Franklin 150th: “I never saw the dead lay near so thick.”

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.[1]

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.[2]

Emerson Opdycke
Emerson Opdycke

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.[3]

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.”[4]

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.[5]

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.”[6] 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.”[7]

George D. Wagner was Opdycke's immediate superior at Franklin.
George D. Wagner was Opdycke’s immediate superior at Franklin.

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.[8]

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.[9]

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!”[10]

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.[11]

The Confederate assault at Franklin completely routed the brigades of John Lane and Joseph Conrad, as well as split a 200-yard gap in the main Federal line. Map by Hal Jesperson.
The Confederate assault at Franklin completely routed the brigades of John Lane and Joseph Conrad, as well as split a 200-yard gap in the main Federal line.
Map by Hal Jesperson.


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.”[12]  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.”[13]

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.

A map, included in Opdycke's official report, showing how his regiments deployed to counter the Confederate breakthrough.
A map, included in Opdycke’s official report, showing how his regiments deployed to counter the Confederate breakthrough.

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.[14]

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.[15]

Arthur MacArthur, depicted here as a 1st Lieutenant, was a Major at the Battle of Franklin. He would later be Douglas MacArthur's father.
Arthur MacArthur, depicted here as a 1st Lieutenant, was a Major at the Battle of Franklin. He would later become Douglas MacArthur’s father.

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.”[16]

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.”[17] 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.”[18] 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.[19] 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.”[20]

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.”[21]

"Opdycke's Tigers" by Don Troiani depicts the counter-attack near the Carter House at the Battle of Franklin.
“Opdycke’s Tigers” by Don Troiani depicts the counter-attack near the Carter House at the Battle of Franklin.

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.


[1] 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.

[2] Mark M. Boatner III, Civil War Dictionary (David McKay Publishing, 1959), 609.

[3] Wiley Sword, The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah: Spring Hill, Franklin & Nashville (University Press of Kansas, 1992), 158-159.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] Confederate Veteran, Volume 36, 1928, 380.

[7] OR, Vol. 45, pt. 1, 232; Confederate Veteran, Volume 36, 381.

[8] OR, Vol. 45, pt. 1, 240.

[9] Jacobson and Rupp, 255-256.

[10] Sword, 193.

[11] Jacobson and Rupp, 307.

[12] OR, Vol. 45, pt. 1, 116.

[13]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.

[14] Sword, 203.

[15] MacArthur, Reminiscences, 10; Jacobson and Rupp, 322-323.

[16] OR, Vol. 45, pt. 1, 246-247.

[17] Ibid. 241.

[18] 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.

[19] OR, Vol. 45, pt. 1, 241.

[20] Opdycke, Kindle file, 6425-6426.

[21] OR, Vol. 45, pt. 1, 232.

9 Responses to Franklin 150th: “I never saw the dead lay near so thick.”

  1. Reading this fine article reminds me of the old saw that Paul Harvey used to say about “the rest of the story.” Here is much of the rest of the story.
    First, let me add that it was my distinct pleasure to tour the battlefield from Winstead Hill to the Carter House with the dean of Civil War commentators Ed Bearss on November 30.
    Second, let me note a comment by Jacob Cox (shameless plug — the subject of my biography of him published this year by Ohio U. press) that he suffered (in terms of notoriety) by being a “second in command.” This was one of those times.
    Third, let us not forget that it was Cox who was Opdycke’s commander on the line that day, and he was the one who 1) told Opdycke when he came into the Union line after his contretemps with Wagner, to go to the rear but be ready to come forward as needed, and 2) sent an order as the melee in the middle began to tell Opdycke to come forward. Cox admits that in the chaos of the moment Opdycke likely never got the latter order.
    Fourth, Opdycke and Cox were old friends, having met in Warren, Ohio in 1851-2, and their sons each named his first born son after the other (Leonard Opdycke and Kenyon Cox).
    Fifth, as Ed Bearss noted on November 30, it was Cox’s wise decision to set up a second defensive line near the Carter house that was a key to the Union’s holding against the Confederate surge. He had set up a very strong first line, but it had a hole in the middle because the Union wagons were withdrawing all through the day, so Cox, foreseeing a possible problem, created the retrenchment. Thus, even though, because of Wagner’s bad decision, the Confederates came streaming through the first line, they were stopped at the second, with Opdycke, among others, “saving the day.” What is often forgotten here that Cox, as overall commander (see the map) was in the center throughout this momentous day, and he too was encouraging his men to fill the gap.
    Sixth, the day after the battle Wagner came to Cox and pleaded with him to do what he could to save what Wagner realized was a career on the edge after his poor performance the day before. Cox told him to make sure to praise Opdycke in his report and to firmly recommend Opdycke’s promotion. He also (which subjected him to some criticism later) said that in his preliminary report he would note that Wagner’s regiments had retreated at a “leisurely” pace, while stressing that in his final report, once he had complete information, he would be more accurate. So Wagner didn’t “forgive” Opdycke — he was trying to save his career by taking Cox’s advice. As we know, it didn’t work.
    Seventh, it is unlikely that David Stanley did what he said he did. He came onto the field for a few minutes, was wounded, and left to have his wound tended. Back home in Cincinnati a few days later he began re-writing the history of the battle, giving himself much credit in a newspaper interview which infuriated Opdycke. To add insult to injury, Stanly, unlike Cox, Opdycke, and many others who did great work that day, got a congressional Medal of Honor.
    There is more “rest of the story,” but I wanted to get the above into this most worthwhile blog for your consideration. Sorry for the lengthy commentary, but there is much to say.

