Tuesday, June 05, 2018

'Dyed with blood': A reporter's 1882 visit to Franklin battlefield

Confederate veteran Moscow Carter (middle) and his sons at their house, a Battle of Franklin landmark.
(Battle of Franklin Trust | CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)
A present-day view of the Carter house, a focal point of the battle on Nov. 30, 1864.
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When describing a site on a Virginia battlefield that had been carved up by pitiless bulldozers, a National Park Service ranger told me something years ago that has stuck with me. "That place now," he said, shaking his head, "is a battlefield of the mind."

And so it is at Franklin, where huge swaths of the Tennessee battlefield sadly were lost to development long ago. Despite excellent preservation successes recently, especially near the iconic Carter House and at Eastern Flank Battlefield Park, most of the field is left to our imaginations.

On busy Columbia Pike, a half-mile south of the Carter house, a
historical sign marks the position of the Union's forward line
during the Battle of Franklin.
On the Bloody Plain, where John Bell Hood's Army of Tennessee charged the afternoon of Nov. 30, 1864, you'll find today fast-food restaurants, convenience stores, office parks, a quarry, a modern cemetery, a bar and neighborhoods where streets are named after Confederate generals. A parking lot for mobile homes and a funeral home are yards from the historical sign on busy Columbia Pike that marks the Federals' forward line, site of savage fighting.   

In the summer of 1882, while on a tour of Western battlefields, Philadelphia Times reporter George Morgan was fortunate to see Franklin much as it appeared in 1864. Accompanied by a black man named Si, Morgan approached the old battleground from the north, crossing the Harpeth River. Among his stops was the Carter house on Columbia Pike, then occupied by Moscow Carter, son of the man who owned the property in 1864.

"Neither through love nor by money could I have found so good a guide," Morgan wrote of Carter, who sold the farm in 1896.  A Confederate soldier on parole during the battle, Carter -- known in 1882 as "Colonel" -- witnessed brutal fighting on his family's farm. After the battle, he told Morgan, he "scraped together a half bushel of brains right around the house and the whole place was dyed with blood."

As it appeared in the Times, here is Morgan's descriptive account of a visit to the site of what the correspondent called "the fiercest little battle of the war.":


A circa-1909 view looking south from the eastern edge of Carter Hill, where once lay the main Federal line.
(Williamson County Historical Society)
Special Correspondent of The Times

Opposing commanders at Franklin:
 John Bell Hood and John Schofield,
FRANKLIN, TENN. August 16. -- If the reader will crook his elbow just as he did the last time he had his arm around his girl's waist he may get a fair idea of the way the Harpeth river curves around the town of Franklin. The coat sleeve thus gallantly pressing the frock forms a sort of U, and so the river, with Franklin in the short bend, cuts out from the plain the huge horseshoe into which [John Bell] Hood, on the last day of November, 1864, threw his 40,000 men to crush [John] Schofield's 17,000 therein entrenched. Moreover, if the reader will place his left wrist, with the fingers of that hand widely extended, at the crook of the elbow, he may complete the illustration, for five roads like the thumb and four fingers lead out from a spot called "Five Points," in the heart of the town, across the plain over which Hood advanced.

Climbing Roper's Knob, which, as a part of a bluff on the north side of the stream, stands in bold contrast with the level land to the south, I had a view of the whole pleasing picture -- the Harpeth gleaming in the sunlight like a silver bow, the lovely town among trees in its embrace, and beyond a thousand fields threaded by the five white road beds as though by cords of silk. What was before me did not seem like a place of strife, but it was the famous Franklin field and upon it was fought the fiercest little battle of the war.

Men mad down in their boots


The battle was terrific because the men on both sides were mad from crown to heel. On Hood's side there were hosts of Tennesseeans angry at despoiled homes. Their feet were bruised on flinty roads and frozen fields. A trail of blood had marked the track of more than one barefooted regiment, and winter was sharply on with its first snow. In the knapsacks of the dead could be found bits of bark, roots and pone. Hood's hungry battalions had followed the fat trail of the Yankee commissary through four States, and Schofield was in a trap in the Harpeth horseshoe, with a river at his back. But Schofield's men were mad, too. They had been driven from post to pillar, until they chafed at further retreat. Their line stretched along the skirts of the town from river to river and they were anxious as well as ready for the fight.

