Friday, November 29, 2019

'Bodies were everywhere': My visit to killing field at Franklin

Once occupied by a small strip mall and house, this hallowed ground at Franklin is now preserved as a
 battlefield park. The cannons mark position of a Union battery. Stones mark the line of Union earthworks.
NOTE: This story was reported and written in spring 2018. 

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It's not difficult to understand why the Battle of Franklin (Tenn.) remained seared in the minds of those who fought there. The fighting on Nov. 30, 1864, was one of the most concentrated slaughters of the Civil War, with hundreds falling dead and wounded on the farm of 67-year-old Fountain Branch Carter.

"It was awful!" a Confederate recalled of the five-hour battle. "The ditch at the enemy's line — on the right and left of the [Columbia] pike — was literally filled with dead bodies lying across each other, in all unseemly deformity of violent death." Another Confederate veteran remembered standing in a ditch with "blood to the depth of shoe soles."

Bullet-scarred outbuildings on the old Carter farm are testament
to the ferocity of the fighting here on Nov. 30, 1864.
Every time I read the terrible recollections of soldiers and others about the savagery of the fighting near Carter’s house and outbuildings -- thankfully preserved today -- I wince.

“In trying to clean up,” Carter’s son, Moscow, said years after the battle, “I scraped together a half bushel of brains right around the house, and the whole place was dyed with blood.“

Pitiless bulldozers and developers long ago turned the hallowed ground on the plain leading to the Carter house into a hodge-podge of residential neighborhoods, office parks, fast-food restaurants, convenience stores and other suburban schlock. Although tremendous (and costly) preservation efforts have reclaimed battleground, much of the Franklin field sadly is left to our imaginations.

Curious, I walked the neighborhood near the bullet-scarred Carter house and outbuildings – ground that was strewn after the battle with scores of bodies. Here's what I found out about the killing field in the midst of suburbia.

The war-time Carter house along Columbia Pike is a popular Franklin attraction.
            PANORAMA: Bullet-scarred Carter farm outbuildings along Columbia Pike.
                                    (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

Wearing a dark-blue suit, light-blue shirt and sporting a well-manicured, brown goatee, Eric Jacobson looks like a distinguished Union officer. This battleground holds deep meaning for the Battle of Franklin Trust chief executive officer, who long ago made it his goal to understand “every inch” of the hallowed ground. “I wanted to know it,” says the Minnesota native, “like I know myself.”

Close-up of bullet hole in Fountain Carter outbuilding.
Our walk in the battlefield park near the Carter house, epicenter of the battle, occurs on the anniversary of D-Day, another momentous event in American history. The Allies suffered 4,900 casualties on June 6, 1944. At Franklin, there were nearly 9,000 casualties in five hours on a two-mile front during a battle fought mostly a night, a rarity during the war; 189 Federal soldiers were killed and a staggering 1,750 Confederates.

Jacobson still remembers the day in 1999 when he first walked the hallowed ground near the Carter house. “I was stunned,” he says as we cross busy Columbia Pike, main route of advance of John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee. “How the hell could this happen?”

“This” was a small strip mall, two pizza restaurants and a Victorian house built on core battlefield land near the site of the infamous Carter cotton gin. Irishmen Patrick Cleburne – one of six Rebel  generals to die from wounds suffered at Franklin -- was killed nearby.

Another view of bullet-scarred Carter farm outbuilding.
Decades ago, Jacobson couldn’t see the Carter house from this spot near modern-day Cleburne Street, the most poignant on the battlefield for him. Thankfully, those awful battlefield intrusions were demolished in 2014, two years after the one-acre property had been purchased by preservation organizations. Jacobson's vista is restored. (The area where Cleburne was killed, once occupied by a pizza restaurant, was reclaimed and restored to open space in 2006. It's a small memorial park today.)

As we walk through the battlefield park, roughly along the line where Union earthworks stood, Jacobson tells of his ultimate goal for a battlefield. He wants visitors to be able to walk from where we stand to historic Carnton Plantation, about 1 ¼  miles away, on preserved battlefield land.

About 15 feet from the foundation of the old Carter cotton gin and an easy bean-bag toss from a 20th-century house, we stand by a cannon marking the position of the 6th Ohio Light Artillery battery. During the battle, Lieutenant Aaron Baldwin’s artillerymen held this spot against swarms of Confederates. This land, Jacobson says, is akin to the Bloody Angle at Gettysburg, where the Union Army made another desperate stand. “Baldwin had no support here. He stays while others fall back,” he says. “At what point do you run?”

In 1864, Baldwin’s artillery pointed into an open field. “Just look at his field of fire,” says an admiring Jacobson, gesturing into a neighborhood filled with houses.

The field of fire for Union Lieutenant Aaron Baldwin's battery is a residential neighborhood today..
     PANORAMA: Foundation stones for war-time Carter cotton gin, behind Union lines 
          during the battle. This was site of some of the most intense fighting of the war.
                                  (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

If Aaron Baldwin’s artillery battery were in action today, it probably could do significant damage to Tom Henderson’s property on the killing field. Red, white and blue bunting hangs from the porch of the one-story house in which the North Carolina native and his wife have lived for 30 years. Three American flags are planted in the front yard. “We’re a very patriotic family,” says the 76-year-old Navy veteran, whose ancestors fought in the Confederate infantry and cavalry.

