November 30, 1864 – General John Bell Hood directed his Confederate Army of Tennessee to make a desperate frontal assault on strong Federal defenses south of Nashville.
On the morning of the 30th, Hood’s army was camped east of the turnpike leading north to Franklin and Nashville. Hood hoped to move west at daybreak and seize the road, which would isolate Major General John Schofield’s Federal Army of the Ohio from the main Federal army and supply base at Nashville. However, Schofield had already passed the Confederates during the night.
Hood was enraged upon learning that Schofield had escaped. He accused one of his corps commanders, Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham, of squandering “the best move in my career as a soldier.” Hood even blamed the former army commander, General Joseph E. Johnston, for instilling a defensive frame of mind in the troops. Hood resolved that the only way to break the army of this mindset was to throw it into battle.
Schofield had hoped to continue up the turnpike, cross the Harpeth River at Franklin, and then move on to join Major General George H. Thomas’s Federal Army of the Cumberland at Nashville. But the two bridges needed repairing, and Hood’s Confederates were closing in fast. One bridge was repaired by mid-morning, enabling the 800-wagon supply train and some of the troops to cross. Schofield positioned the remaining 20,000 men behind defenses south of Franklin to meet the Confederate advance. The Federal line curved from their left (east) on the Tennessee & Alabama Railroad to their right on the Harpeth.
Hood arrived in front of the Federal line around 2 p.m. and quickly decided to launch a frontal assault, saying, “We will make the fight.” He hoped to drive the Federals into the river and destroy them before they could reach Nashville. Several army officers protested this decision, including Cheatham and Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest. But the protests only confirmed Hood’s belief that the army had grown timid.
Seeing the Federal wagon train crossing the Harpeth in the distance, Hood knew that the rest of Schofield’s army would soon follow. If he was going to stop Schofield from reaching Nashville, it would have to be now. But only two of Hood’s three corps were on hand, and his artillery was too far in the rear to support the assault. Hood therefore positioned Cheatham’s corps on the left to oppose the Federal center and Lieutenant General Alexander P. Stewart’s corps on the right (east). Forrest’s cavalry would move farther east, cross the Harpeth, and try getting into the Federal rear.
One Confederate brigade commander, Brigadier General Otho F. Strahl, assured his troops that the fight “would be short but desperate.” Schofield’s superior defenses more than made up for Hood’s slight numerical advantage. Nevertheless, the 18 Confederate brigades formed a wide line of battle and advanced at 4 p.m.
Two advance Federal brigades put up a fight as long as they could before falling back to Schofield’s main line. The Federals in the main line waited for their comrades to pass before opening a terrible fire on the approaching Confederates. The volley killed Major General Patrick R. Cleburne, one of Hood’s best division commanders. Another division commander, Major General John C. Brown, was also killed, as was Strahl, who fell after ordering his men to “keep on firing” and passing loaded rifles to the troops on the front line.
Despite the heavy losses, the Confederates pushed forward and engaged in vicious hand-to-hand fighting before driving the Federals out of their defenses in the center. But Federal reinforcements soon arrived, and Brigadier General Emerson Opdycke ordered them to make a stand at the Carter House, where they stopped any further Confederate progress.
To the east, Hood’s troops could not penetrate the Federal works due to the rising ground and railroad. The Confederates were pummeled by the Federals’ repeating rifles and artillery from Fort Granger across the river. Farther east, Forrest’s troopers crossed the Harpeth and clashed with the Federal cavalry led by Brigadier General James H. Wilson. Forrest eventually fell back after running out of ammunition.
Fighting continued sporadically until around 9 p.m., when the Confederates disengaged. Schofield ordered his Federals to withdraw across the Harpeth at 11 p.m. Some subordinates, including Major General Jacob D. Cox, urged Schofield to stay and counterattack Hood’s weakened army, but Schofield opted to follow the original plan and join the main army at Nashville as if this fight never happened.
Hood claimed victory because Schofield retreated, but Schofield was going to fall back anyway. Hood’s claim seemed even hollower when the shocking casualty list was released. The Confederates lost 6,252 men (1,750 killed, 3,800 wounded, and 702 missing) out of about 27,000 engaged. Six generals were killed in action, including Cleburne (the “Stonewall” Jackson of the West), Strahl, John C. Brown, John Adams, John C. Carter, H.R. Granbury and S.R. (States Rights) Gist. Another six were wounded, and at least 54 regimental commanders were killed or wounded. These were among the heaviest losses that any Confederate army sustained in any battle of the war. In contrast, the Federals sustained 2,326 casualties (189 killed, 1,033 wounded, and 1,104 missing) out of about 25,000 effectives.
The Army of Tennessee demonstrated its courage at Franklin, but at a “fearful loss and no results.” This battle effectively destroyed the once-proud army’s fighting capabilities. Unwilling to accept this, Hood ordered his devastated and demoralized men to pursue Schofield’s Federals to Nashville, 18 miles north.
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