Vignettes of the Battle of Franklin

The Battle of Franklin, fought on Wednesday, November 30, 1864, is widely regarded as one of the hardest fought battles of the Western Theater during the Civil War. The Army of Tennessee under General John Bell Hood clashed with a retreating Federal force commanded by General John M. Schofield as the sun set over the small Harpeth River town of Franklin, Tennessee, and in the ensuing hours of ferocious combat inflicted more than 8,500 casualties upon each other.  

The personal accounts from eight men who fought at Franklin give us some sense of the ferocity of this struggle, and the sense of loss felt on both sides of the battle. Reading these accounts, you'll experience the audacity of the Confederate charge as viewed from both sides of the line, ride alongside Generals Hiram Granbury and Pat Cleburne in their final moments, read an incredible story of heroism as one Tennessean recalls how he captured a Federal flag, rush forward with an Illinois veteran in Opdycke's charge that marked the turning point of the battle, and read stories detailing the horrible aftermath of the battle. These accounts, given as a series of vignettes from four men who wore the Blue and four men who wore the Gray, are posted in commemoration of all those who fought at Franklin 158 years ago today. 

 

Frock coat of Major General Patrick R. Cleburne. This coat was donated to the Museum of the Confederacy years after the war by a friend of Cleburne's and is not the coat he was wearing at Franklin when he was killed. 

“A Bloody Affair”

Private J.C. Dean, Co. H, 3rd Mississippi Infantry, Lowrey’s Brigade, Cleburne’s Division, Cheatham’s Corps

Our entire command realized beforehand that the battle of Franklin would be a bloody affair. We saw their formidable works surmounted by artillery and supported by strong forces of infantry. About 3 p.m., the advance was ordered. I distinctly recall seeing General Pat Cleburne on going into the charge with us. He was mounted on a large light bay horse, dressed in full uniform, and wore the magnificent sword presented to him by his old regiment the 1st Arkansas. No knightlier soul ever lived than General Cleburne.

          As we swept forward, the fire of the enemy’s skirmishers became hot but we brushed them from their outside line of rifle pits and pressed onward. When we had crossed over this first line of real breastworks there began that deadly hail of lead and iron which made Franklin’s field a scene of unparalleled carnage. Men fell at almost every step, but onward we pressed across line after line until our ranks were sadly decimated and we were forced to halt. It was here that the brave General Cleburne fell. He was about 60 yards from me when he was killed, riddled by a volley. He had in one hand his sword and in the other a pistol.

          Our line stopped against the line of works until daylight when it was found that the enemy had fallen back. Our loss was frightful. Of our company, only two men were uninjured.

 

Corps badge of the Third Division, 23rd Army Corps

         “With heads inclined like beasts striving to stem the peltings of a storm”

First Lieutenant Joseph R. Wolfe, Co. I, 107th Illinois, Second Brigade (Moore), Second Division, 23rd Army Corps

At 4 o’clock our skirmishers began gradually to fall back before the solid columns of the enemy and at 5 o’clock, the Rebs charged all along our front with from three to four lines of battle. Not a gun was fired until they had come within easy range when a murderous fire greeted them. But on they came with heads inclined like beasts striving to stem the peltings of a storm. But they could not withstand the volleys that our brave and good boys poured into them and were compelled to retire, but it was only to reform and come upon us more heavily.

          About dusk they made their best and most determined charge in which they mounted our works, planted four stands of colors, crossed bayonets with and fired at us, but they could not stay with us long for they were either bayonetted, shot, or knocked down. The ditch in our immediate front was filled with dead and wounded. How many times they charged our lines it would be difficult to accurately state, doubtless not less than eleven.

A set of national colors belonging to the 57th Indiana Volunteers. The Hoosiers, part of Colonel John Q. Lane's brigade of Wagner's division, was one of the units caught out in front of the main line of Federal works at Franklin. During the 57th Indiana's retreat, William Crook of the 13th Tennessee captured a set of their national colors which he returned to the regiment years later. "It was a pathetic moment when Crook unfurled the flag at the reunion of the regiment in Indiana," Confederate Veteran reported. "Many cheeks were bathed with tears from the eyes of survivors who saw it go down at Franklin. One veteran stated that only a minute or so before its capture, it was so blowing in his face that he took hold of it and held it aside. Another who saw the color bearer fall undertook to rescue it, but Crook was too fast for him."  


