Behind the Lines: My Life as a Yankee in Franklin, TN, Part 3

By Mel Maurer
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2004, All Rights Reserved

Part 3 of a 6-part article

I knew of Fort Granger before moving to Franklin from the reading I had done about the Battle of Franklin but I didn’t know until I had lived there a few weeks that Fort Granger, or what was left of it, was still there. While I had passed its location many times in our search for a home, I was unaware that the trees, on a small hill above Franklin’s Pinkerton Park right off route 96, just before the bridge over the Harpeth River as you enter Franklin from the east, were hiding the remains of a Civil War treasure. Once learning of its existence and its location, I set out one Sunday morning with great expectations to visit it.

After parking at Pinkerton, I found a small sign with an arrow pointing to a narrow trail, which led me through some bushes and up a somewhat steep incline and then over some large boulders. Reaching the other side of the boulders, I realized I was in a wide pit at the bottom of the large earthen wall of the fort. I climbed up and over the wall and found myself inside a greatly overgrown (with tall grass and many trees), mole-infested Fort Granger. I couldn’t have been more thrilled if I were the first one to discover it. It was history in the raw – no plaques, no tour guides, except the moles, and no souvenir shops. I walked its walls getting a good appreciation of its vantage point – happy to be there in January when the foliage was sparse giving me clear views of all that could be seen from its heights. I then walked around in its massive outer pit. After 130 years there was much that remained of Fort Granger. (I would later learn a shortcut into the fort from the parking lot of a business located just to its north.)

Some of the earthworks of Fort Granger that still exist

Fort Granger was built in late 1862 to early 1863 under the command of General Gordon Granger during the initial occupation of Nashville and points south in Tennessee. The 124th Ohio Infantry had helped in its construction and maintenance in 1863. Located on what is called a bluff (Figuer’s Hill) northeast of town, the fort overlooks the town, which is just a mile away, the Harpeth River, and the railroad lines running parallel to the river at the bottom of its hill. When completed, Fort Granger was 781 feet long and 346 feet wide, covering about 12 acres. At times federal encampments covered the rolling ground immediately to its north and east.

Map showing the location of Fort Granger relative to Franklin

The fort first saw action on April 10, 1863 when Major Earl Van Dorn’s 28th Mississippi Cavalry entered Franklin from the south. Granger’s guns are credited with helping to repulse Van Dorn’s troops including a battery near the Carter cotton gin. The Carter gin near the Carter House would later figure prominently in the Battle of Franklin. The fort also saw some action in June of that year in another probing Southern skirmish. The fort then fell into general disuse in late 1863 and most of 1864 before again becoming very active, very quickly on November 30, 1864 in the bloody Battle of Franklin.

General John Schofield

Union General John Schofield used the fort as his command post during that battle, overseeing the action two miles away and the evacuation of his wagons across the Harpeth on the planked-over railroad bridge just below. Captain Giles J. Cockerill’s Battery D, 1st Ohio Light Artillery was also there and in position to strafe the charging rebels. Firing percussion, the battery opened up as the enemy got to within 300 yards of the Federals’ rear guard, Wagner’s Brigade. One observer in the fort saw the shells tear up the rebels’ lines, leaving gaps that were quickly filled only to be hit again. He said the sight was “most terrifically beautiful and grand.” A matter of perspective for the enemy but in terms of action, it was the high point of Fort Granger. Abandoned that night, the fort would not see service again.

Although Fort Granger was not a major factor in any engagement, including the Battle of Franklin, it was the scene of one of the strangest of the many strange occurrences of the war that a Franklin friend of mine, Bob Holladay, called “Incident at Fort Granger” in a play he wrote with that title. I had heard of this incident, but I didn’t know its details until reading Bob’s play, which was first presented on Franklin’s public square about 4 years ago. Bob has graciously given me permission to use it as the source for this article – warning me that he had taken some dramatic license with the material. I’ll try to just stick to the facts here.

