remembered by the farmers of Vanderburgh. I shall always be a friend to the poor. Got the coat and it is generally admired by the Officers for its beauty and fineness, though it doesn’t fit as well as military rules would prescribe. However you can judge some by the enclosed photos how it makes me look. The package sent by Tom I haven’t yet received, but I will get it I suppose. Don’t bother about the gold pen.

Mrs Harris must have a very interesting time. Well don’t let her get mad at you. She spoke very highly of you and Mother Eaton in her letter. I wish you had some pleasant companion until I get home, but then you have peaceable neighbors who will I hope afford you protection. As to my coming home Christmas don’t you flatter yourself up so much a belief and then suffer a terrible disappointment, for there is no certainty at what time I can get to come home but I hope to see you sometime this winter. But it will depend a great deal on what the Rebs will do and how the weather is for campaigning. This has been a terrible cold day and I have lain under my blankets all day. But I hope you will plenty of wood and coal to keep you and Baby comfortable all the winter long. Write soon to your affectionate one,  Lee

Source: The Kraig McNutt Civil War Collection, Copyright 2012

New York Times’ headlines for December 5th, 1864 – coverage of the Battle of Franklin

Heavy Skirmishing in Front of Nashville.
A Reconnoitering Expedition No Rebels Across the River.
Surrender of a Blockhouse to the Rebels.
Rebel Views of Hood’s Movement.
Gen. Stanley’s Wound The Chattanooga and Nashville Railroad.

Special Dispatch to the New-York Times.
NASHVILLE, Saturday, Dec. 3. After two days of wet weather, the clouds disappeared this morning, and the day has been magnificent. I have been on our right all day. Our line of battle extends around the suburbs of the city, our right and left, respectively, resting on the Cumber land River. The enemy’s line of battle is just two miles from the city. Quite heavy skirmishing in front of Gens. A.J. SMITH and WOOD has been going on all the afternoon by sharpshooters on both sides. On the right of our centre, near Widow ACKLIN’s place, the enemy’s skirmishers became troublesome, taking refuge behind houses on Franklin, Granny White and Highborn pikes. Two houses were burned, several injured and ruined by our artillery. We used considerable artillery this afternoon on our right and right centre, but elicited no reply from the rebel artillery. The supposition is that they are short of this kind of ammunition. Several of our men were killed to-day by their sharpshooters, including two members of the Sixth Ohio Battery. The enemy’s line can be seen quite plainly with the naked eve. All railroading south of this city has ceased to exist. Murfreesboro, Bridgeport and Chattanooga are deemed safe. Events of some moment are anticipated to-morrow. It may be considered an impossibility for the rebels to cross the river either on our right or left, as Commodore FITCH is here with a fleet of gunboats. Johnsonville has been evacuated. Everything was removed from all the railroads in safety. Thirty-three locomotives and trains were sent North this morning. Nashville and the surrounding country for miles has been converted into a huge fortress. The destruction of rebel property in deface of the city will be almost incalculable. As almost all the rich property-owners hereabouts are rebel sympathizers, the rage manifested by this portion of the community at the approach of the rebel army, necessitating the destruction of their property, is unbounded. Gen. FRANK CHEATHAM, commanding one of the rebel corps, has his headquarters at the house of Mr. EDMONSON, on the Murfreesboro pike, four miles from the city. He told EDMONSON that HOOD had orders to go to Nashville or to hell. There is plenty of water in the river for boating purposes Vague rumors are afloat about FORREST crossing the river, and BEECKINRIDGE joining HOOD, all of which are untrue. The situation of our forces is considered perfectly satisfactory. BENJ. C. TRUMAN.

