General John Bell Hood, CSA and the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee, November 30, 1864
By Mel Maurer
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2005, All Rights Reserved
Confederate General John Bell Hood, commander of the Army of Tennessee, sits on his horse on Winstead Hill looking north towards the village of Franklin TN. It’s 1:00 in the afternoon of November 30, 1864 – a balmy fall day after several days of chilly wet weather in the area. He holds his field glasses in his right hand, his left arm hangs useless at his side – the result of a wound received during the Battle of Gettysburg which almost cost him the arm. Another wound, this time during the Battle of Chickamauga, did cost him all but 4 inches of his right leg. He has an artificial leg but has to be tied to his horse to keep from falling off. General Hood is in pain and he is angry, very angry.
Looking out across relatively flat barren land, with the Columbia Road leading to Franklin though its center, he sees, as do the generals with him, the heavily fortified position of the Union army, the Army of the Ohio, that he, and his force of over 35,000 men, now arrayed below him at the base of the hill, have been chasing for weeks. The blue army got here ahead of him earlier that day in time to renew their old breastworks and to dig new ones. (Breastworks are ditches in front facing the enemy, with the dirt from the ditches piled high behind them, in this case 8 feet high -with sharp sticks embedded in them.) Attacking such positions requires crossing open fields while the enemy fires at you, somehow hurtling the ditch without getting impaled or shot at close range by those shooting from behind the mound – and trying to do all of this while shooting at the enemy with one-shot rifles that require at least 30 seconds to reload. The Union had two sets of such breastworks. If the attacking army got by the first one – it would be faced with another one.
Franklin, named after Benjamin Franklin, was founded in 1799 by former Revolutionary War soldiers granted land in that area. The village with its 44 buildings just two miles north of these works, as they were called, was semi-circled with the Harpeth River on the north and it was now semi-circled to the south by the breastworks of the Union army in blue. These works extended from river to river crossing the large cotton farm of Fountain Branch Carter. His house, called appropriately enough the Carter House, with him and his family in it, was just behind the breastworks, next to Columbia Road. The road was still open through the works at this point to permit troops deployed south of the main line to return to it when necessary. The Carter House was the headquarters of General Jacob Cox, commander of the forces along the works. (He would later become governor of Ohio.) Cox assured the Carter family that there was no reason for them to leave their home – the enemy would never attack. The Union had built the added fortifications more to keep the men busy than as a defensive move. (The Carter House and all the other houses I will mention still stand today where they stood back then, and many are open to the public.)
Franklin’s only bridges over the river, to the north and to the east, had been sabotaged the night before, forcing the blue army to plank a railroad bridge in order to get their many wagons and some men over the river while its back was being defended by the 17,000 men under Cox. General John Schofield, the overall Union commander, was overseeing the crossings from Ft. Granger, an earthen fort just north of the river overlooking Franklin and beyond, including the hill now occupied by the enemy forces.
General Hood, after appraising the strength of his enemy, returned to his headquarters at the Harrison House about a half mile south of Winstead Hill – where he held a brief staff meeting to discuss the situation. At the conclusion of this meeting Hood would make the biggest decision of his career – one of the most significant in terms of the war. I will be examining this decision along with the ensuing battle, the climax of this, the South’s last campaign, with the help of many historians who have studied this conflict to try to determine what made Hood decide the way he did. His decision would lead to the “bloodiest five hours” of the bloodiest war in our history, a decision that ended any lingering hope the South had to ever be independent, one that has been compared to the dropping of the A-bomb in terms of the final destruction of an enemy. Only in this case, the South dropped the “bomb” on itself.
The Civil War, as we call it, is still known by many in the South as The War Between the States, reflecting different views on the structure of the United States before the war. As some of my Southern friends used to tell me, quoting their great grannies, “It weren’t no war and there wasn’t anything civil about it.” Granny was right at least about the civil part in terms of the action. At least 2.5 million men, including some women, served in the war – 620,000 would lose their lives (more to disease than battle) and more than another 500,000 would be wounded with many spending the rest of their lives without limbs. The war obviously took a great toll on both the North and the South but the North, with its many more resources, including manpower, was in much better shape than the South after almost four years of fighting in 1864.
The South could no longer hope for a military victory to end the war. It’s best hope was to continue to fight as best it could to eventually exhaust the will of the North to keep fighting – leading to a negotiated peace. One of its best hopes was that Lincoln would not be reelected letting them deal with a president less adamant about one nation without slavery. In the fourth year, the South was fighting a war of attrition with only limited success – especially when the North showed continued support for the war when it reelected Lincoln in November.
