30 November 1864 Franklin, Tennessee
Major General Patrick Cleburne sat astride his horse, Red Pepper, atop Winstead Hill, shaken to his soul by his commanding officer General John Bell Hood’s orders and plan of battle.
Patrick Ronayne Cleburne
He surveyed the Harpeth Valley below him, the village of Franklin sat in the gathering gloom that late November afternoon. Earlier he had ridden to Merrill Hill to see for himself the lay of the land. Through his field glasses he could see the heavily fortified breastworks of the Union Forces.
“They have three lines and they are all complete” he murmured to his friend and Brigade leader, General J.C Govan. A mood of Celtic fatalism seemed to overtake the man known as “Stonewall Jackson of the West”. A sterling Division Commander, the best the South had, Cleburne knew his men were doomed.
General Patrick Cleburne at Winstead Hill Painting by David Wright
Putting away the field glasses, he turned to his friend and said “Well Govan, if we are to die, let us die like men.”
Enraged by the escape of the Union Army the previous evening at Spring Hill, General John Bell Hood saw, once again his dreams of glory fading. Less than 24 hours ago, the Union Forces commanded by General John Schofield were in dire danger of being trapped by Hood’s Confederate Forces. Hood’s Army had outflanked the Union Troops on the Colombia Turnpike in a desperate race to Nashville.
General John Bell Hood CSA Commander Army of Tennessee
General John M. Schofield (USA)Commander Army of the Ohio
The Confederate Forces were arrayed along the turnpike near the small village of Spring Hill. Worse for Schofield, his forces were divided, his infantry and supply wagons headed directly towards the Confederates.
Major General Cleburne and Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest on the road to Spring Hill. “Guns of the West”, by John Paul Strain
Hood, Commander of the Army of Tennessee, had a golden opportunity to intercept the Union Army, deliver a devastating blow to his old West Point classmate and resupply his forces with much needed food and supplies. Plus such a resounding blow to the Union forces would go far in rehabilitating his tarnished reputation after the bitter loss of Atlanta that summer.
It was not to be…. Darkness began to cast its shadows and gloom over the turnpike in the late afternoon of 29 November. What followed was an appalling series of command failures, conflicting orders, negligent miscommunication and leadership and the ‘fog of war’ leading to the Confederates not securing the Pike.
Spring Hill 29 November
Confederate and Union forces
Hood had the utmost confidence that he had Schofield’s Army trapped on the Pike. He retired early to his Headquarters at the Absolom Thompson House for the night. When reports reached him that Union troops were on the Pike and moving; he did not go himself to ensure his orders were being followed. Thus, in one of the greatest lost opportunities of the War, the Union infantry and supply wagons slipped past the Confederates on a moonless night, escaping to Franklin, 12 miles to the North. Schofield realizing what a narrow escape he had just had, ordered his men to immediately entrench. His men began to build and fortify existing breastworks from a previous skirmish and prepare for Hood’s forces.
Breastworks at the Cotton Gin (large building in background). The Cotton Gin and the nearby Carter House was the epicenter of the Battle of Franklin. Photo taken in the 1890’s
The morning of 30 November dawned with a “wrathy as a rattlesnake” Hood enraged at his Commanders; dressing them down for their failure to follow his orders and secure the Pike. As was his usual manner, Hood blamed everyone but himself.
Historians have been fascinated by the ‘Spring Hill Affair’ for over 150 years. Theories abound, but most historians agree that Hood and General Benjamin Cheatham share the blame for the egregious failure that night. Stories of drinking and parties have largely been discounted over the decades. A lingering theory, not supported by all, is that Hood may have been under the influence of laudanum, an opiate derivative to ease the pain of his amputated leg and arm suffered after a long forced march. Whatever the cause(s), the opportunity lost at Spring Hill on 29 November 1864 was to have devastating consequences for the Army of Tennessee.
