On this day 150 years ago - November 30, 1864 - thousands of Confederate troops charged thousands of Union soldiers who had dug in along a defensive line with their backs to a river. This charge took place on the outskirts of the town of Franklin, Tennessee, and it is remembered as one of the more tragic battles in a tragic war.
My family and I took an almost month-long road trip this summer, and our travels took us to this hamlet nestled along the Harpeth River about 20 miles south of the city of Nashville. We spent a few hours at the small national park that is situated where the fiercest fighting of the battle took place.
The following is a "Reader's Digest" version of the battle: In the fall of 1864, things were not going well for the Confederacy. Robert E. Lee and his legendary Army of Northern Virginia were bottled up in Petersburg, Virginia, where they had been besieged by Ulysses S. Grant's Union forces for the last five months. Meanwhile, Union General William Sherman's army had captured Atlanta, and was tearing its way across Georgia, destroying everything in sight. In a desperate attempt to divert Sherman from his path of destruction, Confederate General John Bell Hood departed with his 30,000-man army from northern Alabama and invaded the state of Tennessee with the intention of capturing the captured Union stronghold of Nashville. Hood hoped that this move would force Sherman to disengage from his Georgia campaign, lift Confederate spirits, and strike fear in the heart of northerners in the path of Hood's army, who after capturing Nashville, would continue into Ohio or other Union states. Logistically, it was a fool's errand, but Hood had nothing but confidence that his plan would succeed.
By late November, Hood's army was in Spring Hill, Tennessee, and had trapped a 30,000-man Union army under the command of General John Schofield. Unfortunately for Hood, he experienced some serious mis-communication with his subordinate Generals, and Schofield and his men were able to escape the trap during the dead of night, and retreat north to the town of Franklin. The next morning, Hood and his men discovered to their horror that the Union army had escaped and began the great pursuit. Meanwhile, Schofield and his men had discovered a horror of their own. The bridge that would enable their army to cross the Harpeth River and continue to Nashville had long ago been destroyed by Confederate forces earlier in the War. While his engineers rebuilt the bridge, Schofield had his men dig in, building trenches and earthworks in a semi-circle that anchored its flanks along the river.
As you can see by the mass of red lines to the south of the blue Union line, Hood's Confederate army caught up to Schofield and his men, arriving a couple miles south of town in the mid-afternoon of 30 November 1864. Hood still felt pretty stung about his lost opportunity at Spring Hill the day before, and knew that if he wanted to take Nashville, he would have to deal with this Union army at Franklin first. There were enough Union troops dug in at Nashville already. Allowing these 30,000 troops to join their brethren would be intolerable. Against the advice of his subordinate generals, Hood determined that his men would make their attack late that afternoon. The attack was one that I would pay good money to see. It has been called the "Pickett's Charge of the West," but it was actually much more impressive than that famous charge that took place on the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg the year before, although it was just as doomed to fail.
Pickett's Charge saw approximately 12,500 Confederate soldiers march across 1 mile of open ground. Hood's Charge saw approximately 22,000 Confederate soldiers march across 2 miles of open ground. Pickett's Charge first spent two hours firing 150 Confederate cannon to soften up 5,000 or so Union soldiers hiding out in the open or behind a low pre-existing stone wall. Hood's charge had no such artillery barrage against 30,000 Union soldiers dug in behind carefully constructed earthworks. Pickett's Charge was a "one and done" affair, with the Confederate troops making one charge, and then retreating back to their own lines; the whole ordeal was over in an hour. Hood's Charge saw the Confederates charge dozens of times over a period of at least 5 hours.
The weakest point in the Union line was a gap that existed where the line crossed the Columbia Turnpike. This is where hundreds of Confederate troops were able to pour in behind the Union lines onto the property of a man named Fountain Branch Carter. Hundreds of Union troops poured forward to meet this threat, and for an indeterminable amount of time, you had a couple thousand Union and Confederate troops shooting each other, stabbing each other, beating each other over the head with shovels and picks, wrestling on the ground, and generally engaging in one of the most violent and desperate hand-to-hand struggles of the entire war. And it all happened right here in this yard:
The day after the battle, just about every square foot of the ground you see in the photo was covered with the bodies of Union and Confederate dead. To get an idea of the intensity of the combat, observe the battle damage that still exists in south-facing walls of the outbuildings of the Carter farm. Yes, those are bullet holes you see; most of them of the .58-caliber muzzle loading variety:
After the sobering experience of seeing the buildings damaged by the battle, we drove a couple of miles down the road to visit the Confederate soldiers killed by the battle. On the eastern portion of the battlefield is the Carnton Plantation, where many of the wounded were treated the day after the battle, and where the battle dead were eventually laid to rest. Approximately 1,750 Confederate soldiers were killed that day, and almost all of them were buried in the cemetery set up on the Carnton Plantation:
As much as a history teacher/buff like myself can read about and imagine this war, there is nothing like visiting an actual battlefield to drive home the fact in your mind that it all really happened. I have also visited the battlefields at Gettysburg and Fredericksburg, which also have their own cemeteries and monuments. But they both have nothing on the outbuildings full of bullet holes that remain at Franklin, Tennessee, where just under 1,800 Confederate soldiers and somewhere between 500 and 700 Union soldiers died in a battle that was fought when the end of the war was in sight anyway.
150 years ago today.