Second Battle of Franklin
Having lost a good opportunity at Spring Hill to hurt significantly the Union Army, Gen. John B. Hood marched in rapid pursuit of Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield’s retreating Union army. Schofield’s advance reached Franklin about sunrise on November 30 and quickly formed a defensive line in works thrown up by the Yankees in the spring of 1863, on the southern edge of town. Schofield wished to remain in Franklin to repair the bridges and get his supply trains over them. Skirmishing at Thompson’s Station and elsewhere delayed Hood’s march, but, around 4:00 pm, he marshaled a frontal attack against the Union perimeter. Two Federal brigades holding a forward position gave way and retreated to the inner works, but their comrades ultimately held in a battle that caused frightening casualties. When the battle ceased, after dark, six Confederate generals were dead or had mortal wounds. Despite this terrible loss, Hood’s army, late, depleted and worn, crawled on toward Nashville. (NPS summary)
The Road to Tragedy
Hood was furious when he learned of Schofield’s escape at Spring Hill. At the Cheairs House a spiteful Hood chastised his commanders for their failure. There is some dispute as to who was in attendance but one thing is certain, Cheatham was. Hood openly blamed him for disregarding his orders and allowing Schofield to get away relatively unhurt. Cheatham in turn blamed Brown and Cleburne. Following the morning meal a depressed and angry Hood planned the pursuit of the Union army. He returned Johnson’s division to Lee’s corps and ordered Stewart’ s into the van of the chase, followed by Cheatham, then Lee. Additionally Lee, still in possession of nearly all the Confederate artillery, was ordered to rest his men and follow later. Forrest, not believed to have been at the morning meeting, was already nipping at the Federal heels.
The Union column stretched seven miles along the Franklin Pike heading north. They were led by two infantry corps that reached Franklin at sunrise. They were followed by 800 wagons and Wagner’s beat up division acting as a rear guard. Wagner’s men had seen the bulk of the fighting at Spring Hill but held their positions until the rest of Schofield’s army had passed through town. They now had the job of holding back Forrest from the valuable train. Skirmishing continued for the entire ten mile march. As they arrived in Franklin the Union troops started rebuilding the remains of the 1863 works south of town. A second line was also started. Schofield busied himself with another problem. He was trapped against the river. All the bridges had been destroyed or partially destroyed. His request to Thomas to send a pontoon train had gone unanswered. To cross the Harpeth River Schofield was going to have to build bridges. While the breastworks in front of town were being improved and expanded construction of another type began on the other side of town. Schofield “caused the railroad bridge to be prepared for crossing wagons and had a foot bridge built for infantry.” This was accomplished by over-planking the railroad bridge with material stripped from nearby buildings. The damaged Wagon Bridge was put back into service by cutting the post off at the waterline and applying beams, stringers, and planking. The one available ford had to have entry and exit ramps cut into the steep banks. In a remarkable feat the engineers had all three ready by noon. The wagons began crossing as soon as the work was finished.
A single brigade of Union cavalry anxiously scouted for the Army of Tennessee while the rest of the Union forces prepared for their arrival. Around 1000 of Croxton’s men began skirmishing with Crossland’s Kentucky brigade about four miles from town. When Croxton’s men checked an attack by the Confederate cavalry around 1300 he signaled the arrival of Hood’s lead elements. Schofield was nearly ready. Most of his men had finished improving their works and were dozing, getting a bite to eat, or enjoying the ordered whiskey ration. It was a different story for Wagner’s weary division. They took up a forward position in front of the main Union line. It was a tactically dangerous deployment and when Opdycke challenged the wisdom of Wagner’s decision the two men got into an argument. Opdycke refused to back down from his dissent and the exasperated Wagner finally gave in telling him,
“…take your brigade and fight where you want.”
While Lane and Conrad remained in place Opdycke did exactly that. He marched his men into the reserve line in the center of the Union position and into history.
