It was a near-run thing—John M. Schofield’s Federals steadily marching down the Columbia Pike towards Franklin through the night of Nov. 29 while sitting close to their camp fires were the Confederates of John B. Hood. The two former West Point roommates, Schofield and Hood, were now pitted against each other as they battled through Tennessee.
The onset of darkness had ended the Nov. 29 fight at Spring Hill, 12 miles south of Franklin. Pushed close to the brink, Schofield’s Twenty-Third Corps of the Army of the Ohio and the Fourth Corps of the Army of the Cumberland now needed to escape the closing noose. And because of a complete snafu from the high Confederate leadership, the beleaguered Unionists had their way out.
Leaving the Columbia Pike uncovered, the Army of Tennessee left the escape open to Franklin, and the Federals were quick to take the advantage. Throughout the night and early morning of Nov. 29-Nov. 30, Schofield’s men trudged in the direction of Franklin. And left behind to cover their march were the six regiments of Colonel Emerson Opdycke.
At the age of 34 years old, Opdycke did not have any formal military training, but had already seen his fair share of combat. He fought at Shiloh as a lieutenant, and then helped raise the 125th Ohio, in which he served as a lieutenant colonel. Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and the Atlanta Campaign followed. By early August, 1864, Opdycke had his own brigade in the Fourth Corps’ Second Division. With this brigade, consisting of the 36th, 44th, 74rd/88th Illinois, 125th Ohio and 24th Wisconsin, Opdycke covered the army’s movement to Franklin.
Around 8 a.m. on Nov. 30 Opdycke’s regiments began to skirmish with Confederate cavalry commanded by Nathan B. Forrest. The Federals leapfrogged, presenting a two-regiment front, firing, and then falling back through each other. In this form Opdycke’s men were able to cover the distance to Franklin without having to shake out the entire brigade into a battle formation.
This literal running gun battle carried on for about four hours, until Opdycke’s tired soldiers arrived outside Franklin. By now the other Union soldiers had had time to start digging their entrenchments that would prove so useful in the coming action. David Stanley, commanding the Fourth Corps, said that Opdycke had “rendered excellent service, skirmishing all the way with the rebel force following us and forcing our stragglers… to make a final effort to reach Franklin.”
Opdycke’s men were tired, hungry, and the constant skirmishing with Forrest’s cavalry had diminished their cartridge box supplies. Yet, as Opdycke’s men closed in on the main Federal works, he was met by his division commander, George D. Wagner. Wagner ordered the colonel and his six regiments to form his brigade along an elevation about half a mile from the main Federal works. Wagner’s other two brigades were already filing into position. Opdycke, however, saw the folly of such a position and was in no mood to follow Wagner’s commands. The position was isolated and already the Federals could see swarms of Confederates appearing on the next ridge, Winstead Hill. An attack was imminent, and there was no chance for Wagner’s small force to stop the assault. So Opdycke kept his men marching and headed for the opening in the Federal lines.
Wagner followed angrily, him and Opdycke riding side-by-side into the opening. They both yelled back and forth—Opdycke did not seem to care at all that Wagner outranked him. Opdycke said, according to an observer, “troops out on the open plain in front of the breastworks were in a good position to aid the enemy and nobody else.” Later, in his official report, Wagner wrote that “I directed Colonel Opdycke to form in the rear of Carter’s house to the right in rear of the main line of works, to act as a reserve….” This was simply not true. The same observer who had narrated the two officers’ discussion said that Wagner gave up on trying to tell Opdycke where to go with a dismissive, “Well, Opdycke, fight when and where you damn please. We all know you’ll fight.” That observer, Captain John K. Shellenberger, of the 64th Ohio, was one of the men placed in front of the Federal lines. Shellenberger added that Opdycke made the right choice in refusing to form up alongside Lane and Conrad, claiming that “his persistence in thus marching his brigade inside the breastworks about two hours later proved to be the salvation of our army.”
The six regiments in Opdycke’s brigade stacked their arms about 200 yards from the red house belonging to Fountain Branch Carter. There they made some cooking fires to prepare their coffee and await further developments. They would not have long to wait.
Two miles in front of the Federal works John B. Hood was forming his Confederates up in preparation of a massive attack. Close to 20,000 rebels lined up in their battle formations that stretched for nearly to two miles. Around 4 p.m., with bands playing them forward into the dying sunlight, the Confederates struck forward.
