Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Sheet of Fire: The Battle of Franklin

"On the Rim of the Volcano" by Keith Rocco.
Fought 150 years ago today, the Battle of Franklin in Tennessee was an all-consuming struggle that is frequently overlooked within broader context of the American Civil War.  Over the course of that day, some 60,000 Federals and Confederates became embroiled in a lethal confrontation that all but destroyed General John Bell Hood's Confederate Army of the Tennessee.  The stage for battle here was set resulting from a deadly match of cat and mouse between Hood and his Union opponent, John Schofield.  After failing to annihilate Union forces at the nearby Battle of Spring Hill the day prior, Hood (who was pained by his many war wounds), became all the more determined to crush the opposition before it reached the bastion of Nashville.  The result was a series of devastating southern assaults on entrenched Union positions outside the sleepy town of Franklin.

Historian Eric Jacobson explains the lead up to the battle.

The culminating assault at 4 p.m. that day included some 20,000 Confederates--7,000 more than what participated in Pickett's Charge over a year prior.  A desperate hand-to-hand struggle ensued with troops being pistol-whipped and having bayonets lunged into their stomachs.  Although Schofield's Federals withdrew from the town in the aftermath of the fight, their victory was otherwise complete.  Over 6,000 rebels had been killed, wounded, or captured--rendering the Army of the Tennessee a force no longer capable of mounting truly threatening offensives.  The once proud but now disgraced Hood resigned his position that January.

The Carter House--still bearing the scars of battle 150 years later.

Eric Jacobson discusses the brutal nature of close quarters combat at the Carter House.

For those fortunate enough to survive the battle's wrath, the level of carnage surrounding them seemed incomprehensible.  The Carter Family, whose modest brick home had been at the epicenter of the fighting, cautiously emerged from their cellar to witness the smoldering landscape.  Their home and surrounding dwellings were riddled with shot and shell.  Windows were broken.  Blood was smeared upon the floors.  Yet the family had survived the maelstrom unscathed.

Capt. Tod Carter
Or had they?  Unbeknownst to family patriarch Fountain Branch Carter up until that moment, his middle son--Tod--lay grievously wounded only some 175 yards away from the Carter porch.  In an episode of the war that is almost Shakespearean in its ironic tragedy, Captain Tod Carter had not seen home for over three years.  He fought in many of the war's most momentous campaigns and even escaped captivity as a prisoner of war.  Then, as an aid to General Thomas Benton Smith that November 30, he found himself leading a column of men against Yankees who were entrenched in his family's side yard.  He shouted out to his fellow Confederates, "Follow me, boys!  I'm almost home!"  The homecoming he received was far from ideal.  The twenty-four year-old was shot nine times, which included a bullet wound directly above his left eye.  Found by his family by lantern light, the riddled and delirious boy was carried to the family household.  Captain Carter succumbed to his painful wounds two days later.  His final words were, "Home, home, home."

The catastrophic situation of the moment was immediately apparent to the surviving Confederate high command.  Corps commander General Frank Cheatam was plagued by the sight of the battlefield as the morning sun of December 1, 1864 crept over the far horizon.  Burial crews began their daunting and morbid task of recovering the dead.  Among the deceased was General Patrick Cleburne--often called "Stonewall of the West"--who was robbed of his personal belongs after death.  Cheatam remarked of this apocalyptic vista:

"Just at daybreak I rode upon the field, and such a sight I never saw and can never expect to see again.  The dead were piled up like stacks of wheat or scattered like sheaves of grain.  You could have walked all over the field upon dead bodies without stepping upon the ground.  The first flame of battle had nearly all been confined within a range of fifty yards, except the cavalry fight on the other side of the river.  Almost under your eye, nearly all the dead, wounded and dying lay.  In front of the Carter House the bodies  lay in heaps, and to the right of it a locust-thicket had been mowed off by bullets, as if by a scythe.  It was a wonder that any man escaped alive. . . . I never saw anything like that field, and never want to again."

An outbuilding at the Carter House is pocked with bullet holes still.

A scarred chair in the Carter Home speaks of the fight's ferocity.

Remnants of the original Union trenches at the Carter House remain.

The recently reclaimed spot marking General Cleburne's death.

Carnton Plantation--the iconic home of "The Widow of the South."
Nearby Carnton Plantation was a thriving agricultural enterprise prior to the Civil War.  Its grand features and lavish gardens were emblematic of the wealth displayed by the elite of the aristocratic planter class.  Home to the McGavock Family, the house was the centerpiece of a 640 acres operation worked by thirty-nine slaves.  Any idyllic preconceptions the McGavock's had about plantation life came to a quick halt as the maimed and wounded began pouring into their mansion and property.  Four of the six Confederate generals killed in the battle lay covered on Carnton's front porch--John Adams, Patrick Cleburne, Hiram Granbury,  and Otho Strahl--a sure symbol of the Confederacy's forthcoming downfall.

Dark blood stains remain on the floorboards of Carnton.
One Confederate officer remarked of the scene at Carnton: "the wounded, in hundreds, were brought to [the house] during the battle, and all the night after. And when the noble old house could hold no more, the yard was appropriated until the wounded and dead filled that."  As this chaos ensued, resident Carrie McGavock struggled to provide care and comfort for the distressed masses that huddled within her once grand homestead.

The disastrous Confederate defeat at Franklin marked the end of a chapter for southern forces in the Western Theater of the American Civil War.  An army was shattered, half a dozen generals were lost, another general was ruined, and a Union force won free reign of central Tennessee.  In the long term aftermath of this struggle, the McGavocks oversaw the creation and care of a Confederate cemetery only yards from their front door--a perpetual reminder of what the Civil War had done to their community and the nation as a whole.  Walking through this graveyard, one gains a true sense of what the Battle of Franklin was.  The human cost seen on this burial ground not only marks a death knell of the Confederacy but also a step toward the freedom of the three dozen individuals who were enslaved on that same property.


  1. My Great Great Grandfather was in Stephen Lee's Corps and missed out on the worst of the action at Franklin. He was captured at Nashville a couple weeks later though.

  2. Great article, Thanks for your great information, the content is quiet interesting. I will be waiting for your next post.