It was the bloodiest five hours in Tennessee history. On November 30, 1864, the Confederate Army of Tennessee charged into a well-entrenched Union force on the outskirts of the town of Franklin. Wave after wave of men in gray uniforms came, shoulder to shoulder, straight into musket, rifle and cannon fire. Some of them made it close enough to fire back and engage their enemy in hand-to-hand combat. Some of them even broke through for a brief time, but were repulsed.
When it was over, about 7,000 of the 20,000 Confederates engaged had been killed, missing or wounded — a casualty count shocking even by Civil War standards.
Most of the battlefield of Franklin has long since been resold, dug up and turned into roads, new houses, stores and office buildings. But on this virtual tour we will visit two different houses in Franklin that were standing during the battle and that are still there today. One is called the Carter House; the other the Carnton Plantation. In and around each home you can still see signs of this horrible battle and its bloody aftermath.
First, the early story of each house:
Randal McGavock was the 11th mayor of Nashville; today there is a high school in Davidson County named for him. In 1826 McGavock moved his family from a home in downtown Nashville to Williamson County, intending to make money from farming. He named his plantation “Carnton” after his family’s ancestral home in Ireland and built a house that was a mansion by standards of the time. Among the frequent guests entertained here was none other than Andrew Jackson, a friend from McGavock’s days in Nashville.
Randal McGavock died in 1843. By 1860 the plantation was owned by his son John and his wife Carrie.
In 1830, a man named Fountain Branch Carter built a home about a mile west of the Carnton Plantation. Carter was a properous man who made money as a farmer, merchant, surveyor, and operator of a cotton gin. Over the years, he and his wife Mary had 12 children — eight of whom lived to adulthood. Three of their sons joined the Confederate army when war broke out.
Now, we need to talk about the events of the Civil War in a larger context. During 1862 and 1863, the Union army successfully fought its way through Tennessee, starting with forts Henry and Donelson, then through Nashville, Murfreesboro, and then southeast through Chattanooga. In the fall of 1864, the Confederate Army tried to defend Atlanta but then, after a seige, evacuated the city.
It was then that Confederate General John Bell Hood came up with a different strategy. Instead of continuing to fight the advancing Union army, he decided to take his army out of Georgia and try to recapture Nashville, thus cutting off the federal army from its supply lines. So that’s just what the Confederates did, heading west into Alabama and then north into Middle Tennessee.
The bulk of the Union army under William T. Sherman continued southeast from Atlanta on its now-legendary “March to the Sea.” But a Union force under General John B. Schofield (who had been a West Point classmate of Hood’s) followed the Confederate army on its move, mainly to protect the Union lines of supply. On November 29, Schofield’s men slipped out of Spring Hill, retreated to Franklin and, with the Harpeth River at their backs, dug entrenchments.
On the afternoon of November 30, Hood ordered his men to attack. Several of his subordinate generals tried to talk him out of it, convinced that a direct assault would be a disaster. They were unable to do so.
At about 4 p.m., Confederate soldiers loaded their weapons, said one final prayer, lined up and charged across the open fields of Williamson County. Many of them were shot down before they even got close to the Union entrenchments and guns. The noise was deafening; the air filled with smoke and, soon, the ground covered with dead bodies. At most parts of the line, the Confederates didn’t get very far. In the middle, a group of soldiers momentary breached the line near the Carter house. But they were soon repulsed.
The battle went on past dark. After the shooting ceased, General Schofield ordered his army to retreat across the Harpeth River toward Nashville. But there was no doubt as to which side had won this battle. Confederate casualties numbered around 7,000; Union casualties about a third that number.
While all of this was going on, residents of the Carnton Plantation and Carter House remained indoors, terrified of what was taking place. At the Carter House, 23 people (most of whom were children) remained in the cellar throughout the battle. They could hear everything from down there, including soldiers trying desperately to beat their way into the house upstairs. After the battle ended, they came outside and found hundreds of dead or dying men in the area immediately around the house.
For the next several days, both the Carter House and Carnton Plantation were put into use as makeshift hospitals. We will never know how many men died in both houses during those awful days. There are, however, still bloodstains all over the hardwood floor of the Carnton Plantation that give you some reminder of what it might have been like.
The Carnton Plantation is also associated with this grim anecdote: no less than six Confederate generals died in the Battle of Franklin. At one time, the remains of four of them were lying side-by-side on the back porch of the Carnton Plantation.
So what became of all of the dead bodies from the Battle of Franklin? During the days immediately following the battle, the surviving Confederate soldiers identified as many as they could, and as many as possible were hastily buried in shallow graves marked with cedar headstones. (“Hastily” is the proper word here, because the Confederate army soon advanced toward Nashville and, only weeks later, was defeated again at the Battle of Nashville.)
After the war ended, the bodies of the Union soldiers were moved to Stone’s River National Cemetery in Murfreesboro. However, the federal government would not incur the expense of moving the Confederate dead, so the remains of the Confederate soldiers were moved to a two-acre plot of land donated by the McGavocks. For the rest of her life Carrie McGavock kept watch over that cemetery and kept track of the identity of those buried in it. She eventually developed the nickname “widow of the South.”
There are many, many stories about the battle that you will hear from tour guides if you have a chance to visit these places. If you go, we recommend that you print this list of questions to ask your tour guides while you are there:
(At the Carnton Plantation)
1) In the painting shown to the right are three McGavock children. What do those three children have in common?
2) What piece of furniture was given to the McGavocks by President Andrew Jackson?
3) What Confederate general made a brief visit to the Carnton Plantation just before the battle?
4) Located at Carnton is a single copy of a book that was of great interest to many Southern families after the Civil War ended. What are the contents of this book?
5) What best-selling book is based on the story of the Carnton Plantation?
(At the Carter House)
1) The door leading from the back porch into the house has been patched. Why?
2) The basement brick floor sinks. Why?
3) There are windows in the basement in which stray musket balls could have theoretically been fired. What did Mr. Carter and others do in advance of the battle to protect them from these stray musket balls?
4) What famous American general’s father was wounded during the Battle of Franklin?
5) In the early 1950s, what nearly happened to the Carter House?