Half a mile in front of the main Federal lines, Wagner had placed his two remaining brigades into position. The brigades of John Lane and Joseph Conrad stared wide-eyed as the rebels came on; first in columns of brigades, and then, as they neared the Federals, expertly maneuvered into the traditional battle lines. The two brigades were hopelessly outnumbered. They fired a couple of nervous volleys that seemed to stymie the rebels at first, but then the Confederates gathered themselves and dashed forward with bayonets extended.
Under the immense weight of the rebel attack, spearheaded by the veterans of Patrick Cleburne, Lane’s and Conrad’s brigades were shattered and the men raced for their main lines, about half a mile away. The Confederates followed in close pursuit, using their Federal foes as human shields. One historian writes, “[The rebels] were intermixed with Wagner’s fleeing troops in a wedge-shaped mass of humanity, veering haphazardly toward the gap in the pike. Suddenly a cry rang out amid the gray-ranks: “Let’s go into the works with them!”
For the Federals behind their breastworks, the “mass of humanity” presented a moral conundrum. If they fired their rifles and pulled their taught lanyards, the stream of lead would surely cause huge amounts of casualties amongst their fellow Unionists. If, however, they waited, the Confederates would be upon them and in the works. They waited for as long as they could, and then, with only 100 yards separating the sides, the Union infantry fired. In the blast that followed surely some of Wagner’s men were killed by “friendly fire” and the volley also did little to stop the rushing Confederates.
By about 4:30 p.m., only half an hour after the attack started, the Confederates had punctured the center of the Union lines. The rebels now occupied about 200 yards of the main Federal works, and more Confederates were coming up. If the break was not sealed now, disaster would follow.
David Stanley, commanding the Fourth Corps, reported that he rode up to the “left regiment” of Opdycke’s brigade and “called the them to charge; at the same time I saw Colonel Opdycke near the center of his line urging his men forward.” A soldier in the 73rd Illinois wrote that, seeing the break in the lines, “Without one command, and but very little excitement—by mutual consent and almost as one man—the regiment went to their guns….” The 73rd Illinois’ Major Motherspaw waved his sword and shouted, “Go for them boys!” Opdycke, with equal drama, wrote that “When I gave the word ‘First Brigade, forward to the works,’ bayonets came down to a charge, the yell was raised, and the regiments rushed most grandly forward….” Near the right flank of the brigade, nineteen year-old Major Arthur MacArthur pushed his 24th Wisconsin into action with the order, “Up Wisconsin.”
In a wedge-shaped echelon, Opdycke’s men streamed for the breakthrough. They collided in a violent crash with the rebels in the Carter’s family garden. Bayonets stabbed forward, rifle butts were swung about like clubs, and officers emptied their pistols at point-blank range.
Opdycke was in the midst of the carnage, firing the chambers of his pistol. When the cylinders were empty, he grabbed the pistol by its hot barrel and cracked its butt at the rebels. The violent blows damaged the pistol, so he threw away the gun and picked up a musket to continue fighting.
The wild melee continued in the yard and garden of the Carters, who at that moment were huddled in their basement, listening to the whirlpool of violence above them. In front of the 24th Wisconsin, Arthur MacArthur saw a rebel battle flag. Rushing towards it, the teenaged major’s horse was shot from under him. Rising, MacArthur was then shot himself, and the “bullet ripped open his shoulder.” Continuing on, MacArthur neared the rebel flag when a Confederate major shot the young officer square in the chest. MacArthur was able to thrust his officer’s saber into his assailant’s torso, mortally wounding the Confederate officer. But, as the two men fell to the ground, the Confederate got one parting shot off from his pistol, striking MacArthur in the knee. MacArthur’s extreme bravery at Franklin was another example of the young man’s fighting spirit—he had already led the 24th Wisconsin forward at Missionary Ridge as its adjutant, an action he would get the Medal of Honor for. Remarkably, MacArthur recovered from his wounds and later fathered Douglas MacArthur of Second World War fame.
Elsewhere, other men from Opdycke’s brigade continued the fight. Soldiers from the 44th Illinois recaptured some Federal guns that were overwhelmed in the initial Confederate onslaught. Manning the guns, the Illinoisans began to fire canister into the faces of their foes. The 44th’s commanding officer also reported that, “Our colors suffered very much from the terrible fire of the enemy, the flagstaffs were partially cut away… and the flags badly cut and torn.”