Confederates swept from right to left across the plain in front of 
the Carter house. This ground today is a residential neighborhood.
“Right here,” Henderson says, pointing in a 180-degree arc, “bodies were everywhere.” Confederates made one of their six charges across this relatively flat ground in his development, built in the late 1980s.

Henderson says his neighbors have found evidence of the great struggle on the Bloody Plain – “ton of bullets,” soldiers’ belt buckles and even a gold coin. But the battle holds no special sway over him.

“We respect the history here,” Henderson says, “but we don’t dwell on it.” As we part, he waves to a neighbor, grabs two of his empty garbage cans and heads back up his driveway.

         GOOGLE STREET VIEW: Williamson County Library (left) was built on "core                      battlefield." The war-time Carter farmhouse is a little more than 250 yards away.
                                    (Click on image to explore the neighborhood.)

Over the objections of battlefield preservationists, the Williamson County Public Library was built in 2003 on land near the Columbia Pike. “Core battlefield,” Jacobson calls the site.

If Confederate Gen. John C. Brown’s division of battle-hardened veterans were to charge over this ground again, he would need several batteries of artillery to take down the large, two-story building and probably a regiment just to remove the fences around the four tennis courts behind it. In Gettysburg terms, it’s like a building was plopped on the Nicholas Codori farm, ground Confederates swept over during Pickett’s Charge.

Inside the library, a friendly Franklin resident talks about the local blood drive. Near the circulation desk, bespectacled librarian Jennie Williams sits with a co-worker behind a long desk in the children’s section. Unsurprisingly, she has a Confederate ancestor – he was wounded near Murfreesboro, Tenn., during the war.

A 60-year-old Nashville native, Williams doesn’t consider the library an intrusion on hallowed ground. She believes the Carter house, about 800 feet from her library chair, “is more Ground Zero” of the battlefield.

Before I depart, Williams and her co-worker casually mention an unusual library holding, perhaps unique in the U.S. public library system. With a library card, anyone can check out a metal detector to hunt for Civil War relics. Be warned: The waiting list is lengthy.

Rita and Tony Holcomb sit on the front porch of their house, which sits on land upon which 
Union earthworks were built in November 1864.  Confederate General Patrick Cleburne 
was killed nearby. Rita holds a bullet and spoon found on their property.
Early on a sultry evening, Tony Holcomb sips a Bulleit bourbon under the shade of a tree in his front yard while his toy fox terrier strains on a leash. A semi-retired Air Force veteran, Holcomb and his wife, Rita, live on Cleburne Street in a 1936 house with an impressive, recent addition. In 1864, Union earthworks cut through his property, about right where a framed photo of Patrick Cleburne hangs on the wall of the Holcombs' living room.

From his front porch, Tony Holcomb can see the pyramid-shaped battlefield monument that denotes where Cleburne was killed. If he stands on a chair on his side porch, he can see the blocks of the foundation of the Carter cotton gin, where some of the most ferocious fighting of the war occurred.

A civil engineer, Holcomb knows about buildings and terrain, and we spend several minutes talking about the sloping ground yards from his house on which Confederates charged in 1864.

A pyramid-shaped monument marks where Confederate Gen. Patrick Cleburne 
was killed. In 2006, the American Battletfield Trust worked to acquire 
this land, and a Pizza Hut here was demolished and the ground restored
 to open space. It's a small memorial park today.
“How could these guys stand the onslaught?” says Tony, pointing to a Union artillery position over a fence steps from his house. “And how could these guys,” nodding toward where Cleburne’s soldiers charged yards away, “keep on coming? How could they do this?”

Although he’s not a history buff, Tony has a deep respect for the battlefield. So does his wife, Rita, a gregarious Alabama native who calls her home a “little slice of heaven.”

While we engage in small talk on a swing on the porch, Rita ventures inside the house and returns with a shopping bag. She pulls from it several smaller plastic bags, each holding pieces of Franklin’s Civil War past. When the foundation for the Holcombs’ addition was built, a local man asked if he could sweep his metal detector across the ground. He gave the Holcombs everything he found – bullets, what looks like a piece of harmonica, clumps of lead and other detritus of war.

Before my visit ends, we examine an area just off the Holcombs’ property, near the cotton gin site.

“Dead bodies were everywhere in our back yard,” Rita says of the long-ago fighting here.

After a tour of their home, Rita pulls an unfired Union bullet from one of her plastic bags of relics. Handing the one-ounce piece of lead to me as a gift, she reminds me to not remove the dirt from it.

Just another day on a killing field.

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


-- Confederate VeteranJanuary 1894.
-- Philadelphia Times, Aug. 21, 1882.


  1. John, you sure meet some fine and interesting people on your battlefield travels. Thanks again for the excellent travelogues.

  2. The charge at Franklin may not dwarf Pickett's at Gettysburg, but it was bigger in many ways and more devastating. I find it sad that the assault at Franklin takes a backseat to the third day at Gettysburg.