By Mel Maurer
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2004, All Rights Reserved
Part 4 of a 6-part article
In the first article in this series, I wrote that our house was in a subdivision that was in the shadow of Roper’s Knob – a hill, the top of which was used as a signal station during the Civil War. Actually, while it’s the highest hill in the area, although not by much, it’s only several hundred feet high, so “shadow” was something of an exaggeration. (We did wish we were in the shadow of something during the very hot Tennessee summers.) Roper’s Knob was just a half-mile west of our house – it was the first thing I would see when I walked out our front door.
Interestingly, when I eventually looked out from the top of this hill, our house was the only one I could see looking east. Viewing anything distant from the top was difficult with tall trees and overgrown shrubbery blocking most views. To the immediate north of the hill is the Legends Golf Course – actually two courses, Brentwood and then Nashville. Another hill, almost as high as this one, was next to it to the west. I was happy to be able to see these “Twin Peaks” in the distance from my Brentwood office. Fort Granger, Franklin, and in the distance, Winsted and Breezy Hills from which, Hood’s army attacked the Federal lines at Franklin, can be seen to the south. Roper’s Knob is on the west side of Mack Hatcher Blvd, just north of Liberty Pike.
It’s also about a mile northeast of Fort Granger. A sixty- to eighty-man garrison manned the signaling station on its summit. This station consisted of a blockhouse and several entrenchments, including cannon sites. It served as a communications point from Franklin north to Nashville and east, first to Triune and then on to Murfreesboro. The soldiers signaled with torches at night and with mirrors during the day. In a sense, the station was an early version of a microwave tower. It is said that its most famous, but not most important, communication was one sent which originated at Fort Granger to Triune/Murfreesboro asking that the execution order for the execution of two spies be changed. It was ignored. (See part 3 for the story of these hapless spies.)
My son Rick, also a member of the Roundtable, looked forward to making the climb to the top of Roper’s Knob with me during one of his visits from Cleveland. In preparation for this event, I learned as much as I could about the hill and how best to find a way to its top. The hill was for the most part undeveloped with only a few large homes in several areas about midway up on one side. However, there were several housing developments at the bottom on its south side, which I got to know well in looking for access to the hill. I finally found what I wanted on a dead end street – ending at the bottom of the hill. I then ventured far enough into the overgrowth and trees of the hill to find a rough path – actually a water run-off gully heading up the hill. All I needed now was Rick.
During his next visit, Rick and I set out early one Saturday fall morning. Parking at the end of the dead end street, we found the gully and began our ascent – easy at first and then more difficult as the “path” got steeper when we neared the top. The gully ended about 50 feet from the summit, but it would be the toughest 50 feet of our climb. Not only was it much steeper – almost straight up – but now we would also have to make our way through the thick underbrush and overgrowth. It was like climbing a very bushy building. No doubt the steep part was part of the defense system for the signal station. We made it to the peak, but not without various cuts and scratches and rips in our clothes. (Wounded in the line of duty?)
The “peak” was actually on several levels. We could see the remains of the earthen entrenchments, although they were not as well-defined as those at Fort Granger. Nothing that we could see remained of the log blockhouse that was once situated on one of its levels. I especially wanted to find a partially buried boulder that someone told me had some of the soldiers’ names chiseled in it. Sadly we couldn’t find it. (Nor could I find it on another trip to the top the following year with my nephew, Jim Browske, another student of the war.) However, once Rick and I got acclimated to our surroundings we could make out where the gun emplacements had been and where the structures once stood – at least we thought we could. The troops stationed there got to the top by what has been described as “a narrow twisting path” up one side of the hill. Its artillery guns had to be “winched up by grappling hooks.” I’m glad I only had to pull myself up that incline.
Rick and I took a borrowed metal detector with us to the top. I had not heard the term “relic-hunting” before my move to Franklin. It, of course, refers to looking for buried Civil War memorabilia – minie balls are the most commonly found items these days, at least in places where you can still hunt with permission. Most of these areas, various fields and back yards, etc., have been picked over many times over the years. A local friend told me of the days when, after a heavy rain, one could walk around some places in Franklin and pick up newly exposed minie balls, unspent shells, and other small historic items. Another local story told of how Hank Williams and his entourage showed up at Fort Granger one day with metal detectors. They spread out and searched the entire fort. I did not learn what, if anything, they found. It’s now illegal to use metal detectors at the fort and other public and privately owned historic sites.