By the fall of 1864, General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia had finally been pinned down as General U.S. Grant and his Army of the Potomac had them under siege at Petersburg just south of Richmond, VA. The war in what was known as the East was at a standstill. In the West, as it was known, Atlanta had just been lost to General William Tecumseh Sherman commanding the Army of the Tennessee. (The South named their armies after locations while the North named them after nearby bodies of water.) John Bell Hood the newly appointed commander of the Army of Tennessee defending Atlanta, became the losing general and withdrew his forces north of the city – pending the development of a new strategy by the gray and for that matter by the blue.
It was at this time that Sherman proposed what later became known and practiced as the concept of total war – bringing the war to civilians – by planning to lead 65,000 men across Georgia and up through the Carolinas living off the land. If this was to be a war of attrition, he would make sure the people in the South would soon lose their will to continue the fight well before those in the North did. “I can make the march and make Georgia howl,” he said. After much consideration and consternation in Washington, Sherman’s plan was approved provided that he reinforce Nashville against Hood – so he sent Schofield’s army to strengthen that area before setting out for the sea.
The South, too, had developed a new strategy in a meeting of Jefferson Davis and Hood at Hood’s headquarters now in Alabama. Their grand plan for the only gray army now left free was to move it north through Tennessee, including Nashville, to Kentucky where they would then decide whether to put pressure on Ohio or to move east to relieve Grant’s pressure on Lee. Achieving either of these goals would have extended the war indefinitely and may have brought the North back to the bargaining table – especially if Old Abe was not reelected. It was a bold plan, as was Sherman’s, and while it did not have a great chance of success, it did have a chance – maybe the only one they had left. Thus bold, conflicting strategies led two major armies moving in opposite directions – the first time in history that opposing armies marched away from each other.
The last campaign began as Hood’s army moved north towards Nashville while Schofield and his men also moved north almost over the same ground to protect that city. Schofield’s orders from Sherman were to get to Nashville as soon as possible to join the other forces there. Significantly, he was not to enter into battle with Hood. On the other hand, if Hood could engage this army and win, he would not only take these men out of action in Nashville but get the much needed benefit of their equipment and supplies – greatly increasing his chances of winning in Nashville. Such a victory would also mean Sherman would have to turn his army from Georgia and head west – probably too late to do any good in Tennessee. Two armies, two goals. As they moved – sometimes parallel to the other and sometimes crossing over the other’s path ultimately approaching each other at the village of Spring Hill on the Columbia Road, about 10 miles south of Franklin, on November 29th.
Hood got his army there first. He was now positioned between Schofield’s army and its desired destination. At this point, Hood was about to achieve his goal – Schofield would have to go through him to reach Nashville. Hood was delighted; he had never been so well positioned in the war, nor had other armies. He would set a trap, defeat Schofield for his greatest triumph and move on to Nashville in glory with every hope of victory there. Issuing orders, some confusing and some breaking the chain of command leading to still more confusion, Hood retired to the Thompson house outside the village for the night. And what a night it was – while the gray army slept, the blue army silently marched up Columbia Road to Franklin, an event forever to be known, not as the Battle of Spring Hill – there was none – but as the Spring Hill Affair.
Yes, as incredible as it still seems today, the Confederates, after some skirmishing with the Yankees, were deployed on the west and east sides of Columbia Road, but not on the road itself. Schofield’s 35,000 men and hundreds of wagons moved up the road, virtually through the center of the enemy, and not a shot was fired. They were so close to the enemy that some of the men walked over to southern camp fires to light their pipes – some were captured while others walked away smoking. It was not unusual for armies to move around to get in position for a morning battle so the noise of such movement was not itself a cause for alarm. But the fact that such movement was not called for in any Confederate planning – and was not investigated – was very strange. Some historians report that Hood was awakened several times by his generals regarding their assigned positions, indicating the continuing confusion among them. He was even awakened once very early in the morning by a private who suspected what the Union was doing. In each of these instances, Hood did not pay sufficient attention, brushing some off with the comment, “We’ll find the Yankees in the morning” expecting them to be where he wanted them to be.
All that Hood found in the morning was Yankee horse manure on Columbia Road. Hood was livid – his planned grand victory taken from him without a fight. “The best move of my career as a soldier,” he wrote in his memoirs years later, “I was destined to behold come to naught.” In a staff meeting at the Nathan Cheairs House, upon discovering that Schofield’s troops had vanished, he took his anger out on his officers – blaming them for the night’s events. “He’s as wrathy as a rattlesnake,” one of his staff officers said, “striking out at everything.” And he could have also said “everyone.” So much so that Nathan Bedford Forrest, a noted Cavalry Officer was said to have told him, “If you were a whole man, I’d kill you.” I was lucky to once have a box lunch in this house in the unfurnished room where Hood held this meeting. I could still hear the yelling that went on that morning. (Some people still hear the guns when they walk on the battlefields of this war – I still hear the voices of the men fighting those battles.)