While those manning Fort Granger did not see much action in 1863, it did not mean they were not concerned that they would see action at anytime – not only was there guerilla activity, but also Nathan Bedford Forrest and his cavalry were thought to be in the area from time to time. The fort was always “on alert” and its men on patrol on the nearby roads. Sometime in late May, early in the evening, one of these patrols stopped two federal officers who said they were heading for Nashville. The patrol’s suspicions were aroused when the officers didn’t seem to even know what road they were on, so they were taken to the fort’s commander, Colonel John P. Baird of the 85th Indiana Infantry.

They introduced themselves as Colonel Lawrence Auton and Major George Dunlop of the Army of the Potomac on special detail for General Meade. When requested to do so, they produced documents which included Special Order Number 140, which was a pass for purposes of inspection signed by assistant adjutant Henry Halleck and dated May 23, 1863. There was also a pass signed by General Rosecrans and countersigned by his assistant, Brigadier General James Garfield. (These generals, in charge of this area, were in Murfreesboro some 25 miles east of Franklin.) The documents relieved suspicions, and the mood turned social, as the newcomers were welcomed as comrades. The fort wasn’t used to having visitors, especially officers.

In conversation over drinks, Auton said he had been on general staff but now had been assigned to see that the western defenses were reliable. Dunlop said he was an assistant inspector for the general staff, serving mostly in the North, although he had also seen action at First Bull Run. After a while the visitors declined an invitation to spend the night, saying they must be on their way. And then while preparing to leave, Auton, with apologies, asked to borrow $50 from Baird. He told him they had run into a little trouble over in Triune (10 miles east of Franklin on the road to Murfreesboro). They had been bushwhacked by a rebel scouting party, he said, killing their orderly and taking Auton’s overcoat with all of their money. After receiving the money, Auton and Dunlop left for Nashville after getting directions.

Shortly after these men left, the Union officers began to have second thoughts about their visitors with their strange stories – setting off mental alarms that should have sounded earlier: Why would the Army of the Potomac be sending inspectors to Tennessee? Why didn’t they seem to know where they were going? Why, if they were attacked in Triune, didn’t they report it to Murfreesboro? Why didn’t they have an escort? And what was that borrowing money all about? Answers were needed – better late than never, so a patrol was sent to bring back Auton and Dunlop – fast. The men were caught and brought back to the fort.

William Orton Williams and Walter Peter

A teletype check told Baird that Murfreesboro never heard of officers named Auton and Dunlop. After further questioning of the imposters, now called spies, and a thorough search, it was learned that Auton was really Captain William Orton Williams and that Dunlop was Lieutenant Walter G. Peter, southern officers. (Peter’s sword, at least according to the play, was engraved with C.S.A. Lt Walter G. Peter.) While finally admitting their true identities, the men denied they were spies, saying they only did what they did for a lark – out of boredom. They were not under Forrest’s command, they said, and had only impersonated Union officers on a bet with their colleagues.

With the approval of Rosecrans, a court-martial was held almost immediately. Auton (Williams) and Dunlop (Peter) were found guilty and, as spies, sentenced to death, a sentence that was carried out the next morning by hanging them from a tree just down the hill west of the fort near Liberty Pike, close to the road to Nashville. The tree, “Franklin’s Hanging Tree,” is still there today in someone’s backyard, but it can be seen from the road (Liberty Pike.)

As I heard the story, it seems that Auton and Dunlop may have been telling the truth about their adventure. The South never claimed any credit for sending them on any mission, nor could any record be found sending them or authorizing their actions. It just may be, and at this point it seems to be the case, that they were either telling the truth about betting they could get away with it or were just AWOL, escaping from the Confederate army. No one has ever called them brave sons of the South or erected any monuments to them. The Federals hung two spies, but probably killed two fools.

Related links:
“The Rest of the Story” (How William Orton Williams almost became Robert E. Lee’s son-in-law)
We Shall Make the Fight: General John Bell Hood, CSA and the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee, November 30, 1864
The Battles of Nashville
Franklin in the Civil War
The Battle of Franklin

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