This Hallowed Ground

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With hindsight, it can be argued that this was a strategic error of the first magnitude. Hood’s offensive was doomed. Thomas had enough strength to stop him, and although the expedition caused uneasy moments in Washington it ended in sheer Confederate disaster. But the simple fact is that Hood had no good choice to make. The Confederate armies were coming to the end of the tether. There was a good deal of killing still to be done—deaths on battlefield and in hospital, men slain in meaningless little crossroads skirmishes, typhoid and dysentery and scurvy doing their stealthy work behind the lines—but the verdict was just about in. Confederate armies now could do little more than play out the string.

Thomas was in Nashville, trying to reassemble his army. Some of his stout Cumberland soldiers had gone off to Savannah with Sherman, and he did not have all of his old command. Reinforcements were on their way, and he would presently have a first-rate cavalry corps—young James H. Wilson was putting together a mighty force of mounted men, all of them to be armed with repeating carbines—but Thomas was not quite ready yet and he wanted time. He had sent John Schofield with approximately 22,000 men down near the Tennessee-Alabama border, to delay Hood and gain a little of this time for him, and for 24 hours it looked as if Hood might eat Schofield at one bite.

Schofield let Hood steal a march on him, and by a fast flank movement Hood brought his troops around to a place called Spring Hill, on the Nashville Turnpike, squarely in Schofield’s rear. Alerted just in time, Schofield turned back in retreat. Hood’s men were where they could have broken up this retreat and compelled the Federals to fight an uphill battle for their lives, but Hood’s command arrangements got fouled up most atrociously, and in some unaccountable way he let Schofield’s army march straight across his front, wagon trains and all, without molesting it.

The Federals tramped wearily up to the town of Franklin, on the south bank of the Harpeth River. The bridge had been burned, and Schofield could not get his guns or his wagons across the river until his engineers had built a new one; so he put his infantry in line in a wide semicircle on a rising ground just south of town and got them dug in while the engineers went to work.

Hood’s army was moving fast in pursuit—Hood was furious because of the chance that had been missed at Spring Hill, and he was blaming everyone but himself for it, complaining that his soldiers were unwilling to fight unless they could have the protection of trenches. His army came up into contact with Schofield’s outpost a little after noon, and Hood immediately decided to attack.

It was November 30; a pleasant Indian summer day with a broad open field rolling gently up to the Union trenches. General Schofield, who was on the far side of the river seeing to the bridge-building job, looked across and saw one of the great tragic sights of the war. Here were 18,000 Confederate infantrymen, more men than had charged with Pickett at Gettysburg, coming forward in perfect order, battle flags flying, sunlight glinting on polished rifle barrels. On came the moving ranks, looking irresistible, battalions perfectly aligned; then the Federal infantry and artillery opened, a dense cloud of smoke tumbled down the slope, and the moment of pageantry was over.

No fight in all the war was more desperate than this one at Franklin. Hood’s men charged with a stubborn fury that should have proved to the angry general, once and for all, that they were not in the least afraid to fight out in the open. They came to close quarters and—incredibly, for the charge was just about as hopeless as Burnside’s assaults on the stone wall at Fredericksburg had been—cracked the center of the Union line and went pouring through, raising the Rebel yell. But the break was quickly mended. Ohio and Wisconsin and Kentucky troops came in with a prompt counterattack. There was terrible hand-to-hand fighting in a farmyard and around a cotton gin; a gunner in one Union battery brained an assailant with an axe, and young Colonel Arthur MacArthur of the 24th Wisconsin was crying to his men: “Give ’em hell, boys, give ’em hell, 24th!” The Confederates who had broken the line were killed or driven out, and all along the front the firing reached a fearful intensity; some of the Confederates, utterly beaten out, facing this fire at the closest range, were heard calling: “Don’t shoot, Yanks —for God Almighty’s sake, don’t shoot!”

The autumn day ended, at last, and the battle ended with it, the shattered Confederate brigades drawing back in defeat. Their losses had been 6,000 men killed or wounded, five general officers killed—among them the Pat Cleburne who had mentioned the unmentionable in that officers’ meeting the previous winter—and seven more generals wounded, one mortally. Nothing whatever had been gained. Late that night Schofield’s bridge was finished and his army marched off to Nashville, eighteen miles away, saving its guns and wagons.

The Federal army had held Nashville for the better part of three years, and had surrounded it with powerful fortifications. When Hood’s army came up and ranged itself on the hills facing the Union works, the Federals looked out at them and reflected that it was good to “occupy the favorable side of the fortifications.”

Hood came to a standstill, here before Nashville. He had already shot his bolt, although he did not seem to realize it. Thomas outnumbered him by a substantial margin, and there was no longer anything of much consequence that he could do. Lacking a better course, he dug trenches here facing the strong Yankee line and put up a hollow pretense of besieging the place.