The Bitter Battle of Franklin

Posted on June 9, 2013

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My wife asked me the other day, “what was the Civil War about anyhow?”

This caught me a bit off guard, since historians have written about the causes of the Civil War ever since the Civil War broke out, and still battle over interpretations. How does one answer a loaded question whose answer spans monumental issues like slavery, states rights, constitutions, and the invariable role of individuals who don’t always behave predictably?

I thought about this before essaying a phrase.

“Well?” she asked.

“It’s complicated,” I said.

“Hmmphhhhh,” which is what she says when I either don’t know the answer or I’m stalling for time. She went off to do some chore.

“You brought it up you know,” she said as she parted. “Complicated, hmmmmphhhhh.”

I have been working with a friend on a new movie about the Doolittle Raid of 1942 and, in the course of things, had a chance to attend a lecture by Bobby Horton.

Horton is the songwriter and singer who did the sound track for Ken Burns’ magnificent documentaries on the Civil War, an A&E and History Channel smash hit. Bobby can sing, hum, strum (he used a violin, mandolin, guitar, banjo and some other stringed instruments I had ever seen), and tell a story, and maybe even chew gum for all I know, almost at the same time.

I’m still humming the songs I heard him sing of both Yankee and Rebel soldiers. They are often haunting and evoke the period and the war, and the incredible bravery on both sides, men, not much more than boys really, who went into battle knowing they would be killed or wounded, perhaps dismembered or dying at the tender ages of seventeen or eighteen, for what? Bobby said it was sometimes a song they carried into battle, and I believe him.

Bobby pulled me back into remembering that we are in the midst of commemorating the 150th anniversary of that war, 1861-1865. More men were killed—625,000– in the American Civil War than in any other conflict the United States has been since the American Revolution.

The statistics of famous campaigns and battles are staggering, tens of thousands of men killed and wounded in space of a few months, like the Union campaign to bring Vicksburg, the key to controlling the Mississippi River, to its knees, or in three short days early in July in the rolling countryside of Pennsylvania at a place called Gettysburg.

The “high tide” of the Confederacy was marked at Gettysburg by the most famous charge of the war, led by General George Pickett on the third day of battle, July 3, 1863.

Lee had led his army into the heart of Union country, Pennsylvania, for the first time in the war to try and inflict a painful lesson on the Union and perhaps bring the war to an end. Most of the war had been fought up to then in the Confederate states. Now the Federals would get a taste of what the South was enduring.

On July 3 Pickett was ordered to charge the Yankee lines in a final, desperate attempt, to turn the tide in Lee’s favor. The Confederates threw 15,000 soldiers against General George Meade’s 6,500 troops, defending a strong position along Cemetery Ridge. Lee ordered the attack, but even one of his leading generals, James Longstreet, thought the effort futile. The Yankee position was too well defended and the charge across the open fields proved him right. It was carnage.

Lee’s artillery opened the battle with a two hour barrage, but it did little damage to the Federal troops hunkered down. The Confederates, although they did puncture the Union line at the height of the battle, were thrown back with terrible losses. The Yankee soldiers taunted the Rebels with “Fredericksburg, Fredericksburg,” a reminder that Lee had inflicted a bitter victory over the Union, and it was now payback time.

After the war, both Lee and Pickett rendered varying opinions on that battle, Pickett taking the lead with a laconic sense of humor, and balance, even with the memory of the terrible defeat. When asked, probably for the hundredth time, “who was responsible for the defeat?” Pickett offered that “I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”

But Pickett’s charge was not the most murderous charge of the war. That came in the fall of 1864, in late October, at Franklin, Tennessee.

By then General William T. Sherman had pushed the Confederates out of Atlanta and started his famous March to the Sea, gutting the Confederacy as he marched through the heart of Georgia to Savannah. Confederate General John Bell Hood, after losing Atlanta, headed to Alabama to regroup and then marched north towards Nashville to see if he could push the Federals out of Tennessee and perhaps lure them away from the heart of the Confederacy.

A Union army under General John Schofield stood in Hood’s way at Franklin. Hood, desperate and angry at his subordinates for allowing Schofield to dig in and get between Hood and Nashville, determined to oust the Yankees with a charge across two miles of open field. Late in the day of November 30, Hood launched the last great charge of the war.

By the time it was over, the Confederate Army of Tennessee lost over 6000 dead and wounded, while Pickett’s total loss at Gettysburg was about 1400. At least a dozen Confederate generals were killed or wounded. The Union losses were about 2200 killed and wounded.

The Rebels charged again and again as the day gave way to dusk, in some instances even breaking through the parapets and defenses, only to be repelled by equally ferocious Union counterattacks.

Hood lost a third of his forces but pushed on to Nashville where the Federals inflicted another stunning blow to the once proud Army of Tennessee. The “High Tide” of the Confederacy was surely at Gettysburg, on July 3, 1863, but the butchery continued for almost two more years before the surrender of Lee at Appomattox Courthouse in April, 1865.

This year we remember the Vicksburg campaign and the Battle of Gettysburg, immortalized by Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Next year study the Battle of Franklin to get an equal sense, after Pickett’s charge, of what men do in battle. It is an extraordinary moment in our history that is worth remembering.

Now I’m ready to answer my wife’s question: “What was the Civil War all about anyhow?”

It was about valor.

The Battle of Franklin

Stanley F. Horn, The Army of Tennessee

For more on the Battle of Franklin, toggle on the following links. Each is very comprehensive and will lead you to other links.

Civil War Trust, Franklin

Wikipedia Battle of Franklin

This article published Sunday June 9, 2013 by The Tuscaloosa News” as “What Was the Civil War About, Anyhow? Valor.”