Almost 135 years later, historians are still investigating, discussing and debating what really happened that night and who was responsible. While many mistakes were made that night, Hood, not only because he was the commander but because of his conflicting orders and inaction when various situations were called to his attention, bears the responsibility. He did not see it that way. He blamed his staff and specifically a general named Cheatham (later cleared of all blame by a military court) and outrageously, even the men under his command. He felt, he said, after taking over this army, that these men would only fight from behind fortified positions, coming close to calling them cowards. Hood to this day is still held in contempt in the South for these opinions.
Hood, now more than ever determined to fight the Yankees that day, ordered a forced march towards Franklin. He and most of his men arrived there early in the afternoon with Hood taking a position on Winstead Hill where we found him at the beginning of this article – and now you know why he was angry, very angry.
General Hood, who to his friends was known as Sam, was 33 years old at this time. At 6 feet, 2 inches, with broad shoulders and a good physique, one historian described him as “looking like a backwoods lumberjack in the uniform of a Confederate officer.” He had a long face with a long beard below it giving him the appearance according to Mary Chesnut, a southern socialite and diarist, of an “ an old crusader – someone out of Don Quixote,” an appearance that suggested to her “quiet strength.” The dashing Hood, a romantic, was unmarried and very active in Richmond society during his recovery periods, even becoming known as “the cupid on crutches.” His artificial leg, they said, was heard to thump on some of the finest dance floors in the capital city. His heart, as they say, belonged to a leader of that society, Sally Buchanan Preston, known as “Buck.” Sadly for Hood, her love for him, if any, was not as strong. Although once engaged, they never married.
Born and raised in Kentucky, the son of a doctor, Hood was, as one writer put it, “a product of his own Southern time and place. Raised in a chivalric dream world worshipping power, horsemanship and weaponry on a large farm, serviced by slaves on a large farm, he had been the young handsome epitome,” as recorded in one account “of Southern excess – too much gambling, drinking and horse racing.” Seeking a military career, he graduated from West Point in 1853 although he was not too good with the books, graduating 44th in a class of 52 – almost not graduating at all. Carefree and reckless. he had accumulated 196 demerits, only four more would have had him expelled. As a new lieutenant, he served on the frontier, bravely at times in battles with Indians where in one conflict he received an arrow through the hand which he broke off and continued to fight, establishing a well-deserved reputation as a fighter, a reputation that would stay with him. Hood was one of about 15,000 men in the regular army when the Civil War started and he became one of the 313 of its officers to leave the Union for the South. He joined the Confederate army, as first lieutenant, in Alabama; Kentucky had not seceded. After several skirmishes with the enemy, including one that was seen by Jefferson Davis, he was promoted to colonel to command a Texas Brigade leading many to believe he was a Texan.
Hood’s brigade and later his divisions were known to be fighters seeing action in the major battles under the overall command of Robert E. Lee – his hero. These battles included Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg and Chickamauga with Hood rising in rank and responsibility along the way. Throughout his career Hood had created for himself, as one historian wrote, “a self image, helped along by his admirers, as the ultimate Southern extremist, a self styled cavalier who was larger than life.” In 1864, as a new lieutenant general, after recovering as best he did from the loss of his leg, he was assigned to divisions within the Army of Tennessee under General Joe Johnston, the Robert E. Lee of the West. He succeeded Johnston in July. Some think that this promotion to full general was due more to his friendship with Jefferson Davis than proven ability to lead a whole army. (While friendship may have had something to do with Hood’s promotion, to be fair Davis’ action in picking Hood was similar to Lincoln’s selection of Grant – both men were fighters) Hood did not find this new army up to the standards of his old commands in terms of his perception of courage. Nor did the men of this army, loyal to Johnston, find him to be to their liking. Hood had gone from leading troops he was proud of and whom were dedicated to him to one he didn’t have confidence in – one that didn’t want him as their leader. In terms of this century’s “Peter Principle” he had risen to his own level of incompetency. He was, as some said then, “more of a lion than a fox” and a reckless lion at that.
Returning now to Hood’s staff meeting that fateful November afternoon, there appeared to be three main choices:
- To do nothing here, but move around Franklin in the hope of still attacking the army before Nashville.
