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.”

Why is the recent discovery of the John Bell Hood papers and documents important and why should you care?

I want to start off this interview series acknowledging that Eric Wittenberg’s initial interview with Sam Hood lays the foundation for my interviews. Please start by reading Eric’s interview.

Who is Sam Hood?

Sam Hood is a graduate of Kentucky Military Institute, Marshall University (bachelor of arts, 1976), and a veteran of the United States Marine Corps. A collateral descendent of General John Bell Hood, Sam is a retired industrial construction company owner, past member of the Board of Directors of the Blue Gray Education Society of Chatham, Virginia, and is a past president of the Board of Directors of Confederate Memorial Hall Museum in New Orleans. Sam resides in his hometown of Huntington, West Virginia and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina with his wife of thirty-five years, Martha, and is the proud father of two sons: Derek Hood of Lexington, Kentucky, and Taylor Hood of Barboursville, West Virginia.

Sam Hood made an exciting announcement on October 19th, 2012. Using the Historic Carnton Plantation as his backdrop for a media announcement, Sam revealed that he had “discovered” an extremely important collection of papers, documents and personal items related to Confederate General John Bell Hood. The documents are presently in private hands of a Hood descendant in Pennsylvania. Sam himself is a second cousin to John Bell Hood.

Who are the historians and authors I interviewed for this series of blogposts?

Sam Hood, William T. Davis, Steven E. Woodworth, Wiley Sword, Chris Losson and Thomas Flagel.

Why are the newly discovered Hood papers important?

The news of the documents is exciting, not only for the amount of primary resources it now provides scholars and historians, but for the potentially new interpretations that could come from examining the material.  Sam Hood says that he is absolutely sure the primary resources that have been revealed were personally used by John Bell Hood to construct his memoirs, Advance and Retreat: Personal Experiences in the United States and Confederate States Armies, “which served to justify his actions, particularly in response to what he considered misleading or false accusations made by Joseph E. Johnston, and to unfavorable portrayals in Sherman’s memoirs. (Wikipedia)”

If there are newly warranted interpretations that come from the papers, long-noted critic of John Bell Hood, author and historian Wiley Sword says that the new papers must not stand isolated, on their own:

“Since the new material must be put in context with the existing Hood materials, it should be evident from the beginning that the new documents will NOT STAND ALONE in an interpretation of Hood’s career. Hopefully, they will be a significant adjunct enabling further interpretation and insight, but care must be taken in discounting or ignoring existing original material. Once full access to the new materials (not merely their interpretation and partial reporting) is generated, we will have a better means to review what aspects of Hood’s career might be revised or reinterpreted.”

For those who would quickly conclude that the new Hood papers will significantly re-shape our understanding of John Bell Hood, esteemed T.C.U. Professor and historian Steven E. Woodworth advises:

“It’s way too early to know much about this. It might be big, might not. We just don’t know yet. I think the papers will need to be carefully studied by several well trained and/or experienced historians before we can begin to say how significant this find is.”

In the end, the Hood papers will be deemed valuable by historians from a variety of perspectives. It will largely depend on what one is (or is not) looking for.  Historian and author Chris Losson (author of a book on Confederate General Frank Cheatham) states:

“I would hope that the papers contain information which will more fully explain Hood as a corps commander but particularly as commander of the Army of Tennessee.”

What does the newly revealed collection contain regarding John Bell Hood?

According to Wittenberg’s interview with Sam Hood:

Approximately 80 letters to Hood by high and lower ranked Civil War characters, Union and Confederate, wartime and postwar. Correspondents include Jefferson Davis, Robert E Lee, SD Lee, Braxton Bragg, James Seddon, AP Stewart, WH Jackson, SG French, William Bate, Henry Clayton, FA Shoup, Mrs Leonidas Polk, William M Polk, WS Featherston, Stonewall Jackson, James Longstreet, David S Terry, Matthew C Butler, GW Smith, PGT Beauregard, Louis T Wigfall, George Thomas, WT Sherman, and numerous lower ranked officers, mostly members of commanders’ staffs.

There are 61 postwar letters from Hood to his wife Anna, and 35 from Anna to him as he traveled in his insurance business. Also included are Dr John T Darby’s two highly detailed medical reports of Hood’s Gettysburg and Chickamauga wounds, and the daily log of Hood’s treatment and recovery from the day of his leg amputation until November 24 in Richmond.

