Artillery Hell: In the Line of Fire
by Eric A. Jacobson
Originally published in the Battlefield Dispatch Vol. 1 No. 3 Fall 2013 - read the rest of the issue here.
One of the most under-appreciated elements of the Civil War is the role played by artillery. While it is commonly known that the Confederate Army of Tennessee went into battle on November 30, 1864, with very little artillery support, the role of the Federal artillery is not often discussed. In truth, the Federal guns played a vital role during the battle and produced an “artillery hell,” which was a term S. D. Lee used to describe Antietam. It could just as easily be applied to Franklin.
Throughout the morning hours, seven batteries of artillery were positioned at various points along the Federal defensive line. The cannons employed were a lethal combination of smoothbore, 12-pounder Napoleons and incredibly accurate 3-inch rifled guns. The 3-inch guns could easily strike targets at 6,000 feet. The artillery covered nearly 4,000 feet of the Federal line, from Carter’s Creek Pike east to the Harpeth River. In addition, one battery was posted inside Fort Granger east of the river.
All totaled, thirty-four pieces of artillery were rolled into position. They were:
Battery B, Pennsylvania Light Artillery (four Napoleons)
Bridges’ Illinois Battery (four 3-inch guns)
20th Ohio Light Artillery (four Napoleons)
1st Kentucky Battery (four 3-inch guns)
6th Ohio Light Artillery (four Napoleons)
Battery G, 1st Ohio Light Artillery (six 3-inch guns)
Battery M, 4th U. S. Regulars (four Napoleons)
Battery D, 1st Ohio Light Artillery (four 3-inch guns)
In addition, Battery A, 1st Ohio Light Artillery (four Napoleons) was posted in reserve not far north of the Carter House.
Not long after the battle began at 4 pm the pageantry of the Confederate attack was brutally shattered by the Federal artillery. Troops in A. P. Stewart’s Corps and Frank Cheatham’s Corps were taking incoming fire within ten minutes. In fact, Capt. Theodore Thomasson of the 1st Kentucky Battery, whose unit was posted on the immediate east side of Columbia Pike, said his artillerists began firing on Southern troops as they formed “on a ridge about 1,700 yards in front of the battery.” The Kentuckians were thus certainly striking elements of Patrick Cleburne’s Division as it moved out of some low ground and crested the ridge just south of modern day Downs Boulevard. Incredibly, this also means Thomasson’s men were firing over the two advanced brigades of George Wagner’s Division, who were posted a half mile in front of the main line. Among Wagner’s men there was fear and confusion. They had Confederate troops deploying barely a half mile in front of them, while friendly fire streaked in from the rear, screamed over their heads, and exploded among the enemy ranks. Wagner’s men soon broke under the weight of the Southern assault and a mad rush toward the center began. But to the east, the worst of the artillery storm was already unfolding.
One of the greatest misconceptions about the Federal artillery fire on the east side of the battlefield is the role played by the guns that were located inside Fort Granger. The facts clearly indicate the two batteries located behind the Federal left flank did the worst damage in that sector. Capt. Alexander Marshall’s six 3-inch guns and Capt. Samuel Canby’s four Napoleons let loose with a torrent of fire that gashed and tore the advancing Confederates. The divisions led by W. W. Loring and Edward Walthall took the brunt of this ruthless fire. In fact, Marshall’s guns began pounding the attacking force as it swept across John McGavock’s property. Artillery evidence has been uncovered around Carnton over the years, and nearly all can be tied to the type of ammunition used by 3-inch rifled guns. The guns in Fort Granger simply did not have the range to reach the ground closest to Carnton, but Marshall’s guns certainly did.
The Confederate troops were staggered but continued to advance. Casualties began to mount. The Southern troops were soon under small arms fire as well, and eventually the Federal artillerists switched from solid shot and explosive shells, to the deadly canister rounds. The struggle culminated in the area where Lewisburg Pike and the railroad tracks intersect, as the Federal firepower simply swept Confederate troops away. Capt. Marshall said at one point some of the enemy troops were crawling along the tracks on their hands and knees. Lt. Milton Mitchell’s gunners cleared the area with violent blasts from the 3-inch guns. Canby said his men completely swept the river bank of opposition. This area, which is today the location of Thompson Alley, was a scene of horror and devastation. The Fort Granger guns, commanded by Capt. Giles Cockerill, added their weight to the fury and tore at the Confederates with vicious enfilade fire.
By the time the battle ended, the ten guns commanded by Canby and Mitchell had fired over 1,100 rounds. All of the rounds were fired in a roughly four hour time period, as the guns were withdrawn from the line by 8 pm. Not only did each gun fire about 110 rounds each, but a simple breakdown shows that they were firing, at a bare minimum, five rounds per minute. At the height of the battle it was likely ten to fifteen per minute, as the firing slackened dramatically after 6 pm. By contrast, the four guns inside Fort Granger fired 163 rounds during the battle, or about 40 per gun. This is less than half of what Canby and Mitchell expended. It is little wonder that the men of Loring and Walthall’s command suffered such grievous losses and were unable to penetrate the Federal defensive line.
Meanwhile, in the Federal center the situation was markedly different. Because Confederate troops, mostly from two divisions, broke through a substantial section of the Federal line the 1st Kentucky guns and those of the 20th Ohio fired little more than did the Fort Granger guns. In fact, for a very short time both batteries were overrun by the attacking Confederates, and with the resulting bedlam around the guns and on both sides of Columbia Pike, firing them was almost impossible. Not until the Southern troops were repulsed did the batteries resume normal firing. Capt. Thomasson’s report indicates that his guns repeatedly sprayed the field south of his position for several hours after the Federal line was stabilized. His job was, in essence, to keep the Confederates pinned down.
To the west, the four guns of Bridges’ Battery fired over the heads of Federal troops in their front and into the Confederates. Archaeological evidence uncovered last year indicates that Bridges’ men were cutting down the fuses of some shells about as close as was possible – perhaps down to as little as ¾ of a second. Hotchkiss, or 3-inch, shell fragments were found less than 150 yards from where Bridges’ Battery was located, which indicates his men were doing everything possible to hold back the desperate, but massive, Confederate assault.
Adding to the Southern misery was an effective and deadly crossfire that was produced by Bridges’ Battery and Capt. Jacob Ziegler’s Pennsylvania Battery’s firing at different angles into the same general location. This made the area anywhere in the vicinity of the locust grove, which fronted some of the Federal line southwest of the Carter House, a nightmarish spectacle. By the time the battle concluded these eight guns had fired some 900 rounds and decimated portions of three enemy divisions.
There can be little doubt that the Federal artillery fire at Franklin was a decisive factor. Like at so many other battles, the role of the big guns helped to turn the tide.