The Battle of Franklin


The Battle of Franklin was one of the last great battles of the American Civil War. Fate and circumstance placed the small town of Franklin in the path of two great armies in late November 1864. Gen. John Bell Hood, at the head of the Confederate Army of Tennessee, which numbered just over 30,000, marched his army toward Nashville after having lost Atlanta in September. His hope was to retake the lost Tennessee capital, which had fallen to U. S. troops in early 1862. A Federal army, commanded by Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield, was sent from Georgia by Maj. Gen. William Sherman to Middle Tennessee with orders to slow Hood’s advance.  Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. George Henry Thomas organized defenses just outside Nashville.

Schofield’s small army of about 27,000 was nearly flanked, or cut off, near Spring Hill on the late afternoon and early evening of November 29, 1864. The Confederate forces missed a tremendous opportunity to deal Schofield a serious blow. Spring Hill ultimately set the stage for Franklin, and it haunted the memories of many for decades.

Federal troops began to arrive on the outskirts of Franklin around dawn on November 30, 1864. Because the two bridges spanning the Harpeth River north of town were impassable, engineers hurriedly worked to prepare the bridges for a withdrawal. Meanwhile, the blue-clad soldiers began to throw up earthworks south of town. Around the same time, after discovering the enemy had slipped away, the Confederates initiated a hurried march north from Spring Hill in pursuit of the Federal army. 

Federal Brig. Gen. Jacob D. Cox set up his headquarters at the Carter House after waking the family around sunup. By noon, the bulk of the Federal army was organized into a defensive line which spanned just over a mile in length, and was anchored on the Harpeth River on both flanks. At 2 pm orders were issued calling for a withdrawal to Nashville to begin at 6 pm.

The Confederate troops began to arrive on the southern edge of the Harpeth Valley, about two miles from Franklin, around 1 pm. Within the hour, Hood decided to launch a frontal assault, believing that Franklin was his last opportunity to destroy Schofield before the Federal army got to Nashville.

The day itself was beautiful. The skies were clear that afternoon and the temperature pushed to nearly sixty degrees. Many described it as a beautiful “Indian summer afternoon” while others said it was warm and bright. But at 4 pm everything changed as roughly 20,000 Confederate soldiers began their advance toward a similar number of Federal troops. Artillery fire soon began shrieking toward the Southern line and gaping holes were ripped into the gray and butternut ranks. The Confederate attack quickly morphed into a headlong charge. The two armies came into close contact shortly before 4:30 pm and the fighting became brutal and fiendishly savage. Waves of Southern troops were shot down, even as some of them ruptured the center of the Federal line.  Scores of Federal troops were shot and clubbed as howling and jubilant Southerners plowed forward. Casualties were severe and mounted quickly. The sun set soon after the battle reached its apex and it was completely dark only a few minutes after 5 pm, except for the flashing of the guns.

By that time, a frantic yet valiant stand by some newly recruited Federal troops, and a counterassault by a brigade of Federal veterans, had stemmed the Confederate breakthrough. For those Southern troops who had pushed deep into the Federal defensive perimeter and then suddenly found their opportunity ripped away, the nighttime hours were ones filled with bloodshed and untold agonies. A Mississippian recalled how the Federal troops shot his comrades down like “animals trapped in a pen.” In places the bodies of the dead were heaped upon one other three and four deep. Some of the wounded were pinned beneath the dead and others cried and moaned and prayed throughout the long night.

During those short but awful hours, as the battle raged and swirled around them, the Carter family took refuge in their basement. Some two dozen men, women, and children, including a neighboring family who lived just across the Columbia pike, waited as the horrors of war engulfed them.

At Carnton wounded Confederate soldiers were arriving by the dozens not long after the battle began. It soon became the largest field hospital in the area and surgeons were set up in almost every room of the house and some worked outside. By the middle of the night some 300 wounded filled the home, with hundreds more on the grounds.

Around midnight the Federal army began to withdraw from the smoldering and gruesome battlefield. Left behind was a small town and a battered Confederate army. Altogether, some 10,000 American soldiers became casualties at Franklin and about three-fourths of that number were Confederates. Six Confederate generals were counted among those killed or mortally wounded. Some 2,300 men died at Franklin, about 7,000 were wounded, and roughly 1,000 were taken prisoner. When recollecting the battle years later one soldier said simply, “It was as if the devil had full possession of the earth.”

In the decades after the war veterans from both sides, some congressmen, and even a few Franklin locals made genuine efforts to establish a national or state park so as to commemorate the terrible conflict. Alas, it was not to be, although some two dozen such bills were introduced into Congress only to die in sub-committees.

Over time the story of Franklin, like others, was lost.  In fact, what happened at Franklin is not all that dissimilar to what happened to the battlefields outside Atlanta and Nashville. But what has happened in Franklin over the past 15 years is truly unique. Over 200 acres of a battlefield that most considered “lost” forever has been saved and reclaimed. Nearly $15 million has been spent to save this hallowed ground from the ravages of time.