Shiloh. Antietam. Gettysburg. Bloody and pivotal battles.
Earlier this month, we recounted some of our impressions of a scouting trip to Franklin, Tenn. We only briefly touched on the the remarkable story of the Battle of Franklin, which, arguably, was the last great battle of the U.s. Civil War.
Certainly, it was a bloody battle. And though the Confederate forces won the battle on a tactical basis, this tangle in Middle Tennessee marked the strategic end of the War Between the States.
This blogger spent his formative years (and beyond) in Tennessee, yet the Battle of Franklin barely registered on my consciousness. Chattanooga (Union victory) and Chickamauga (Confederate triumph) were, of course, familiar, and we visited those battlegrounds. Bull Run and Gettysburg were quite familiar, too.
But Franklin, even though I traveled frequently into and through Middle Tennessee, remained off my radar. Until recently, I was more familiar with the minor skirmish at Stones River (Union win) in Murfreesboro than with Franklin’s claim to Civil War significance.
By the end of 1864, the restoration by force of the United States was all but a foregone conclusion. The rout at Chattanooga, Tennessee (Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, collectively known as the Battles of Chattanooga) in late 1863 allowed Union forces to move on to Atlanta.
There, Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman defeated Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood and successfully took the railhead and the city of Atlanta. Hood, unable to harry the Union forces, withdrew to Chattanooga, hoping to cut off Sherman’s supply lines. (By then, rail lines from the north were able to reach Chattanooga through East Tennessee, which was never really ever controlled by the rebel forces.)
Sherman, as much a strategist as a tactician, determined that he could abandon his supply lines and live off the land and embarked on his infamous March to the Sea. This left Hood with few options but to move North and try to seize Nashville. Between Chattanooga and Nashville lay the insurmountable obstacle of the Cumberland Plateau and some 60,000 Union troops deployed in the southern part of Middle Tennessee.
Geography had a greater impact than any civil boundaries might ever have. The paths of rivers had as much to do with military progress as any border might. Following the path of the Tennessee River to Florence, Ala., Hood marshaled his forces for a thrust toward Nashville.
Hood’s grand plan was to divide the Union forces with a lightning thrust northward. Roughly half of the Union forces were deployed in the southern portion of Tennessee, while the others were entrenched in Nashville, which had fallen to the Union forces by 1862.
Gen. John Schofield skillfully evacuated northward, fending off Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry at Columbia, Tenn., with a goal of reaching Union lines in Nashville. But the rapid advance of Hood’s Confederate force made the retreat less than certain. The rebel forces advanced as rapidly as 70 miles in three days and by late November, Schofield was forced to stand and fight at Franklin. The bridges across the Harpeth River were insufficient to allow a retreat to Nashville, so Schofield ordered an entrenchment in the Union-occupied town of Franklin, Tenn.
Hood’s forces caught up late in the day of November 30, 1864, marshaling some 26,000 troops. Sundown would come at 4:30 p.m., but at 4 o’clock, the Confederate forces attacked a strongly fortified town. The attack was across 2 solid miles of open ground, at all times under the guns of the Union forces.
Nonetheless, the rebel forces penetrated the only open part of the Union front, along the Columbia Pike, and close combat ensued as darkness fell. In time, the Confederate forces were repelled, but the rebels took Franklin during the evening.
But Schofield had successfully restored the river crossings and by midnight, the Union forces had crossed the bridges and followed their supply trains into Nashville. Hood’s forces had suffered 6,252 casualties, including 1,750 killed and 3,800 wounded. An estimated 2,000 others suffered less serious wounds and returned to duty before the subsequent battle to take Nashville. “But more importantly, the military leadership in the West was decimated, including the loss of perhaps the best division commander of either side, Patrick Cleburne, who was killed in action. Fourteen Confederate generals (six killed, seven wounded, and one captured) and 55 regimental commanders were casualties. Five generals killed in action at Franklin were Cleburne, John Adams, Hiram B. Granbur, States Rights Gist, and Otha F. Strahl. A sixth general, John C. Carter, was mortally wounded and died later on December 10.
Tactically, Hood’s forces won the battle, although at great cost. His aim was to capture Nashville, proceed into Indiana at New Albany, and then to move eastward to join up with supreme Gen. Robert E. Lee and relieve the siege of Richmond. But the subsequent attack on Nashville was an unmitigated disaster. Hood retreated, ultimately, to Mississippi and his forces were never again a factor in the war.
The impact point of the Battle of Franklin was the Carter House along the Columbia Pike. Today, it is preserved (bullet-holes and all) as a historical site. The nearby Lotz House is also a site that can be visited by tourists.
Carnton, the McGavock Plantation, is perhaps the most moving of the battlefield sites. Although the house itself was beyond the range of Union artillery, it was a central point of attack. By nightfall, it became a wartime hospital and its back porch served as a repository of the bodies of the many senior officers who perished in the battle.
Today, Carnton is an exemplar of both Ante-Bellum architecture and an incredibly impressive interpretive site for Civil War history. Our experience exceeded our expectations. The interpretive guide was knowledgeable and sensitive to the significance of the battle and the compassion of the estate’s owners, the McGavocks.
If one were limited to visiting only one site representative of the Battle of Franklin, Carnton should be the choice. The Federal-style house, a two-story, eight-room plantation house, is quite impressive. The McGavocks dedicated a portion of their estate to a cemetery adjacent to their family plots, in which are interred the Confederate dead from the Battle of Franklin.
The cemetery is open to the public. The Carnton mansion and adjacent garden (quite impressive are available for guided daily tours for a fee.
We were quite impressed with Carnton and its interpreters. If you only have one day to tour, Carnton is the best choice. Their museum (free) provides sufficient information, but the house tour is an essential for understanding the battle, the times, and the neutrality of honoring those men who fought for a cause they believed in.
In sum, Take Life on the Road strongly endorses a day-trip or longer to Franklin, Tennessee.