Tuesday, December 07, 2021

A forgotten Franklin battlefield where Indiana officers fell

On Dec. 17, 1864, 9th Indiana Cavalry Captain Volney Hobson was killed near
 this railroad abutment in Franklin, Tenn. Hobson photo:
Hazzard's History of Henry County, Indiana, 1822-1906

The forgotten battlefield where Indiana cavalry officers fell on a wretched, wintry day looks nothing like it did in 1864. On the east side of railroad track in Franklin, Tenn., stand a hodge-podge of businesses; apartments and houses compose the west side. Green and blue paint, the work of modern mischief makers/artists, coats the large stones on a 19th-century railroad trestle abutment. On Old Liberty Pike, a woman walks her poodle a pistol shot from a giant, inflatable snowman in the front yard of a modest, two-story residence. 

Eager to get a Union Army soldier's view of this hallowed ground, I struggle up the railroad embankment, yapping dogs be damned. As the sun sets on this brisk afternoon, the scene from the track hardly enthralls. Downtown Franklin, about a musket shot through leafless trees, is out there ... somewhere.

An off-the-beaten path historical marker denotes the site
of a little-known battle on  the outskirts of Franklin, Tenn.
Now imagine this scene on Dec. 17, 1864

Farms, groves of trees, a fruit nursery, a house or two occupy rolling countryside. A railroad line and the Franklin Pike slice through the landscape. (They still do.) After unrelenting rain, the macadamized  pike is a quagmire, pounded by wagons, horses, and thousands of retreating soldiers in John Bell Hood's ragtag Army of Tennessee. 

As U.S. cavalrymen advance south on both sides of the pike, dueling with Hood's rearguard in the aftermath of the Battle of Nashville, they see Franklin on the far side of the Harpeth River. Scores of wounded from the battle there nearly three weeks earlier cram every building in the village. 

On the near side of the winding river, 300 or so yards away, Confederate cannon and muskets fire from a small, earthen fort. Encircling the makeshift defense is telegraph wire attached to posts at intervals—a diabolical tripwire against cavalry. (Perhaps artifacts from the forgotten fort lay underneath back yards of these Daniels Drive houses.)

On Figuers Bluff to the left, the massive (and unoccupied) Federal Fort Granger looms above the river. On the opposite side of the pike, near an orchard and the Rozell place, shrubbery conceals Rebel sharpshooters.

The view Sergeant John Holt of the 9th Indiana Cavalry and his comrades had
"We formed under cover of the ravine, and then advanced down the railroad," recalled Sergeant John Holt of the 9th Indiana Cavalry. Bringing up the rear with his Company E, Holt asks a sergeant in another company if he likes where they are heading. Not much, the soldier replies, but what choice do we have?

"We charged down the railroad until we got to the wagon road, then went under the railroad, the grade being so high as to permit us to go under," Holt remembered.

And so he, lieutentants Jonathan M. Burroughs, James S. Watts, James M. Duvall, and scores of other Indiana cavalrymen continue their advance. Bullets, canister, artillery shells fill the air. But the attack on the fort falters.

9th Indiana Cavalry Lt. James S. Watts fell at the corner of Old Liberty and Franklin pikes.
Jonathan Burroughs "was wounded by a fragment of a shell striking him on the head
carrying away the superior portion of the left temporal bone," 9th Indiana Colonel
 George Jackson wrote. (Burroughs pension file | National Archives via fold3.com | WC69023)
As two soldiers assist the dismounting Burroughs, a shell fragment tears through his skull, mortally wounding the officer. Did he fall in the parking lot of that taco place on Franklin Pike? Shot in the chest, Duvall falls, too. The wound plagues him until he dies in 1880. 

Post-war image of
Sergeant John Holt.
(Ball State University
via Henry County Museum)
Near the intersection of Franklin and Old Liberty pikes Watt falls, dead. Did he crumple in the front yard of the house with the impressive, detached garage? I wonder if residents in the house across the pike, near that orange-and-white road construction barrel, know the kill shot may have originated from their back yard.

Shot through the heart, Captain Volney Hobson falls near the stone abutment at the railroad trestle. Or does he crumple closer to that earthen Confederate fort? The fog of war often obscures truth.

As Holt scrambles to the rear, Hobson's  riderless horse gallops past him. Nearby, the captain—Holt's commanding officer—lays dying in a pool of his own blood. In a conversation with Burroughs earlier, the 36-year-old is overheard saying, "The rebel bullet is not molded that will kill me."

Hobson's death is a gut punch for his men. An adventurous spirit, he drove cattle across the Plains to supply gold miners with beef in California in the 1850s—he became a miner, too. In spring 1862, Hobson served as a clerk in the 19th Indiana, a regiment in the famed Iron Brigade. At Antietam, he snatched from a fallen South Carolina officer a gold watch and chain—a prized souvenir he gave to his half-brother. In December 1863, Hobson was commissioned as captain of Company E in the 9th Indiana Cavalary.

The gravestone of 9th Indiana Captain Volney Hobson 
in Batson Cemetery in Millville, Ind.
(Find A Grave)
"While Capt. Hobson many times seemed rough in his remarks, his actions would show that he was tender in feelings," Holt said.

A colonel plants the 9th Indiana regimental colors to establish a new line, perhaps near where the inflatable snowman wobbles in the wind on Old Liberty Pike. The Indianans bag two stands of enemy colors and roughly 200 prisoners—captures made "by individual prowess,... and not the result of concerted action."

"The charge was unwisely ordered, but bravely and brilliantly executed," an Indiana officer recalled. "To ride down in the face of a withering fire on a fort inaccessible to cavalry, defended by artillery and infantry ... was apparently a ride to death."

In the chaos of their retreat to the south side of the Harpeth, the Rebs dump four cannon in the river. Wary U.S. cavalrymen keep their heads down as Confederate sharpshooters, infantry and artillery maintain a steady fire from town. 

Then a solid shot plows through a U.S. soldier's horse—a gruesome exclamation point to an ugly day on Franklin's forgotten battlefield. "The astonishment of the boy holding the bridle, gazing at his disembowled but still erect horse, can be better imagined than described," a soldier recalled decades later.

Lieutenant James S. Watts was buried at Stones River National Cemetery.
A cropped enlargement of a map of fighting in Franklin, Tenn., shows where
Captain Volney Hobson and fellow 9th Indiana Cavalry officers James S. Watts and
 Jonathan M. Burroughs (or Burrows) suffered mortal wounds on Dec. 17, 1864. 
(CLICK HERE TO VIEW COMPLETE MAP | 9th Cavalry history)

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



  1. My ancestors were in the 120th Indiana Infantry, Company E so they did not fight here. But this is quite a story and what is sad is that apparently there was no effort to save this battlefield from future development. That’s why historic battlefield preservation is so important. This is hallowed ground and should be treated as such.

  2. The attention you bring to these "lost battlefields" is a solemn reminder of the continued need for historical preservation. Thank you!

  3. What Scott said! Thank you, John Banks. Keep on truckin'

  4. Drove that road this week.