"Yes, sah; hit was right heah! hit was right heah, sah, dat ole Moss Hood bit off moah'n he cud chaw," said Si, the darkey driver, as we came down the Knob, crossed the Harpeth and trotted out the Columbia turnpike. And when I added: "And, having bitten off more than ho could chew, he choked to death in the act of deglutition," old Si settled me with: '"Deed, I spec so, boss; dunno bout degluten bizness, but he died a swallorin'."

The one legend of Franklin


An early post-war view of the Carter house and outbuildings. Note the farm office, which had been moved 
near  the house. It was moved back to its war-time location in 1951. (Battle of Franklin Trust)
A present-day view of the bullet-riddled farm office.
As we approached the Federal line, the driver pointed out a large brick house, shaded by locust trees, and, reining in his horses, began impressively: "You was inquirin' wedder dar ain't no one partickler story 'bout do battle dat holds on to de folks ob de town. Wat am dat ar 'spression you slung out wid reference to hit? "

"Legend."

Moscow Carter,
the "Colonel."
"Dat's hit, legen'; yes, sah, an' de legen' is bout dat ar house, Colonel Carter's, up dar. Young Cappen Carter, dis presen' colonel's brudder, was one ob de rebs, an' he hadu' been home to see his mah furr foah yeah. He was wid Moss Hood, an' so he got so neah home dat mo'nin dat he thought he'd kind o' slip ober home. Up he comes to degate, an' sees his mah peekin out to de winder.

"'O honey !' says his mah, nice a missis ez eber was. An' de cappen he hists up de latch an' stans still a minnit. He seed de poorty yahd wid da locus' trees all roun', whare he use ter play wid de bitties wen he was a teeny, tiny young 'un, an' den he 'gin to cry. Poah cappen! he 'gin to cry, he did, an 'ez  hists de latch ob de gate he says:' Thank de good God in de sky, I'se home agin to my father's house !' "

"Well, go on, Si."

"What's do use talkin' any moah, boss. Coaso he nebber got in de house. Hit hit 'im 'twixt de eyes, right heah. Yes, sah ; Cappen Carter diden' keer furr dem bullets, kase he'd seed so many afore, but dat un killed 'im deadern a doah nail."

(Note: Confederate Captain Tod Carter, whom Si references, did not visit his boyhood home before the battle. He was mortally wounded nearby and died in the Carter house on Dec. 2, 1864.) 

Where the hot fighting was


A view of the Carter smokehouse from the early 1900s. (Williamson County Historical Society)
A present-day view of the bullet-scarred smokehouse.
         PANORAMA: Bullet-scarred Carter outbuildings, testament to brutal battle here.
                                      (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

We hitched to the locust tree by the gate where Captain Carter, whose name is mentioned affectionately in the chronicles of his comrades, was said to have fallen and walked around the house. The southern end shows many marks of Minie balls and a frame structure adjoining seems to have been peppered with small shot. So, too, the outbuildings and the trees offer evidences evidences of the conflict, for here the Federal centre was boldly salient, the flanks resting on the river to the right and left. The present owner of the plantation, Colonel Carter, looked as warlike as his battered premises when we caught a glimpse of him, with a gun on his shoulder, striding in from a locust thicket, where he had been shooting birds. The gun was less talkative than the colonel, however, and he not only forgave the intrusion, but kindly showed me that part of the field. From his yard he pointed out the hills whence emerged Hood's lines of battle and indicated all places to be famous in history.

