Awful Scenes of Carnage: A Buckeye Recalls Franklin

 William Wesley Gist was barely 15 years old when he participated in the Battle of Franklin. The Hocking County, Ohio native had enlisted as a private in Co. D of the 26th Ohio Volunteer Infantry on March 23, 1864; the regiment was home on veteran's furlough and Gist lied about his age (he had just turned 15) to join up. He served with the regiment through the Atlanta campaign and penned the following account of Franklin late in life. The 26th Ohio, as part of General George Wagner's Division, was one of the unfortunate regiments way out in front of the Union entrenchments that was forced back into the works by the Confederate assault. 

Gist's account was published in the January 1916 issue of Confederate Veteran


Private William Wesley Gist, Co. D, 26th Ohio Volunteer Infantry
Following the war, Gist attended Ohio State University and the Union Theological Seminary, being ordained a minister in 1881. He soon moved to Iowa and served as a Congregational Church minister for the remainder of his life. He died June 8, 1923 at the age of 74. 

    No one who took part in the battle of Franklin can ever forget those awful scenes of carnage. They will not fade from memory. A participant in the great historical event who has read the various conflicting reports of those high in commands wants to view the whole field and note the relation of his particular command to the rest of the army. At the time no one knew what was taking place excepting what came under his own eyes. No strategic generalship was displayed on either side. Indeed, there was little chance for this. Hood inspired his officers to strike a terrific blow. Those officers inspired their men to risk everything, and their valor has never been surpassed. All who came across that open field on that November afternoon were heroes. It takes heroes to repel heroes. No battle was ever fought in which of the value of the individual soldier was more manifest. He met the demands of the hour largely without orders from a superior. The bravery of both armies is the common heritage of our united country, and all are proud of it. Yet the battle of Franklin cannot be viewed by itself: it was one of a series of stirring events. The critical time for the Federal army was not at Nashville nor Franklin but Spring Hill.

"No battle was ever more truly won by those in the ranks." ~ Private William W. Gist, 26th Ohio Veteran Volunteer Infantry

    When Sherman started for the sea, he took five corps with him and left the 4th Corps and 23rd Corps under Thomas to meet Hood. Those in the ranks thought it would be a big task and we found it to be such. Thomas had made a special request that the 14th Corps, with which he had been identified from the organization of the army, be granted him, but Sherman refused the request. Thomas went to Nashville and began hurrying up needed reinforcements. In November the 4th Corps was moved to Pulaski and we had a few days’ rest, almost the first rest of a portion of our command since the 1st of May. The two corps first came together at Columbia. Those in the ranks did not know anything about Hood’s movements. When we began to move north, we naturally knew that the Confederates were advancing. There were but two major generals in the command: David S. Stanley commanding the 4th Corps and John Schofield commanding the 23rd Corps. Stanley outranked Schofield in date of commission, but the latter was given temporary command because he was head of a department. After throwing up temporary works at the edge of Columbia, we soon crossed to the north side of the river. The booming of cannon indicated clearly that once more we were face to face with our old antagonist.

Bullet hole from the Battle of Franklin at the Carter House farm office in Franklin.
(Photo courtesy of John Banks)

    That Hood outgeneraled Schofield at Columbia is plainly to be seen. In fact, he threw the bulk of his army practically in the rear of our army and made the situation critical indeed for us. On the 29th of November, the Second Division of the 4th Corps started for Spring Hill to guard the wagon train and artillery. We had a forced match and it was a little difficult for one boy of 15 to keep up. This command under Wagner was Sheridan’s old division. Stanley, the corps commander, was present. My regiment, the 26th Ohio [led by Captain William Clark], was stopped a short distance from Spring Hill to guard a road. Our company had marched as flankers, but it was not stopped with the regiment and it formed a part of the skirmish line east of the village. The regiment numbered only about 120 men. Our division drove Forrest out of town. Our command was spread out in the form of a semicircle on the east side of town and it was really only a skirmish line. A large part of Hood’s army was in striking distance and began to press our thin line back. Stanley had the artillery of the corps massed on an elevation and it did some splendid work in shelling the advancing foe.

Colonel John Q. Lane
97th Ohio

    Our little regiment met for a short time the attack of a line of battle, and was scattered toward the pike, losing three of our orderly sergeants. In the forced march I had not been able to keep up. As I started to join the company on the skirmish line, I was pressed into service to help carry a wounded man back to an ambulance. When I started again to join my company, I was ordered by an officer to help form a line for the defense of the artillery. There were not more than a dozen of us and our resistance would have been feeble indeed. Fortunately, darkness came to our relief and we did not fire a shot.