- General Forrest proposed an end-around attack, flanking the Union army to its left where he thought it was most vulnerable – “I can flank them out of there in hours,” he promised.
- To lead most of the army in a direct frontal assault against the breastworks. The last time an assault of like magnitude had been attempted was with Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg which was a complete disaster for the South. It was also the last time such an attack was made. Hood’s entire staff strongly advised against a frontal attack – saying it would be suicide. Hood, however, paid little attention. He had made up his mind, declaring that “We shall make the fight!” The troops would advance as soon as possible – that afternoon. Not only the officers but the men, too, when they heard the plan, knew their chances were slim or non-existent. The chaplains were kept busy collecting personal items and notes from those who knew that they would not survive.
At 4:00, 22,000 men spread a mile across, with their band playing, moved in mass towards Franklin. It was said to be a magnificent sight with thousands of bayonets glistening in the afternoon while hundreds of rabbits, scared from their homes, scattered before the advancing army raising dust giving the appearance of the army through a dark cloud. The battle the Union army thought would not be fought was now about to begin and it wasn’t quite ready for it. The rear guard, stationed south of the breastworks, had not yet been withdrawn – despite orders issued to do so. Because of this, the road was still open – a big hole in the breastworks. When these men, who were safe behind the breastworks, saw what was coming at them, they panicked after firing a few shots and began running towards their army. Many were immediately captured as the Confederates began their charge overrunning the Yankee position chasing others back toward Franklin.
The Union men behind the breastworks could not fire for fear of hitting their own soldiers, nor could they close the road. Blue and gray charged through the hole in the works reeking havoc inside the Yankees’ lines. If there was a high point to this last campaign – this was it. Despite the great odds, the gray army now had a chance to win. It was brief -some rebels captured cannons turning them towards their enemy but then were unable to find percussion caps to fire them. A Yankee reserve unit 100 yards behind the line immediately reacted to the imminent danger, charging in to fill the gap leaving gray men behind the lines where they were soon wounded, killed or captured. The Confederate assaults against them were easily repulsed as charging men were maimed and killed, filling the ditches before the mounded works with their bodies – some stacked nine deep. And yet the rebels kept coming, in attack after attack, the Yankees admiring their courage while mowing them down. The sun set at 5:34 that terrible day but the battle, or what many still call a slaughter, continued into the night gradually slowing as fewer and fewer men were left to charge, ending about 9:00. The bloodiest five hours of the war were mercifully over, leaving the field covered with dead and moaning men.
The battle’s wounded included young Tod Carter, a captain in Hood’s army who led a charge against his father’s farm, his family along with some neighbors safe in their cellar. He would die three days later in the room of his birth in the farmhouse. A young Yankee major, Arthur McArthur, was also severely wounded – he would live and later become the father of Douglas McArthur. Six gray generals were killed and five others wounded – the most ever lost in any battle.
Private Sam Watkins, who fought in almost every major battle of the war, wrote of this battle in his memoirs:
“Kind reader, right here my pen and courage, and ability fail me. I shrink from butchery. Would to God I could tear the page from these memoirs and from my own memory. It is the blackest page in the history of the war of the Lost Cause. It was the bloodiest battle of modern times in any war. It was the finishing stroke to the independence of the Southern Confederacy. I was there. I saw it. My flesh trembles and creeps and crawls when I think of it today. My heart almost ceases to beat at the horrid recollection. Would to God I had never witnessed such a scene.”
Hood’s army suffered staggering losses – 1,750 dead, 4,500 wounded and 700 captured. Schofield had 170 dead with about 2,100 wounded or captured. (The following year several hundred of the captured Yankees would die when the overcrowded ferry boat they were taking home from prison camps burned and sank.) To put these losses in perspective, Hood lost one-third of his attacking forces. “General Cox would later write that ‘Hood had more men killed at Franklin than died on one side in some of the great conflicts of the war. His killed were more than Grant’s at Shiloh, McClellan in the Seven Days Battle, Hooker at Chancellorsville, and almost as many as Grant at Cold Harbor.’” And these generals had three to five times the number of men engaged in their battles. These are better known battles noted for their carnage among other things. The Franklin frontal assault had produced the disastrous results predicted by Hood’s staff – most of whom were now wounded or dead. How could Hood have ever thought his plan would succeed?
General Hood would attempt to explain and justify his decision a number of times once the war ended and the full extent of the carnage at Franklin became known, which was not until months later. He says in his memoirs, Advance and Retreat, written in part to defend himself over 10 years later, that he did it to teach his men discipline, to show them that they couldn’t always fight from defensive positions. This is a ridiculous statement that no one believed, leaving it to historians to speculate on the real reasons.