Men and glistening steel
Hood’s pursuing column passed the evidence of Schofield’s hurried flight from Spring Hill. Abandoned wagons, dead mules and equipment of all types were strewn about the Columbia pike. As they approached Franklin word reached Hood concerning Schofield’s frantic attempt to get across the Harpeth River and an intercepted message from Thomas to Schofield giving him permission to fall back behind the river. Hood was determined not to let Schofield escape again.
Hood called for a conference of his generals at the Harrison House at around 1430. Hood proposed an attack. Cleburne, Cheatham, and Forrest immediately advised against it. Stewart believed he could cross the river and get his corps behind the Federal position. Forrest took the flanking concept one step further declaring:
“Give me one good infantry division and I will agree to flank the Federals from their works within two hours time.”
But Hood would have none of it. His mind was set on a direct assault on the Union works. On the right Stewart’s corps would advance up the Lewisburg Pike, in the center Cheatham would follow the Columbia Pike into the heart of town and the Union defense, and on the left Chalmers division of cavalry, supported by Bate’s division of Cheatham’s corps, would attack on the axis of Carter’s Creek Pike.
Cleburne returned from the meeting and examined the Union line around the Columbia Pike with a pair of field glasses. On Breezy Hill a short time later while speaking with BG Govan about the coming attack he stated,
“Well Govan, if we are to die, let us die like men.”
With that the lines began to form. Slightly more than 20,000 Confederate troops assumed an impressive battle array. At 1600 the skirmishers moved forward followed by “a living wall of men.” Seeing the developing situation and understanding their vulnerability the men of Wagner’s two exposed brigades pleaded with their officers to fall back. From the safety of Franklin Wagner issued orders to hold the men to their post at bayonet point if need be. The luckless Lane and Conrad (taking over for the wounded Bradley) were left to do the best they could in an unenviable position. The isolated and seriously outnumbered Federals held their ground, albeit nervously. Slowly the enormous wave of gray and butternut drew closer and closer.
When the Confederate line reached small arms range Lane’s men let go a volley in “a rattling fusillade”. Momentarily stunned the Confederates quickly regained their composure and surged forward again. Lane finally “gave the order to retire to the main line of works.” Most of his men had already anticipated the command. Conrad had much the same experience on the eastern side of the pike. After a couple of volleys Conrad issued “the order for the Fifteenth Missouri to retire.” Before he could issue similar orders to the rest of his command they “had already commenced retiring.” The 51st Illinois had Confederate troops so close they exchanged “clubbed muskets with them.”
The retreat of these men, despite the carefully worded attempts by their officers to cover it up, was nothing more than a panic stricken rout. The fleeing soldiers posed a serious problem for the defenders in the trenches. They could not engage their attackers with a screen of their own men protecting them. The artillery, loaded with canister and grape, could do nothing but wait. The closer the routed Federals got to the works the less chance there was of successfully defeating the attack. Finally Lane and Conrad’s men vaulted into the works; in some places they were being followed as closely as 50 feet by the Confederates. The battle Hood wanted was on.
The Carter House
Cleburne and Brown led their divisions through the aborted delaying action and toward Franklin on each side of the Columbia Pike. The wall of nearly 4000 stampeded Federal soldiers formed a human screen for their advance. The only serious threat came from Battery D 1st Ohio Light Artillery firing enfilade across the Confederate ranks from Fort Granger across the Harpeth River. The gaps created by this incoming fire were quickly closed and the rush forward continued. The panic of Lane and Conrad’s men caught hold as soon as they leapt into the Union works. Many of the green recruits and veterans as well fled their positions as the cry of “into the works with them” swept through the Rebel ranks. The attackers gained an early advantage by reaching the trenches almost intact.
Nearly sixteen regiments of Yankee troops were sent fleeing by the ferocity of the attack. Four guns of the 1st Kentucky Battery were seized unfired and still loaded. They were manhandled by the Confederates to face their former owners. The entire center of the Union position was on the verge of collapse in front of the Carter House. There was nothing to stop the Confederate surge but Emerson Opdycke and his brigade that had selected this spot to rest after refusing to participate in Wagner’s folly. Opdycke’s veteran troops could see the disaster developing in front of them and began to form for battle. The six regiments (74th/88th and 125th Ohio, 36th, 44th, 73rd Illinois, and 24th Wisconsin) struggled to form ranks against the crazed mob of retreating men. In an effort to get organized and create some maneuver room for his troops Opdycke ordered the 125th Ohio to the east side of the pike. Seeing men from the brigade moving, Major Thomas Motherspaw believed that an attack ordered had been issued. He jumped into his saddle and shouted,
“Forward 73rd, to the works.”
