BY ERIC A. JACOBSON
In the fall of 1864, the great American experiment was in tatters. Over 600,000 soldiers were already dead and great armies moved across the landscape. The war to preserve the Union and the war for Southern Independence had morphed into a war for the very survival of the United States of America and the destruction of American slavery. The war, by late 1864, had been elevated to a higher plane.
Franklin, Tennessee was just a tiny town of about 750 people when, on the last day of November 1864, nearly 60,000 soldiers arrived and forever changed the history of this area. Nearly 40,000 of those men were engaged in what became known as one of the most terrible battles of our Civil War – a conflict that shook even the most hardened veterans. Roughly 10,000 of those Americans – North and South – became casualties that afternoon and evening. Nearly 2,500 died on ground that was eventually covered up by 20th century development. The story of the Battle of Franklin was, for the most part, almost lost to time.
One hundred and fifty-five years later we look back on the events of November 30, 1864, but also on the entire war and what it all means today. The Battle of Franklin Trust was created a decade ago - through the wisdom of the respective boards and community leaders – to take charge of this critical story and tell all sides, no matter how difficult some of those stories might be. We talk with guests almost every day of the year about our shared history and why it matters today. We talk with them about how the politics of slavery drove us toward war, about how the Civil War was the redefining event in American history, and about how the Battle of Franklin was a story that should never have been forgotten.
When U. S. troops began arriving in Franklin about two hours before sunrise on November 30, 1864 they did not intend to stop. However, the bridges spanning the Harpeth River needed to be rebuilt and reinforced to allow the nearly 30,000 blue-clad soldiers to continue moving toward Nashville. Gen. John Schofield, commander of the U. S. forces, ordered the army to create a defensive position on the south edge of town. His intent was to evacuate after dark, but his opponent had other plans.
Gen. John Bell Hood, commander of the Confederate army, arrived south of Franklin around noon that day. He could see clearly that Schofield intended to withdraw and Hood made the decision to attack before that could happen. For nearly three hours Southern troops formed up as the sun slipped toward the horizon. By 3:30 p.m. they were mostly ready. Then, almost as if time stood still, there was the ominous silence.
At 4 o’clock, the last great charge of a long and brutal war began as some 20,000 Confederate soldiers moved across the rolling and open fields. The almost surreal spectacle soon devolved into a violent and deadly conflict that raged into the twilight and then the darkness. For a short while it seemed as if the Southern troops might break the U. S. Army, but then, through a series of desperate actions, the tide turned. Barely three hours after it started the battle had already begun to wane and by 9 p.m. it was mostly over. By midnight the victorious U. S. soldiers were pulling away and they trudged north all night toward Nashville. Behind them lay a shattered Confederate army and a town that collectively was plunged into a nightmare.
Dawn revealed everything that the night had masked. Carnton was awash in hundreds of wounded Confederate soldiers. The Carter farm was a smoking and ravaged scene of destruction covered with thousands of dead and wounded. By the spring the war was finally over. Franklin was the doom of the Confederate Army of Tennessee. The old South did not die at Franklin, but something new slowly began to emerge. Today we continue the work of reclaiming the battlefield and telling visitors how history can shape the future.
At 4pm. on Saturday, November 30, 2019, please join us at Carnton for a brief ceremony as we remember what happened 155 years ago and why it matters to all of us. Luminaries representing some of the 10,000 casualties will be placed throughout the interiors of Carnton and Carter House and both homes will be open to the public free of charge from 5pm to 7pm. Please come out and see how the Civil War redefined America. Learn more at boft.org.