Saturday, November 30, 2019

Franklin: The Death Angel Gathers Its Last Harvest

By Maj. William Carraway
Historian, Georgia Army National Guard

If you have participated in a staff ride at a Civil War battlefield, it is likely you learned of tactics employed, leadership tests and decisions made in the heat of conflict. A staff ride provides the opportunity to connect with leaders and great events of the past, to reveal the human dimension of war and to apply lessons of the past to present and future Army operations. One human dimension hitherto lacking in the staff ride experience, has been the roll of post-traumatic stress on the veterans of these great battles. We are left to assume that our generation is the only one to combat PTS, and yet, a study of Civil War letters reveals a connection between our experience and the experiences of the Civil War Soldier. It is critical that we make this connection, that our veterans know that they are not alone in their experiences. 

The Battle of Franklin Tennessee, fought on November 30, 1864, provides a study in the savagery of war and its lasting impact on those who return. Samuel Watkins, a private in the 1st Tennessee wrote of the Battle of Franklin:

“Kind reader, right here my pen, and courage, and ability fail me. I shrink from butchery. Would to God I could tear the page from these memoirs and from my own memory. It is the blackest page in the history of (the war). It was the bloodiest battle of modern times in any war…  I was there. I saw it. My flesh trembles, and creeps, and crawls when I think of it today. My heart almost ceases to beat at the horrid recollection. Would to God that I had never witnessed such a scene!”[1]

Writing in his memoir, Co. Aytch, nearly 20 years after the Battle of Franklin, Watkins reveals the difficulty in discussing the battle, an experience shared by Veterans of 21st century conflicts:

“I cannot describe it. It beggars description. I will not attempt to describe it. I could not. The death-angel was there to gather its last harvest. It was the grand coronation of death. Would that I could turn the page. But I feel, though I did so, that page would still be there, teeming with its scenes of horror and blood. I can only tell of what I saw.”[2]


In the waning days of November 1864, the Confederate Army of Tennessee under Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood had pursued the smaller Federal army of Maj. Gen. John Schofield to the town of Franklin approximately 15 miles from Nashville, Tenn. Hood intended to isolate the Federal Army before it could reach the safety of Nashville and its Federal garrison.

Federal forces arrived in Franklin in the early hours of November 30 and began improving defensive works left over from a previous battle. The division of Brig. Gen. George Wagner was the last Federal force to reach Franklin. Wagner ordered his three brigades to take up position about a half mile forward of the main entrenchments. Colonel Emerson Opdycke of Ohio refused the order and marched his brigade to the rear of the Federal lines and went into camp. This decision would have far-reaching impact on the coming battle. 

Post-war map of the Franklin Battlefield.  Library of Congress

Survey of the Battlefield

As the Confederate Army drew into a battle formation on the crest of Winstead Hill its 20,000 Soldiers looked down on two miles of open ground and Schofield’s 25,000-man army. The defensive line was anchored near the brick home of Fountain Branch Carter. The Columbia Turnpike pierced the Federal center adjacent to the Carter House. Running perpendicular, in a crescent shape, from the Carter House and the turnpike, massive earthworks rose eight feet high topped with head logs. The lines on the Federal left were fronted by a grove of thorny trees. Fort Granger, located on the opposite bank of the Harpeth River, overlooked the fields southeast of the Franklin Line with guns that could range the field. Rather than wait to consolidate and reconnoiter the lines, with daylight fading, Hood ordered an assault at 4:00 p.m. Major Gen. John C Brown’s Division with 10 Georgia regiments would advance west of the Columbia Turnpike while Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne’s Division would advance east of the turnpike. Major Gen. William Bate’s Division would attack to the left of Brown’s Division. Lieutenant Gen. Alexander P. Stewart’s Corps would assault east of Cleburne’s Division with the divisions of William Loring, Edward Walthall and Samuel French. Lieutenant Gen. Stephen D. Lee’s Corps, on the march from Spring Hill, would arrive with three additional divisions including nine Georgia regiments after the initial assault. Confederate cavalry under Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest would harass and attempt to turn the Federal flanks.

The home of Fountain Branch Carter was at the center of the Battle of Franklin
Photo by Maj. William Carraway
The Attack

With perhaps a half hour of daylight left, eighteen Confederate brigades with over 100 regiments began the two-mile march from Winstead Hill to destiny. Wagner’s 3,000 Soldiers watched as a vast gray tide surged towards them. Some of the veteran Soldiers began to run for the main line of defenses. The rest waited until the Confederates were within 100 yards, then unleashed a volley. Cleburne’s men returned the volley and surged forward over the works. In moments Wagner’s position was overrun. Worse than the loss of more than 700 captured, Wagner’s fleeing men prevented the Federals from firing. Cries of “follow them into the works!”[3] echoed across the field and a desperate footrace ensued. Unable to fire because of their fleeing comrades, Federal troops watched in horror as the full force of the frontal assault closed the distance and broke upon the earthworks. Confederate Soldiers surged unchecked onto the Carter House grounds clubbing and bayoneting in a ferocious melee. Those in the breach, both Federal and Confederate, were subject to a hailstorm of fire from all directions. One captured Federal recalled huddling in terror against a trench wall with his captor as bullets sailed above them. A captain of the 72nd Illinois recalled that the shriek of powder and lead was so loud that his orders could not be heard even as he shouted them to men within arm’s distance. Within moments, a 200-yard section of the Federal line had been swept away by a tsunami of Confederates. Two hundred yards south of the pandemonium at the Carter House, Opdycke’s six regiments were resting and eating rations. Hearing the sounds of battle, these veteran Soldiers from Illinois, Ohio and Wisconsin took up arms and charged south into the smoky hell of the Carter House lawn. Opdycke’s charging westerners met Cleburne and Brown’s juggernaut at a dead run in a scene reminiscent of medieval hand-to-hand combat. Eyewitnesses recalled the two armies crashing together like a great wave.