The collection also includes Hood’s Orders and Dispatches log and 4 volumes of Telegram logs for his entire tenure as commander of the Army of Tennessee. Additionally, Hood’s first and second lieutenant’s commission certificates from the US Army are in the collection, along with 4 remarkable documents: his original commission certificates for his ranks of brigadier general, major general, lieutenant general, and full general in the Confederate Army. There are also numerous photographs and other ephemera of Hood, his children, and his grandchildren.( Read Eric’s interview. )

What has been the response among historians in the field since the announcement of the collection?

Veteran and trusted author-historian William C. Davis (professor of history at Virginia Tech University and Director of Programs at Virginia Tech’s Virginia Center for Civil War Studies. ) takes a more cautionary approach:

“My immediate response is not to place too much hope for revelations in the papers, but that is based solely on the slim descriptions provided in the Tennesseean article.  I would hope for some personal insights into Hood, but that would require personal letters by him, or from those who knew him very well.  It sounds like this cache is mostly letters to Hood rather than from him.  If I had to guess, I would suspect that the bulk of these are items he gathered while writing his memoir.  As such they will be from people whow ere friends and associates most likely to support his version of events.  That is the way with all memoirs, alas.”

Historian and critic of Hood, Wiley Sword hopes the collection will shed light on some of the more controversial aspects of Hood’s career:

“Since there are many controversial aspects to Hood’s career, hopefully there will be further clarification of some of the more crucial aspects of events and his intentions. For example, Tom Connelly in his Autumn of Glory cites the clandestine Hood correspondence with the Davis administration while serving under Joe Johnston in the Army of Tennessee (pp. 322-323). Much as the president’s watch dog, Hood was informing on Johnston without the later’s knowledge, in a highly prejudiced manner. This original correspondence is in the Western Reserve Historical Collection, Cleveland, Ohio (William P. Palmer Collection of Braxton Bragg papers), and perhaps in the new materials there may be an indication or further evidence of Hood’s instructions to keep Davis and Bragg informed on Johnston, whom neither trusted well. Of course, there are many other aspects of Hood’s career that need further explaining, including his thinking during the  1864 Tennessee Campaign. This would be a much desired clarification of the many disastrous decisions Hood made.”

Historian and author Thomas Flagel perhaps says it best in terms of how the recent discovery of Hood papers’ reminds us that history is still alive:

“On the recent Hood sources, I can be certain of this: it is a magnificent find because it proves once again that History is alive, and it is quite skilled in the element of surprise. Until I get into the documents, and well after, it will be difficult to gauge their magnitude. But their discovery is yet another reason why I love this profession. These are memories lost, and now they have found their way back into the collective consciousness. A few weeks ago, most of us did not know these letters existed. Now, our past, present, and future will not look quite like it did before.”

Major Leaming Letter (40th IN Infantry) on Franklin and Nashville

Thanks to Jeffrey Graf for pointing me to this letter.

Source: “The Soldier of Indiana In The War For The Union Vol. 2″; Author Catharine Merrill; Published Merrill and Company 1889. pp 764-766

“Huntsville, Alabama, Fortieth Regiment (Indiana), January 9, 1865″

“You will readily pardon my long silence when you remember that since the last of October we have, save the short time spent at Pulaski, been constantly on the go. Besides it is but poor business writing letters when you are living in the open air, without shelter of any kind, in the winter at that, with the ground for a seat, and your knee for a desk, while your eyes have become fountains of tears, as the smoke from burning fence rails compels them to the outward show of grief for the destruction worked. Now, however, we have been in that Potomacian condition known as ‘winter quarters,’ for several days, (about three,) and having built a chimney to my tent, which has arrived, much to my satisfaction, from the hearth of said chimney is dispensed a genial glow, which, despite the warning winds and dashing rain, almost convinces one that he is enjoying ‘comfort.’ ’Tis true the ground on which my feet rest, is wet and cold, and occasional droppings here and there remind me at best, tents are leaky things, and not over warm, (except in the summer time,) but in that spirt of cheerful philosophy which urges one to be thankful, not that things are so well as they are, but that they are no worse, I accept the situation, and shall undertake, by most vigorous efforts of the imagination, to persuade myself that there might be something more miserable than ‘comfortable winter quarters,’ and therefore be most thankful that the unknown possibility had not fallen to our lot. As usual my good fortune did not desert me, and I came out of all the fights without any holes through my flesh. I had a horse killed under me as quick as lightning could have done it, and a ball cut a strap from my saddle , directly in my front, not two inches from where it would have hurt me, if it had hit, making the farther digestion of hard-tack and fat pork impossible.”

