Kurz and Allison’s romanticized illustration of the Battle of Franklin, part of a series of prints distributed in the 1880s.
On December 1, 1864, the 800 or so people living in Franklin found themselves surrounded by 10,000 dead and dying soldiers. The carnage was overwhelming, and it was a surprise. The town had less than a day’s warning before the front line of the Civil War moved there.
Franklin was supposed a relatively safe place. It’s where mothers took their children to live with aging grandparents while dad was off fighting, where girls could keep going to classes at the Female Institute. People didn’t quite know what to do when Union soldiers flooded into town, setting up defenses. And they certainly didn’t know how much would change in a matter of hours.
“We felt great uneasiness of mind…”
Fannie Courtney was a Union loyalist, although her brother chose to fight in the Confederate army. She later remembered hearing the first sound of artillery while sitting at the dinner table around 3:30 in the afternoon. She remembered running outside to see what was going on, then soon afterwards hearing the high-pitched rebel yell as the Southerners made a charge. In just a few minutes, she said all was “perfect confusion,” with bullets flying thick through the air and neighbors running to whatever safety they could find.
Hardin Figuers was just a boy at the time, with a child’s curiosity and bravado. He climbed to the roof of an outbuilding and the top of a tree, trying to get the best view of the fighting. Below him, most townspeople were taking shelter in underground root cellars. Figuers finally decided to go inside just as a Northerner standing across the street was shot.
For hours, the residents of Franklin huddled underground and tried to guess at what was happening by the sounds they could identify. There were gunshots, booming cannon, and the groans of wounded men. Figuers described potatoes sizzling as they were hit by bullets. Mary Alice Nichol recalled footsteps overhead as soldiers charged through her grandfather’s home.
At one point, there was a lull. Figuers couldn’t resist darting into his house. He found it and all of the neighbors’ houses full of injured Confederates. The boy ran across town for the doctor, begging the man to help. “I shall never forget his reply,” Figuers later wrote. “‘If they are as bad off as you say, I could not do them any good, and it is too dangerous to risk going up there.’ I was ashamed of him then and am ashamed of him now.”
“…such a sight we saw I can never forget.”
Eventually, the fighting stopped. Around one or two in the morning, the townspeople emerged from hiding to find their homes, their farms, their entire town, covered with the dead and the dying. Parlor carpets were soaked with blood. In some places, the ground was strewn so thickly with bodies that people couldn’t walk through without treading on torsos or limbs. Voices called out from the carnage, men repeating their own names in hopes that a friend might hear, men begging for help.
One image seared into Mary Alice Nichol’s memory was that of black men raking up piles of bullets, then burying them in the ground. She also recalled a sad-looking man sitting outside in a chair. That, her grandfather told her, was Confederate General John Hood.
Hood was the man who’d devised the Southerners’ Tennessee campaign. He wanted to seize control of Nashville from the Union, which was using it to supply Sherman’s march to the sea in Georgia. The previous night’s fighting in Franklin happened because Union soldiers had been sent to slow Hood down. Once they felt they’d done enough damage for the night, the Federals moved on to Nashville.
That morning, Hood tried to put a positive spin on the slaughter. In a statement to his men, Hood called the fight a victory.
While we lament the fall of many gallant officers and brave men, we have shown to our countrymen that we can carry any position occupied by the enemy.
But that had to be hard to believe. After all, six of his generals were laid out in state on a farmhouse porch. By some counts, more Confederates had died than in any other single day of the war.
Even before the battle, Hood’s men had known Franklin would be a heavy loss. Chaplain James M’Niell remembered afterwards how so many had tried to give him letters and prized posessions to send home for them. He declined, reminding them that he would be in the midst of the fighting, too. Not one who made that request survived the battle.
Like the Federals, the Confederates soon moved on to Nashville, leaving only a remnant behind to help the people of Franklin. There were thousands to bury and even more mangled men left alive—and a cold front was moving in.
“…the most terrible spell of weather I ever knew.”
In a rush to deal with the corpses before the ground froze, Union bodies weren’t even moved to a mass grave. They were simply covered with dirt where they lay. At the same time, homes, churches, even barns became hospitals. Three were reserved for Northern wounded; injured Confederates filled 41.
Hardin Figuers remembered the next days as being some of the worst weather he’d ever experienced, with near continual snow, sleet and ice. Food became increasingly scarce. He went out into the countryside, searching for whatever food he could find. Fanny Courtney and her mother cooked meals in their home to then take to the Presbyterian Church, where they tended to Union men. For more than two weeks, men, women and children worked like that around the clock, preparing food, tending to wounds, wondering when their part of the battle would finally end.
“It was on Saturday, December 17th when the advance of cavalry of our troops entered the town,” Courntney recalled, describing the joy of the federal troops when they saw their own men and knew that their side had won in Nashville.” What shouts were given by those who were able to creep to the door!”
The Southern troops left town in a rush, so quickly that they left their wounded behind. A few days later, Union trains carted away the last of the mangled men. The town’s residents were finally able to rest and make sense of what had happened.
The Battle of Franklin left an indelible mark on the individuals who witnessed it, but as a community they tried to let the memory die. A monument to Confederate soldiers was eventually erected on the courthouse square, but it’s generic one, with no mention of the thousands who died right there.
Thanks to Kyle Gordon, Sarah Chang, Betsy Bahn, Tom Ashley and Grant Farmer for voicing the written words of Figuers, Courtney, Nichol, Hood and M’Niell in the audio version of this story.
Correction, 12/2/14: The headline of this story has been changed. A previous headline inferred that there were 10,000 corpses after the battle of Franklin. We meant to say that there were 10,000 ‘casualties’, a statistic that includes those killed, injured or missing.