Hood and his Army arrived on Winstead Hill, two miles from Franklin around 1pm in the afternoon of November 30th. The Army of Tennessee that afternoon was a ragged and forlorn ghost of its once mighty self. Under the command of John Bell Hood, once the prex chevalier of Richmond society in the early glory days of the Confederacy, Atlanta had been lost. This was a severe and crippling loss to the Confederacy. As a result, General T. Sherman (USA) was making good his threat to “make Georgia howl” on his slash and burn campaign to the sea. The Confederates under General Hood were only 20,000 strong that late November afternoon, facing a well entrenched and defensible force of roughly 30,000
Winstead Hill looking towards the Village of Franklin
After surveying the landscape Hood was determined to destroy the entrenched Union forces by a direct headlong assault against the center, leaving Schofield and his troops no room for retreat. Hood knew the Union flanks were weak and the center extremely strong. He could have ordered his forces to encircle the Union Army as in fact his superb cavalry commander, Nathan Bedford Forrest begged him to do. Forrest argued that if given a division of infantry with his cavalry , he could flank Schofield out of his position ‘within the hour’
Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest (CSA)
” I do not like the looks of this fight, the enemy has an excellent position and is well fortified” Major General Frank Cheatham to General Hood on Winstead Hill 30 November 1864
John Bell Hood was not in a mood to listen to his senior commanders or wait for reconnaissance reports. They were to make a frontal charge for the center and fix bayonets.
It was 4pm, the winter sun low in the western sky, when the bands began to play and the regimental flags unfurled into the wind. Stretched across two miles of Tennessee farmland was the once unstoppable Army of Tennessee. The entrenched Union forces stared in disbelief and awe as that long grey line began to charge down on them. The eerie haunting sound of the Rebel Yell mingled with the strains of Bonnie Blue Flag and the roar of thousands of men racing across the land in a charge twice the length of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. They were the very last…..
The Charge at Franklin
“Boys, this will be short, but desperate!” General Ortho Strahl, to his men as they advanced on the Federal Center
“Into the works with them!” the rallying cry of the Confederates as they almost succeeded in breaking the Federal Center…as reported by Union survivors
The Confederates almost made it, they broke their hearts trying to break the Union Center. They charged into the heavily fortified breastworks again and again, facing withering fire from the enemy and almost broke through. Vicious and desperate hand to hand combat ensued as the Confederates charged over the breast works. In a desperate attempt the Union forces regained the upper hand just before the Confederates were able to completely breakthrough. Carnage and chaos reigned.
“The Devil had full possession of the Earth”- Union Survivor
Union forces under command of Colonel Emerson Opdyke ( Opdyke Tigers) repulsing the Confederate Charge Painting by Don Troiani
General Patrick Cleburne was a beloved commander, his men had followed him willingly into the hell of many a battle; Shiloh, Corinth, Stones River, Perryville, Ringgold Gap, Chickamauga, Kennesaw Mountain and Atlanta. It was to be no different now
Cleburne astride Red Pepper leading his men towards the breastworks at the Cotton Gin Painting by Don Troiani
Patrick Cleburne, his famous blue division banner with the distinctive full moon flying above his head, rode towards the breastworks at the Cotton Gin. Red Pepper was shot from beneath him. He tried mounting another horse loose in the fray, but it too was shot dead. Patrick Cleburne advance on foot, waving his kepi hat for his men to follow him…and they did…straight into the smoky jaws of hell on earth.
Cleburne’s final moments as he advances to the breastworks. Painting by Dale Gallon
Cleburne and his men at the Cotton Gin Artist Unknown
Five hours later, the guns fell silent , only the moans of the wounded and dying could be heard in the frosty night air. The Union forces escaped across the Harpeth River and were on the road to Nashville. The Confederates were left in possession of the battlefield but there was no glory and no victory.
The enormity of the carnage was revealed in the early dawn. Thousands of men lay dead on the frost covered ground.
Dawn breaks over the carnage at the Cotton Gin “Bringing Cleburne In” Painting by Mort Kunstler
His men found General Cleburne’s body near the Cotton Gin, scene of some of the most vicious fighting of the entire War. He had been shot once on his left side. His kepi hat lay across his face ‘as though he was asleep’. His sword, belt, diary and boots had all been stolen during the night. His men carried him and four other Confederate Generals to nearby Carnton Plantation, where the wounded had been taken for treatment. They were gently laid on the back porch.
The Porch at Carnton Plantation, where the bodies of General Patrick Cleburne, General Ortho Strahl, General John Adams, and General Hiram Granbury were laid after the Battle. Two other Generals- General States Rights Gist and General John Carter were also killed at Franklin but not brought to Carnton
In early December, Patrick Cleburne was laid to rest in the graveyard of St John’s Episcopal Church, near Mt Pleasant, Tennessee. Hood’s forces had stopped there as they approached Spring Hill. At the time, Cleburne was reported to have said to a friend, ” It would not be so hard to die if one could be buried in such a beautiful place”. Several years after the War, his mortal remains were re-interred in St Helena, Arkansas, the place in his adopted homeland of America, he had called home.
