Streetwise Professor

November 30, 2018

The Most Tragic Day of a Tragic War

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military — cpirrong @ 9:19 pm

The American Civil War was an extremely grim conflict from first to last, but few–if any–days of that war were as grim as 30 November, 1864.  On that bleak day, John Bell Hood launched his Confederate Army of Tennessee in an assault over 1.5 miles of open ground against a larger force of steely Union veterans behind strong entrenchments.  The result was predictable–to all but Hood, apparently: an epic slaughter of some of the finest infantry of that or any war.

The battle is known–to the extent it is known, which is too little–for the deaths of six Confederate generals, namely Cleburne (not of Texas, but for whom a town in the state is named because a brigade of Texans served under his command), Carter, Granbury (of Texas, and commander of that Texas brigade, for whom a Lone Star town is named), Strahl, Gist, and Adams.  Seven other brigade or division commanders were wounded.   No other battle took such a toll on general officers.

Officer casualties at Franklin were horrible, but the carnage in the ranks was almost as bad.  Many excellent formations were nearly obliterated.

Case in point: the storied Missouri Brigade.  Arguably the best combat unit in the western theater, and arguably of the entire war, the brigade went into the battle with 696 men, of whom 419 (over 60 percent) were rendered hors du combat.  53 out of 56 officers–think about that for a minute, 95 percent–went down.  Although a pathetic remnant of the brigade tramped on to Nashville, to participate in the defeat there, for all intents and purposes the finest unit in the Army of Tennessee was wrecked beyond repair.

In some respects it is invidious to single out a particular brigade: virtually every Confederate formation was ravaged.

Virtually nowhere did the Confederates penetrate the Union entrenchments. General Adams made it literally half-way: he attempted to leap his horse over the rampart, only to have his horse–and himself–riddled by bullets in the attempt.  Adams was found dead on his horse, which had its forelegs on the Union side of the parapet, and the hind legs on the Confederate side.

The one exception was in Cleburne’s and Brown’s sector near the Cotton Gin and Carter House.  A blunder had resulted in two small Federal brigades (Conrad’s and Lane’s) of Wagner’s IV Corps division remaining several hundred yards in front of the main Union line, holding a thinly-manned rudimentary set of earthworks.  These men were overwhelmed by the assault of the two Confederate divisions and they broke for the rear, as sensible men will.   A cry went up from the Confederate lines: “Shoot them in the back! Follow them into the works!” And they did.  The defenders of the main line were hesitant to fire because Lane’s and Conrad’s men were in the way, and thus the Confederates were largely spared from the withering volleys that stopped their comrades on their right and left in their tracks, allowing Cleburne’s and Brown’s men to surge over the works.

But only for a short while.  Wagner’s third brigade, under Emerson Opdyke (which contained the 2d Board of Trade regiment, the 88th Illinois, by the way), launched a frenzied counterattack that resulted in hand-to-hand fighting around the Carter House (which stands today, along with outbuildings that still exhibit hundreds of bullet holes).  Supported by troops that had been driven from the works (including the 1st Board of Trade Regiment, AKA the 72nd Illinois), Opdyke drove back the Confederates.

But not far.  The rebels congregated in the ditch on the outside of the Union lines.  Because that was the safest place: to recross the field would have been suicidal.

For the next several hours, in the darkness of the late-autumn day, the contending forces slaughtered each other at point-blank range.  General Strahl was shot handing loaded muskets to his men.  Carried to the rear, he was shot in the neck and fatally wounded in the field beyond the ditch.  Men would thrust their muskets over the parapet one-handed, and discharge them into the seething mass on the other side.  Soldiers launched bayoneted rifles like spears into the masses on the other side of the line. Some became frenzied, and jumped on top of the works, only to be shot down.  By late in the evening, the ditch in front of the works was a crawling mass of wounded men, intermixed with the dead.

There is nothing like it in the Civil War.  Pickett’s Charge was similar in terms of numbers, and ground crossed, and ultimate result, but when the Confederates were repulsed, they withdrew.  That fight did not drag on for hours at point-blank range.  The carnage at Franklin did.

