The Army of Tennessee: Elegy at Franklin (Part 1)

November 30th is continuously a meaningful date. That day at Franklin, Tennessee in 1864 was the swan song of the main “western” Confederate fighting force, the Army of Tennessee.

In five hours the 30,000-man army suffered 7,500 casualties — attacking, according to one Federal witness, 17 times. Fourteen Confederate generals had become casualties, as well as 55 regimental commanders; afterwards the leadership and administration of the once powerful Southern army ceased to exist. The attack at Franklin dwarfs Gettysburg’s Pickett’s Charge – all the more reason to bring attention to the memory of November 30th.

Since first reading about Franklin in the mid-1970’s the battle and town had been a curiosity. In 1978 my grandfather died in Muscle Shoals, Alabama; my family drove down from Ohio for the funeral. I had a reputation for being good with maps, and therefore swayed my folks to get off of I-65 at Franklin to take “a short cut” to Muscle Shoals. Of course I had ulterior motives – I wanted to get a glimpse of the Franklin battlefield. What would Franklin look like; perhaps Shiloh, or Gettysburg, or Chickamauga? I remember my father saying, “Where is the battlefield?” That was a good question. Franklin is considered a major battle in the Civil War; however, battlefield protection was almost non-existent.

Since 1978 I have visited Franklin frequently, always reminded of the lack of preservation; every year that went by more development clouded the fields south of town. Until 2001 there had been little effort to protect battlefield land. Franklin was reflective of many Civil War sites – fragmented or threatened with obliteration.

In 1999 there was a controversial land exchange at one site that had been protected — the Carter House, a Tennessee state site that was managed locally. The city of Franklin wanted land behind the Carter House for a community center on behalf of the nearby low-income housing residents. These several acres behind the Carter House were also on the 1864 Federal battleline. The land trade garnered for the Carter House valuable property next to the historic structure on Columbia Pike. When ground was broken in 1999 for the community center development you could see where the Federal trenches had been located based on soil discoloration.

At that time I spoke with a young Syrian immigrant named Omar, who had a unique “addiction” to the Army of Tennessee. Omar had walked the Federal trench-line and found over 75 minie balls in his first 15 minutes there – mostly the unpopular Williams cleaner rounds that were “drops”, or in other words not fired because they were harder to ram than regular minie balls. Others found items in the trench as well – fired percussion caps, ramrods, and what appeared to be a femur. This was all hard to take in. A botched archeological dig had not found the items Omar had discovered – due in-part to not investigating the history of the land since the battle. Fill had been added to the historic terrain to accommodate school sporting events in the early-20th century; thus an archeological effort would have to go deeper to hit the 1864 terrain surface. In 1999 the development inertia at Franklin was continuing and it appeared nothing would ever stop it.

In 2000 I organized a battlefield preservation fundraiser in Virginia that attracted 300 authentic reenactors. That event generated $57,000 for battlefield protection. All this money was channeled through the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust (CVBT). I wanted about 40% of the funds raised to go to a western battlefield preservation effort.

In 2001 I gave Save the Franklin Battlefield (STFB) $22,000 from the reenactor fundraiser for preservation efforts at Franklin. I asked STFB if they could match that amount and take title of some battlefield land. Up to that time, STFB had not saved anything in their 10-year history. I suggested they should change their name or take on a preservation effort. Our agreement was done on a handshake.

Presenting a check to the Save the Franklin Battlefield Board at the Confederate Cemetery. (Robert Lee Hodge, c. 2018)

STFB took title of 3+ acres of Collins Farm – a property along the Lewisburg Pike where Walthall’s and Loring’s Rebel divisions assaulted the Federal line. STFB got a loan from First Tennessee Bank to help foster the effort and after several years of strenuous local preservation-related events they paid off that note. It always feels rewarding to drive by Collins Farm today and know that the reenactors in 2000 played a huge role in starting the modern preservation movement in Franklin.