St John’s Episcopal Church Mt Pleasant TN
On December 5th, far to the south, in Mobile, Alabama, Cleburne’s fiancée Sue Tarleton walked in the her garden in the late afternoon sunshine. It was in this very garden, earlier in the Spring, surrounded by blooming azaleas that Cleburne had proposed to his “Miss Sue” after a 2 month courtship. He returned to his command the next day. Although they continued to write, they were never to see each other in this life again.
A little newspaper boy rounded the corner of Claiborne Avenue, hawking the evening news. ” Big Battle near Franklin, Tennessee, General Cleburne killed”. Sue Tarleton fainted among the dead leaves of her winter garden.
The Battle of Franklin is quite unique in that it was fought during the night hours. Because it occurred so late in the War, The Battle of Franklin has not, until recently, been given its proper place in the history books. Yet, it was one of the most deadly battles of the War. The battle raged for a mere five hours. In terms of total losses 1750 men were killed on the Confederate side, including the loss of six Generals. Over 5,000 men were wounded and 705 captured. The Union dead numbered less than 200. The Army of Tennessee had been destroyed by the recklessness of its own Commander John Bell Hood.
“It was a bloodbath of unparalleled proportions, one that cost John Bell Hood approximately one third of his total infantry sent to attack the Federal entrenchments. It was perhaps the greatest and most useless sacrifice of life the war ever witnessed” Eric Jacobson, author For Cause and For Country
Putting the numbers into perspective – Hood lost one third of his infantry. In the Seven Days Campaign of 1862, General George McClellan (USA) fought General Robert R Lee (CSA) for seven days and suffered a loss of 1734 men killed. At Chancellorsville in 1863, the 97,000 men of General Joe Hooker (USA) fought for two days and had fewer battle deaths than Hood’s 20,000 men at Franklin. The staggering and stunning loss of six Generals and a total of 54 Regimental Commanders can not be understated.
In a war known for great carnage, General John Bell Hood slaughtered his Army at Franklin. Private Sam Watkins in his memoirs, ‘Company Atch’, summarized the horror..
“Franklin is the blackest page in the history of the War of The Lost Cause. It was the bloodiest battle of modern times in any war. It was the finishing stroke to the Independence of the Southern Confederacy. I was there. I saw it”
Some 75 years later, historian Stanley Horn would write:
The Annals of War may be long searched for a parallel to the desperate valor of the Army of Tennessee at Franklin, a charge which has been called the ‘greatest drama in American history’— Army of Tennessee 1941
Unlike Vicksburg or Gettysburg, there is no large military park at Franklin. The battlefield was largely urbanized after the War. However, through the magnificent efforts of civil war enthusiasts, historians, private citizens and the Battle of Franklin Trust, much is known of the battle and the field is slowly being reclaimed.
The Cotton Gin has long disappeared from the landscape, but the Carter House, scene of desperate fighting and carnage still stands. Hundreds of bullet holes are still visible in the walls…silent testimony to the horror of that night. Tours are given and the adjacent museum is a historical treasure trove. General Cleburne’s jacket and recently his kepi hat are on display.
The Carter House-scene of some of the most ferocious fighting of the War
Carnton Plantation, made famous by Robert Hicks’ novel, ‘Widow of the South’, still watches over the silent cemetery where hundreds of Confederate soldiers are buried.
Carnton Plantation and Confederate Cemetery
It is the largest privately owned military cemetery in the nation. The wooden floors of the upper level of the house, where the wounded were taken for surgery after the battle, still bear the bloodstains left by the dying 151 years ago.
Several key areas of the battlefield have been reclaimed from urbanization due to the untiring efforts of enthusiasts and the Battle of Franklin Trust. The spot where General Cleburne died was once the parking lot of a pizza parlour. It is now a lush verdant green space with a memorial and historical marker. There are plans to create an entire park and rebuild the Cotton Gin. It is an exciting time!
Cleburne Memorial- Franklin Battlefield
To the memory of the men who fought so valiantly and against impossible odds at Franklin…Requiescat in Pace…for you are not forgotten….
Nothing is Ever Forgotten….
The Annual Illumination at Carnton Plantation–over 10,000 candles, each representing the dead and wounded of the Battle of Franklin. Blue and Gray. Requiescat in Pace
Sources and References:
Five Tragic Hours….The Battle of Franklin James Lee McDonough and Thomas Connelly , University of Tennessee Press, 1983
For Cause and For Country Eric A. Jacobson and Richard A. Rupp. O’More Publishing , 2008
Battle of Franklin Trust
The Civil War Trust
Save the Franklin Battlefield