From ECW Correspondent Jason Klaiber
Over the last ten years, the Civil War Trust has worked tirelessly to reclaim the once-lost Franklin battlefield in central Tennessee, where Confederates attacked Union forces on November 30, 1864. The attack ignited horrific, close-quarters combat that lasted five hours. According to Southern author Sam Watkins, this battle served as “the finishing stroke” of the Confederacy. After the fighting, the ground was littered with dead soldiers, the majority of whom belonged to the determined-yet-unsuccessful Confederate army—yet “Bloody Franklin,” as the soldiers later called it, was considered a Confederate victory.
“I think Franklin shows that even in late November of 1864, there was still plenty of fight left in the Confederate armies, and they still could pose a dangerous threat,” says Lee White, an NPS historian who has a particular fondness for Franklin. “We have a tendency to look at events with the benefit of hindsight, but for the men on both sides there, it was far from over.”
This deep-seated historical significance of the battle of Franklin has, however, been undermined in the past by the construction of households, shops, industrial sites, and parking lots atop the land where it was fought 150 years ago. These acts—whether they were committed out of area residents’ desires to wash away the memory of the number of deaths amassed in the conflict, or simply out of ignorance toward our nation’s history—have prompted strong-willed preservation efforts aimed at reclaiming the parts of the Franklin battlefield buried by these modern commercial structures.
Organizations including the Civil War Trust, Heritage Foundation of Franklin, Save the Franklin Battlefield, the Battle of Franklin Trust and Franklin’s Charge commenced their preservationist undertakings approximately a decade ago.
In 2006, the Civil War Trust conducted its first successful preservation campaign in the breakthrough region of the Franklin battlefield. For this concentrated effort, they worked to restore the tract along Columbia Pike where a Pizza Hut stood and Major-General Patrick Cleburne (often deemed the “Stonewall Jackson of the West”) was killed along with many fellow Confederates. This site has since become a memorial park for Cleburne and his fallen men.
In 2010, Franklin’s Charge, alongside the Civil War Trust, purchased, and therefore protected, the small parcel of land where the Union army’s defensive line was situated, which was also the site of the Confederate army’s breakthrough on the day of the battle.
The following year, the Trust also acquired a small residential tract next to the Carter Cotton Gin site, which is recognized as the central landmark of the battlefield.
In 2012, the Civil War Trust and Franklin’s Charge succeeded in reclaiming the area where a Domino’s Pizza and, next door, a market selling cheap beer were doing business. Underneath these developments was ground that provided the surface for unprecedented bloodshed between the two armies.
The two organizations went on to acquire the tract on which a strip mall stood, which paved the way for the placement of a battlefield park commemorating the sacrifices presented by both sides of the war at Franklin. This past year, the campaign to add three more acres of hallowed ground to this portion of the battlefield began.
“In order to restore the historical integrity of this land, we have removed a Pizza Hut, a strip mall, and a number of modern houses from the site,” the Civil War Trust said in announcing the campaign. “We now have the opportunity to continue our remarkable progress by preserving nearly three acres at the heart of the battlefield. Surrounded on three sides by already-preserved land, this property was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting of the battle. Saving this tract will give us the chance to connect land we have previously saved and create a battlefield that, with the help of local groups, will look more like it did in 1864 than was ever imaginable ten years ago.”
The influx of tourism that resulted from the restoration of the Franklin battlefield—and the attention those restoration efforts has received—has helped the surrounding community from an economic standpoint, and the exposure has spurred people’s interests in battlefield preservation.
The preservation at Franklin has also been publicized through various mediums. Notably, CBS News Sunday Morning reported on the efforts at the battlefield back on November 30, 2014—the 150th anniversary of the conflict.
“What has been done in Franklin is absolutely incredible,” White said. “A decade ago, I would not have even imagined they would be able to accomplish as much as they have. I give a lot of credit for this to Eric Jacobson, Franklin’s Charge, and the Civil War Trust. With that said, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done.”