The Battle of Franklin: Which One?

Emerging Civil War is pleased to welcome Gregory L. Wade

The Battle of Franklin (one of them, anyway!)

In modern day Franklin, Tennessee, thousands of residents from outside the state are relocating to this booming area, only a twenty-mile interstate drive south of Nashville. They are brought to Middle Tennessee by corporations moving in not because of the iconic music business, but because Nashville has become a powerful Southern business center.  Those who move to nearby Franklin generally have very little idea of the disastrous November 1864 battle of Franklin. But it was a crisp fall Wednesday when Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee was effectively crippled across farmland just a musket shot from the town square. Wave after wave of some of the Confederacy’s toughest troops attacked entrenched federals under General John Schofield, tragically putting Franklin on the history map. Hood lost five of his generals including the highly regarded Pat Cleburne as they charged the federal lines well after sunset for five horrible hours. A sixth Confederate general officer, John Carter, died days later from his wounds.

Not surprisingly, the town’s newcomers as well as most long-time residents don’t realize this was only one of four “Battles of Franklin.”

In April 1863, Confederate Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn, with several thousand troops including cavalryman Brig. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, were on the outskirts of the small village on a reconnaissance-in-force when they encountered Gen. David Stanley with the Fourth United States Cavalry. Stanley attacked Col. James Starnes’s Confederate brigade which included Captain Samuel Freeman’s Battery. During the fighting Freeman’s guns were cut off from the Confederates and Freeman was captured while Forrest drove the federals back across the Harpeth River.

Depending on who is asked, as reports vary, Captain Freeman was murdered by federal cavalry after he surrendered, or he was shot trying to escape after his capture. Forrest would mourn the loss of one of his favorite officers, especially in the way he was killed. There is a new street named after Freeman in an upscale housing community where this fight occurred south of downtown Franklin. It is unlikely those living in this most recent sprawl have ever heard of the man whose name is on the street sign, and they certainly never heard of this battle of about four hundred casualties. Ultimately, Van Dorn’s attack was repulsed, although Confederate troops got tantalizingly close to the Franklin square.

In June of that same year Gen. Forrest again appeared on the outskirts of Franklin with Armstrong’s and Starnes’s brigades in what became an artillery fight between Capt. John Morton’s Confederate artillery and federal cannoneers serving under Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger. Hundreds of artillery rounds would be exchanged resulting in about twenty-five of Granger’s soldiers killed and wounded and about two hundred Confederate casualties. While not a relatively significant fight, for residents of Franklin this was certainly another day of tension and drama.

During the war, there were numerous skirmishes and battles in Williamson County where Franklin and Brentwood are located. But it was the tragic late-1864 fighting that stretched these Middle Tennessee communities to the breaking point. After the catastrophic signature battle in November, every home, public building and shelter of any kind was full of wounded and sick soldiers from both sides. Homes were damaged, livestock gone, and fields were ruined. But even after these three battles, the small village’s trauma wasn’t over.

After the two-day Battle of Nashville on December 15 and 16, where Hood’s Army was thoroughly defeated by Maj. Gen. George Thomas’s federals, the Army of Tennessee found themselves in a desperate retreat back the way they came, through Brentwood and Franklin on December 17. A few miles north of Franklin, the Confederate rear guard led by Lt. Gen. Stephen D. Lee, greatly outnumbered, fought federal cavalry at Hollow Tree Gap in the early morning hours of a cold and dreary Saturday. The desperate rear guard then moved south to the front of Franklin, where James Wilson’s cavalry, in one of the largest yet least-known cavalry charges of the war, pressured the rear guard to the Harpeth River while federal troops crossed and pushed Lee’s men through the town. Another stand was made around noon south at Winstead Hill, ironically the very place where General Hood observed his troops step off at the beginning of the battle of Franklin weeks earlier. Here, General Lee was wounded and command of the rear guard handed off to Maj. Gen. Carter Stevenson.