Opdyke tried to stop them but it was no use. The entire brigade was rushing forward, bayonets lowered. A tremendous volume of fire erupted from the closely packed Union ranks. Despite the murderous fire the Confederates surged again and again to the attack. Dead and wounded men formed great heaps but still the fight continued unabated. The fury of the battle offered up a new terror; hand to hand combat. Clubbed muskets, bayonets, hatchets, swords, ramming staffs, fists, and anything else that could be used as a weapon was employed in the melee. Opdyke emptied his revolver, stating that the furthest man from him that he engaged “was not more than twenty feet”, and then turned the weapon around to use as a bludgeon. He kept at this until the gun fell apart from the pounding and he took up an abandoned rifle to continue. For twenty minutes the savagery continued until the Confederates were pushed back to the first line of trenches.
Seeking refuge there the exhausted Rebels did not realize that they had trapped themselves in a killing ground. The artillery, now free to operate, began plying its deadly trade at point blank range. Any attempt to move back was certain death. In fact to reveal any part of your body invited disaster. Prevented from retreat small pockets of men attempted to assault their way out of the trap. Each time they were met with devastating fire and pushed back. Opdycke’s unintended charge had saved the day. The exchange between the inner and outer works became a brutal game. The bottom of the trench filled with dead and wounded Confederate troops as they were raked from front and flank by rifle and artillery fire. Helpless to do much else many surrendered to spare themselves. Night finally brought calm over the field. The moans of the wounded and the mutilated bodies of the dead were all that remained of the heroic Confederate attack.
The Cotton Gin
The stripped frame of the Carter cotton gin, just east of the Columbia Pike, also became a focal point for the battle in the center. Here the gin structure and the nearby cotton press separated this portion of the field into two distinct types of fight. West of the building Patrick Cleburne was leading his men in closely behind the fleeing remnants of Wagner’s forward line. East of the gin Walthall’s division advanced unscreened against Colonel John Casement’s Union brigade.
A section of unobstructed twelve pound Napoleons fired round after round of canister in to the Confederate formations. They were well supported by the 65th Indiana and half of the 104th Ohio. BG Shelley and BG Reynolds, with brigades from Stewart’s corps, had their commands reduced to grisly masses of mutilated flesh by the repeated charges from the Union guns and supporting rifle fire. Units were nearly wrecked before reaching the Federal line but the units would not quit. Unable to gain a foothold against the guns they sidled westward to where the Union line formed a salient around the two buildings.
Here Cleburne’s two lead brigades used the confusion of Wagner’s disorderly retreat to rout the 100th Ohio and four companies of the 104th Ohio from the trenches. With their support gone the crews of the 1st Kentucky Battery decided discretion was the better part of valor and abandoned their pieces and fled to the rear. Just as at the Carter House it was time for the Federal reserve to act. LTC John S. White the 16th Kentucky Infantry led the way.
“I ordered my regiment to charge the enemy who were occupying the works so abandoned.”
They were followed into the fray by the 12th Kentucky, 175th Ohio, and 8th Tennessee. They charged out of the second line of works as the Confederates desperately tried to fire the captured guns into their ranks. Fortunately for the attackers the artillerymen had taken the friction primers and lanyards with them. The would-be gunners were dispersed by a deadly fire, greatly enhanced by two companies of the 12th Kentucky firing 5 shot revolving muskets. The two forces collided in the area between the two trench lines in a bitter and desperate hand to hand struggle. LTC Laurence Rousseau of the 16th Kentucky noted that “…bayonets and clubbed muskets” were put to deadly use. The exhausted Confederate troops gave way after five minutes of the close in butchery and fell back into the outer trench.
