The Battle of Franklin: Afternoon and Evening

This entry is part 7 of 10 in the series The Franklin-Nashville Campaign

The Battle of Franklin:

Afternoon and Evening

The actual fighting at the Battle of Franklin was fought in the late afternoon of November 30, 1864 when General John Bell Hood ordered units of his Army of Tennessee forward in the gathering darkness.

Their initial assault was against the two brigades (approximately 3,000 men) of Brig. Gen. George D. Wagner which he had positioned about a half mile forward of the main line. The were entrenched behind inadequate fieldworks with their flanks wide open in a “V”-shaped position. The commander of the third brigade in Wagner’s Division had refused to entrench his men in such a precarious position and had moved behind the main line as a reserve.

Map of the Battle of Franklin, afternoon and eveningWith Wagner leading from the front, the Union troops loosed a single volley and their artillery battery fired  canister. Then the mostly veteran troops stampeded back through the main line with some of the new recruits staying in place. Some 700 of Wagner’s men were captured. The Confederate attackers followed the fleeing Federals so closely that the Union defenders needed to hold their fire for fear of hitting their comrades.

Click Map to enlarge.

The weak spot in the Union defense that was created by Columbia Pike allowed Confederate units to penetrate the defensive lines.  In a matter of minutes, the Confederates had penetrated 50 yards deep into the center of the Federal line. Wagner’s third brigade, commanded by Col. Emerson Opdycke, was stationed directly behind the Confederate breakthrough, about 200 yards north of the Carter House.

Opdycke positioned his brigade in line and battle and moved forward to engage the Confederates. Maj. Gen. David Stanley later wrote, “I saw Opdycke near the center of his line urging his men forward. I gave the Colonel no orders as I saw him engaged in doing the very thing to save us, to get possession of our line again.” At this point in the battle, Stanley was shot in the neck, putting him temporarily out of action.

Opdycke’s brigade was joined by the survivors of Wagner’s other two brigades plus other reserve units to seal the breach and secure the line. Hand-to-hand fighting around the Carter House and the pike was furious and desperate, employing such weapons as bayonets, rifle butts, entrenching tools, axes, and picks.

The Carter House and its surrounding gardens was to become the focal point of the fighting that lasted for several hours. Many soldiers in Maj. Gen. John C. Brown‘s Division became trapped against the Union earthworks, unable to move forward or retreat. Both sides fired through embrasures inGeneral Emerson Opdycke the wall or over the wall, seeking to dislodge their enemies from their positions.

One of Brown’s brigades under Brig. Gen. George W. Gordon had angled to the right during the advance, joining Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne‘s division to the east of the pike. Their attack near the cotton gin was driven back from the breastworks and was then subjected to devastating cross fire from one of Brig. Gen.  James W. Reilly‘s brigades to their front and the brigade of Col. John S. Casement, on Reilly’s right. It was here that Cleburne, one of the war’s finest division commanders, was killed and 14 of his brigade and regimental commanders were casualties.

Some of the Union units around the Carter House were armed with Spencer and Henry repeating rifles. Near the Carter House, 350 men of the 12th Kentucky and 65th Illinois fired 16-shot, lever-action Henry rifles, the predecessors to the Winchester repeating rifle. These rifles, capable of at least 10 shots per minute, gave these men several times more firepower than typical infantrymen with the more common muzzle-loading rifle-muskets.

As the fighting was raging in the center, Confederate troops from Lt. Gen. Alexander P. Stewart‘s Corps advanced against the Union left. Due to the curve in the Harpeth River, they found their front narrowing the closer they came to the Union defensive line. Their brigades were squeezed together into a compressed front, delaying their movements and reducing their unit cohesion. They were subjected to fierce artillery fire from the Union lines and also from the batteries across the river at Fort Granger. The abatis obstructions gave them a great deal of difficulty.

Confederate Brig. Gen. John Adams attempted to rally his brigade by galloping his horse directly onto the earthworks. As he attempted to seize the flag of the 65th Illinois, he and his horse were both shot and killed.

