On November 30, 1864, John Hood has his men moving up the pike towards Franklin before the first light of dawn had even begun to peak over the eastern horizon. It was only eight miles to Franklin and, if he hurried his men, he might be able to catch John Schofield as the Union general scrambled to get his men and supply train across the Harpeth River, which ran its course immediately north of the town. The last of his army, Stephen Lee’s corps, which had remained behind to demonstrate in Schofield’s front and hold the Union army in Columbia, was already heading north but trailed the main body by several hours.
The embarrassment of the previous night’s events must have cast a pall over the mood of Hood and all his generals, and there was likely an intense desire to redeem themselves by nabbing Schofield and destroying his two corps before they could reach the relative safety of Nashville’s defenses. In his memoirs, Hood remembered the morning as follows:
A sudden change in sentiment here took place among officers and men: the Army became metamorphosed, as it were, in one night. A general feeling of mortification and disappointment pervaded its ranks. The troops appeared to recognize that a rare opportunity had been totally disregarded, and manifested, seemingly, a determination to retrieve, if possible, the fearful blunder of the previous afternoon and night. The feeling existed which sometimes induces men who have long been wedded to but one policy to look beyond the sphere of their own convictions, and, at least, be willing to make trial of another course of action.
Of course, memories are tricky things and memoirs often cannot be trusted. However, the official records from November 30 say very little about the mood of the Army of Tennessee. For his part, the famous memoirist of the Army of Tennessee, Sam Watkins, remembered an initial feeling of elation that Schofield might be trapped:
About two hours after sun up the next morning we received the order to "Fall in, fall in, quick, make haste, hurrah, promptly, men; each rank count two; by the right flank, quick time, march; keep promptly closed up." Everything indicated an immediate attack. When we got to the turnpike near Spring Hill, lo! and behold; wonder of wonders! the whole Yankee army had passed during the night. The bird had flown. We made a quick and rapid march down the turnpike, finding Yankee guns and knapsacks, and now and then a broken down straggler, also two pieces of howitzer cannon, and at least twenty broken wagons along the road. Everything betokened a rout and a stampede of the Yankee army. Double quick! Forrest is in the rear. Now for fun. All that we want to do now is to catch the blue-coated rascals, ha! Ha! We all want to see the surrender, ha! Ha! Double quick! A rip, rip, rip; wheuf; pant, pant, pant. First one man drops out, and then another. The Yankees are routed and running, and Forrest has crossed Harpeth river in the rear of Franklin. Hurrah, men! keep closed up; we are going to capture Schofield.
Indeed, John Schofield feared the same thing. He wanted to march the last 18 miles to Nashville, but upon arriving in Franklin, he discovered both bridges over the Harpeth had been damaged and would not support the weight of his troops and wagons. Worse, the river seemed unfordable and he had been forced to leave his pontoons behind in Columbia. His only recourse was to have his engineers repair the bridges. However, that delay meant exactly what John Hood was hoping for: the possibility that Schofield would be caught crossing the river when the Army of Tennessee arrived.
Soon, however, scouts rode in to tell Schofield that they could ford the river; however this would still mean a slow crossing and the potential of being trapped midstream by Hood. Therefore, Schofield decided to send some of his artillery across the river and position them in a redoubt on the north bank, along with most of IV Corp’s infantry. He also ordered Wilson to take his cavalry to the far side of the river as well, patrolling the north bank to prevent either Forrest’s cavalry or Hood’s army from crossing on his flank again. As for the rest of the army, they were told to quickly erect field fortifications in a semicircle along the town’s southern boundary in case they had to make a fight of it. Schofield hoped he could avoid a battle before nightfall, when he would get his wagons and men across the river once more under the protection of darkness.
While deeply fatigued from a night of marching, the Union troops began work in earnest. Using the home and cotton gin belonging to a man named Fountain Branch Carter as a center point, the soldiers of XVII Corps dug a formidable series of rifle pits and breastworks that stretched from the banks of the Harpeth west and above Franklin to the river shores east of town. The ground in front of them made for one the best defensive positions the war had ever seen. For nearly two miles to the south of the Union lines, the ground was flat and nearly devoid of trees. There was no cover for any attacking force and the only high ground, Winstead Hill, was too far away to afford any advantage to Hood’s men. In fact, one Federal division under General Wagner was posted to the top of the hill to watch for Hood’s approach, which came in the early afternoon.
