Emerging Civil War is pleased to welcome Gregory L. Wade
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?
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.