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The Battle of Franklin

Volume XXX Issue #4 • An Excerpt From:

The Battle of Franklin

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by Eric Jacobson

In the fall of 1864, as the Civil War dragged toward its fourth brutal year, the last great campaign of that epic struggle unfolded across Middle Tennessee. Hood’s Tennessee Campaign, as it became known, saw old antagonists confront one another yet again, as the beleaguered Confederate troops desperately tried to stave off defeat, and Federal soldiers worked feverishly to prevent the war from dragging on and achieve ultimate victory. For nearly 150 years the events which swirled through Tennessee that autumn have been an integral part of Civil War history, yet are sadly overlooked by many. In the past decade great strides have been made to return the campaign to a place of national prominence.

At Spring Hill and Franklin, scenes of high drama, human error, bravery and bloodshed, were fused together in a frantic period of barely 36 hours. As a result, the very names of those places were burned deep into the minds of those who fought, marched, and struggled there. They understood how important it all was, and as we approach the 150th anniversary of Spring Hill and Franklin, the events there deserve the attention they were so long denied.

franklin

The Carter House on the Franklin, Tenn., battlefield. The site is administered by the Battle of Franklin Trust.

In the aftermath of the capture of Atlanta by Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s armies the scope of the war in the Western Theater began to radically shift. At the end of September 1864, Gen. John Bell Hood moved his army away from Palmetto Station, a point on the Atlanta & West Point Railroad southwest of Atlanta, and crossed the Chattahoochee River. This movement followed on the heels of a two day visit by President Jefferson Davis, during which Davis consulted with Hood and his chief subordinates. It was agreed that Hood would take the Army of Tennessee on the offensive and attack Sherman’s lines of supply and communication. Hood hoped that by doing so he might be able to pull Sherman and his troops out of Atlanta and “improve the morale of the Army. . . .”

Initially there was some Confederate success. Hood’s troops struck the Western & Atlantic Railroad in several places and destroyed substantial sections. They also captured enemy garrisons at Acworth, Big Shanty, Tilton, and Dalton. But not all went well. At Allatoona, north of Acworth and just south of the Etowah River, elements of Maj. Gen. Samuel G. French’s division, part of Lt. Gen. A. P. Stewart’s corps, assaulted the Federal position, absorbed some 800 casualties, and were bloodily repulsed.

Pursuing Hood was among the last things that Sherman wanted to do. He had spent part of the spring and most of the summer fighting and maneuvering across the hills, valleys, and rivers of northwest Georgia just to get to Atlanta, and moving back over that same ground made no sense to him. Once Hood moved into eastern Alabama the pursuit became even more trying. Sherman soon turned his eyes elsewhere. On October 11 he wrote to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who after numerous successes in the West, had been elevated to command of all Federal armies in early 1864:

We cannot remain here on the defensive. With the 25,000 men, and the bold cavalry he has, he can constantly break my roads. I would infinitely prefer to make a wreck of the road and of the country from Chattanooga to Atlanta, including the latter city, send back all my wounded and worthless, and, with my effective army, move through Georgia, smashing things to the sea. Hood may turn into Tennessee and Kentucky, but I believe he will be forced to follow me. Instead of my being on the defensive, I would be on the offensive; instead of guessing at what he means to do, he would have to guess at my plans.

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Click for larger image

Sherman remained keenly aware that following Hood from one location to another accomplished virtually nothing. On October 20, from Summerville, Georgia, he wrote to Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas, who commanded one of Sherman’s armies—the Army of the Cumberland—to express his feelings and broad strategic plan, and his thoughts about dealing with Hood. Sherman said:

Out of the forces now here and at Atlanta I propose to organize an efficient army of from 60,000 to 65,000 men, with which I propose to destroy Macon, Augusta, and, it may be, Savannah and Charleston. . . . By this I propose to demonstrate the vulnerability of the South, and make its inhabitants feel that war and individual ruin are synonymous terms. To pursue Hood is folly, for he can twist and turn like a fox and wear out any army in pursuit. To continue to occupy long lines of railroads simply exposes our small detachments to be picked up in detail and forces me to make countermarches to protect lines of communication. I know I am right in this . . . I want you to retain command in Tennessee. . . .

In the same message Sherman told Thomas that he would have use of Maj. Gen. David S. Stanley’s IV Corps and perhaps another division. In choosing Thomas for the task of defending Tennessee, Sherman made an excellent choice. But he seriously underestimated how quickly Hood could move and how serious a threat the Army of Tennessee was. Within days it was apparent that Hood intended to strike forth toward the Tennessee heartland.

View of the battlefield from the northwest showing Columbia Pike crossing Winstead Hill and descending into the Harpeth River Valley.

View of the battlefield from the northwest showing Columbia Pike crossing Winstead Hill and descending into the Harpeth River Valley.

When Sherman was near Gaylesville, Alabama, just across the state line and west of Rome, Georgia, he opted to return to Atlanta with the bulk of his troops and commence what became known as the March to the Sea. At that time Hood and his army were near Gadsden, Alabama, some 35 miles to the southwest. Just prior to marching to Gadsden, Hood “conceived the plan of marching into Tennessee. . . .” Convinced that Sherman was not about to split his force and make any serious errors in judgment, and aware that standing face to face with a force nearly twice the size of his own was not feasible, Hood crafted his new plan.

Other factors were also in play. In early October, orders from Richmond put Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard in charge of a newly formed Military Division of the West. By mid-month Beauregard had assumed command of the new department, but exactly what power he could exercise was only vaguely defined. At best, he could advise and direct Hood, but could not give the army commander explicit orders. On October 21, he met with Hood at Gadsden and the two discussed the planned move into Tennessee. Beauregard later stated that Hood was still firmly committed to striking at Sherman’s “railroad communication beyond the Tennessee River.” Hood also wrote of this meeting in his memoir and stated that he advocated for a movement into Tennessee via Guntersville, Alabama, and from there on to Nashville. He also made it clear that pursuing Sherman was something he would do if ordered, but “with reluctance.” His goal by that stage was Tennessee.

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