A few miles further south as evening approached on the 17th, another battle raged at the West Harpeth River, which was the last major conflict in Williamson County and the last significant fight in the Franklin area during the war. The rear guard would continue buffering Hood’s main army until the new year, when they escaped by crossing the Tennessee River into Alabama.

There were eleven Medals of Honor awarded for the main 1864 Battle of Franklin, while another nine were given for bravery in the Franklin area for other fights, including two for valor at the West Harpeth on December 17. These medals are evidence of the heavy fighting in just one Middle Tennessee county that saw roughly one hundred fifty skirmishes, fights, recons, scouting, and foraging missions during the war. To the soldiers fighting in all these actions, their sacrifices were just as significant to them as the November 30 horror that garners most of the attention.

When talking about the Battle of Franklin, it might be a good idea to ask: which one?

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Gregory L Wade has written for several history publications and is the founder of the Franklin Civil War Round Table. He has been involved in the preservation and reclaiming of about 150 acres of the ground involved in the main 1864 Battle of Franklin.

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9 Responses to The Battle of Franklin: Which One?

  1. askillian says:

    Excellent article. I think Franklin is my favorite battlefield.

  2. Robert Ervin Epp says:

    I just put Franklin on my bucket list of places to visit! TY

  3. mark harnitchek says:

    Which one indeed … what a terrific essay … and that last “battle” in December adds to the mystique that Franklin holds for me … such a tragic loss of life in a relatively small battle space so late in the war. thanks!

  4. Mike Maxwell says:

    Excellent report, confirming the danger of oversimplification of Civil War History: focus exclusively upon one action, and the rest are “lost.”
    Another “lost battle” of potential interest: the Battle of Granny White’s Pike, midway between Nashville and Franklin, which took place 9 March 1862. Granny White’s was a tavern that attracted travellers hiking north along the Natchez Trace; and in FEB/ March 1862 the Rebel Capital of Tennessee at Nashville was abandoned by forces commanded by General Albert Sidney Johnston. The city was then occupied by the Union’s Don Carlos Buell, who executed a weak pursuit of Johnston’s withdrawing force as far south as Murfreesboro; and established a ring of picket posts south of Nashville to prevent Rebel forces from returning and attempting to regain control of the city. The responsibility for these picket posts fell under the purview of Pennsylvania’s Brigadier General James Negley.
    On 9 March 1862 elements of Scott’s Louisiana Cavalry engaged perhaps 100 men belonging to the 1st Wisconsin Infantry and supported by elements of the 4th Ohio Cavalry. The brief skirmish resulted in perhaps twelve Union casualties, and two Rebel deaths. After breaking off contact, Scott’s Louisiana Cavalry continued to screen Union activity; and soon afterwards a division belonging to Buell’s Army of the Ohio was noticed marching southwest through Franklin; and Scott’s force screened that advance… and when it became apparent that the Second Division (McCook) was intending to cross the flooded Duck River at Columbia, Scott’s Louisiana Cavalry raced ahead and burned the bridge at Columbia – the only bridge for many miles – effectively halting Buell’s Army, delaying it for over two weeks from reaching Savannah… and joining U.S. Grant’s Army camped near the Tennessee River at Pittsburg Landing, until almost too late.

  5. Larry Tate says:

    I had been led to believe there is little to no Franklin battlefield to visit – overrun by modern development. Is that true?

    • mark harnitchek says:

      i was there several years ago … and you’re right, much of the original battlefield is long gone … our guide related a story about a pizza joint, since removed, on the site where Cleburne died … but, i enjoyed of what remains, and there’s plenty to include the Carter and Lotz houses and their outbuildings still full of bullet holes and the Carnton Plantation (Confederate hospital) and the McGavock cemetery with the Confederate dead are buried … iit was worth the trip.

      • Larry Tate says:

        Thank you, Mark. That’s enough to warrant a stop for me next time I drive through middle Tennessee.

  6. John Pryor says:

    Some of the best Civil War docents in America service the Carter and Carnton houses.

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