‘We Will Make the Fight’ – The Battle of Franklin

November 30, 1864 (Wednesday)

View of Franklin from Winstead Hill.
View of Franklin from Winstead Hill.

The fear harbored by Nathan Bedford Forrest was found to come true by the dawn. He had sent a brigade of his cavalry forward toward Spring Hill, where the night before John Schofield’s entire Union Army of the Ohio had been arrayed. Upon receiving their report, he learned “that the enemy had passed unmolested on the main pike during the night.”

Upon learning the news himself, John Bell Hood, commanding the Rebel army, was understandably furious. But his anger did not get the best of him. This was now a desperate situation. Any chance of beating the Yankess to Nashville or blocking Schofield from uniting with George Thomas’ gathering forces in that city, was quickly slipping away. Hood had to act.

And so he came up with a plan to attack. Though he blamed his subordinants for letting the Federals escape the day previous, he temporarily buried his frustrations. Learning from Forrest’s command, which was dogging the Federal rear guard, that Schofield was casting off most supply wagons and other ephemra, Hood concluded that his enemies would not stop before getting to Nashville.

But still more reports held that the Federals had indeed stopped, barricading themselves before the town of Franklin, twelve miles to the north and but eighteen miles south of Nashville. A quick glance at a map would show Hood that the Harpeth River ran behind the town. If he could stop Schofield from crossing, he would pin them down and destroy the entire Federal army. The day before he had nearly snared them. This day, he believed, all would go his way.

The anger and frustration was carried not only by General Hood, but by his subordinants, and in turn, their men in the ranks. The Northerners had gotten away twice now – if they had anything to say about it, they would not do so again.

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With this, they marched and Forrest skirmished until they were within three miles of Franklin. The first infantry brigade arrived on Winstead Hill, opposite the Federal works, around 3pm. Before them, across the undulating plain, they could see the river, the town, but also the entrenchments and abatis of their enemy. These fortifications were stout and encircled Franklin, itself situated in a bend of the river, from one bank to the other. Each of the Federal flanks rested upon the water. On the north side of the river, they could see Fort Granger, its guns willing to throw death down upon them.

“We will make the fight,” Hood concluded, even after seeing what his men would face. His subordinates, men such as Generals Patrick Cleburne and Benjamin Cheatham, protested. The enemy was too well entrenched. Hood agreed, but countered that if they did not attack, the Federals would retreat yet again, but this time they would escape into the impossible fortifications of Nashville. If they were to be destroyed, it would have to be here, and it would have to be now.

In this, Hood was not mistaken. All could see the Federal supply wagons being passed across the river – a clear indication that a retreat would soon be ordered. In fact, Schofield had already given his orders, and by 6pm, his army was to begin once more their move to Nashville.

But Hood’s army was still arriving on the field. He needed time, and daylight was swiftly waning. Two of his three corps would have to be enough. And so Cheatham and A.P. Stewart’s would have to do. This gave him around 27,000 men, hardly enough to assault Schofield’s host of a similar number. In the open field, they might be victory, but an attack across two miles of open fields against strongly entrenched veterans, there was only the slimmest of hopes.

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With that, Steward would take the right, and Cheatham the left. Forrest’s cavalry was divided, and each of his divisions would hold a flank. By 4pm, all was ready. The attack would fall mostly upon the Union left. There, Schofield had placed a division one-half mile in front of his main line. This division was directly in the path of Patrick Cleburne’s and John C. Brown’s divisions. Advancing north up the Columbia Pike, they slammed into this forward position.

Hardly a shot needed to be fired as the Rebels drove the Federals from their positions, back upon the main line. And they followed with all speed. As the retreating front line came to the main, the Confederates clamored over the works with them. A battery was taken, and the melee grew vicious and deadly. In a matter of minutes, Cleburne’s and Brown’s men grew roots, seizing the works as their own. Now stood a gaping hole in the Northern lines.

But much of the remaining Rebel attack was hardly so fortunate. The Confederate right was torn apart by artillery from Fort Granger as well as guns placed along a railroad cut. Those who escaped such fates were met with repeating rifles, firing at least ten rounds each minute. It was as if they were faced with several times more men than truly were before them. During these assaults, General Cleburne was killed.

On the Confederate left, where the foothold still held, a sort of stalemate evolved. The Rebels would not retreat, but could not attack. General Brown was wounded, and three of his brigade commanders killed.

Gen. Wm. A. Quarles - C.S.A. of Tenn. Wounded in Hood's charge at Franklin.
Gen. Wm. A. Quarles – C.S.A. of Tenn. Wounded in Hood’s charge at Franklin.

The Southern surge forward had ended, but after they regrouped, another was to come. When it did, it too was repulsed. Then another came, meeting the same doom. Each attack was met with more violence and horror than the one before it. Even the closing light could not stop the bloodletting.

In this way, Hood’s attacks continued until around 7pm, when he decided he must send in the reserves. Edward “Allegheny” Johnson had charged his men up Culp’s Hill in Gettysburg, over the bodies of their comrades and through the dark. Today, it would be no different. And today, as before, ultimate success would allude him.

General Hood could understand that it was now too late, at least for this day. And the following, he vowed, his army would try again. And attack was ordered for morning, though by then they would have nothing to assault.

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Around 11pm, Union General Schofield ordered his men to slip across the river. Some, such as corps commander Jacob Cox, protested. Hood was weak, he believed, and should be attacked. But Schofield, with discretionary orders from Thomas, chose to fight another day, with hope, behind the defenses of Nashville.

The Federals would begin arriving around noon the next day. Hood’s army would follow, but they were hardly the force of 40,000 from the start of the campaign.

This battle had cost Hood dearly, with estimates hovering around 7,000 killed, wounded and missing. This included fourteen generals and fifty-five colonels. He now commanded only 26,000 men, including the bulk of the corps which did not take place in this day’s battle.

Schofield’s losses were light, considering – perhaps as few as 2,300, including 1,000 taken prisoner upon the initial collapse of his lines.

From this, Hood would have to recover. He would have to approach Nashville, and then decide what must be done. To attack or invite battle, he could not yet say. But forward he would have to move. 1



  1. Sources: The Confederacy’s Greatest Cavalryman by Brian Steel Wills; The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah by Wiley Sword; The Army of Tennessee by Stanley Horn; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly. []
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2 thoughts on “‘We Will Make the Fight’ – The Battle of Franklin

  1. This is the day my twice-great uncle died defending institutions that did not do him service and served vicious malice on so many others. Rest in peace, John. God have mercy on us foolish humans.

  2. I attened the 135th Aniversary Battle Reenactment of SpringHill and Franklin in Tennesse in Late October, 1999. I was a Federal Paymaster and paid off Union white and Black troops two months pay.

    Rain on/off and heavy frost in the morning. The Reb for the Battle of Franklin were gettin very riled up.. martial music and in a great mood. They charged us like devils and we thought they were going to change histgory and overrun us. They Mostly kept to the battle plan and died en-mass just infront of the breastworks…. Like a Grey/Butternut wave smashing against the rocks. Was sort of sad for this battle cost the CSA troops many generals and brave men died for a “Victory” where the Union troops slipped away the next day.

    Arthur Henrick
    Paymaster, USA. Rennactment club in California.

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