Cleburne ordered BG Mark Lowery’s brigade forward from their reserve position to try and sway the battle back into Southern favor. Leading his men forward on foot Cleburne was shot in the heart and died just short of the Union works. The newcomers crammed into the already crowded trench. They could go no further. As LTC Rousseau recalled in his Official Report;
“To hold the works after this crisis against the assaults which were again and again made was a task comparatively easy.”
Massed ranks of Union infantrymen fired into the slaughter pen. More Confederate troops from the follow on units crammed themselves into the works. Soon there was no place to die. Corpses remained upright in the crush of men. Those that managed to fall were simply walked on. The dead and wounded eventually piled three and four deep with living trying to remain on top. Finally the carnage became too much for even the stoutest of heart. Surrender became the only option. The Confederate captives were despondent. Their courage had been wasted.
The Orange Osage
On the far right of the Confederate attack Lt. General A.P. Stewart marched about 10,000 infantry and 1,300 dismounted cavalrymen towards BG James Reilly’s 3500 men supported by Battery M 4th US Artillery, Battery G 1st Ohio Artillery, and a section of the 6th Ohio Light Artillery. Additionally the guns at Fort Granger provided perfect plunging enfilade fire on the advancing line. It was these guns that opened the defense of the Union left. After a few ranging shots they began pulverizing Stewart’s men. At 1,000 yards the guns at the main line joined in with a storm of canister. Rows of Confederates fell to the steel tempest opening gaps in the line that could not be filled. With no counter battery fire to mitigate the action of the Union batteries the carnage continued for 800 yards. The survivors remained steadfast and continued forward.
At 200yards they could be held back no longer. A rebel yell was raised and a mad rush was made toward the Union line. After facing the devastating effects of the Federal artillery they were stopped short by of all things – shrubbery. A rugged row of osage orange bushes formed a thorny barrier. Stalled against the hedge they became easy targets for the thousands of Yankee rifles leveled against them. Frustrated by the obstruction and maddened at their swelling losses the Rebel soldiers tore at the bushes in vain. Captain Sam Stewart began chopping at the stubborn obstacle with his sword. He was taken down by four bullets. His company would be reduced to two men. There was no way through. The only recourse was to go around. The trapped men instinctively started moving left and right to find a passage to the enemy. Those that moved left (west) encountered an extension of the barrier that had been cut and staked to the ground by the defenders. They were riddled by “a continuous living fringe of flame.” Company A of the 65th Indiana was particularly effective using 16 shot Henry rifles. At the 6th Ohio Light guns, Captain Baldwin had his gunners remove their socks and fill them with bullets. These “dummies” were fired point blank into the huddled Confederates behind the staked cuttings. Very few made it beyond the barrier. One teen aged drummer that squeezed through the thicket was seen trying to stop the destructive fire of the guns. He made it to the embrasure and tried to disable one of the pieces by jamming a section of fence rail into its opening. The gun was fired at that very instant and the boy was vaporized by the explosive force. BG John Adams, leading a brigade of MG William Loring’s division, attempted to inspire the men by riding back and forth amongst them urging them forward. The Union defenders were amazed that he was killed. Finally he ordered an attack and led the way attempting to vault the parapet of the Union works. Horse and rider were killed. The Confederate effort here was finished. All that remained was a couple of hours of gratuitous slaughter before darkness finally ended the agony.
On the extreme right a narrow corridor between the end of the Union line and the Harpeth River offered promise for a breakthrough to the Federal rear. The deep railroad cut there was protected by the 120th Indiana. Featherston’s brigade of Mississippians made for the supposed passage, many crawling under the smoky haze. They were greeted by repeated volleys of musketry and canister from a section of Battery M, 4th US Artillery that had displaced to oppose the threat. The cut became yet another killing zone for the already brutalized Confederates. Buford’s dismounted troopers were next to try the cut. Advancing along the river bank they were taken under fire front and flank by a maelstrom of artillery fire. They had no other option but to lie down or find whatever cover they could.