“Captured the 57th Indiana’s Colors”

Private William M. Crook, Co. I, 13th Tennessee Infantry, Vaughan’s Brigade (Gordon), Brown’s Division, Cheatham’s Corps

Cleburne’s division was on the right of the Columbia Pike and Cheatham’s on the left so that our regiment was just on the left of the pike. In advancing upon the Federal main line of works, both commands bore to the pike, making our force much stronger at that point. We crossed these works just before sunset.

          When I had gotten over their last line by the pike, I saw their colors fall a few paces in my front. I leaped forward and grasped them. Not being able to handle my gun and save the flag, I returned with it to the works when, to my surprise, I found that many of the enemy had never left the ditch and were still firing at our men who had stopped at the embankment. The flag that I captured was that of the 57th Indiana regiment near where their main and last line of works crossed the Columbia Pike.

          It was at the left of the pike opposite the old gin-house on the right where General Adams’ horse fell with his head on their works. General Granbury also fell near this gin-house. I never shall forget an incident which occurred a few minutes before the color sergeant fell and I thought was dead. I had just shot my gun and was reloading when a Federal captain within ten feet of me with his pistol shot one of my comrades and another one of them raised his gun to shoot this Federal captain when he threw up his hands to surrender. A Southern lieutenant, not seeing the captain shoot our man and thinking his man ought not to shoot an enemy with his hands up, knocked the gun down and pointed the Federal to the rear.

          I was in every battle that the Army of Tennessee fought from Shiloh to Bentonville, but Franklin was by far the closest quarters I was every in. Near and around this spot of which I speak the dead and dying were actually in heaps. Gods only knows how any of us ever escaped.

 

Major General Jacob D. Cox

“General Cox Under Fire”

Account from an unidentified officer on Cox’s staff

The retreat of Wagner’s two brigades was not understood by some new regiments which were on the left of the Second Division, 23rd Army Corps and as they rushed back from the front, these broke, too. The enemy was close after them and came over the works immediately. It looked squally for a while.

          General Cox ordered Opdycke’s brigade on the charge while he and his staff with most of the brigade and regimental commanders exerted themselves to rally the broken regiments. I saw General Cox with his hat off under a most terrific fire rallying the stampeders and as Opdycke’s brigade came up, the whole went back with a rush driving the Rebels back again over the parapet. General Stanley came upon the field at this juncture but was almost immediately wounded but remained until the close of the fight. Meanwhile, General Schofield was in a fort on the north side of the river where he could see the whole field but did not find it necessary to interfere with General Cox’s plans and the battle was fought out under his orders.

          Colonel Opdycke’s charge saved the day for although the rest of the line stood firm, if the enemy had succeeded at penetrating there, we would not have held the place. Again and again, they came on but were felled every time. It was nearly 11 o’clock before they gave up the attacks; it was nearly midnight when we were withdrawn as originally intended since the enemy could easily pass around the position.

Brigadier General Hiram Bronson Granbury reportedly said "Forward men, never let it be said that Texans lag in a fight" moments before a Federal Minie ball struck him in the cheek and instantly killed the Texan. 

“Never let it be said that Texans lag in a fight”

Lieutenant Leonard H. Mangum, aide-de-camp to General Patrick R. Cleburne

The space between the enemy’s first line and the main line was about 200 yards. The ground was level and I don’t think there was a tree or bush between them. The fire and destruction were beyond description. I went up to the works with Granbury’s brigade; Granbury, Govan, and their staffs were on foot. About halfway between the first and main lines General Granbury was killed. I was within ten feet of him and remember well the last words he spoke: ‘Forward men, never let it be said that Texans lag in a fight.’ As he spoke these words, a ball struck him in the cheek and passed through his brain. Throwing both hands to his face, he sunk down on his knees and remained in that position until his body was taken off the field after the battle.