” By the way, Hood was terribly thrashed in those same battles, but there can be no doubt that the greatest battle was that of Franklin. There his army was ruined. When we came back over the ground, we could see by the graves the fearful destruction of our fire. I met no prisoners of any rank who did not agree that their repulse there was most unexpected and disastrous. They largely outnumbered us, and our works were very hastily put up, and not finished when the attack was commenced; yet their loss was numerous, and their repulse complete. We fought three corps with three of our divisions. Our regiment captured a battle flag, the man who took it running the bearer of it through the body with his bayonet.”

” At Nashville, where we outnumbered the Rebels, and they had the advantage of position and defences, we took them squarely out of their works, and completely routed them. ‘Tis true they used but little artillery at Franklin, and we an enormous ammount at Nashville, still it was not in the killed or wounded by cannon shots, or in their moral effects that the difference lay, but in the growing conviction in rebellious minds, that they are now paying for a very dead horse, and that a life as an individual concern is a rather big price to pay. Sixteen general officers and any quanity of smaller fry were killed or wounded at Franklin. It is well known that generals do not expose themselves usually on either side, save in some desperate emergency. General Adams was killed right on our breastwork, and so were some others. Do you not see how difficult it must have been to bring the men to the scratch, when it became necessary to urge them forward by the generals themselves leading them? When we assaulted their works at Nashville, and began to go over them, I never saw more abject terror than among those we captured. It was real, genuine fright. ‘ What would we do with them!’ ‘Would anybody hurt them!’ ‘Do give me a guard,’ &c, &c, they were constantly saying – in fact a badly thrashed set of rascals.”

” The country is now full of deserters. Hood and his army, who were to go to the Ohio river , are completely played out, and quiet reigns in Tennessee. Thus it happens that we go into winter quarters. The men are now busy as bees, cutting and hewing logs for their huts. Soon the men will settle down to daily drills and the consumption of rations, and the officers to the recception of orders to do or leave undone this, that and everything under Heaven that somebody else can think of when having nothing else to do but to devise and issue orders. Reports, returns, tri-weekly, tri-monthly, monthly, weekly, daily and hourly, are called for, and the grand aggregate carefully filed away at Washington, never more to be seen by eye of man. The paper wasted on all these things would each day freight a large ship, and Satan himself would yeild to despair at the task of making head or tail of them. The idea is beginning to force itself upon me that, as it is after eleven o’clock at night, I had better stop writing, and go to bed, ‘To sleep – perchance to dream’ of home, and wife, and chicks, and then to wake homesick beyond expression. Ehen!”

” The war is playing out fast. There can be no doubt of that now. Sherman and Grant will prove to heavy for Lee; and the Rebel plan of arming ‘niggers’ will only give us so many more of that sort of soldiers. ‘Tis folley in them, but so was the Rebellion an insane piece of folly. ‘Deus vult perdere prius dementat’”

“Henry Leaming”

Private Sam Watkins, Company H, 1st TN, describes Franklin action

Sam Watkins, Company Aytch


“The death-angel gathers its last harvest.”

Kind reader, right here my pen, and courage, and ability fail me. I shrink from butchery. Would to God I could tear the page from these memoirs and from my own memory. It is the blackest page in the history of the war of the Lost

Cause. It was the bloodiest battle of modern times in any war. It was the finishing stroke to the independence of the Southern Confederacy. I was there. I saw it. My flesh trembles, and creeps, and crawls when I think of it today. My heart almost ceases to beat at the horrid recollection. Would to God that I had never witnessed such a scene!

I cannot describe it. It beggars description. I will not attempt to describe it. I could not. The death-angel was there to gather its last harvest. It was the grand coronation of death. Would that I could turn the page. But I feel, though I did so, that page would still be there, teeming with its scenes of horror and blood. I can only tell of what I saw.

Our regiment was resting in the gap of a range of hills in plain view of the city of Franklin. We could see the battle-flags of the enemy waving in the breeze. Our army had been depleted of its strength by a forced march from Spring Hill, and stragglers lined the road. Our artillery had not yet come up, and could not be brought into action. Our cavalry was across Harpeth river, and our army was but in poor condition to make an assault. While resting on this hillside, I saw a courier dash up to our commanding general, B. F. Cheatham, and the word, “Attention!” was given. I knew then that we would soon be in action. Forward, march. We passed over the hill and through a little skirt of woods.

The enemy were fortified right across the Franklin pike, in the suburbs of the town. Right here in these woods a detail of skirmishers was called for. Our regiment was detailed. We deployed as skirmishers, firing as we advanced on the left of the turnpike road. If I had not been a skirmisher on that day, I would not have been writing this today, in the year of our Lord 1882.

It was four o’clock on that dark and dismal December day when the line of battle was formed, and those devoted heroes were ordered forward, to

“Strike for their altars and their fires,
For the green graves of their sires,
For God and their native land.”