The brigade of Brig. Gen. Winfield S. Featherston began falling back under heavy fire when its division commander, Maj. Gen. William W. Loring, confronted them, shouting, “Great God! Do I command cowards?” He attempted to inspire his men by sitting on his horse in full view of the Federal lines for over a minute and amazingly emerged unharmed, but the brigade made no further progress. The Confederates made perhaps six more, distinct assaults against the Union lines. All of them were repulsed with heavy losses.

The Eye of the Storm, Patrick CleburneOn the Union right, Maj. Gen. William B. Bate‘s division had a long march to its line of attack and by the time that they arrived there it was almost dark. The Confederates came into contact with the Union defenders around the Everbright Mansion, where they pushed aside Union sharpshooters and swept past the house. However, Bate’s left flank was not being protected by the cavalry and his troops came under enfilade fire.

Bate ordered the Florida Brigade from his reserve to protect his flank. This not only slowed the attack but also narrowed his line of advance. Unknown to Bate, the cavalry had moved forward dismounted but he was unable to see them because of the rolling terrain. Neither Bate or the dismounted cavalry made any progress and they both withdrew.

Hood still thought that he could break through the Union lines and at 7:00 PM he ordered Maj. Gen. Edward “Allegheny” Johnson‘s Division into the attack.  Johnson’s men lost their unit alignments in the dark and had significant difficulties attacking the works just to the west of the Carter House. They were repulsed after a single assault with heavy losses.

Meanwhile, Confederate cavalry commander Forrest attempted to turn the Union left. But when two of his divisions crossed the Harpeth River in mid-afternoon, they were met by a Union cavalry division and a brigade with another brigade in reserve to assault them dismounted. The Confederates were pushed back across the river.

Confederate graveyard at FranklinMaj. Gen. John M. Schofield, the overall Union commander, ordered Brig. Gen. Jacob D. Cox to begin withdrawing the troops from their positions at about 11:00 Pm in preparation for crossing the river and making another night march, this time to Nashville. Cox objected to this course of action and called for a counter-attack against the weakened Confederates. However, Schofield had already been ordered to withdraw earlier in the day by Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas and was happy to comply.

By dawn on December 1, 1864, the Union troops began to enter the defensive lines of Nashville. Hood with left with the empty Union lines at Franklin but at a frightful cost. The Confederates suffered 6,252 casualties, including 1,750 killed and 3,800 wounded. An estimated 2,000 others suffered less serious wounds and returned to duty before the Battle of Nashville.

The cost in the lives of Confederate commanders was more damaging. Fourteen Confederate generals (six killed or mortally wounded, seven wounded, and one captured) and 55 regimental commanders were casualties. The six generals killed or mortally wounded were Cleburne, John C. CarterJohn AdamsHiram B. GranburyStates Rights Gist, and Otho F. Strahl. The wounded generals were John C. BrownFrancis M. CockrellZachariah C. DeasArthur M. ManigaultThomas M. Scott, and Jacob H. Sharp. Brig. Gen. George W. Gordon was captured.

Against these losses, the Union army sustained 189 killed, 1,033 wounded, and 1,104 missing. The Union wounded were left in Franklin. Many of the prisoners, including all captured wounded and medical personnel, were recovered on December 18 when Union forces re-entered Franklin in pursuit of Hood.

The Army of Tennessee was all but destroyed at Franklin. Rather than see his army dissolve, Hood pressed on to Nashville where his seriously outnumbered force engage the numerically superior Union army on December 15–16, 1864.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Battle Cry of FreedomJames M. McPherson wrote, “Having proved even to Hood’s satisfaction that they could assault breastworks, the Army of Tennessee had shattered itself beyond the possibility of ever doing so again. David J. Eicher wrote that Hood “had in effect mortally wounded his army at Franklin.”

Here is the link for the animated battle map of Franklin.



Series Navigation<< The Battle Of Franklin: Pre-Battle ManeuversThe Battle of Nashville: Setting the Stage >>

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