Opdycke emptied his revolver then used the weapon as a club in close quarters. Major Arthur McArthur at the head of the 24th Wisconsin had reached the Carter House when he was shot by a Confederate officer. MacArthur rose and ran the officer through with his sword. MacArthur survived his wound to become the father of General of the Army Douglas MacArthur.

A Scene from The Bowels of Hell

Out buildings on the Carter House property bear mute witness to the savage
fighting that occurred at Franklin, Tenn. Photo by Maj. William Carraway
Slowly, the counterattack pushed the enemy back, but the Confederates still held the outer trenches. Men clung to opposite sides of earthworks raising muskets and firing blindly and desperately over the opposite side. In the sixty yards between the inner and outer trenches a scene out of the bowels of hell played out as Federal officers and infantrymen serving the cannons of the 20th Ohio Battery raked the grounds between the trenches with canister, reaping men like a great iron scythe. Those who tried to surrender could not be heard over the din of musket and cannon fire. A severely wounded Federal Soldier was observed through the smoke furiously swinging at a throng of Confederate Soldiers with a pickaxe.[4] A Soldier of the 41st Tennessee had to stand on bodies of his comrades to fire over the trench. Handing him loaded muskets was his brigade commander, Brig. Gen. Otho Strahl, an Ohioan by birth. Struck in the neck, Strahl managed to crawl 20 feet across the bodies of his brigade before being fatally struck in the head. Strahl was one of six southern generals killed at Franklin. Hiram Granbury had fallen in front of his Texas Brigade while his division commander, Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne, had been shot through the heart while on foot. Brig Gen. John Adams reached the works east of the Columbia Turnpike. Grasping the colors of the 65th Ohio, he was shot through both legs, mortally wounded. To the west of the Carter House, Brig. Gen. States Rights Gist led his South Carolinians and Georgians forward when he too was fatally struck. Brigadier Gen. John C. Carter fell in front of his brigade while moving in support of Gist. Within 60 minutes of the attack’s commencement, the sun had set, and the Confederates had suffered more casualties than the U.S. suffered in the 24 hours of D-Day. But the fighting was not over. Stephen Lee’s Corps arrived on the battlefield and began funneling troops into the fray. Marching forward in darkness, the troops used torches to align their ranks. By 7:00 p.m. Their assault was broken with heavy loss and Hood decided to end the attack for the evening. Firing continued through the frozen night air, breaking the constant wail of the wounded. Ghastly scenes greeted those brave enough to move about the field. John K. Shellenberger of the 64th Ohio wrote that the dead “were piled high as an artillery embrasure.”[5]

This ground just south of the Carter House was the scene of savage hand-to-hand fighting. Photo by Maj. William Carraway


By 2:00 a.m., the Federal Army withdrew across the Harpeth River. The Confederates were in no shape to pursue. Fourteen Confederate generals had been killed or wounded and nearly sixty regimental commanders were casualties. Federal casualties were relatively light: 2,300 compared to 6,300 for the Confederates. Nevertheless, Hood ordered his army to pursue Schofield to Nashville, where in an ill-conceived siege, his army would be annihilated by Maj. Gen. George Thomas.


The July 3, 1863 assault at Gettysburg, popularly remembered as “Pickett’s Charge” is
Memorial to fallen Georgia Soldiers in the 
McGavock Cemetery in Franklin. Photo by
Maj. William Carraway
 perhaps the most famous attack of the American Civil War, but it paled in comparison to the assault at Franklin. Franklin witnessed nearly twice as many men charging twice the distance with no reconnaissance and one-battery of artillery support against three-lines of earthworks. Yet, unlike Gettysburg, the Franklin battlefield is largely forgotten. Until recently, the ground on which Maj. Gen. Cleburne fell was occupied by a pizza restaurant. Gettysburg’s silent marble monuments invite visitors to celebrate the honor and valor of war. Franklin, meanwhile, seems to exist in a forgotten corner of our national memory not as a commemoration, but as a grim reminder us of the agony and misery of conflict. A Mississippi private wrote of the battle:

“Franklin was the only battleground I ever saw where the faces of the majority of the dead expressed supreme fear and terror… Their very attitude as they lay prone upon the ground, with extended earth clutching fingers, and with their faces partially buried in the soil told the tale of the mental agony they had endured before death released them.”[6]

The Civil War generation wrote about and experienced these memories just as our veterans experience them now. But we must not allow the horror of war to be something left to the memory of our veterans. The experience of Franklin must be available for future generations just as surely as the experience of Gettysburg. We cannot allow ourselves to forget the savagery of war, lest, as Robert E. Lee admonished, “we should grow too fond of it.”[7]

[1] Watkins, Sam. “The Project Gutenberg EBook of ‘Co. Aytch’, by Sam R. Watkins.” Gutenberg, August 17, 2004.
[2] Watkins
[3] Sword, Wiley. The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah. Spring Hill, Franklin and Nashville. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1993, 193
[4] Sword, 210
[5] Sword, 249
[6] Sword, 267
[7] Alexander, E. Porter. Memoirs of a Confederate. New York, Charles Scribner & Sons, 1907, 302.

No comments:

Post a Comment