At 2:00 p.m., Hood could plainly see Wagner’s colors flying at the top of Winstead Hill as he rode north up the pike. He ordered Stewart’s corps forward to flank the hill and force the Federals from the high ground, which they did, sending Wagner falling back towards the Union lines around Franklin. Hood and his staff rode to the top of Winstead Hill so they could observe what was happening in Franklin. What they saw was almost certainly unexpected. The Federal army was not in the process of fleeing across the river but, rather, was entrenched and ready to fight. Hood was unstrapped from his horse and he hobbled forward using his crutches. He raised his glasses and studied the Union positions for a very long time.
What happened next is unclear. Hood recalled giving orders to Cheatham and Stewart to deploy their corps to the left and right of the turnpike, respectively, and force the Federals into the river via a direct, frontal assault, orders that, in his recollection, were met with enthusiasm. However, the picture provided by others was not so rosy. It is reported that Forrest counseled against a frontal attack, suggesting that he and one division of infantry flank Schofield and drive him out of the entrenchments. General Cheatham agreed, saying, “I do not like the looks of this fight; the enemy has an excellent position and is well fortified.” Meanwhile, Patrick Cleburne, the hard fighting Irish division commander from Stewart’s corps, declined to state his opposition openly. Instead, looking at the Union fortifications, he quietly murmured, “They are very formidable.” While Hood would later say Cleburne was particularly enthusiastic, one of Cleburne’s brigade commanders, General Govan, recalled that, before the assault, the Irishman was “more despondent” than he had ever seen him. But Hood’s decision was final: the army would attack immediately and destroy Schofield before darkness.
Given what would happen between the moment of his decision and darkness several hours later, one has to wonder what drove Hood to this decision. The odds were not good and one of his corps, that of Stephen Lee, and much of his artillery would not arrive until nearly dark. Hood would later write that artillery was not a concern because he deferred from using mass artillery barrages, lest it indiscriminately kill the civilians in the town. Some would say that Hood was determined to “blood” his men and raise their fighting spirit by aggressively attacking the enemy. That was probably an element in his decision, but how influential an element is a question. It probably was not as critical as much as some might argue, but it was certainly more important than offered by his later supporters and apologists. I suspect the truth is somewhere in the middle. More than likely, the biggest single thing driving his decision was his determination to not let John Schofield slip away again. Fate had presented this opportunity and he was not going to let it slip from his grasp.
His attack plan was simple and, perhaps, murderously so. He would advance seven brigades directly up the pike at the center of the Federal line; while six brigades would assault the Union right and four more would advance against the left. Beyond that, there was no real planning involved. The idea was to attack and do so quickly before nightfall. At 3:00 p.m., as the bright sun began to move lower in the late fall sky, the Army of Tennessee moved forward and prepared for the attack.
On the Union side, all was in preparation but there were imperfections in the defenses. At the apex of the Federal line astride the turnpike, there was a gap in the breastworks left there by design. General Cox felt that he needed to allow a way for Wagner’s men to retreat back inside the Federal works, so he ordered the gap be left open and defended by a battery of four guns. He added a trench line about 200 yards to the rear and across the road, and placed additional guns on high ground to the rear so they could sweep the front if necessary. However, the biggest weakness involved Wagner’s division.
As his division retreated from Winstead Hill, Wagner received orders to form his men about one-half mile in front of the main line in what was an extremely exposed position. To this day, no one is certain from where those orders came or precisely what the instructions ordered. Several officers maintained that they were told only to remain in place until they observed Hood’s main force advance and then they were to fall back into the fortifications. However Wagner believed that he was hold his line at all costs. The last of his brigades to reach the new position was that of Colonel Opdycke. When he heard that Wagner was determined to hold his ground, Opdycke refused to do so and led his men into Franklin, where he ordered them to fall out and rest near the Carter House.