Under the weight of Opdycke’s counter-attack, the Confederates began to retreat to the outside of the works. The horrible confrontation in front of the Carter House had only lasted about 15-20 minutes. Opdycke wrote in his report, “I twice stepped to the front of the works on the Columbia pike [sic] to see the effect of such fighting. I never saw the dead lay near so thick. I saw them upon each other, dead and ghastly in the powder-dimmed star-light.” In a letter to his wife, Opdycke added, “On came fresh columns of the enemy and the musketry exceeded anything I ever heard; the powder smoke darkened the sunlight… The carnage was awful.” Coming from a man with as much combat experience as Emerson Opdycke, his words point to the horrifying nature of the Battle of Franklin.
The fight continued into the night, and it was not until around midnight of Dec. 1 that Opdycke’s men were pulled out of their works. For their gruesome work, they had suffered 216 casualties, but those losses were offset by the 9 battle flags it had captured as well as an estimated 394 prisoners. Opdycke wrote in a somewhat bragging tone to his wife, “Every one here says ‘Col. Opdycke saved the day.’ Stanley, [Thomas] Wood, and Wagner assert it. Genl [Jacob] Cox said the same to me, and to day the immortal [George] Thomas pressed my hand and repeated it.”
George Wagner had apparently forgiven Opdycke for his insubordination in refusing to form alongside his other brigades, and for good reason. Wagner had seriously threatened the integrity of the entire Union line with his foolish deployment of Lane’s and Conrad’s brigades. Those two brigades had the casualties to show for the poor deployment, too. Lane’s brigade had almost double the casualties that Opdycke’s men had suffered, even with the savage hand-to-hand combat in the Carter’s front yard. Perhaps realizing that Opdycke had saved the threatened Federal line, Wagner wrote, “I desire to bear testimony to the gallantry and fitness of Col. Emerson Opdycke… for his position, and he should by all means be promoted at once. There is no man in the army more worthy to be a brigadier-general.”
The Battle of Franklin is famous for the extreme casualties suffered by the attacking Confederate forces, as well as the deaths of six Confederate generals—foremost Patrick Cleburne. But it is also worth remembering the sacrifices of the Federal soldiers, whether it be the brigades of Lane and Conrad, who stood to their posts even as the tidal wave of rebels came forward, or the near unimaginable endurance exemplified by Arthur MacArthur. And, above all, how the foresightedness and quick-thinking of Emerson Opdycke saved a Union army, with its back to the overflowing Harpeth River, from utter destruction.
 The “snafu” was that of capturing the Columbia Pike and thus sealing it off to traffic. This did not happen—creating controversy to this day. See Stephen Hood, John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General (Savas Beatie, 2013), 112-131.
 Mark M. Boatner III, Civil War Dictionary (David McKay Publishing, 1959), 609.
 Wiley Sword, The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah: Spring Hill, Franklin & Nashville (University Press of Kansas, 1992), 158-159.
 The War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (hereafter cited as OR), Vol. 45, pt. 1, 115. All series are 1.
 Eric A. Jacobson and Richard A. Rupp, For Cause and Country: A Study of the Affair at Spring Hill and the Battle of Franklin (O’More Publishing, 2008), 229.
 Confederate Veteran, Volume 36, 1928, 380.
 OR, Vol. 45, pt. 1, 232; Confederate Veteran, Volume 36, 381.
 OR, Vol. 45, pt. 1, 240.
 Jacobson and Rupp, 255-256.
 Sword, 193.
 Jacobson and Rupp, 307.
 OR, Vol. 45, pt. 1, 116.
A History f the Seventy-Third Regiment of Illinois Infantry Volunteers (1890), 461, 444; OR, Vol. 35, pt. 1, 240; Douglas MacArthur Reminiscences (Douglas MacArthur Foundation, 1964), 10.
 Sword, 203.
 MacArthur, Reminiscences, 10; Jacobson and Rupp, 322-323.
 OR, Vol. 45, pt. 1, 246-247.
 Ibid. 241.
 Emerson Opdycke, To Battle for God and the Right: The Civil War Letterbooks of Emerson Opdycke. Edited by Glenn V. Longacre and John E. Haas. (University of Illinois Press, 2003), Kindle file, 6425.
 OR, Vol. 45, pt. 1, 241.
 Opdycke, Kindle file, 6425-6426.
 OR, Vol. 45, pt. 1, 232.