A comet's tail of cowards


Neither through love nor by money could I have found so good a guide. This was the very ground of slaughter and Colonel Carter was not only a trained observer in the fury of the fight, but for eighteen years he has trod with his heel and turned with his hoe the bloody soil. "At the time of the fight," he said, "I was home on parole. Generals Schofield and [Jacob] Cox had their headquarters in my father's house, where also many of our neighbors gathered." His chat was mainly of grim reminiscence, yet now and then a flash of humor would be observable. So hot was it once that he went into the cellar to calm the fears of the women and children, and happening to look out through the window bars he saw a sight that made him laugh in the midst of dying groans. Before his eyes stretched a comet's tail of men in blue, who had sought the lee of the house to escape the bullets and who swung to and fro as the battle surged around the building. These were the cowards whose claim to manhood was that they were bipeds -- each had two legs to run with.

Long lines of heroes


A circa-1900 photo of the last stretch of Columbia Pike, just before the Carter house.
(U.S. Army Military Historical Institute)
Looking from an opposite window  the other hand, he saw in the dusk a line of  Confederates dash upon the earthworks with the fury of devils. Men jabbed with the bayonet at each other over hedge and fence and hundreds were slain in his sight. General [John] Adams, riding with head bare and sword uplifted, spurred directly against the abattis. A sharp fence rail pierced the horse's belly, transfixing him dead in air, and Adams, veteran comrade of  [Winfield] Scott at Vera Cruz, was himself lifted dead from his saddle by Federal bayonets. As darkness came on fresh battalions swept over the plain. The light they fought by was the red glare of artillery. Midnight saw no cessation, and when at last Hood sank aghast at the slaughter, with Generals [Patrick] Cleburne, Adams, [Otto] Strahl, [States Rights] Gist and [Hiram] Granberry, a hundred line officers and many barefooted braves dead around him, Colonel Carter heard a familiar whirr overhead and then counted two tinkles upon the little clock. Between that hour and daybreak, Schofield, unhurt, crossed the Harpeth with his trains and left on the field a victor who had broken his own arm, his prestige and his heart in the frantic and fruitless blow.

When the wave had rolled by


                            PANORAMA: The Carter house is astride Columbia Pike.
                                      (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

A five-acre thicket of locust trees here during the battle became a "forest of toothpicks," 
according to Moscow Carter.  Descendants of those locust trees may be found here today.
After the battle the farm, like others adjoining, was in utter wreck. The house alone stood. All the fences were down. Mud was knee-deep in the yard. Dead men and horses were thick about. "Hood's first charge was made at 4 o'clock," said Col. Carter, "and it fell upon this point, as did all the heavy assaults. You see this locust thicket on our right? That thicket then covered five acres. but after the fight it was a forest of toothpicks. In that vegetable patch to our left General Cleburne fell dead. There is nothing to indicate the exact spot, but it is within twenty yards of where we stand.

"The corn field to the left of the pike was filled with dead and dying and the corn to the right of the pike was a counterpart of the other. In this yard and in that garden I could walk from fence to fence on dead bodies, mostly those of Confederates. In trying to clear up I scraped together a half bushel of brains right around the house and the whole place was dyed with blood.

"Nothing in the shape of horse, mule, jack nor jenny was left in the neighborhood. In fact, I remember that it was not until Christmas, twenty-five days afterwards, that I was enabled to borrow a yoke of oxen, and I spent the whole of that Christmas day hauling seventeen dead horses from this yard."

There was a big rain storm not long after the battle, and as the earth was washed out of the trenches he saw a line of human hands sticking up some with fingers shut tight, some pointing and all so ghastly that they were covered hurriedly. Before the bodies got to be bones, and it was not long, because this was among the last of the terrible battles, they were removed to the cemeteries. Now bones are uncommon sights and the plowman is not startled as at some wilder grounds which I have visited.

Cleburne's face framed in lead


An early post-war view of the re-built Carter cotton gin. Confederate General Patrick Cleburne was among
 those killed in horrific fighting near here. (Franklin Battlefield Trust)

There are many minor objects on this Carter farm worthy in themselves of lengthy mention. A grain fan with just 125 bullets in it would be a curiosity in any museum, and there once was taken from the place a wooden post so heavy from its battle-breakfast of lead that it sank to the bottom when placed in a pond of water. Some time ago a soldier who had served under Cleburne addressed a letter "To any ex-Confederate in Franklin, Tenn.," requesting a bullet of wood from some tree near where General Cleburne died to make a frame for a picture of his old commander. As that gallant Irishman, who rests under the cedars at Helena, Ark., fell in the open field, an oak plank was torn from an old gin-house a few feet away. In cutting the plank so that it could be placed in a box and sent by express the saw struck a dozen or more bullets. And by this time very likely Cleburne's picture is framed in rebel oak set with the Yankee gems that cost him his life.