My favorite relic-hunting story was told to me by a good friend who grew up in Franklin – Tom Lawrence, ‘The Voice of Williamson County” on his radio station, WAKM. Tom has a long-time friend who as a boy asked for and received permission from Tom’s father to relic-hunt in his backyard, which was very near one of the Federal lines during the Battle of Franklin. Tom said his friend at first heard no sounds as he walked the yard, but then the metal detector began to scream. Digging at that point, they first found a number of surgical saws – and then a large number of bones, the remains of amputated limbs. Apparently this was a burial site for a field hospital – it had to be the find of a lifetime for Tom’s friend, who now heads his own employment firm and is still very much involved in Civil War history. The saws were recovered and the bones reburied.
Another acquaintance, Richard Fulcher, whom I mentioned as a local historian in Part 2 of this series, and some friends of his once had a small business guiding relic hunters to places where Richard would guarantee them that something could be found.
Rick and I had no such guarantees and made no finds on Roper’s Knob, but we did have some success at another site. I had taken a tour of local historic sites as part of Fulcher’s class on the “Civil War in Williamson County.” These sites included well-known and little known places where there were during the war various camps, skirmishes, earthen forts (small to very large), and homes that had a role in Civil War history. Rick and I, along with our borrowed metal detector, set out one day determined to dig up something historic at one or more of these sites. We found our “gold” at what was once a Federal campsite about 10 miles east of Franklin. Except for a corner of this two- to three-acre property, which held a small church and it’s parking lot, the area was open and between plantings. (The turning of the earth for planting often turns up buried relics.) After an hour or so of looking, we found an aged horseshoe and several pieces of shrapnel. We can’t be 100% sure the horseshoe dates back to the Federal encampment, but it looks just like those we’ve seen at memorabilia shows, as does the shrapnel. In any event we considered these items to be great finds.
Roper’s Knob, I’m pleased to report, was purchased by the Heritage Foundation of Franklin and Williamson County in 1995.The purchase was made with a combination of state and private funds – the state money purchased the 22 acres on top of the hill, and the foundation purchased the 50 acres surrounding the peak. Since 1995, with the help of many volunteers, the trail has been significantly improved, so much so that the “Save the Franklin Battlefield” (STFB) organization now conducts tours of the hill and its peak. (I’m not sure if this is the “trail” that I used for my climbs.) I’m looking forward to taking the improved trail to the top – maybe the improvements even improved access to the views from the top.
STFB recently purchased 3.2 acres of what it calls “core battleground” in Franklin. The property, known today as Hyssop Hill, is on the extreme east end of the trench lines. It was the ground that General W.W. Loring’s Division marched over early in the battle as its men first climbed the railroad embankment, and then got tangled up in the osage orange abatis just in front of the Federal lines. During the war this property held the home of the overseer of Carnton Plantation (Part 2).
Another important acquisition was made in the last few years by a Franklin historic group. It bought the property on which stood Carter’s cotton gin – the scene of very heavy fighting. The fight to save (from commercial development) and then buy historic ground in Williamson County is an ongoing one. One significant piece of land across from the Harrison House, south of Franklin, where Hood held his last staff meeting, now looks like it will be used for a new elementary school despite the best efforts of the historical preservation groups in the county. Another effort has so far failed to save battlefield ground just a few blocks south of the Carter House which is slated to be a shopping center. This property was most recently home to the well-named “The Battle Ground Academy,” a private school which moved its campus to a new site. Some information on these struggles along with other Franklin information can be found at the Save the Franklin Battlefield website. Any help we can give them with money or supporting pleas for preservation will be greatly appreciated (STFB, PO Box 851, Franklin, TN 37065-0851).
I’ll take you (ya’ll) to some more historic ground in Williamson County in Part 5.
Save the Franklin Battlefield
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