March 5, 1863 (Thursday)
As the cold dawn sifted through the night, Union Col. John Coburn was unsure of what to do. The previous day, his brigade, 2,800-strong had tangled with some Rebel cavalry, but pulled back just as it seemed he was about to be enveloped. Then, he had figured that the enemy before him numbered, perhaps, 3,000. Now, however, he thought it much more.
Two black children had come into his camp just after dawn and told him that they had just escaped from the Rebel camp over the next hill. Earl Van Dorn was in charge and he meant to steamroll over the Yankee brigade and take Franklin, four miles north. Coburn believed them and sent the two back to his superior, General Charles Gilbert, in Franklin.
Coburn had sent cavalry scouts and pickets in all directions searching for the enemy, but by 8am, they had found nothing. And so, he decided to move south, following the orders of the previous day to move along the Columbia Pike, through Thompson’s Station, towards Spring Hill. With the cavalry in front and skirmishers stretched out for a half mile on either side of the road, Coburn’s Brigade advanced.
For the next two hours, the Federals started and stopped, inching down the road, as Confederate skirmishers fell back towards their main line, still hidden from view.
The main Confederate line did not yet consist of Earl Van Dorn’s entire force of 6,000. Only three of his six brigades were present. Two, under William H. Jackson, were posted on ridges that bisected the turnpike, while the third, under Nathan Bedford Forrest, held the extreme right. The other three were within very close supporting distance and would soon be up.
At 10am, Van Dorn saw them coming. The Federals, finally able to see the main body of the Rebels, formed line of battle and prepared to attack the center and left of the Rebel line, which was partially huddled behind stone walls. Coburn first unleashed his cavalry upon the Confederate right. Forrest, however, anticipated this and had sent two full regiments to block it. With the Union cavalry scampering back, Forrest ordered a battery to move far to the front.
As Coburn’s infantry advanced, they were met with cannon fire from both their front and on their flank from Forrest’s guns. Not only did the Rebel artillery play upon the infantry’s flank, but it was so far forward that it was able to enfilade the Union artillery, driving them off before they could do too much damage.
Still, Coburn’s infantry came on. When they edged to within 200 yards of Van Dorn’s, the Rebels in the center sprang up and charged the Union troops, sending them reeling back to the rise of ground behind them.
Col. Coburn was astounded. How could this happen? He called for his cavalry, but they had fled, racing back towards Franklin and away from Forrest’s troops. He and his infantry were alone and blind. But they turned and faced the enemy, which was now charging down the hill they had held and up the rise where the Federal retreat was halted.
The Union brigade had been hurt, but was no beaten. Seeing the coming enemy, they held their ground, clinging to it with all their strength, and fending off two Rebel brigades who were determined to drive them from the field.
With the ground before them now empty, save for the dead and dying, Coburn figured it a fine time to make his escape. He had already sent his supply train back towards Franklin and knew that his ammunition was running low. There was little else he could do but retreat. To first get cover, he moved his men to the woods behind them, on the right side of the road.
As the Rebels charged and were beaten back, one brigade – that of General Forrest – quietly slipped unnoticed around the action, gaining the woods in the rear of the Federal force. To his luck, this was the same wooded area Coburn chose for cover.
Forrest’s men charged and received a volley from Coburn’s Brigade, which had quickly noticed them. Another Rebel brigade had also moved in behind the Federals, boxing them in on all sides.
“I was convinced that a massacre would ensue, to little purpose,” wrote Coburn months later, “that a few might escape, but that many would fall in a vain struggle for life with unequal weapons. I ordered a surrender. I believe it was justified by the circumstances.”
In justifying his decision to surrender, Coburn wrote: “The contest had raged nearly five hours. No re-enforcements were in sight; none had been heard from. The enemy held the road far in our rear. The cavalry and artillery had gone two hours. We had no ammunition. The enemy was mounted. His batteries raked the road, and his men, in thousands, hung upon every advantageous post in our rear. We had exhausted all means of destruction, except our bayonets; beyond their reach, we were powerless.”
With the Federals gobbled up, Van Dorn left a strong picket line at Thompson’s Station and encamped at Spring Hill to the south. In a few days, they would all regroup near Columbia.
The Rebels lost 56 killed and 301 wounded or missing. The Federals suffered 88 killed, 206 wounded and around 1,300 captured. Col. Coburn, who was now a prisoner, had been ordered by General William Rosecrans to move south from Franklin to see what the Rebels to his south were up to. He now had his answer.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 23, Part 1, p87-90, 116-117, 120-121; That Devil Forrest by John Allan Wyeth. [↩]