Hood’s Retreat – December 17, 1864

On the night of December 16th, the Confederate rear guard under Lieutenant General Stephen D. Lee camped about seven miles north of Franklin. The soldiers were weary and poorly supplied as in their rush to retreat from Nashville, many had abandoned their equipment and muskets along the way. On the rainy morning of December 17th, the Confederates left around dawn. As they marched toward Franklin, Lee’s men had two encounters with Federal troops. The first took place around Hollow Tree Gap about five miles north of Franklin and consisted of a brief volley of fire at a portion of Union Major General James Wilson’s advanced cavalry. A more serious action occurred around 9:00 a.m. as two mounted Federal regiments attempted a frontal charge on the Confederate line. The Con- federate troops, however, were able to repulse the attack, which resulted in twenty-two Federal casualties and an additional sixty-three captured. As more Federal troops advanced, Lee’s rear guard withdrew around 10:00 a.m. to press on to the Harpeth River and into Franklin.

Two bridges spanned the Harpeth River offering quick passage into Franklin – a temporary pontoon bridge and a railroad trestle bridge near Fort Granger. By 10:30 a.m., the last of the Confederate wagons were crossing the bridges over the Harpeth River and troops had begun to disassemble the pontoon bridge when Wilson’s cavalry attacked. Brigadier General Randall Gibson’s Brigade of 500 Louisiana infantrymen was positioned near the river and the railroad overpass at Liberty Pike. Assisting Gibson was a portion of Brigadier General Abraham Buford’s cavalry and two field guns. The Confederate soldiers were no match, however, for the nearly 3,000 Federal cavalry. Buford’s cavalry was driven “in confusion into the river,” which was quickly rising due to the rainy weather. Surrounded, Gibson’s men fought back and sustained forty casualties before escaping. Panic and confusion reigned as men fled across the pontoon bridge.

A Confederate battery positioned along Front Street in Franklin began to fire upon Wilson’s cavalry causing them to temporarily draw back. Lee’s men rushed to destroy the pontoon and railroad bridges to prevent the Federal troops from crossing. Given this brief respite, Lee ordered the immediate evacuation of Franklin. No longer having the bridges available, Wilson’s men hastened to the nearest fords to beat the rising water. Meanwhile, additional Federal troops entered Franklin from the west. Around 1:00 p.m., the Confederate rear guard under the command of Lieutenant General Stephen D. Lee began to withdraw toward Winstead Hill south of Franklin. As some of Wilson’s cavalrymen fired volleys towards them, a shell tore into Lee’s boot breaking several bones in his foot. Despite his injury, Lee remained in command as the Confederates withdrew south down Columbia Pike. Wilson regrouped his forces and sent troops down Carter’s Creek, Lewisburg and Columbia Pikes in pursuit of the Confederates. Federal troops traveling down Columbia Pike quickly gained on the Rebels who maintained a line of battle as they headed toward Spring Hill. Around 4:00 p.m. the Confederate rear guard formed a line about one mile north of the West Harpeth River.

Wilson ordered a frontal attack on the Confederate line and sent brigades to swing around the line’s flank. Around 200 cavalrymen swiftly advanced south down Columbia Pike toward the center of the Confederate line in a column of fours, sabers drawn. With the flanking brigades, the Federal line stretched nearly one and half miles long. Some 700 Confederate infantrymen were posted along the road under the command of Major General Carter L. Stevenson. As the Federals attacked the fighting was brief but fierce. “They swooped down on us with pistols, carbines, and sabers, hewing, whacking, and shooting,” one Confederate officer later recalled. Stevenson’s men repelled this charge and formed three ragged lines of a hollow square as they withdrew with their bayonets drawn.

The Federal cavalrymen continued to strike against Stevenson’s troops as they made their way across the West Harpeth River. As the Confederates stopped to reorganize, Wilson’s men struck again. By this time darkness had fallen and both sides were confused. The Federal cavalry were nearly on top of the Rebel infantry when the firing began. The ensuing melee was brutal as most took the form of hand-to-hand combat with clubbed muskets and side arms. The darkness and the fact that many Confederates wore captured Federal overcoats added to the confusion. When additional units joined the Federals the Confederates were forced to retreat down Columbia Pike and abandoned three 12-pounder guns along the way. They soon encountered Major General Henry Clayton’s Brigade, who, after hearing the gunfire, had formed a line to assist their fellow Confederates. As Stevenson’s men joined them, the Rebels were attacked from the west by additional Federal cavalrymen. A quick round of fire from Clayton’s men soon repulsed the Federals, and the Confederates continued to withdraw. Exhausted, the Confederates withdrew to Thompson’s Station where they camped with the remainder of Lee’s troops.

A series of skirmishes were fought from the West Harpeth River south to the Tennessee River, as Wilson’s cavalry and the remainder of Thomas’ army pursued Hood’s army. The retreat would finally end on January 1, 1865 when Hood’s army crossed the Tennessee River. What was left of the Army of Tennessee was eventually sent to the Carolinas to contest Sherman’s advance.