The Collins Farm preservation effort was the first stab at Franklin battlefield protection in decades. Many years before the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) had saved 10 acres of Winstead Hill – where many Confederate units stepped off from in their ill-fated attack. The effort to save historic greenspace I hope the SCV will revisit – the land is an abstract monument that environmentalists, I think, I hope, would support.

Since 2001 there have been many struggles at Franklin; both painful preservation losses, and victories that appeared to be miracles. In 2002 the city aldermen voted to build a huge library right in the killing zone of John C. Brown’s Tennessee division. With this action, Chief Historian Emeritus of the National Park Service, Ed Bearss, told the Civil War Preservation Trust (CWPT) to take Franklin off their top-ten endangered battlefields list because Franklin government was not supporting preservation efforts based on their traditional behavior and by their then-recent library votes. At that point, Bearss felt Franklin was “a lost cause”.

I always liked libraries – that was where my Civil War addiction was fostered. However, this library location choice was really disappointing and a real morale buster.  It was interesting when ground was first cleared on this core area of the battlefield for the library — all the dirt was pushed into a pile, a chain-link fence was erected around the dirt, signs were put up on the fence that you were not to climb over the fence and that you were being monitored on camera. I suppose if human remains were found then the construction of the library would have to be stopped by law. The developers and city officials apparently had fears remains could be found. The dirt was later transported to an undisclosed location.

Ed Bearss’s decision to cease preservation interest at Franklin—juxtaposed with an April 2005 article in National Geographic that illustrated many Civil War preservation losses in America (including a photo of a Pizza Hut next to the famous Carter House Cotton Gin property)—embarrassed Franklin city officials sufficiently to spark them into some preservation action. It was a turning point.

Another preservation entity had been created around this time, called “Franklin’s Charge” (FC). Franklin’s Charge was a well-connected group that had started to make preservation very fashionable in the affluent Tennessee town. The Franklin Confederate cemetery, next to Carnton Plantation, was about to be partially encapsulated by 91 “McMansions” on a 110-acre property that held a failing country club golf course. FC was heavily invested in fighting this development attempt.

In September 2005 FC put on a preservation fundraiser at Carnton Plantation — a concert featuring Amy Grant and Vince Gill that reportedly generated $875,000. This preservation effort to buy the country club along the Lewisburg Pike was a grand effort that I was hopeful of. In the past, it was difficult to visit the Confederate cemetery, because in-part, a parking lot for country club members was right up against the cemetery fence.

I remember a specific moment on the anniversary of the battle, after the commemorative march from Winstead Hill to the Carter House, a small crowd of devotees, led by historian Thomas Cartwright, met at the Confederate cemetery. The cemetery was also next to the country club’s tennis courts. Trying to “get into the moment” while listening to Thomas’s well-known somber recital of accounts from the participants of the battle, yet hearing country club members laughing, playing tennis a few feet away was an odd combination. It was angering. It was wrong. I could not help but think, “Whoever it was in local government that approved the country club in the first place should have been in jail, or worse.”

On Wednesday, November 30th, 2005 titles were transferred from the Pizza Hut and the country club/golf course to the city. A few moments later an excavator started leveling the Pizza Hut. The mayor of Franklin was operating the excavator at one point. Ed Bearss was there swinging a sledgehammer into the brick wall of the Pizza Hut. It was a truly memorable experience and a genuine feeling of grassroots empowerment. Despite all the hurtful preservation losses sometimes “the good guys” win.

Since 2005 there has been momentum towards more reclamation. More parcels around the Carter House Cotton Gin have been bought and cleared of modern development. Franklin’s Charge has now protected 20 acres there.

Since that time I produced and directed an Emmy Award-winning film on Franklin. I have used the film as a preservation fundraiser for battlefield protection, donating an additional $15,000 to “the cause”.

Later I found out I had an ancestor that fought in the 16th Alabama Infantry at Franklin. He would have fought at the now-preserved property at the Cotton Gin.

To Be Continued…

If you would like to order a copy of Robert Lee Hodge’s Emmy Award-winning film, The Battle of Franklin, please visit his website: 

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