In the end, exhaustion caused the fight to ebb away, just as the lives of hundreds of men were ebbing away.  The Union army had bought the time to rebuild the bridges over the Harpeth River necessary to continue their retreat to Nashville, and stole away in the night.  The Confederates were too tired, and too bloodied, even to notice, let alone to try to stop them.

This was truly one of the great tragedies of a War full of them.  In a conflict full of futile and pointless assaults, Franklin stands out for futility and pointlessness.  The Union army ended up exactly where it would have if the battle had never been fought.  But a third of the 23,000 Confederates who made the assault were killed (around 1750) or wounded (5500).  The casualty rates were even higher in Cleburne’s and Brown’s divisions.  60 of 100 regimental commanders went down.

The Federals suffered about 2400 casualties, of whom 1100 (primarily in Conrad’s and Lane’s brigades)  were captured.  Only battles like Fredericksburg or Cold Harbor resulted in a similar disproportionate loss on the contending sides.

So why did this tragedy occur?  It clearly is the responsibility of one man: John Bell Hood.  I agree with (the General’s distant relation) Stephen Hood’s debunking of Wiley Sword’s claim that Hood’s judgment was warped by his reliance on laudanum to ease the pain of his horrific wounds (an arm crippled at Gettysburg, a leg lost almost at the hip at Chickamauga).   Accounts make it clear that Hood was outraged that his subordinates had let the Union army escape a trap at Spring Hill (to the south of Franklin), and this almost certainly dominated his thinking and made an attack seem to be the only option.  It has also been argued that Hood wanted to punish his army for its failure at Spring Hill, but I tend to doubt this interpretation.  He was mad (“as wrathy as a rattlesnake” in the words of one witness) at seeing what he considered to be a Jacksonian stroke come to naught, almost certainly exhausted, and predisposed to aggressiveness.  A deadly combination for the hardy and valiant men under his command.

Franklin illustrates like few battles the incredible deadliness of veteran soldiers by that stage of the war.  Whereas the brutal losses of the Overland and Petersburg campaigns had made Army of the Potomac regiments shadows of their former selves, re-manned with draftees with dubious combat effectiveness (as illustrated by battles like Ream’s Station), western Union regiments had seen extensive combat experience, but still had a strong core of veteran soldiers.

The Army of Tennessee had suffered in battle after battle (Perryville, Stones River, Chickamauga, the battles around Atlanta) but although these losses led to shrunken ranks, those who remained were lethally effective and brave beyond measure.  Veterans that they were, they were certainly under no illusions about their prospects as they stepped off from Winstead Hill for the long trudge to the Union lines at Franklin.  But forlorn hope or no, they attacked with a will.  Awesome is the only word for it.

Unfortunately, the field where these men underwent their agonies is largely unpreserved.  All of the trenches are gone.  The site of the climax of the battle around the Cotton Gin was scarred by a Domino’s Pizza for years.  Fortunately, preservationists have acquired that property, razed the structures, and have created a small park there, including a monument to Cleburne.  The Carter House exists, and preservationists are painstakingly buying property around it in an attempt to create a larger commemorative space.  But most of the Union line to the right and left was covered by pleasant suburban houses years ago.

Carnton Plantation, where the bodies of 4 of the slain generals were laid out after the battle, is still exists.  A Confederate cemetery is located on the grounds–one of the largest at any Civil War battlefield.  The fields around Carnton, where the Confederate right stepped off, are undeveloped, but the target of their assault is suburbia.

Although you can’t experience Franklin in the same way as you can Antietam, or Chickamauga, or Shiloh, or Gettysburg, perhaps that’s for the best.  Bucolic scenes with granite monuments cannot possibly convey the experience of those men who were sacrificed without prospect or purpose 154 years ago today.

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  1. One basic point has perplexed me about Hood’s campaign into Tennessee in late 1864. Why was he and his army heading north after the fall of Atlanta rather than staying in Georgia and using his army to slow or shadow Sherman’s rampage through the heart of the Confederacy? At the very least, couldn’t be have retaken Atlanta?

