Assault at Franklin

Copyright by Matt Hering, 2004.


    In late 1864, John Bell Hood launched an offensive which he hoped would change the tide of the war—and perhaps save his shattered career. Hood had, by this time, lost the use of his left arm from a wound at Gettysburg, and his right leg from a wound at Chickamauga; he had to be strapped to his saddle. In August of 1864 he had been given command of the Army of Tennessee, at which time he orchestrated an unsuccessful attempt to drive Sherman’s army from the gates of Atlanta. After practically shattering the offensive power of his army, Hood was outmaneuvered out of Atlanta. Hood sought to recover his tarnished reputation.

    So on November 16, 1864, the Army of Tennessee—now only 30,000 strong—marched north from Florence, Alabama, aiming to reach Columbia, Tennessee. John M. Schofield’s Federal army of around 30,000 men departed from Pulaski, Tennessee, and hoped to reach Columbia before Hood could arrive there. On November 28, a sharp engagement took place south of Columbia. As the skirmish reached its climax, Schofield’s infantry marched into town and began throwing up earthworks south of town. Yet Schofield did not believe this line to be very strong, so he ordered his men to construct a new line north of the Duck River. The movement was completed that night.

    In the meantime, John Hood was formulating a plan to entrap the Union army. Forrest’s cavalry, 7,000 or so strong, were to clear of Federal cavalrymen the fords on the Duck River east of Columbia. Once that was achieved, the men of Cheatham’s and Stewart’s Corps would ford the river and interpose between Schofield and Nashville by seizing the Columbia Pike. In the meantime, Stephen D. Lee’s Corps would remain in Columbia opposite the Federals and occupy their attention.

    Next day, November 29, Hood’s offensive was initiated. As planned, the cavalrymen captured the fords and proceeded to clear a path northward. The Southern infantry made good time marching north toward Spring Hill, a small village astride the Columbia Pike. But Hood soon became convinced, after a small Federal reconnaissance appeared, Schofield was about to assault his vulnerable left flank. After considerable delay, Forrest’s troopers began being sited by Union troops east of Spring Hill. Forrest decided to try to rush the small enemy force, but was unsuccessful in the attempt. Soon Cleburne’s Division arrived on the scene—and then even more Southerners arrived. It was now late afternoon, and Schofield had no idea enemy troops were within east striking distance of his lifeline—the Columbia Pike.

    These 20,000 concentrated Confederate troops were aimed at 5,000 opponents. Yet the rest of the afternoon, the Southerners sat silent, their assault stalled by a small enemy force on their left flank which one Confederate commander declared to be a threat. By the time this mess was cleared, darkness had descended on the battlefield, but Southern soldiers were only hundreds of yards from the Columbia Pike, their objective. Schofield had, meanwhile, become convinced his rear was indeed threatened by a sizable Confederate force. The rest of the night, as Southerners lay within a quick walk from the Columbia Pike, Schofield’s troops trudged north. For the rest of the night, the Federal army—seemingly trapped in a hopeless situation just hours before—marched to Franklin, Tennessee, where they were immediately put to work strengthening the circa 1863 entrenchments around that town.

    Franklin, in 1864, was a small, rural town of 800 people. The only military action yet witnessed by the people of this town was a cavalry skirmish in 1863. On the morning of November 30, Schofield’s jaded soldiers began to tramp into the earthworks south and west of town. Wagner’s Division had been conducting a rear guard withdrawal ever since the retreat from Spring Hill. Now his men were positioned on Breezy and Winstead Hills south of town, ordered by Schofield only to retreat “if severely pressed.” Seemingly endless columns of Confederates appeared on Columbia Pike and began filing off the road. Wagner worried that his division would soon be overwhelmed, and so he ordered a withdrawal to friendly lines near Franklin. Yet soon Wagner ordered his men back to Breezy and Winstead Hills. When Wagner reached these two elevations, he saw that Confederate troops were now too near for him to hold this position. He again ordered his men to retire, except this time to Privet Knob, close to midway between Breezy and Winstead Hills and the Union breastworks. From here, he determined, he would try to delay the large mass of enemy troops in his front.

    Hood reached Winstead Hill about 2:00 P.M., and determined to launch an assault against the Federals, ensconced behind imposing earthworks. To launch this attack, Hood had 20,000 troops of Stewart’s and Cheatham’s Corps, S.D. Lee’s Corps still marching north from Columbia. He also had only twelve cannon, the rest making their ways northward with Lee’s Corps. About 2:45 P.M., the bulk of the Army of Tennessee—Stewart’s and Cheatham’s Corps—assembled in lines of battle. Across two miles of open ground lied the Union entrenchments. On the eastern part of the battlefield, near the Harpeth River, Federal troops had utilized osage orange, a thorny bush, for defense. At 4:00 P.M., November 30, 1863, 20,000 Southerners marched defiantly toward their opponents, determined to capture or kill them all.

    Wagner’s Division was still positioned on Privet Knob, far ahead of the main Union line. With a yell the Confederates rushed this exposed position, and pursued the fleeing Federals. The Union troops in the main line impatiently waited for their comrades to move out of the way so the Confederates could be fired upon. Yet it was too late; the Blue and the Gray were soon engaged in a determined struggle within the main breastworks. Emerson Opdycke was awaiting the chance to send his troops into combat—and here it was. Before he could order an advance, though, his men had impetuously charged. Opdycke’s men ran into enemy troops around the Carter House. Here some of the fiercest hand-to-hand combat of the war took place. By the time it had ended, the Confederates had been forced back into the opposite side of the entrenchments, where they hung on, hoping for reinforcements. Yet none came, and the pit the Southerners occupied became a deathtrap.

    As Cheatham’s men launched their assault, to their right Stewart’s troops were attempting to breach enemy lines near the Harpeth River. Advancing in fine style after forming around the fine mansion Carnton, Stewart’s men confronted the osage orange, which acted as a abatis. They chopped away at the entanglement with whatever they could, but could effect little. In the meantime, Union small arms and artillery fire tore their lines apart. The Confederate troops, unable to take an further like punishment, ran rearward.

    Bates’s Southern Division had been ordered by General Hood to attack the enemy line at Carter’s Creek Pike. His 1,600-man division had little hope of effecting anything against the Federals. The troops of his division, nonetheless, charged furiously, but were slaughtered.

    During the night S.D. Lee’s troops arrived on the battlefield. Hood, unwilling to give up an obviously futile attack, ordered them forward. Lee’s men advanced across the same ground traversed earlier by Cheatham’s men. Many men remembered stepping on and over the thickly strewn bodies of their comrades. Lee’s men were greeted by heavy musketry and canister, but some were able to breach the Federal lines. Yet they lacked the reinforcements necessary to hold this line, and so retreated. All this assault had done was cause more casualties.

    Hood, though, was not yet ready to stop his suicidal assaults. He determined to attack the Union troops the next morning with his whole army. He now had over 100 pieces of artillery which he positioned to cannonade the enemy position in the morning. Yet he awoke to find the Federals gone, except for wounded left in town in the Federals’ haste to get out of Franklin. The Army of Tennessee had, at Franklin, suffered over 7,000 casualties, they Federal far less than that.

    Hood, despite the worn and undermanned condition of his army, marched to Nashville, determined to capture that city or ruin his army in the attempt. He failed to capture Nashville, but he did ruin his army. Hood would die in 1879, with his wife, in a yellow fever epidemic, his reputation having been further tarnished at Franklin, and obliterated at Nashville. The proud Army of Tennessee indeed died at Franklin.


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