How I Got Hooked on Franklin: The Story Behind Let Us Die Like Men

Lee's Franklin book-coverMy story for Franklin began when I was around ten years old.

The stories my grandparents told inspired my love of history, and my dad’s fateful purchase of Bruce Catton’s American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War sparked my imagination. I spent countless hours pouring over the pictures and wonderful illustrated maps by David Greenspan.

Besides the maps of Chickamauga, which was practically in my backyard, the map of Franklin drew me in.

Seeing my obsession/fascination, my childless Aunt Elaine (my dad’s sister) and her husband, Uncle James, began to foster my interest even more by taking me on trips to visit historic sites. These trips were not always to Civil War sites, but it seemed most were: Shiloh, Kennesaw Mountain, Stones River, and then eventually Franklin. It was the visit to Franklin, sometime in the early 1980s, that I remember most. At that time, there was little of the battlefield to visit—basically the Carter House and then Carnton. However, the displays in the museum and the bullet-riddled outbuildings cemented the visit in my memory.

Over the next few years my love of history and my fascination with the Civil War era continued to grow. I got involved with reenacting and visited sites in Virginia and beyond, but Franklin was always still there. The excitement for the 125th anniversary reenactment of Franklin drew me in more than the one for Gettysburg. I purchased a copy of Thomas Connelly’s and James Lee McDonough’s Five Tragic Hours and became a Western Theater version of the kid that William Faulkner described in Intruder in the Dust—except for me, it wasn’t July 3, 1863, on the south side of Gettysburg, it was November 30, 1864, just south of Franklin, and I was with General Cleburne.

By this time, I was in high school and volunteering at Chickamauga and had made the decision to study history in college. Aside from a brief dalliance with the battle of Cowpens in the Revolution, Chickamauga and Franklin, now joined by study of “the common soldier,” became my main points of study. I also visited Franklin several times on my own, meeting Thomas Cartwright at the Carter House. When it was time to write my senior paper, I once again returned to Franklin, writing about Govan’s Arkansas Brigade in the Tennessee Campaign. I lived off the cheap menu at McDonald’s for several weeks to purchase Wiley Sword’s beautifully written Embrace an Angry Wind and Larry Daniel’s Soldiering in the Army of Tennessee.

After graduating college and finally landing a dream job as a park ranger at Chickamauga, I returned to Franklin after reading Eric Jacobson’s definitive history of the battle For Cause and For Country and was inspired anew, not only by Jacobson’s work, but by the incredible strides that were made around the town to reclaim and preserve portions of the battlefield—a project that remains ongoing. Eric also became a friend.

In a great stroke of fortune, I stumbled upon and published a fragment of General Cleburne’s diary, lost by Cleburne in my hometown as the Confederates made their way north after Atlanta, ultimately to Franklin.

With that taste of Franklin-related publishing under my belt, I wanted to revisit Franklin yet again. But what could I do that wasn’t already covered by Eric? Well, I sought to use some of the recent research I had found on the fight and, most of all, I wanted to bring the campaign that led up to the battle into light, emphasizing these preliminary battles the Confederates fought that, though small, were quite brutal and intense, like the one fought at Allatoona Pass, Georgia. All of them slowly whittled away at General Hood’s already-bloodied army.

I was also struck by the sense of desperation that turned into resolve, mixed with hatred, that the Confederates developed as the campaign unfolded. They saw old battlefields littered with graves of their comrades, confronted African American soldiers for the first time in North Georgia, and crossed farmland laid waste in North Alabama before making their way into a Unionist part of Tennessee. Then they arrived in middle Tennessee, where they were awestruck by some of the richest plantations they’d ever seen. They realized the dream many of them had was about to die if they didn’t do something. At Franklin, they had their chance, and I think it can explain why the Confederate attacks there were so desperate.

So, with all of that in mind, I set about doing what I did for Chickamauga: to add my own interpretation of things and add some new voices to the story—and to do it in a way that folks who have read everything on the battle could still pick it up and learn something new, even as folks new to the story could do the same and get a good overall understanding of what happened there.

Let Us Die Like Men: The Battle of Franklin is now available from Savas Beatie as part of the Emerging Civil War Series.

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4 Responses to How I Got Hooked on Franklin: The Story Behind Let Us Die Like Men

  1. Stan Killian says:

    I agree! It’s amazing how Franklin draws you in! I had ever read much about Franklin; it’s not a battle you hear much about. It wasn’t until about 2008, when I read “Widow of the South”, that I realized the importance of this fight, and the courage and valor displayed by men of both sides. The intransigence of Opdyke, followed by his courageous plugging of the breakthrough; Cleburne, Granbury, Adams and Strahl laid out on McGavok’s back porch; Tod Carter dying in his family’s backyard. You can’t make this drama and pathos up! After that, I had to visit and walk the area. As you said, there wasn’t much there. Since then, I’ve joined Save the Franklin Battlefield and visited several times. Met Eric Jacobson and learned more about Columbia and Spring Hill. While there aren’t all the markers and monuments, as there are at Gettysburg, Shiloh and Antietam, et al, the efforts to preserve, recover and dedicate hallowed battlefield ground at Franklin and it’s surrounds, makes it my favorite place.

  2. Dale Fishel says:

    I share Mr. White’s fascination with this battle and place. My great-grandfather was a member of the 125th Ohio Volunteer Infantry in Opdycke’s brigade that day and that adds so much more intensity to my interest. Through the kindness of Mr. Cartwright and Mr. Fraley I spent many productive days studying the battle and walking the ground. I made several return visits for the Descendant’s Reunions and vivid in memory is almost an entire month I spent inside that bullet riddled “office” going through boxes full of historical information. At that time Mr. Swords research material was stacked in boxes in the back corner of the building, but out of an abundance of caution I didn’t open them. On one of my visits I stayed with Mr. Fraley at the Collins farm and remain fascinated with the window in the side of the house where slaves came for daily instruction and the knowledge that in the side yard there is a small area where 20+ Arkansas Confederates are thought to have been buried. Lastly Lee, I remember meeting you and Mr. Ogden on visits to Chickamauga and have always appreciated the patience you both exercised in answering questions. A gentleman who was demonstrating soldier life in the yard of the visitor center was the first person who told me about Mr. Baumgartner’s books re: the 125th OVI…one of which features a cover photograph which pictures my great-grandfather’s Company B. After meeting Mr. Baumgartner he kindly shared information he acquired from the Ohio Historical Society which specifically identifies my great-grandfather Warren H Fishel…private…in the photograph.

  3. Larry De Maar says:

    I just got my copy of “Let Us Die Like Men”, what a great title, by the way. Thank you to Emerging Civil War and Savas Beatie for publishing this wonderful book and Lee White for writing it. I would like to see Lee White interviewed on the ECW podcast about this book. Those podcast interviews are so well done, great perceptive questions and I enjoy the back and forth.

  4. Mike Bub says:

    Lee my friend…I’ve only read excerpts but I am beyond with delight, admiration and appreciation for what you have accomplished with this work..

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