Text credit: Franklin Battlefield Preservation Plan (n.d.): pp. 9-10

Cockrell’s Missourians at Franklin suffered horrific casualties

BG Francis M. Cockrell

Brigadier-General Francis M. Cockrell led a brigade under Samuel G. French at Franklin. It was all-Missouri brigade: 1st-4th (Garland), 2nd-6th (Flournoy, Carter), 3rd-5th (Canniff), and 1st-3rd MO Cav dismounted (Gates). Of these, Garland and Canniff were killed, Carter and Gates were wounded. Cockrell himself was lucky, he had two horses shot out from under him and was wounded in the right arm, left leg, and right ankle.  Garland was shot while carrying the 1st Missouri flag. Canniff was within ten yards of the line when he was shot.

Cockrell’s men assaulted the Federal line just east of the cotton gin. Jacobson says it is likely that Cockrell’s Missourian’s were the first Confederate’s to hit the Federal line. They would have been warmly greeted by the 65th Indiana Infantry (Casement).

“The Federals obliterated the Missouri ranks, and a Confederate captain said the air “was all red and blue flames, with shells and bullets screeching everywhere…” The barrage was so intense that some of the Missourians actually turned their shoulders into the firestorm and bent down at the knees in the hope of getting through.” [Citation: Jacobson, Eric A.. For Cause and Country: A Study of the Affair at Spring Hill & the Battle of Franklin (Kindle Locations 5978-5980)]

Map excerpt from Eric Jacobson’s For Cause and For Country.

Years after the war Cockrell said the following about Franklin, “When I got these wounds I was at the front line right in the midst of the fight. I tried my right leg, and when I found out i couldn’t walk on it, I hobbled off the field. It was not until the surgeon was working on my right ankle that I found I had been wounded in my left leg.” [Citation: The Civil War Times, December 2017: p. 55]

After the war, Cockrell said this of his brigade at Franklin. “I lost two-thirds [at Franklin] having had every fourth man killed dead, or mortally wounded, and since died. This was by far the fiercest and bloodiest and hottest battle I have ever been in. My Brigade acted more handsomely, defiantly and recklessly than on any field of the war; and you know what it required to eclipse all former conduct on so many bloody fields.”

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Marker located at Winstead Hill Park in Franklin

“They march quietly, and boldly, and steadily through the broken and fleeing ranks of at least twice their own number, and no man wavered – all to the stop, with colors six paces in front, just like a drill, and never brought their guns from a ‘right shoulder shift’ until within thirty or forty yards of the enemy’s works. and then fired by order, and hurled themselves against the works. It was grand and terrible in the extreme.Almost all were killed and wounded very near the works, or in the ditches of the works. I have no language to paint the scene.” [Citation: The Civil War Times, December 2017: p. 55-56.]

Historian Gottshalk (In Deadly Earnest) says that Cockrell had 696 men who went into the fight at Franklin and they suffered 419 total casualties.

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The Missouri section at McGavock

Here are the known/identified Missourian’s from Cockrell’s brigade buried at McGavock Confederate Cemetery:

Garland: 1st MO – 8 and 4th MO – 6 for a total of 14 men
Flournoy, Carter:  2nd MO -13 and 6th MO – 7 for a total of 20 men
Canniff: 3rd MO – 15 and 5th MO 11 for a total of 26 men
Gates: 1st MO Cav dis – 10 and 3rd MO Cav dis – 11 for a total of 21 men

Of these 114 total Confederate known-dead at McGavock, Cockrell’s Missourian’s accounted for 81 of the 114.

[Citation: The McGavock Confederate Cemetery (2017): p. 187.]

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For further reading:

Tags: Battle of Franklin | Francis M. Cockrell | Missouri | Indiana | 65th Indiana Infantry | John Casement | Cotton gin | 1st Missouri Infantry | CSA | McGavock Confederate Cemetery | Ed Bearss

Roper’s Knob during the Civil War

Located just fifteen miles south of Nashville, Franklin held a strategic position in the Union’s line of communications and supplies as well as defense. To secure the Union garrison at Franklin, the army constructed fortifications on surrounding hilltops throughout the area, including a signal station at Roper’s Knob. The site served as an important communication post with visibility of six miles in all directions in the Harpeth River Valley. The fortifications at Roper’s Knob were constructed between April 19 and May 29, 1863. Approximately 5,000 men accomplished the operation. Each day two reliefs of 600 men worked eight-hour shifts until the work was complete. Captain William E. Merrill, U.S. Topographical Engineer, supervised the construction of the Franklin defenses. Upon its completion, Roper’s Knob had a redoubt for four heavy guns, inside which was a blockhouse that could hold sixty men. The fortifications also contained two 4,500-gallon cisterns and a large magazine. Merrill boasted that the site was so secure that “fifty men could hold it against 5,000.”