          When I last saw General Cleburne, he was going up toward the enemy’s works mounted on a brown mare belonging to Lieutenant Tip Stanton of his escort. This mare was killed 75 or 100 yards from the works. Young Brandon, a member of Cleburne’s escort, dismounted and offered his horse to Cleburne. While Cleburne was in the act of dismounting, the horse was shot dead by many bullets. Then Cleburne rushed on foot for the works. He must have been killed between where his last horse was shot and the works.

          One not in the battle of Franklin might think it strange that such a conspicuous character as General Cleburne should be killed and his death not witnessed by anyone, but the fire was so terrific and the smoke so dense that one could not distinguish an object at 20 feet distant. The morning after the battle, information came to our headquarters that General Cleburne’s body was found. I immediately went in search of it and found it laid out on the gallery of the McGavock brick house- boots, pocketbook, diary, and sword belt gone. He received but one wound and that was from a Minie ball which passed through his body. His face was covered with a lady’s handkerchief.

Officers of the 36th Illinois pose in June 1865, their work completed. The Illinoisans had seen service from Missouri to Pea Ridge, Perryville to Stones River, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, and throughout the Atlanta campaign. The battles at Franklin and Nashville were their last. 


“It was forward, straight forward”

Unknown veteran of Co. H, 36th Illinois Veteran Volunteer Infantry, First Brigade (Opdycke), Second Division, 4th Army Corps

Our brigade, being the rear guard, was allowed to form in the rear and make coffee and rest ere the struggle commenced, and we had hardly finished our coffee when the entire line was enveloped in the blaze of battle. But the weight of the assault fell upon the center of our line where there were a large number of conscripts who broke and fled after fighting a few minutes and left the works in possession of the Rebs.

          Oh, what a crisis! What a time and place for a rout! Had it continued but a few minutes longer, not a regiment could have been saved and it was at this critical point that General Stanley rushed up to Colonel Opdycke commanding our brigade and called upon him to charge, retake the works, and save the army. I tell you that every officer and man seemed to realize the fate of the nation rested upon him for there was no wavering, but it was forward, straight forward.

It seemed as though the struggle of years was crowded into that short hour. But the day was ours and every Reb was killed or captured who had entered the works and although the battle lasted far into the night, they did not again possess any part of the line.

 

Captain Norman K. Brown of the 64th Ohio ventured out between the lines that evening and unexpectedly ran into a line of Confederates. Through a bit of sly-talking and Yankee trickery, Brown managed to return to Federal lines with an unsuspecting officer of the 49th Tennessee. 

“A Damned Mean Yankee Trick”

Captain Norman K. Brown of the 64th Ohio was just after the first lull in the engagement on the left of the line near the cotton gin and was requested by Major Coulter to take charge of a volunteer skirmish party and advance over the works to see and learn the condition of things in front of the works which the Rebels had until that moment been assailing so violently.

          It was now quite dark. He sprang on top of the parapet and called for the men, whom he soon obtained, and advanced over Rebel dead for nearly 400 yards when he halted the detachment and advanced forward himself a few rods to see the condition of things and determine if the enemy was yet behind the works which the regiment had evacuated earlier that day.

          He had not gone far before he learned that they were lying behind them and when he turned to leave, he was stopped by a large Rebel captain who approached him and said, ‘Good evening.’ He replied the same and asked if the Rebel was wounded; the Rebel replied no but that he was very tired and such charging was enough to kill anybody and that they had been nearly annihilated. Captain Brown answered, ‘Yes, we were awfully used up.’ Then the Rebel captain asked him if he knew where his regiment was reforming; Brown asked which regiment and the Rebel replied “the 49th Tennessee.”

          Captain Brown replied that he did and told him if he wished to go to it, he would show him to it as he was going directly past it. The Rebel assented and went along into the Yankee lines when Captain Brown informed him that the larger part of his regiment was forming behind Yankee bayonets. He spoke up quickly: ‘What? Are you a Yankee?’ Captain Brown told him he was and the Rebel became very angry saying it was a damned mean Yankee trick.

