Tuesday, January 6, 2015

November 30, 1864

November 30, 1864

Battle of Franklin

--In one of the simplest and most devastating battles of the war, which only lasted a few hours on the evening of Nov. 30,  The C.S. Army of Tennessee broke its back on a smaller Federal army.  Maj. Gen. John Schofield, with about 28,000 men, have (overnight) dug out and erected earthworks that stretch from riverbank to riverbank of the Harpeth River, as it bends to cover the town of Franklin on two sides.  He decides to defend with the river at his back, because he does not have pontoon bridges sufficient to cross his army to safety before the Rebels catch up, and he needs time to repair the existing bridges.  The Federals await what surely will turn out to be a disastrous attack over two miles of open ground. 

In the morning after Spring Hill, as Gen. Hood discovers how the Yankees have escaped in a most spectacular and unlikely fashion, he berates his generals and orders them to prepare an assault over open ground against the Federal positions.  Many of his officers felt as if Hood ordered this assault as a punishment for his derelict officers and men.  Gen. Forrest argues with Hood that if he had an infantry division to supplement his cavalry corps, he could cross the Harpeth and outflank the Yankees.  Hood refuses to consider it. 
Modern re-enactors commemorate Schofield's march past Hood at Spring Hill
After Hood arrives on Winstead Hill, south of town, at 1:00PM, he decides to send in Stewart’s corps, plus much of Cheatham’s corps.  Altogether, he has six infantry divisions, a bit more than 20,000 troops, detailed for the attack.  They are supported by two divisions of cavalry on each flank.  But Gen. Lee’s corps, and most of the army’s artillery, is still on the road from Columbia.  Hood will not wait: with only two batteries to support the attack, his troops step off at around 4:00PM, less than an hour before sunset.  The Confederate lines unfold themselves “as if for dress parade,” according to one witness, with 125 regiments and their colors adding to the scene.  The brass bands in the gray ranks play song after song as the lines moved forward. 

from a contemporary print: the two-mile route from Winstead Hill to Franklin

As the gray lines cross the field, they attack and overwhelm a forward line held by Gen. Wagner’s Federals, the remains of which retreat to the main line.  Three divisions of Union infantry hold the line which centers on the Carter plantation and cotton house.  A Union soldier describes the sight:

Soon we noticed the right of Stewart’s command wrapping around Conrad’s left, and then our men rose up and the break commenced.  It was a grand sight!  For the moment we were spellbound with admiration, although they were our hated foes. . . . the afternoon sun, like a ball of fire, was settling in all its southern splendor in a molten sea of bronze, over the distant hills, and in the hazy golden light. . . .
The Confederate advance

As the Confederates near the main Federal line, the first Federal volley fires, “and the long line of gray went down like over-ripe grain before a blast of wind and hail.”  Blasts of artillery firing canister from the Union works do ghastly work on the once-fine Southern ranks.  At one point, the Rebels breach the blue line, and several defending regiments break and flee: the Federal line is broken.  Two Union regiments, formed from Unionist Tennessee and Kentucky men, counterattack and stem the gray tide. 
Re-enactors stage the Battle of Franklin.
Behind the Carter House, where the focus of the struggle was, Col. Opdyke and his brigade of Illinois men charge forward into the gap, and break the back of the Confederate break-through for good.  
Bullet holes that remain in the buildings at the Carter House

The climax of the Confederate attack, with Opdyke's counterattack

As the Rebels are pressed back, hundreds are caught on the Union side of the fortifications, and surrender.  At this point, the Rebels cannot retreat, but are trapped on the outside of the earthworks, while Federal rifle fire is too dense to allow a retreat.  In addition, the structure of the Union earthworks allow enfilade fire on any Rebels sheltering on the outside of the walls.  So, both sides fight each other from each side of the same earthen wall.  Many of the Southerners have it tougher: as they tried to approach the Federal lines, heavy clumps of cheval-de-frise (sharpened stakes) impeded their advance, and along a large portion of the line, dense hedges of thornsome Osage Orange bushes grow, nearly impenetrable.  The deep ditch in front of the earthworks becomes filled with dead and wounded Confederates; their comrades stand on top of them, loading and firing, or handing up rifles to those at the top.  

Detail of the fighting in the Union center, around the Carter House

D.H. Patterson remembers that “two lines of men fought with but a pile of dirt between them.  In firing, the muzzles of the guns would pass each other, and nine times out of ten, when a man rose to fire he fell back dead.”  Another soldier noted that many men had both hands shot off.  The fighting goes on until long after dark, and finally stops around 9:00PM. 

Confederate commanders are shot down in large numbers.  Gen. Cleburne, the most celebrated battlefield commander in the Army of Tennessee, is dead, and fourteen of his regimental and brigade commanders are down.  In Brown’s division, he has been wounded, in addition to all four of his brigade commanders: Generals States Rights Gist, Otho Strahl, John C. Carter, and George Washington Gordon.  Entire formations of infantry are blown down by point-blank canister fire from the Federal artillery. 

Hood’s last resort is to take the only reserves he has on hand---Edward “Alleghany” Johnson’s division from Lee’s corps, just arrived---and to send them forward in a bid to break an already-strained Union line.  But the Union line is not in the least strained, and Johnson comes back after one attack with heavy casualties.  

Fourteen Confederate generals are casualties:  6 dead, 7 wounded, and one captured.  The six dead generals were Cleburne, Adams, Gist, Carter, Granbury, and Strahl.  The field is a dreadful sight: the dead are packed so thickly along one portion of the earthworks, the corpses were all standing upright, including one dead officer on his dead horse.  It remains one of the most harrowing stories of war. 

After dark, as the Confederates are gathering and burying the dead, Schofield has finished the bridges, and he and his troops withdraw quietly and safely across the Harpeth River and march up to Nashville.  Union Victory.

Losses:     Dead    Wounded   Capt/Missing       Total

U.S.            189        1,033             1,104              2,326       

C.S.            1,750     3,800               702              6,252

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