On November 30th, 2019 I marched off from Winstead Hill at 4pm—the same time the Army of Tennessee stepped off in 1864. Unlike other years the police changed the march-time for “safety reasons” to 2pm—I am not sure what that meant but I did not get the memo. If you are not going to do the march in “real-time” I felt the effort loses its impact. Maybe the march-change was due to a huge storm front coming in. Within moments of stepping off from Winstead Hill, I was smacked with a “Biblical” rain. It was a real Rebel Baptism; a violent and angry wind kicked up. The rain came in torrents—it was “big ole fat rain” to use Forrest Gump parlance. The moment was severe and surreal—and nothing like the “Indian summer” day in 1864. I had a hard time staying upright. More importantly, the rushing cars on Columbia Pike splashed me thoroughly; I could not have been wetter if I had attended a waterslide park. A gentleman from Indiana was my companion in this deluge, stating, “I will never forget this!” At least his exclamation was in a positive tone.
We marched by the “Chick-fil A”, where skeletal remains, with Civil War “eagle” buttons, were found about 10 years ago. Further on we marched by a big swath of now-rare undeveloped land on the west side of Columbia Pike. This land should be saved; part of the original stone wall is still there. In 1999 this land of open fields was part of a 72-acre parcel that was for sale. At that time I had called the realtor, asking about the price, but $4,500,000 was a little too steep for my pocket-book. Since that time the land has been subdivided and has been chipped away at with several poorly planned structures, adding to the sea of sprawl. Perhaps the roughest site to see is the Taco Bell, but that is not even the biggest intrusion.
Although the march was cathartic, it was at times awkward marching in my Rebel attire with my 16th Alabama flag. We weren’t with a group, but just the two of us. I thought about the more recent hostility towards Confederate memory. I certainly meant no offense to anyone in regards to what I was doing – just remembering dead folks I never met that I somewhat look up to. Twenty years ago this wouldn’t even be something I thought about, but perhaps I should have.
I struggled through the rain, passing the controversial library, and shrugged. That was a big hit to preservation, but as a result, it helped spark the movement towards saving other parcels on the battlefield.
Marching past the old Pizza Hut land, I smiled. Now it was a park, with a pyramid of cannonballs, marking the spot where the popular Confederate Irish General, Patrick Cleburne, had perished.
Splashing up to the Carter House I stood in awe, as I always have, at the pock-marked farm office and smokehouse buildings – filled with bullet holes, reminding me of Swiss cheese. These structures are some of the most important to preserve in the United States — their scarring is a weighty witness to the horrific actions “in the vortex of Hell” of November 30th.
Franklin’s Confederate cemetery is, by far, the most sobering site on the battlefield; it is maintained by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The burial ground is a transcendental testament to the sad day – an exclamation point in the sentence of the Army of Tennessee. The nearly 1,500 headstones are arranged by state. Over the last twenty years I have always finished my Franklin hajj by going to this resting place. Everyone buried there died, or were mortally wounded, between 4 pm and 9 pm on Wednesday, November 30th, 1864 – a very specific cemetery. That specificity adds to the gravatus of the place.
This year, in the soaking rains, I faced the columns of headstones at the cemetery. I felt as if they were my audience, or perhaps I was theirs. I thought of the myriad of stories that rest there. What would their judgment be of me? For over 30 minutes I just stood there in the storm in all my ratty Rebel attire – reflecting on them. I was also reflecting upon myself; asking, why was I there. Why did I have an interest in these long-dead men? I was also thinking of my Franklin journey over the years. I thought about how good my life has been; I did not have to deal with anything close to the suffering of those giants in grey and blue.
Perhaps the experience was somewhat Buddhist; I was meditating in the dark in a blinding rainstorm. What is the future of their memory? Some may call them villains. Some have called them evil. The en vogue presentism has never added up in my mind. I could not help but think the judgment of today on people we never met was mathematically illogical; it felt akin to trying to put a round peg in a square hole.
However, I am defensive towards such things; “Confederama” has been a massive part of my life since I was 4 years old. It would be hard to let go of so much that has defined me. The current attacks on the dead drives me to think more, and to read more.
I reckon I will be at Franklin next November 30th to pay homage to the grey ghosts that haunt my mind; it would feel weird to not be there.
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: www.robertleehodge.com