    Parts of our scattered regiment came together after dark and we made just two stacks of arms. I heard Stanley congratulate the captain commanding the regiment that his command had not been captured. We were then moved just east of the village and lay in line of battle. We were not allowed to talk or to build a fire. We could see the Confederates walking around their camp fires and they seemed hardly more than half a mile away. It was a gloomy night. I belonged to a mess of non-commissioned officers. Our orderly sergeant had been shot through the body and was left near a house on the skirmish line. Two weeks later we learned that he died that night. Soon after dark the advance of the main army reached the village on the way to Franklin. As they saw the camp fires south of town, they began to cheer, thinking they were about to go into camp. Word was quickly passed along the line that those were Confederate camp fires and silence was maintained as they passed along. The actual fighting at Spring Hill did not amount to much, but the one division under Stanley and Wagner made such a show of force that Hood did not press the fight.

A historical marker along the Columbia Pike denotes the line held by the two brigades of General George Wagner's division, including Colonel John Lane's brigade. Gist reported that the 26th Ohio mustered only 120 muskets at Franklin. (Photo courtesy of John Banks)

    Our rest that night was not very refreshing. Before daylight, we were ordered to retire quietly to the highway and march toward Franklin. According to the custom of marching armies, the command in advance one day drops to the rear the next day. So our division was the rear guard. Opdycke’s brigade was in the very rear and had to meet the feeble attacks on the retreat. We marched as rapidly as possible and no unusual thing happened in our part of the line. When some two miles from Franklin, we formed a line of battle, facing the south or southeast. We were not only tired but very hungry as we had had no opportunity to cook a meal since the morning before. We hastily built little fires and began to make coffee, but we had to fall in and change our position nearer town as I recall. In the meantime, the Rebel cavalry appeared on a road parallel with is and our battery sent a few shells in that direction. Later we moved back until we were about a third of a mile from our works. Soon the Confederate army appeared in battle array on the hill in front of us, and it would have been a grand sight had it not indicated a bloody conflict. We gathered what rails and logs we could fins and made a low barricade. We had no entrenching tools. We knew nothing about the disposition of the troops excepting our two brigades of Wagner’s division left out in front. Opdycke’s brigade had moved back into town. Nearer and nearer the Confederates approached with the precision of dress parade and our hearts beat rapidly. We wondered why we were not moved back to the works. It was plain that someone had blundered; Wagner has been made the scapegoat. He had his responsibility and he was to blame to some degree; but those over him were more to blame in the very nature of things.

The 26th Ohio anchored the right flank of John Lane's brigade of Wagner's division at the Battle of Franklin on November 30, 1864. 
(American Battlefield Trust Map)

    With wonderful precision, the Confederate forces came forward for the conflict, their approach over the widest open field than an army ever charged over. Our right flank was refused to some extent and our regiment was on the extreme right. This brought our part of the line a little closer to the works than the others. We stood or kneeled with loaded guns in hand, eyes to the front, watching the advancing line. The lines were within easy range of each other, but not a gun was fired from our part. We wondered why we were left out in that exposed position. At last we heard yells and firing at the left and saw that our lines east of the pike had given way and was running toward the works, closely followed by the Confederates. Our whole line did the same. Lane says that five of our regiments came back with loaded guns, and I know this to be true so far as those about me were concerned. I jumped over the works just east of the locust grove near what proved to be the Carter house. Finding the works empty, we stopped and as soon as men seemed to be in, we began to fire as rapidly as possible. Soon a cloud of smoke hung over us and nothing was distinct.

    An incident happened at this time that I now mention for the first time. We had fired several times in quick succession and as I lifted my gun to shoot again a man jumped on the works almost directly in front of me and shouted, “Stop firing, boys; the men are not all in yet.” I was a little horrified at first to think that we might have begun firing too soon and dropped my gun. Instantly there was a commotion at our left in the direction of the pike. I turned my eyes in that direction and saw the line giving way and the Confederates pouring over the works. I have wondered about the man who jumped upon the works and I am inclined to think he was not one of our men, but one of the Confederates.