  2. Let’s not forget what happened to the men of John Qunicy Lane’s and Joseph Conrad’s brigades who were unaccountably placed outside the main defensive lines by General George D. Wagner when they were a rearguard supposed to slow the Confederate advance but to come within the main retrenchments at Franklin before the main Confederate attack. Not only were many of these men killed, perhaps even by friendly fire as indicated, but many were captured. At least some (including our relative William Jasper Killion of the IN 57th Infantry Regiment, one of the units in John Q. Lane’s brigade) were sent to the infamous Andersonville Confederate Prison for the duration of the war.

  3. I always wondered why Wagner’s division was placed so far in front of the main defense line in the first place? Schofield. Stanley, Cox ought to share in the blame.

  4. In answer to Stefan’s query, Wagner’a men had been there all day, i.e. as the rear guard all the way from Spring Hill, and had done well. Their (Wagner’s) orders were to stall the rebels as long as possible, but if it was clear they were about to attack, to get back into the main line. Cox reiterated that to Wagner early in the afternoon, and Wagner seemingly understood. (Cox had fought with Wagner a few days before in stemming the rebel advance at Columbia, and he clearly thought he was capable and able to follow orders. Wagner had also done well at Spring Hill).
    When, at about 3 PM, Wagner (for reasons unclear, including whether it was “whiskey courage” or the excitement of the moment, or his continued irritation at Opdycke’s disobedience) told his men to stay in the advance even as the rebels advance. Cox’s brother (and aide) Theodore heard this and told Wagner that he was violating his orders. Wagner disregarded him, Theodore went to find Cox to tell him of this problem, but by the time anything could be done, the rebel attack was in full flow and Wagner’s men were facing a very dire situation. The rest you know.
    Should Cox, Stanley, and Schofield share the blame? Possibly, but they were as startled as everyone else by the actions of what they thought was a capable officer.
    Eric Jacobsson, the CEO of the Franklin preservation activities, is working on a biography of Wagner, and that will help everyone have a better understanding of this incident.

  5. I’m very curious about the reported 700 Union soldiers, identified as replacements, and probably inexperienced, green troops who were taken prisoner early on in the battle. I’d like to know more about what their unit/s were, when and where those units were formed and trained, how they made their way across the country to Franklin. Where were they imprisoned and how did they get there?
    I see a reference to Andersonville. In the spring of 1865 many of the still abbulatory prisoners from Andersonville sent to Cahaba (Castle Morgan), which was vastly overcrowded, and ended up, to heap tragedy upon unthinkable tragedy, on the ill-fated steamboat, Sultana. I would like to reconstruct the journey of one of those “Union boys” from, possibly Ohio or Indiana, to Franklin, imprisonment and the last sad journey from Cahaba to Vicksburg and that criminally overpacked steamboat. So, if anyone has info on those 700 boys swept up (probably from Lane’s or Conrad’s brigades, I would be so very pleased.
    Thank you. And I love reading all of your previous comments. Great history!!!

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