Well fortified, the signal station at Roper’s Knob relayed important communications to fortifications in Triune to the east and LaVergne to the northeast, and then to Nashville. Signal stations were important to the Union military effort as they transmitted information regarding the movement of Confederate troops to Union officers. Communications proved especially important during the 1864 campaign of Confederate General John Bell Hood through Middle Tennessee. It is unclear whether artillery was arranged at Roper’s Knob in defense of the Confederate mission, but records indicate that it was a possibility. The October 1, 1864 communications of Assistant Adjutant-General B.H. Polk to Major General Rousseau state, “I send down to Franklin this evening two 3-inch Parrots and 400 rounds of ammunition. Shall any guns go upon Roper’s Knob, or shall all go in the large fort?”

Following the Battle of Franklin on November 30, 1864, Roper’s Knob, along with the other Franklin fortifications, was abandoned by the retreating Federal army. After the Union victory at the Battle of Nashville in mid-December, Roper’s Knob was again reoccupied by Federal forces until the end of the war. The outer entrenchment and redoubt at Roper’s Knob remain clearly discernible and well defined, and have only experienced natural erosion. The high peak, with its commanding view of the surrounding valley, combined with the high integrity of the earthworks, conveys a strong sense of its historical period.

Today the 22-acre summit is owned by the State of Tennessee, and 36 acres of the south face was recently given to the City by the Heritage Foundation. An archaeological survey has been conducted by the State, but no interpretive plan has been prepared. The property is not open to the public, although Save The Franklin Battlefield (STFB) has gained permission to lead tours to the summit on several occasions.

Text credit: Franklin Battlefield Preservation Plan, n.d., p. 49

View facing east. Roper’s Knob on left. Shute’s Knob on right. The main water spring in 1863 was on the south slope of Shute’s Knob.

Scot Butler served in the 33rd Indiana Infantry and the U.S. Signal Corps. By 1863 he was in the Signal Corps and stationed in Franklin, Tennessee. The following account is taken from“Affectionately Yours: The Civil War Home-Front Letters of the Ovid Butler Family.” Edited by Barbara Butler Davis. 2004.
“The Signal Corps holds communication from one wing to the other of Rosecran’s army. The station which I am on is situated on a hill near Franklin, several hundred feet above the surrounding country and its warlike occupants. From here we command one of the most beautiful landscape views I ever beheld. This is called the ‘Garden Spot’ of America. Away off to the north stretches a valley of unrivaled beauty. Alternate patches of meadow and woodland, its dashing streams, shining through the mist of morning like threads of silver, and the hills, ranged on each side, clothed with towering trees and stand like eternal sentinels over this scene of seeming quiet beauty and content. What a beautiful place was Franklin & its surroundings of elegant country mansions and extensive plantations before the hearts of the people were corrupted by political leaders, in their lust for power. Franklin is war worn. The shattered glass in her churches and school houses, her lonely streets and the closed shutters of her store houses, the battered doors and ruined machinery of her manufactories, and above all that deathlike, breathless silence, that absence of all sound, that can be felt no where but at the desolate hearthstone, here reigns supreme. Here and there a lounger attired in the butternut garb of chivalry, with hate gleaming in his eyes.” p: 27-28

Franklin’s Railroad Depot (c 1858)

The Tennessee and Alabama Railroad Freight Depot was constructed ca. 1858 by the Tennessee and Alabama Railroad Company shortly after it built its line through Franklin. The brick freight depot was constructed near the busy intersection of South Margin Street and Second Avenue, South in a rectangular design common among antebellum depots in Middle Tennessee. These structures were typically one-story buildings of brick construction, with thick walls and a broad overhanging gable roof. Built for the purpose of shipping and receiving freight, the building had an open floor plan with the northern end of the building reserved for office space. Freight doors were located on either side of the building leading to the track and loading areas for easy transfer of goods.

Soon after Union forces occupied Middle Tennessee in 1862, railroads were utilized as vital links in moving troops and supplies through the region. During the war years, the freight depot in Franklin would have been a busy hub of activity as supplies and munitions were shipped along the rail line. The depot was likely one of many buildings in the community converted into a temporary hospital following the Battle of Franklin, as local historians have reported. The freight depot also continued to house ammunition during this time, and Confederate troops attempted to burn the building as they scrambled to evacuate Franklin on December 18, 1864.

Historian Wiley Sword notes that “at the last minute, Lee’s men set fire to the freight house in town, a building containing seven wagonloads of ammunition.” Fortunately a devastating explosion was avoided as a citizen rushed to throw buckets of water on the blazing roof. Following the return of the Union army to Franklin, immediate efforts were made to evacuate the wounded to Union army hospitals in Nashville. A history of the U.S. Army Medical Department records notes: “Trains evacuated all the wounded from Franklin and other communities back to Nashville as soon as they were in a condition to be moved and the track had been repaired.” After the Civil War, the Tennessee and Alabama Railroad Freight Depot went back to its original purpose as a shipping and receiving facility.

Text source: Franklin Battlefield Preservation Plan, n.d.