Pockmarked and scarred by the torrent of bullets than flew on the evening of November 30, 1864 stands these two buildings on the Carter House property, the epicenter of the battle. The brick building is the smokehouse while the white building is the farm office.
(Photo courtesy of John Banks)

    Our line was carried back a few rods and I went to the rear of the Carter house. This was doubtless about the time that Opdycke made his famous charge to restore the line. I saw nothing that looked like a charge, as those advancing had to divide in two parts to pass the Carter house. The line that I was in seemed to surge back as those at the pike gave way and then to move forward to what must have been the second line of works. The line was now restored and there was no break in it again. Men from several regiments were intermingled and every man knew that the supreme thing was to hold the works and every man did his duty. Had we been in separate commands under the eyes of our own officers, we could not have done more. 

    No battle was ever more truly won by those in the ranks. The officers did all that there was for them to so. They ran back and got us ammunition and spread it on the works before us, so that we could fire rapidly in time of need. A hundred wagonloads of ammunition were expended, giving some indication of the amount of lead that went over that field of carnage. Numerous charges were made, some say as many as thirteen, but I do not know. Frequently those who had dropped behind our works in a charge as there came a lull in the firing would ask permission to come over and surrender. We always told them, “Drop your guns and climb over.” The Rebel yell would ring out vigorously as each new attack was made. Then there would be nothing heard but the continuous roll of musketry and the awful booming of cannon. The guns of the combatants almost flashed into one another’s faces. Then we would yell with all the energy we could command. There was a Yankee yell as well as a Rebel yell, and we always thought we put more volume into our yell than did our opponents across the works. To me, their voices seemed pitched on a higher key than ours.

Carter House and outbuildings

    Actual incidents under my observation were not numerous. I recall that a colonel of one of our commands jumped on the works and called on the line to follow him. The line was composed of men from several commands and we knew that a charge by a small portion of the line would be absolutely foolish; that the thing for us to do was to hold the works, and we did not respond. A ball pierced the man and he fell a few feet to my left. It was my impression that he was from a Missouri regiment, but Cox says it was Colonel Joseph Stockton of the 72nd Illinois. Stretcher bearers came from the rear and asked for the officer who had been shot. I wondered at the time how it was known back in the rear.

    I saw no officer of high rank after the fight began. Cox says that we went along the line to inspect it. I saw no officer on horseback after we reached the works, but this is no evidence against their being present. There was no need of orders. It is my opinion that after Opdycke gave orders to his brigade, Stanley, Cox, and Schofield could have mounted their horses and galloped to Nashville and the battle would have terminated just as it did, except there would have been no one to order a retreat at midnight. This is no reflection upon the officers. The men in the ranks saw what was to be done and did it.

Tattered flag remnant belonging to the 26th Ohio Veteran Volunteer Infantry

    Late at night when the firing had ceased, I was so tired that I leaned my head against the works to rest. Near midnight a picket shook me to see whether I was asleep or dead. He said, “Do you know that the army is across the river?” I did not, but I started at once for the rear. As I passed back of the Carter house I saw the line of wounded lying there. They did not seem to realize that they were soon to be prisoners. Those slightly wounded had doubtless been removed. Almost as soon as I gained the others side of the river, I met a man of my company. He had a sharpshooter’s rifle and had gone back into town to mold some bullets and had taken time to refresh himself with coffee. The long and nervous strain of battle had exhausted me completely. As I recall, I would walk about a quarter of a mile and throw myself on the ground and fall asleep. My comrade would let me sleep three or four minutes then rouse me for the journey. This continued for most of the night. Toward morning I became more awake and my comrade drowsier, and I had to wake him several times. As I marched along by a command after daylight several remarked that I must have been in the thick of the fight as my face was black from the smoke of the guns. I soon stopped at a small stream and made a hasty toilet. It was about noon when I reached our line drawn up south of Nashville. I threw myself upon the ground without a blanket and slept till the next day. Commanders and privates were alike exhausted.

Reunion photo of the officers and men of the 26th Ohio Volunteers in 1875


Most Popular Posts

Arming the Buckeyes: Longarms of the Ohio Infantry Regiments

Dressing the Rebels: How to Dye Butternut Jeans Cloth

Bullets for the Union: Manufacturing Small Arms Ammunition During the Civil War

The Vaunted Enfield Rifle Musket

Straw Already Threshed: Sherman on Shiloh

Charging Battery Robinett: An Alabama Soldier Recalls the Vicious Fighting at Corinth

A Fight for Corn: Eight Medals of Honor Awarded at Nolensville

In front of Atlanta with the 68th Ohio

The Legend of Leatherbreeches: Hubert Dilger in the Atlanta Campaign

Federal Arms in the Stones River Campaign