 

Bullet-scarred buildings of the Carter House at Franklin

"Melt with sympathy the hardest heart”

Chief Musician William J. Worsham, 19th Tennessee Infantry, Strahl’s Brigade, Brown’s Division, Cheatham’s Corps

It makes us sick now as we think of that bloody scene that beautiful November evening and it almost drives the frozen current of life back upon the chilled heart. We stand aghast as we now think of the battlefield of Franklin. The angel of death certainly held high carnival that sorrowful night in the Army of Tennessee. This one scene of butchery will go down the ages in history as a black page in the memory of our lost cause.

          The firing ceased about 10 o’clock at night and the army bivouacked on the field. As soon as it was ascertained that the enemy had left Franklin, the infirmary and relief corps were on every part of the field with torches hunting up and rendering assistance to the thousands of wounded and suffering whose agonizing appeals that cold bitter night were enough to melt with sympathy the hardest heart.

          General Cheatham as he walked over the field of carnage that night and looked by the glare of the torchlight into the hundreds of pale faces silent in death, in many places the dead lying in heaps, and upon the thousands of wounded covered with blood appealing for water and help, he wept, the great big tears ran down his cheeks and he sobbed like a child. Before him lay not only his boys, as he called them, but his generals, all dead. That noble, kind, big-hearted brave general who was loved by all, wept.

          A veteran army was wrecked on this field of battle, a bloody holocaust to the Moloch of war. The dead and wounded were numbered in the thousands; the regimental and brigade organizations were broken up, guns and equipment broken and scattered, colors lying here and there stained with the lifeblood of those who bore them. All these showed plainly the magnitude of the disaster. The dead and wounded marked the field over which the divisions charged. In front of the entrenched lines were strewn the bodies of slaughtered heroes, officers and men proving clearly the intense fury of the assaults.

          In the entrenchments, captured and held by Strahl’s and Carter’s brigades of Brown’s division, the dead lay in heaps and in some places in the ditches were piled seven deep. On the dead body of General Otho Strahl fell that of Captain Johnson and Lieutenant Marsh, and others fell on them. Regimental and company officers were seen supported in an almost upright position by the dead who had fallen first.

To learn more about the battle of Franklin, check out my other posts concerning the battle:

10 Days to Franklin: The 183rd Ohio Goes to War

A Buckeye Surgeon Behind the Lines at Franklin

Awful Scenes of Carnage: A Buckeye Recalls Franklin

Awful to the Extreme: Voice from the 125th Ohio at Franklin

At the Center of Hell: The 100th Ohio at Franklin

Fighting with Axes, Picks and Sponges with the 6th Ohio Battery

Pandemonium Reigned Supreme: A Buckeye Captured at Franklin


Sources:

“The Battle of Franklin,” Private J.C. Dean, Co. H, 3rd Mississippi Infantry, Confederate Veteran, January 1899, pg. 27

Letter from First Lieutenant Joseph R. Wolfe, Co. I, 107th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, Clinton Public (Illinois), December 15, 1864, pg. 2

“W.M. Crook’s Heroism at Franklin,” Private W.M. Crook, Co. I, 13th Tennessee Infantry, Confederate Veteran, June 1897, pg. 30

“General Cox at the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee,” Cleveland Morning Leader (Ohio), December 20, 1864, pg. 2

Head, Thomas A. Campaigns and Battles of the Sixteenth Regiment, Tennessee Volunteers in the War Between the States. Nashville: Cumberland Presbyterian Publishing House, 1885. pgs. 377-379 (Lt. Leonard H. Mangum account)

Letter from Veteran, Co. H, 36th Illinois Veteran Volunteer Infantry, Woodstock Sentinel (Illinois), December 21, 1864, pg. 2

“Incident of the Fight at Franklin,” (Captain Norman K. Brown story), Sidney Weekly Journal (Ohio), December 30, 1864, pg. 1

Worsham, William J. The Old Nineteenth Tennessee Regiment, C.S.A. June 1861-April 1865. Knoxville: Press of the Paragon Printing Co., 1902, pgs. 146-147


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