The attack of the Union left had been squashed in less than an hour. The losses here were amongst the heaviest suffered by any Confederate units on the field. BG Cockrell’s Missouri brigade lost an astounding 65% of its men. The Confederate soldiers still capable flowed back beaten and dejected. Lt. General Loring tried to rally them from his horse but they would not listen. Angry that they would not heed his call he shouted out;
“My God, Do I command cowards?”
He was wrong there were no cowards on the field that day.
Carter’s Creek Pike
The job of assaulting the Federal right was given to MG William Bate’s division of Cheatham’s corps. It was an enormous task for the 1,600 men under his command. He was originally expected to support the left of Brown’s assault in the center by extending the line west towards the Carter’s Creek Pike. In a tremendous oversight in the planning the extended nature of the march to his starting point was not adequately considered. He arrived too late to accomplish his assigned mission. By the time he was ready to step off it was nearly dark and the assault around the Carter property had already been crushed. Bates, however, was determined to contribute something to the attack and embarked on an independent assault. Unable to decide on the appropriate place to target his attack, Bate split his forces and made two assaults.
Two brigades, BG Smith and BG Jackson, attacked north by northeast between the Mosley House, near the pike, and the locust grove on the western edge of the Carter homestead. The line here was held by four Federal regiments (107th Illinois, 110th Ohio, 23rd Michigan, and 80th Indiana) and two companies of the extremely green 183rd Ohio. Jackson’s men struck the line coming “upon us like tigers.” They were initially repelled by a barrage from Battery B Pennsylvania Light Artillery under Jacob Ziegler. They moved to the crest of a small hill less than 200 yards away from the center of Colonel Orlando Moore’s line. Here they were perfectly silhouetted and suffered greatly at the hands of the Yankee riflemen. They were led off the hill and into another attack by their officers, including Captain Tod Carter, aimed directly at the men of the 183rd Ohio.
The Ohioans were completely raw and broke for the rear at the site of the Rebel advance. Bate’s men poured through the opening. They were greeted by the 23rd Michigan. Another frenzied bout of hand to hand combat ensued.
Bate’s men were making progress despite lack of support. Seeing the battle tip towards the Southerners, twenty year old LTC Mervin Clark seized the colors of the 183rd Ohio and rushed back to the fray. Inspired by his bravery the recruits recouped their courage and followed. Immediately after bringing his men back into action Clark was mortally wounded. Their leader stricken the 183rd again fled after a short fight. But their brief re-entry into the struggle allowed enough time for companies C and H of the 80th Indiana, under Captain Cochran, to come to the rescue. They moved out of line near the pike and rushed to the aid of the Michiganders. They “retook the works” and the breakthrough was stopped. The Confederates staggered back leaving Captain Carter behind. He had been shot in the head and would later die on the porch of his family home.
On the other side of the pike Colonel Robert Bullock’s brigade of Floridians conducted an abbreviated attack on BG William Grose’s brigade of BG Nathan Kimball’s division. In one of the few attacks supported by Confederate artillery Bullock pressed his men toward the skirmishers of the 77th Pennsylvania. Presstman’s battery proved ineffective at quelling the Union batteries and Bullock had his badly outnumbered command retreat after 15 minutes. They never got closer than 100 yards from the Federal line.
Cavalry at Franklin
The Battle of Franklin was a frustrating one for Nathan B. Forrest. The Confederate cavalry leader, already miffed at Hood for ordering the assault against his advice, was thoroughly put out at having his command dissected to support the infantry attacks. BG Chalmers division was ordered to remain on the left, after the ride up Carter’s Creek Pike from Spring Hill, to support Bate’s attack and BG Buford was assigned to cover “the Ground from the Lewisburg Pike to Harpeth River” on the right. Forrest was left with only BG Jackson’s 2000 man division for active operations against the Union cavalry.