Politics in battle-smoke


A Reb engaged his enemy
in conversation
about "Old Abe"
during the battle.
It was within ten yards of this historic spot that in the thick of the fray a rebel soldier, in trying to leap the Federal breastwork, fell wounded into the trench. A Union officer who visited Franklin a few weeks ago, and who was behind the breastwork at the time of the incident, saw the injured rebel beckoning to him and gave ear. "It's so hot," said the rebel, "I believe if you'll help me over I'll surrender."

The smoke was blinding, the earth was shaken under artillery and the air whistled in the tracks of countless Minie balls, but in pity the wounded man was lifted over. It was found that one leg had been shot almost away.

"Yank," he said, "I'm obleeged to ye, but what I cum in furr was to larn who's 'lected."

"Elected! What do you mean?" asked'tho officer, astounded at such a question at such a moment, when trembling earth and lurid sky seemed merged into the hot quarters of bell itself.

"Who's 'lected President, Little Mac or old Abe Lincoln?"

"Mr. Lincoln."

"Old Abe still; then, by God, stranger, this damned wah is gwine to last foah yeahs moah!"

Earthworks at Hard-Bargain


Objects and incidents similar to the foregoing made the Carter house a place of such interest that the sun was slanting before we left the Columbia pike and returned to the heart of the town where the five roads meet. Then driving a few hundred yards out upon another of the roads, which ran along the Harpeth to the north of the town, we came to Hard-Bargain, where rested the extreme Federal right, plumb against the river. Here for three hundred yards or so the Federal line of earthwork remains much as it was left. It extends along the crest of a low hill, a sort of common covered with rocks, short herd grass, thistle and dandelion.

If one were to start at this end of the horseshoe and move across lots to the Carter house and thence over fields to the other end of the horseshoe he probably probably could trace the whole Federal line, keeping the trail from trenches and the brownish hue of the upturned subsoil. But for that trudge we had no time, and returning to the "Five Points" we rode out the other three roads in turn, observing such things as scarred trees on the way. The last road along which Si whipped his horses was that which ran southeastward and led us to the Confederate burying ground. The Union dead were removed to Nashville and Columbia, where there are cemeteries, but 1,481 Confederates were put into the ground on the field of death.

A strange plantation picture


McGavock Confederate Cenetery, visited in 1882 by Philadelphia Times correspondent George Morgan.
The McGavocks' impressive mansion, Carnton, appears in the right background.
The cemetery is in the midst of a fine old plantation, parts of which look more like a  delightful park than pasture fields for lazy sheep. Stretches of green meadows, with oaks centuries old, whitewashed fences, lovely patches of copse and the sun sinking in purple behind the mansion made the scene such as a novelist might call baronial. Si waited at the graveyard gate while I walked down a long avenue of pines, hundreds of head-boards being on either side.

Overgrowing the little mounds and concealing them in many places are carpets of blue grass, wild ivy and wild sage, fragrant when bruised by the heel. I saw General Duncan's name on one head-board and other names, familiar in battle-story, came under my eye, which, however, was less watchful for epitaphs than the eyes of the blue-jays, robins and twittering garden canaries were of the intruder.

"Say, boss !" came from Si, at the other end of the avenue, "dese rebs, flat on day 're backs heah, was mitey hungry wen day cum inter Franklin. Da was after dat Yankee commissary."

This remark did not seem to have a double meaning, and I was still stumping around when " Say, boss, Ise mos' hungry nuff to mobe on de ole woman's commissary. Doan ye hab no sundown suppers up Norf?"

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.

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