Today is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Franklin, one of the most brutal and intense combats of the entire Civil War.
The battle was the pivot of Hood’s Nashville Campaign. November, 1864 saw the bizarre phenomenon of the two major armies in the Western Theater, Sherman’s Armies of the Tennessee and Georgia, and Hood’s Army of Tennessee, marching in opposite directions. Sherman embarked south on his March to the Sea, and John Bell Hood launched a desperate lunge north, hoping to reach the Ohio River and accomplish . . . something. Just what he could have accomplished is a mystery, as the logistical obstacles alone made the campaign a forlorn hope.
That said, Hoods campaign started well. He deftly outmaneuvered John Schofield, commander of the largest force that Sherman left behind to hold northern Georgia and Tennessee. Schofield’s force consisted primarily of his XXIIIrd Corps (grandiloquently referred to as the Army of the Ohio) and the IVth Corps (of the Army of the Cumberland). Schofield retreated to Columbia, TN, on the Duck River and dug in. Department Commander George Thomas ordered Schofield to retreat to Franklin on the Harpeth River, but before he could do so, Hood stole a march and outflanked him. Schofield had to retreat precipitously from Columbia, but Hood was in position to cut him off near Spring Hill.
In events still shrouded in mystery, the Confederates did not close the trap at Spring Hill. Two rebel divisions remained in place within sight of the Columbia Pike, along which Schofield’s men were marching for their lives. Some Unionists unwittingly wandered into the Confederate lines to light their pipes in the burning fires. While the Confederates waited, Schofield slipped by and made it to Franklin.
The bridge over the Harpeth being destroyed and needing repair, Schofield had his men dig a semicircular line of entrenchments with its flanks anchored on the Harpeth. Due to a confusion in orders, one division (Wagner’s) remained a half-mile in front of the Federal main line. Well, two brigades did, anyways. The third, under irascible Emerson Opdycke, who thought the order idiotic, continued to march into the Federal lines, collapsing exhausted near the Carter House a few hundred yards fro the trenches.
Hood awoke to find that Schofield had escaped. He excoriated some of his corps and division commanders, including Frank Cheatham and Patrick Cleburne, arguably the most able soldier in his army, for their failure to destroy the fleeing Federals. He urged his troops forward in pursuit.
There is some controversy about his mental state. Some, notably Wiley Sword (whom I know slightly) claim that Hood was enraged, and intent on punishing his army for its failure to attack with vigor at Spring Hill. Others, including Eric Jacobsen and Hood biographer Stephen Hood (a distant relative of the general) vigorously dispute this. Regardless, Hood’s subordinates, including the often inebriated Cheatham, expressed unease at attacking a dug in Schofield, but Hood dismissed their objections, claiming that he would have to fight them somewhere, and it was better to do so in Franklin before they were able to retreat to the formidable fortifications in Nashville, to which Federal reinforcements were rushing from the west and north. He believed that these were the best odds he could hope to face, as bad as they were.
The assault was over two miles of open ground. It would have been blasted to oblivion well before it closed with the Federals, but for those two Union brigades sitting alone, 1000 yards in front of the main works. Cleburne’s division overlapped and overwhelmed Wagner’s isolated troops, who broke and ran. Up went a cry from the Confederates: “Follow them into the works!” With Wagner’s Yankees and Cleburne’s Rebels all mixed together, the Federals in the trenches held their fire and Cleburne’s men were able to surge over the earthworks between a cotton gin and the Carter House.
Enter Opdycke. The cantankerous Ohioan led his veteran brigade of Ohio and Illinois regiments in a wild countercharge that slammed bodily into the panting Confederates in the grounds around the Carter House. A swirling melee ensued. Opdycke emptied his pistol, then used the butt as a hammer to bash a Confederate over the head. In brutal hand-to-hand fighting, Opkycke’s men pushed back the Confederates, but only to the ditch at in front of the Federal lines. There ensued a battle reminiscent of the struggle at the Bloody Angle at Spottsylvania. Men at the rear would load muskets and pass them forward to soldiers who would thrust them over the top of the trench and fire them at point blank range into their enemies’ faces. When one would fall, his body would be pulled back and some other hardy soul would shoulder forward to take his place. Muskets with bayonets attached were hurled over the earthworks like javelins.
The primal combat extended into the night. The muzzle discharges flashed in the dark until the firing petered out, due to the mutual exhaustion of the adversaries.
While the face-to-face killing went on between the Cotton Gin and the Carter House in the center of the Union lines, the Confederates mounted large assaults on either flank. These attacks were shot down by the well protected Federal veterans, secure behind their stout earthworks.
The Harpeth bridge being repaired, Schofield’s men faded away from their works under the cover of darkness and the exhaustion of their adversaries, and wearily made their way north to Nashville.
The battered and spent Confederates awoke to visions of a holocaust. Dead men were heaped in the ditch in front of the Federal earthworks. Windrows of dead lay in fields over which the Confederates had charged.
But the dead were mainly on one side of the works: the Confederate side. Southern casualties were appalling, totaling about 1750 dead and nearly 4000 with disabling wounds. These represented about 40 percent of the attacking force. The size of the attacking force was larger than the Pickett-Pettigrew charge at Gettysburg, and the total casualties were larger as well.
Among the Confederate dead were six generals: Cleburne, Adams, Granbury, Gist, Strahl, and Carter.
Union losses were trivial by comparison, with less than 200 dead and about 1000 wounded, with a disproportionate share of those losses suffered by Wagner’s hapless troops. The Federals behind the earthworks suffered hardly at all.
The Army of the Tennessee dragged itself to Nashville, which it was utterly incapable of assaulting given its shrunken numbers and the city’s formidable defenses. Hood’s men dug a miserable line south of Thomas’s and sat, unable to go forward and unwilling to go back. Federal reinforcements flowed into the city, and after a two week pause (which drove Grant crazy), Thomas attacked and hammered Hood’s hopeless men in a two day battle that destroyed the Army of Tennessee as a fighting force.
But the fate of Hood’s army had been sealed in the fields south of Franklin. The Confederate assault was insanely brave, all the more so because as veterans the men knew the fate that likely awaited them. It was a valiant sacrifice, but it was also a tragic waste made in the name of a bad cause.