The action on the left was not well coordinated and Chalmers was left to act independently when connection with Bate’s late arriving column never materialized. Eager to comply with his orders Chalmers reacted to the sound of fighting on his right towards the Carter property. His division advanced dismounted against BG Walter Whitaker’s brigade of Union infantry. A few violent moments in front of the Federal line unsupported was enough to convince Chalmers of the futility of further action. In less than fifteen minutes he suffered 116 causalities and decided,
“My force was too small to justify an attempt to storm them…”
The little remaining time before darkness was spent harassing the Union position with long range small arms fire. On the right BG Buford dismounted his men had them “take position in line of battle on the right of Stewart’s corps.” Their job was to keep the flank of the infantry attack clear of Union cavalry. On the banks of the Harpeth they found the 2nd Michigan Cavalry, who had been left when Croxton crossed the river with the rest of his command after beating back Crossland’s attack earlier in the day. Forrest reported, "skirmishing at once commenced and Buford’s division rapidly advancing drove the enemy across Harpeth River.” With the near bank of the river secure and any further advance made impractical by Union artillery Buford’s men waded across the river at McGavock’s Ford to join Jackson.
Jackson’s paltry force crossed the river at Hughes Ford at approximately 1500. Ross’s brigade, in the lead, seized a hill about a half mile from the river driving back the Union pickets. While Hatch was forming for a counter-attack the 9th Texas Cavalry launched a spoiling attack. Again the skirmishers were driven back. When the attack struck the main body of the Union troopers they were repulsed with heavy loss. As the 9th fell back the 3rd Texas was placed in a holding position to check Hatch’s pursuit. After a short fight the Confederate cavalry, realizing they were outnumbered and in a poor tactical situation, retreated to the edge of the river. At 1900, seeing no hope of defeating the Federal force which was being supplemented by infantry from Wood’s division and fearful of being caught against the river when the inevitable attack came, they crossed the river.
Despite Schofield’s claim that “Wilson is entirely unable to cope…” with the intrepid Forrest they had done exactly that, albeit with overwhelming numbers. Wilson would write; “instead of driving me back…as he might have done with his whole corps” the Union commander found “it easy for me not only to beat his two divisions in actual battle but drive them north of the river in confusion.” Hood’s mismanagement and dismemberment of Forrest’s cavalry reduced them to a negligible role in his signal defeat
Lt Gen. Lee arrived on the field shortly after 1600 and was ordered to deploy his troops “if necessary” to assist Cheatham. It was dark before the brigades of Sharp, Manigault, Brantley, and Deas were aligned. They advanced quietly, in a rare night action, until they were detected about 10yards from the Union works. The fight lit up the darkness and more hand to hand fighting ensued. Sharp’s men managed to capture several stands of colors, but it was a short lived success. The Yankee reinforcements quickly overwhelmed them and they too were pushed back. The battle was finally over. The Union soldiers were aghast at the carnage they had created, but universally in awe of the courage displayed by their attackers. The sights in front of Franklin sickened even the hardest veteran. Still they were drawn to the carnage.
Opdyke reported; “I never saw dead lay so thick.”
Captain Shellenberger; “Heads, arms, and legs were sticking out in almost every conceivable manner.”
A 104th Ohio patrol reported the battlefield “was in a perfect slop” of blood and body parts and what they had seen was “enough to shock a heart of stone.”
Cheatham stated; “You could have walked all over the field upon dead bodies without stepping on ground.”
While the common soldiers on both sides reflected on the battle their commanders argued with subordinates over the most appropriate course of action. Remarkably Hood announced to his stunned Corps commanders that the fight would be renewed at first light. The contentious meeting was highlighted by Hood asking Lee heatedly,
“Are you, too, going back on me?”
In the end Hood ordered, although he fails to mention it in his revised reports, the preparations for continuing the battle in the morning. The Union commanders were also at odds about what to do after their powerful victory. Cox, in Franklin, dispatched his brother with a message to Schofield proposing to counterattack the battered Confederates the next morning. Schofield declined the suggestion fearing that the Rebels still possessed “nearly double my force of infantry and quite double my cavalry.” The retreat order was given and by 0700 Franklin was empty of Union troops.
Left behind were approximately 7500 Confederate casualties, including at least 1750 dead with six general officers among them. Finding the city empty on 1 December Hood declared victory with a congratulatory order to his men. He was determined, despite the loss of a third of his force, to pursue Schofield to Nashville.