By Mel Maurer
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2004, All Rights Reserved
When General John Bell Hood looked out from Winsted Hill in the late afternoon on November 30, 1864, the day he would lead so many men to their deaths in the Battle of Franklin, he would have seen, among other things, three miles north from where he stood, the farmhouse of Fountain Branch Carter on the immediate west side of Columbia Road just behind two lines of Federal entrenchments. The Carter cotton gin was about 100 yards from the house on the east side of the road. These structures would see some of the heaviest fighting, not only in the Battle of Franklin, but also of the whole Civil War.
The cotton gin is long gone, but thankfully the Carter House and other buildings on its grounds remain in a restored state open to the public with a Visitors’ Center that interprets the battle and houses in a unique museum of battle memorabilia. The parlor of the house was used as the headquarters of General Jacob Cox, who led the Union defenders. (Cox’s book, The Battle of Franklin is excellent.)
The curator of the Carter House is Tom Cartwright, who spoke to our Roundtable two years ago, painting for us a vivid picture of the battle and those who fought it. Tom doesn’t just tell the story of that November 30th day in 1864, he lives it.
The Carter House was one of the first historic places I visited in Franklin. I would visit it many times while a resident of Franklin, often taking family visitors there – sometimes whether they wanted to go or not. My most memorable visit was one with Tom as a guide. By this time I had taken various tours of it several times and knew the details of the several different movies shown by way of introduction in its Visitors’ Center. I had also read several books, which included some detailed descriptions of the house, its occupants, and its occupiers during the battle. However, with Tom as a guide I would learn more than I had with all of my previous study and visits.
It was as if Tom was personally acquainted with every board in the house and its supporting structures – kitchen, slave house, and smokehouse. He also seemed to know the history of every bullet hole in any of the structures – some still holding lead. I suppose if old Fountain Branch were still alive and giving tours, our experience may have been more authentic, but with Tom as a guide, not by much. If you ever visit there, make it a point to ask for Tom. He’ll be glad to show you around, and you won’t ever forget your visit.
Tom takes his job very seriously – protecting the “moonlight and magnolias” traditions of “The Lost Cause” and defending the Carter family against any suggestions that old man Fountain Branch was actually a Federal sympathizer, as claimed by Richard Fulcher. Richard, you may remember from one of my earlier articles, is a local contrarian historian whose goal it is to cut down the magnolias and bring daylight to the moonlight. He teaches that Fountain Branch Carter was more “north” than “south” and has documentation to prove that he received reparations ($11,030) from the federal government for the damage done to his property. He says that only northern sympathizers received reparations. One time Cartwright barged into one of Fulcher’s Civil War classes at the Rec center and challenged him to give him time to rebut what he was teaching. Tom was also known to follow Richard around to other talks he gave – also demanding rebuttal time. If Carter was a sympathizer, and after seeing the documentation, I believe he convinced the government he was. He was not that different from many others in the county, which had voted not to secede from the Union.
Sympathizer or not, Fountain Branch’s three sons, Moscow, Francis, and Tod, enlisted in the rebel army – Company H, 20th Tennessee Infantry. Moscow became a Lt. Colonel before being captured in 1862 and later paroled. Francis was severely wounded at Shiloh and later released from the army after months in a hospital in 1862. Moscow was at home during the battle – in the cellar with the rest of the family. Tod, a captain, was with Hood’s army attacking his family’s farm. After the battle, the family found the wounded Tod on the battlefield, taking him home to the room in which he was born and where he soon died – a room that’s now part of the house tour.
One of my favorite contemporary stories of the Carter House and its grounds – and I don’t remember where I heard it – concerns an archeological dig there several years before I moved to town. It seems that structural work was needed on the house’s foundation, and rather than just digging up around it, the work was done as if it were an archeological find. The scene, from what I heard, was reminiscent of those you may have seen on TV in Egypt and elsewhere where the ground is divided up in small squares and then dug up with the dirt sifted for artifacts.
The earth held not only those bullets fired at those in and around the house that did not hit their marks, but also the remains of unspent cartridges – mainly the so-called “cleaner bullets.” I’m not an expert on bullets, but as I understand it these bullets (slugs) were designed with a saucer like bottom to them – the idea being that when fired, the “saucer” portion would clean the barrel on its way out. At one time, one in every four cartridges was a “cleaner.” However, apparently they did not work as planned, or were so perceived by the men who preferred to just drop them on the ground rather than attempting to fire them and risk a jam. The location of clusters of these cleaners around the various corners of the Carter house and elsewhere on the grounds provided insights as to the positioning of the Union men during the battle. This may have been the best service these bullets provided to the Civil War and its history.
In concluding this article and this series, it seems only fair to note by way of balance, that there was a Confederate victory just about 8 miles south of Franklin in a small village – Thompson’s Station – in a short battle that has been called a “Federal fiasco.” On March 5, 1863, a reconnaissance force of about 2,400 men, led by Union Colonel John Coburn on its way to Spring Hill from Franklin, was ambushed and trapped by forces led by Generals Earl Van Dorn and Nathan Bedford Forrest. Much of the fighting took place around a railroad station in the village. Coburn’s artillery and cavalry escaped without losses, but his infantry of 1,323 men had 293 men killed and wounded with the rest, including Coburn, captured.
The land around Thompson’s Station and its reconstructed station are unmarked by any significant changes since the battle – affording visitors a good look at the way it was back then. One of the 29 horses, “Roderick,” that “That Devil” Forrest had shot out from under him during the war is buried nearby. A sign on Columbia Road commemorates the burial site.
Braxton Bragg was thrilled with this victory – writing, “The skillful manner in which these generals achieved their victory clearly exhibits the judgment, discipline, and good conduct of the brave troops of their commands.” General Van Dorn was quite proud – writing to his sister, “I am a soldier and my soul swells up and tells me that I am worthy to lead the armies of my country.” You may recall from an earlier article in this series that two months after writing this, Van Dorn was shot in the head and killed by a jealous husband a few miles down the road from Thompson’s Station. Given his record as a leader, it’s unlikely the outcome of the war would have been different had he actually practiced good conduct.
I hope in the course of these articles that I’ve given you a sense of some of what I’ve learned and the great pleasure I had as a student of the Civil War era living in so rich a historic area. I look forward to the day when I can return to Franklin with members of our Roundtable on one of our annual field trips.
(Editor’s note: When Mel Maurer was president of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable, he fulfilled his goal of bringing the Roundtable to Franklin when he organized and led the 2004 field trip, which visited Franklin, Thompson’s Station, Stones River, and Nashville.)
The Carter House
The Battle of Thompson’s Station
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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The Carter House A peaceful farm, near a quiet village. The Carters, and the Blue, at home - waiting for the Gray, and the Red, to call. Exploding shells, Rebel yells - War in their yard. The family sheltered beneath their house. All, but one, safe. And that one, a gray son, will die. The Blue, the Gray, their bloody battle, now - sad history. Memories of a war-torn country, a war-torn family, remain, in residence, at the Carter House. Mel Maurer, June 1993
The Battle of Thompson's Station Today… only memories stop at this railroad station. Of Blue men, Gray men and the battle they fought in March of sixty-three. Blue descending south towards railroad tracks - dividing the land. Gray, and their fate, waiting - at the station. Colors and causes in conflict. The Blue to lose. The Gray to win. The Red to run, again. For all her sons - a nation mourns: Remembering… Sacrifices made and destinies denied at Thompson's Station. Mel Maurer, June 1993