Meanwhile, at 3:30 p.m., Hood’s men began to move forward, bands playing and their tattered colors flapping in the breeze. By all accounts, it was a magnificent sight. One Union infantryman later recalled that, “It looked to me as though the whole South had come up there and were determined to walk right over us.” As Hood’s men approached, the men in Wagner’s exposed division began to become uneasy, not because they were cowards but because, as veterans, they knew they had no business trying to fight where there were. As Federal artillery opened fire on Hood’s advancing lines, Wagner’s men poured a massive volley into the Confederates. At that, the attacking line broke into a run, the rebel yell coming from every throat. Wagner’s line immediately broke and thousands of Union troops ran for the safety of Franklin, as mass confusion broke out.
Hood’s men ran right behind them, actually mixing in with the retreating Federals. Neither side could fire into them and were forced to wait for a clear line of fire. Wagner’s fleeing troops soon reached a point where locust trees had been felled to form a natural abatis across the road. In their panic, many Union soldiers became entangled in the trees only to be killed by their pursuers. As the Confederates paused to deal with the abatis and the men caught in it, the remainder of Wagner’s men ran past, through the gap, and into Federal lines. As soon as they cleared the gap, Union guns began to rake the Confederates with canister, but the weight and speed of the attack was too strong to stop. The butternut-clad attackers poured into the gap and the Federal defenders positioned there fled north up the streets of Franklin, joining Wagner’s panicked brigades. Schofield’s defenses had broken at what was supposed to be their strongest point and a seemingly irresistible flood of Confederate troops was pouring into Franklin. By all appearances, a Union disaster was in the making and John Hood’s hope for a major victory suddenly seemed bright.
In a meadow near the Carter House, Emerson Opdycke had heard the firing begin and, as the sounds of battle grew louder, he ordered his men into line. They had been resting, making coffee with their rifles stacked nearby. Just as the men took their positions, Opdyke turned and saw the mass stampede of Union soldiers running up the street, followed by Hood’s men. He shouted for the brigade to go forward and his men ran past the Carter House, gathering two Kentucky regiments and those from Wagner’s brigades who still had some fight left in them in the process. Running full speed, the wave of blue collided head-on with the surging Confederates. What ensued was the most brutal hand-to-hand combat of the entire war.
Men shot one another at point blank ranges, beat one another to death with rifle butts and even shovels, while wildly slashing each other with bayonets and knives. Smoke and dust rose up obscuring the melee. Men recalled blood being everywhere, along with brain matter splattered about, covering the collapsed bodies of the dead and wounded from both sides. Captain Sexton, the officer who so clearly recalled the night march past Hood’s men on the pike, later wrote that he fired his pistol nine times during the brawl and the furthest man he shot at was less than 20 yards distance. Even Colonel Opdycke waded into the fight, “firing every shot from his revolver and then breaking it over the head of a rebel.” Sexton also remembered observing the personal battle of one of his men against a Confederate colonel who ordered the private to surrender:
Private Arbridge of Company D, 72nd Illinois, thrust his musket against the abdomen of the rash colonel, and with the exclamation, “I guess not!” instantly discharged his weapon. The effect of the shot was horrible and actually let daylight through the victim. The doomed warrior doubled up, his head gradually sinking forward and downward until he finally plunged head foremost into the pit below, at the very feet of his slayer.
Opdycke’s counterattack proved too much for the Southern attackers, who fell back, eventually going up and over the breastworks, and finally seeking cover at the foot of the fortifications. Opdycke’s men seized control of the gap and quickly erected a barricade, as the Federal crisis ended.
However, all along the line Hood’s men continued to press their attack, surging ahead into waves of rifle and artillery fire like men walking into a strong wind. Many made it to the base of the Federal earthworks only to have the attack stall out, while others were simply stopped in their tracks as men fell by the dozens. Those who made it to the foot of the Union barricades now were trapped. To retreat meant being shot down from behind while going forward over the breastworks would result in certain death or capture. So, for hours, they would remain there, shooting at any blue cap that showed itself, and being shot down by the defenders, many of whom simply pointed their rifles down into the pit and fired blindly. Up and down the line, the story was the same. Hood’s assault ground to a halt and the death toll mounted steadily. As night fell, many of the men trapped in front of the Federal lines began to surrender and those that could fell back toward Winstead Hill. The Battle of Franklin had ended and, by 3:00 a.m., Schofield’s army at last made its final escape across the Harpeth, burning the bridges behind them as they hurried north to Nashville.