NASHVILLE, Tenn., Sunday, Dec. 4. No new developments have taken place to-day, except that our army still encircles the city on the southeast, its wings resting on the Cumberland River. The enemy’s lines are clearly to be seen from high points in the suburbs and from the capitol. They are in trenching themselves in a southwestern direction, about three miles from the city. During the day heavy skirmishing occurred on our left and progressed along the line to the centre. Many persons witnessed the cannonading. Along the right of our lines nothing of importance transpired to-day. The general opinion is that HOOD will attack the Federal forces in front of Nashville. A Federal cavalry force has patrolled the north bank of the river at the fords to prevent cavalry from crossing, as numerous unsuccessful attempts have been made by them to cross since the 1st inst. Johnsonville has been evacuated, and the road has been uninterrupted, and part of the trains from there are advancing to this point by land. It is rumored here to-day that FORREST has placed a pontoon bridge across the river above the city, and that MARMADUKE has occupied Johnsonville. Both are without foundation. The first block-house on the Chattanooga road, four miles from the city, defended by negroes, commanded by Col. JOHNSON, of the colored infantry, who surrendered Dalton, Ga., and was paroled, held out unit this afternoon, when they surrendered. Col. JOHNSON and a portion of his men escaping on a train. The remainder were captured. The train was fired into. Several jumped from the train into the river and escaped. Col. JOHNSON among them, who is in the city tonight. A reconnoitering party sent Thursday returned today, having gone eighty miles up the river. They report that no rebels were seen or heard of crossing the river, and none appeared upon the banks. A rebel deserter, who came in to-day, reports that Gen. S.D. LEE published an order to his men Friday morning, complimenting them on their bravery, devotion, & c, thanking them for the victory won at Franklin, and assuring them that if true to themselves now in front of Nashville, they would be soon enabled to enter and take possession of a vast amount of stores contained there. Two prisoners were brought in to-day, Lieut. HICKMAN, Ninth Tennessee Cavalry, four miles from the city, and C.H. GARDY, of FORD’s Forty-eighth Georgia Infantry. The water on the shoals is nine feet deep, and still rising. REBEL VIEW OF HOOD’s CAMPAIGN. From the Sentinel. The news from Tennessee through United States papers, is of further retrograde without fight on the part of the Federal General This means, of course, further advance of the army of Gen. HOOD. By previous reports. Gen. FORREST was upon a flank movement. The next day tells the result. THOMAS fell back from Columbia to Franklin, twenty-five miles in twenty-four hours, a rapidity of movement which is a complement to his celerity, and evidence of the fright which hurried him. It was appropriately celebrated in New-York by a rise in gold. Franklin, at or near which point we are to suppose that HOOD had arrived. is only nineteen miles by rail from Nashville. Another flanker by FORREST, will send THOMAS behind the fortifications of the latter city. What may be HOOD’s further movements, we can only conjecture, so can the enemy. It would be a small thing for FORREST to do, to swing around Nashville and cut its Northern connections. HOOD has probably but to place the city in his rear to frighten THOMAS out of it. It would seem very clear that HOOD has already ccomplished enough to restore almost the whole of Tennessee to our side of the military lines. He has but to march upon East Tennessee to regain complete possession there without a blow. Lost by the treachery of the Commander at Cumberland Gap, it may soon be ours again. Isolated, cut off and unsupported, Chattanooga would then become utterly untenable by the enemy. This would restore to us our line of railway through Knoxville and Chattanooga to the Southwest. The campaign would indeed be glorious that should close with such an advantage to our cause; and yet it is a consummation which seems within our grasp. It may be that HOOD iS striving for still more. It may be that Nashville is to be regained, and that the feet of his soldiers will press the soil of Kentucky here halt is called. We cherish large hopes from his enterprise, but trust that what is now in our-grasp will not be too much imperiled in an effort at more. If it shall please Heaven to favor us with the success which it now seems reasonable to expect in Tennessee, it will be an overwhelming rebuke of the braggart SHERMAN, and hundredfold compensation for the pigs he may steal, and the corncribs he may burn, while running the gauntlet in Georgia. We watt with solicitude and yet with cheering anticipations, for further tidings. Gen. Stanley’s Wound — The Chattanooga and Nashville Railroad. LOUISVILLE, Dec. 3. Maj.-Gen. D.S. STANLEY left here by the mail-boat for his home at Yellow Springs, Ohio, this afternoon. His wound is rattier painful but not dangerous, and Col. SCOTT, the Surgeon-General of Kentucky, expresses the opinion that he will be able to reenter the service within fifteen or twenty days. Yesterday the rolling stock of the Chattanooga and Nashville Railroad, consisting of large numbers of trains, was ordered to Louisville. The order was countermanded to-day. The passenger train from Nashville has arrived three hours behind time.

Dec 3rd, 1864 letter by 104th Ohio soldier offers grisly detail of Rebel casualties

Nashville, Tenn
Dec 3rd, 1864

There is a mail going out in a few minutes and I must write a few lines to tell you of my safety. You have heard of the fight at Franklin day before yesterday and will be anxious to hear particulars.

I was sent with several others of the Co. after rations about an hour before the charge was made and the fight was almost over before we could get to our works. Tho we started immediately, I tell you, it was a hard battle but our boys stood their ground like heroes, tho a part of the 4th Corps left their works which almost lost the day for us. Our Corps has now, at last, a name which we may be proud of. The enemy’s loss was awful, you can have no idea of it unless you could see the field. The nearest fighting in our Brigade line was directly in front of our Co. We were the left center Co., next to the Colors, and they seemed determined to capture them, but our boys stuck to them. The rebels came up on to our works, some of them jumping clear over them. The ditch in front was piled with dead and wounded and for rods in front, a man could hardly put his foot down without stepping on them. Our loss was comparatively slight, 5 wounded in our Co . . . .

We don’t fear the enemy here. We are well fixed.

Source: (p. 125)

“Burning Rails as We Pleased”: The Civil War Letters of of William Garrigues Bentley, 104th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. McFarland, 2011.