    Follow-up question: did the Union hold Atlanta until the end of the war or did they abandon it after Sherman marched to the sea? I think Sherman no longer relied on the supply lines north of Atlanta back to Tennessee after he left Atlanta but am curious if the Union continued to hold Atlanta and the line back to Chattanooga for the rest of the war?

    Comment by Jan Hards — November 30, 2018 @ 9:54 pm

  2. @Jan-It was basically a desperate gambit to try to force Sherman to chase him back north, therefore sparing Georgia. But Sherman had enough forces to send Thomas (IVth Corps) and Schofield (XXIIIrd Corps) back to Tennessee (where they were joined by “Smith’s Gorillas” of the XVI Corps brought east from Missouri), and embark on his March to the Sea.

    Hood had tried to dog Sherman in northern Georgia in late-September and October, and Sherman had chased him around for a while but realized that he would never be able to bring him to ground, so he left Thomas et al to take care of him. (The early-October campaign resulted in a fascinating battle at Allatoona Pass, a site that is well-preserved and worth visiting.) For his part, Hood realized that he couldn’t bring Sherman to ground either had he chased after him, and that Sherman probably would have crushed him in open battle. Sherman’s army on the March was arguably the best of the Civil War.

    Sherman burned Atlanta when he left–after ordering all the civilians to leave. He had use for nothing in the town, and wanted to leaving nothing for the enemy to use. During the March he had no supply line (something he had learned from Grant during the Vicksburg Campaign). After Allatoona, the area between Atlanta and the Duck River in Tennessee became a no-man’s land. Sherman didn’t need it. He had business down south, as he put it.

    Comment by cpirrong — November 30, 2018 @ 10:07 pm

  3. @Jan–to expand on that a little bit. Hood had no good options. He couldn’t reasonably chase Sherman–especially since Sherman was leaving a “howling waste” stripped of supplies in his wake. Hood couldn’t have subsisted his army. He couldn’t stay in northern Georgia or Alabama (where he scooted after the northern Georgia campaign) either, because the area was bereft of supplies. So go north, and hope for a miracle.

    He nearly got the miracle at Spring Hill. His flanking of Schofield at Columbia, TN, was a well-planned and executed maneuver, worthy of Jackson at 2d Manassas or Chancellorsville, but Schofield slipped from his grasp for reasons that are still argued over heatedly today.

    Deprived of his miracle, Hood compounded the disaster by attacking at Franklin, and then suicidally attempting to “besiege” Nashville with a force that could barely cover a third of the Union entrenchments–and Nashville was the 2d most heavily fortified place in North America, after DC.

    But again–what were his options? He felt he couldn’t go back, so had to go forward, and he did–to disaster.

    Comment by cpirrong — November 30, 2018 @ 10:16 pm

  4. Thanks, this all makes sense. Following the fall of Atlanta it seems the war in the west (at least from the Confederate perspective) ceased to be one of defending territory and turned into a desperate attempt to keep an army in the field and try to use it to achieve, as you say, a miracle.

    Comment by Jan Hards — December 1, 2018 @ 12:45 am

  5. @Jan–Exactly. Hail Mary.

    Comment by cpirrong — December 2, 2018 @ 8:15 pm

  6. SWP:

    Seen trailers of ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ of late. Not playing anywhere near St Petersburg or Moscow. Perhaps you are much more fortunate in the US’ 4th largest metroplis! You expressed thoughts on Nov 11th, but thought this might be a better place to post.

    VP VVP

    Comment by Vlad — December 6, 2018 @ 11:26 am

  7. @Vlad–US release isn’t until 12/17. I’m waiting with great anticipation.

    Comment by cpirrong — December 6, 2018 @ 7:23 pm

  8. @Vlad–I’ll surely post a review when it comes out here.

    Comment by cpirrong — December 6, 2018 @ 7:23 pm

  9. The really clever thing about that film is the voice dubbing based on reading lips. “Mind this section of trench here”; “smile everyone, we’re on the pictures”. Even more than the colourisation it brings these men to life.

    Comment by Green as Grass — December 11, 2018 @ 6:23 am

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