These speculations include the following:
- Some believe that Hood may have been under the influence of liquor and the drugs he took for pain. It’s one thing to be an optimist and another to be a bad general – not only was success in the attack almost impossible under any circumstances but Hood reduced those meager odds by not waiting for his artillery or the rest of his army to arrive before attacking – he was not thinking as a general. However, there is no evidence that he was drinking and some that he was not.
- Others believe that he may not have been drinking but that his judgement was clouded by the laudanum, an opiate, that he took for pain. This drug could have given him a feeling of euphoria, a “certainty as some have written, that everything would turn out right, that the user has all the problems that he has only to turn a crank or push a button, or give an order and that all the world’s confusion and despair will vanish.” Possibly, but my experience with such drugs is that if you’re really in pain you don’t feel any euphoric effects, any highs.
- Some historians think he was just so mad from the preceding night’s humiliation that he would do anything and risk everyone to right that wrong as soon as possible. Variations on this theory include, I believe unfairly, that he was so enraged that he was punishing the men whom he thought responsible – Cheatham and his division. They were the first into the battle but far from the only ones to be devastated.
- There is also the very real possibility that he truly believed that a frontal assault was the only chance he had for success – clearly the Union army, although somewhat prepared, wasn’t expecting such an attack, and for a brief few minutes, Hood’s plan almost worked. However, if this analysis is correct, it would seem that Hood could have done a much better job of defending himself than he ever did – perhaps a rationale along the lines of “Davis put in charge to take the fight to the enemy and I did.” But he never made this argument.
- Hood’s weakened physical as well as his mental condition must also be considered in his decision. As my friend Tom Cartwright, the director of the Carter House and museum – not a fan of Hood – puts it, “In his physical condition he should have been retired with honor a year earlier.” He was a physical wreck whose mental alertness was affected by drugs or pain or both, driven by the adrenaline of anger when he arrived on Winstead Hill that day. He was physically, mentally and emotionally unfit for the job. Such people, we know, just don’t make good decisions.
However, ultimately one doesn’t need the effects of liquor, drugs or anger to explain Hood’s actions that day – he was what he was, a dreamer, a romantic with an inflated although bruised self-image with a reputation for fighting and recklessness. What else would someone like that do but what he did? It was almost as if everything in his background brought him to this point – maybe he felt that way too as he appraised the situation. I believe his motivation for the battle is best described in thoughts he ascribes to his men after the Spring Hill fiasco.
In the very brief account of the battle in his book, he wrote, “ A general feeling of mortification and disappointment pervaded the ranks. The troops appeared to recognize that a great opportunity had been totally disregarded and manifested, seemingly a determination to retrieve, if possible, the fearful blunder of the previous afternoon and night.” Obviously it was Hood who would attempt to right “that fearful Blunder,” his blunder, and to do so as soon as possible. He had to right that wrong. A fox would have given the situation much more consideration but the lion did not. In the words of one author, “(Hood’s decision) was the act of a tormented man driven by visions and dreams.” It may also be said that Hood in this battle was a microcosm of the war itself: a dream against overwhelming reality. Some dreams do die hard – first Hood’s and then the South’s.
After the battle, the Union army moved, under cover of night, 20 miles up the road to Nashville where it became part of a force of 80,000. Hood would follow with what was left of his army, taking up positions on the hills over Nashville. The Union forces attacked his lines in mid-December, driving them back several miles the first day and then destroying the lines and all semblance of an opposing army the second day. Hood and the remains of the once proud Army of Tennessee retreated south down Columbia Road eventually arriving in Alabama, where in January Hood resigned his position as commander, the 64,000 men he had in July reduced to about 14,000 survivors. (If you drive north on Columbia Road towards Nashville you will see a number of markers commemorating Hood’s campaign, while if you drive south on this road – Route 31 – you will see markers noting his retreat.)
The last best hope of the South to win anything in the war was over. Sherman completed his march to the sea unopposed and then turned north, making South Carolina pay for being the first state to secede and to fire on the Union at Fort Sumter. Lee, seeing the absolute futility of further resistance, surrendered to Grant in early April at Appomattox Court House, effectively ending the darkest days in our history. Hood, his reputation forever tattered by his actions that one day in November 1864, moved to New Orleans, becoming a cotton merchant and the head of an insurance company. He married, had eleven children, living well until 1878 when quarantines required by a yellow fever epidemic ruined his business and eventually took his wife and oldest daughter. The fever also took his life a few days after his wife died in 1879. As one, not too sympathetic historian put it: “Hood, vanquished by a mosquito.”