As they marched on down through an open field toward the rampart of blood and death, the Federal batteries began to open and mow down and gather into the garner of death, as brave, and good, and pure spirits as the world ever saw. The twilight of evening had begun to gather as a precursor of the coming blackness of midnight darkness that was to envelop a scene so sickening and horrible that it is impossible for me to describe it. “Forward, men,” is repeated all along the line. A sheet of fire was poured into our very faces, and for a moment we halted as if in despair, as the terrible avalanche of shot and shell laid low those brave and gallant heroes, whose bleeding wounds attested that the struggle would be desperate. Forward, men! The air loaded with death-dealing missiles. Never on this earth did men fight against such terrible odds. It seemed that the very elements of heaven and earth were in one mighty uproar. Forward, men! And the blood spurts in a perfect jet from the dead and wounded. The earth is red with blood. It runs in streams, making little rivulets as it flows. Occasionally there was a little lull in the storm of battle, as the men were loading their guns, and for a few moments it seemed as if night tried to cover the scene with her mantle. The death-angel shrieks and laughs and old Father Time is busy with his sickle, as he gathers in the last harvest of death, crying, More, more, more! while his rapacious maw is glutted with the slain.

But the skirmish line being deployed out, extending a little wider than the battle did—passing through a thicket of small locusts, where Brown, orderly sergeant of Company B, was killed—we advanced on toward the breastworks, on and on. I had made up my mind to die—felt glorious. We pressed forward until I heard the terrific roar of battle open on our right. Cleburne’s division was charging their works. I passed on until I got to their works, and got over on their (the Yankees’) side. But in fifty yards of where I was the scene was lit up by fires that seemed like hell itself. It appeared to be but one line of streaming fire. Our troops were upon one side of the breastworks, and the Federals on the other. I ran up on the line of works, where our men were engaged. Dead soldiers filled the entrenchments. The firing was kept up until after midnight, and gradually died out. We passed the night where we were. But when the morrow’s sun began to light up the eastern sky with its rosy hues, and we looked over the battlefield, O, my God! what did we see! It was a grand holocaust of death. Death had held high carnival there that night. The dead were piled the one on the other all over the ground. I never was so horrified and appalled in my life. Horses, like men, had died game on the gory breastworks. General Adams’ horse had his fore feet on one side of the works and his hind feet on the other, dead. The general seems to have been caught so that he was held to the horse’s back, sitting almost as if living, riddled, and mangled, and torn with balls. General Cleburne’s mare had her fore feet on top of the works, dead in that position. General Cleburne’s body was pierced with forty-nine bullets, through and through. General Strahl’s horse lay by the roadside and the general by his side, both dead, and all his staff. General Gist, a noble and brave cavalier from South Carolina, was lying with his sword reaching across the breastworks still grasped in his hand. He was lying there dead. All dead! They sleep in the graveyard yonder at Ashwood, almost in sight of my home, where I am writing today. They sleep the sleep of the brave. We love and cherish their memory. They sleep beneath the ivy-mantled walls of St. John’s church, where they expressed a wish to be buried. The private soldier sleeps where he fell, piled in one mighty heap. Four thousand five hundred privates! all lying side by side in death! Thirteen generals were killed and wounded. Four thousand five hundred men slain, all piled and heaped together at one place. I cannot tell the number of others killed and wounded. God alone knows that. We’ll all find out on the morning of the final resurrection.

Kind friends, I have attempted in my poor and feeble way to tell you of this (I can hardly call it) battle. It should be called by some other name. But, like all other battles, it, too, has gone into history. I leave it with you. I do not know who was to blame. It lives in the memory of the poor old Rebel soldier who went through that trying and terrible ordeal. We shed a tear for the dead. They are buried and forgotten. We meet no more on earth. But up yonder, beyond the sunset and the night, away beyond the clouds and tempest, away beyond the stars that ever twinkle and shine in the blue vault above us, away yonder by the great white throne, and by the river of life, where the Almighty and Eternal God sits, surrounded by the angels and archangels and the redeemed of earth, we will meet again and see those noble and brave spirits who gave up their lives for their country’s cause that night at Franklin, Tennessee. A life given for one’s country is never lost. It blooms again beyond the grave in a land of beauty and of love. Hanging around the throne of sapphire and gold, a rich garland awaits the coming of him who died for his country, and when the horologe of time has struck its last note upon his dying brow, Justice hands the record of life to Mercy, and Mercy pleads with Jesus, and God, for his sake, receives him in his eternal home beyond the skies at last and forever.