Every battle from the Civil War seems to leave a legacy all its own, and Franklin was no different. However, the scale of the slaughter here and the foolhardiness of the attack was what were remembered most. For many Confederate soldiers, this was the place the Army of Tennessee died. Years later, Sam Watkins wrote that it was a battle he could barely bring himself to recall, much less write about. When he recounted how the fields around Franklin appeared the next day, all he could see was absolute horror:
But when the morrow's sun began to light up the eastern sky with its rosy hues, and we looked over the battlefield, O, my God! what did we see! It was a grand holocaust of death. Death had held high carnival there that night. The dead were piled the one on the other all over the ground. I never was so horrified and appalled in my life.
Hood’s army had lost over 7,000 men with approximately 1,750 killed in action and the remainder wounded or missing. It was a bloodletting he could ill afford. Perhaps even more staggering a loss came in the form of leadership—six of his generals were dead, including Patrick Cleburne. Plus, a deep sense of bitterness now descended over many of his men, some of whom would never forgive John Hood for Franklin. One of them, Captain Samuel T. Foster of the 24th Texas Cavalry (Dismounted) wrote in his diary:
This is not the kind of fighting he promised us at Tuscumbia and Florence when we started into Tennessee. This was not a “fight with equal numbers and choice of the ground” by no means. And the wails and cries of widows and orphans made at Franklin Tenn Nov 30th 1864 will heat up the fires of the bottomless pit to burn the soul of Gen J B Hood for Murdering their husbands and fathers at that place that day. It can't be called anything else but cold blooded Murder.
And in this perverse war among countrymen, fighting in their own towns, there would be loss that was painfully close to home. Fountain Branch Carter, whose home and cotton gin would be the center of so much fighting, had a son who was serving in Hood’s army. Theodoric Carter, known affectionately as Tod to his family, was a captain on General Thomas Smith’s staff and had participated in the attack on November 30. The next day, a Confederate soldier came to the Carter home and told the elder Carter that his young son had been badly wounded. Carter and another of his sons went in search of him. At first, they could not find him but, eventually, General Smith led them, along with three of Mr. Carter’s daughters and a daughter-in-law to where Tod lay on the field. Tod had fallen nearly in sight of his boyhood home, which he had not seen in more than two years. His family lifted him gently and carried back to the house where he would die of his wounds the next day.
On December 1, John Hood ordered his battered and exhausted army into line and, by 1:00 p.m., what was becoming the ghost the Army of Tennessee continued its march north to Nashville. But, as the men prepared to march, they received a proclamation from John Hood that portrayed the battle as a victory. If so, it was certainly a pyrrhic triumph:
The commanding general congratulates the army upon the success achieved yesterday over our enemy by their heroic and determined courage. The enemy have been sent in disorder and confusion to Nashville, and while we lament the fall of many gallant officers and brave men, we have shown to our countrymen that we can carry any position occupied by our enemy.
On December 3, Hood would also telegraph Secretary of War Seddon and General Beauregard describing what sounded like a total victory for the Army of Tennessee:
About 4 p.m. November 30 we attacked the enemy at Franklin and drove them from their center lines of temporary works into their inner lines, which they evacuated during the night, leaving their dead and wounded in our possession, and retired to Nashville, closely pursued by our cavalry. We captured several stand of colors and about 1,000 prisoners. Our troops fought with great gallantry. We have to lament the loss of many gallant officers and brave men. Major-General Cleburne, Brig. Gens. John Adams, Gist, Strahl, and Granbury were <ar94_644> killed; Maj. Gen. John C. Brown, Brigadier-Generals Carter, Manigault, Quarles, Cockrell, and Scott were wounded; Brigadier-General Gordon was captured.
Meanwhile, George Thomas awaited John Hood in Nashville, where the last act would finally be played.