Prelude to the Battle
Siege of Chattanooga
In September 1863, Confederate General Braxton Bragg and his Army of Tennessee were attempting to recapture Chattanooga, Tennessee from Federal forces by besieging the city. Union leaders responded by sending Major General Ulysses S. Grant and reinforcements to Chattanooga with orders to break the siege. After establishing a new supply line into the city, Grant ordered a breakout offensive in late November that successfully drove Bragg’s army back into northern Georgia. With the “Gateway to the South” secured, Union forces prepared to launch an offensive aimed at capturing Atlanta.
Grant’s Umbrella Strategy
Following the breakout at Chattanooga, President Abraham Lincoln promoted Grant to the special rank of lieutenant general and placed him in command of all Union armies. Grant moved his headquarters to Washington, DC, leaving his trusted subordinate, Major General William T. Sherman, in command of federal operations in the Western Theater. Grant’s primary military strategy was a coordinated effort to attack and defeat the two main Confederate armies in the field, the Army of Northern Virginia in the east, under the command of Robert E. Lee, and Bragg’s Army of Tennessee in the west. On May 5, 1864, Grant launched his Overland Campaign in Virginia. Two days later, Sherman opened his Atlanta Campaign in the West.
Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign
Using a series of flanking maneuvers, Sherman persistently drove the Army of Tennessee south toward Atlanta. On July 17, 1863, Confederate President Jefferson Davis replaced General Joseph E. Johnston with General John Bell Hood as commander of the Army of Tennessee. Hood proved to be more willing to fight than Johnston, but the results were essentially the same.
By July, Sherman had Hood’s army bottled up in Atlanta. On July 20, Sherman ordered his artillery to bombard Hood’s lines and the city, which still harbored about 3,000 civilians. The shelling lasted for five weeks, but Hood continued to hold on as long as he was receiving supplies.
Toward the end of August, Sherman stopped the flow of supplies into Atlanta. With his main supply line severed, Hood evacuated Atlanta on the night of September 1, burning all military stores and installations. Sherman’s forces occupied the city the next day, ending the Atlanta Campaign.
After evacuating Atlanta, Hood reorganized his forces at Lovejoy’s Station, south of Atlanta, and Sherman chose not to pursue. On September 21, 1864, Hood moved north to Palmetto, Georgia, where he met with President Davis on September 25. Davis and Hood devised a plan to have Hood’s 39,000 soldiers move north toward Chattanooga, destroying Sherman’s supply lines back to Tennessee along the way. Sherman learned of Hood’s intentions when Davis foolishly revealed the plan in a series of speeches on his way back to the Confederate capital at Richmond. Sherman responded by sending Major General George H. Thomas to Nashville on September 29, 1864, to organize all the Union troops in Tennessee. Sherman also sent troops to reinforce the garrison at Chattanooga.
During October, Hood’s infantry and Major General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry conducted a series of raids along the Western & Atlantic Railroad, Sherman’s main supply line from Chattanooga to Atlanta. Sherman’s soldiers quickly repaired the damage, but they could not keep pace with the faster-moving Rebels.
By late October, Sherman convinced Grant to let him “make Georgia howl” by allowing him to march to Savannah rather than chasing Hood around the South. Grant agreed, and Sherman turned the pursuit of Hood over to Thomas and about 60,000 soldiers, 30,000 of whom were in the Nashville area. The other 30,000, commanded by Major General John M. Schofield, moved north from Georgia to join Thomas.
Meanwhile, Hood moved into northern Alabama and aimed for Tennessee. He hoped to defeat Thomas near Nashville before he could join forces with Schofield.
Battle of Columbia
After waiting to join forces with Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry, Hood left Alabama on November 21, 1864. His goal was Columbia, Tennessee, about midway between Thomas’s army in Nashville and Schofield’s army at Pulaski, about 75 miles south of Nashville. Anticipating Hood’s intentions, Schofield raced to Columbia, arriving just hours ahead of the Confederates on November 24. The Federals blocked Hood’s advance for five days at the Battle of Columbia by controlling an important bridge over the Duck River.
Battle of Spring Hill
On November 28, Hood found a way across the Duck River east of Columbia. In danger of being outflanked, Schofield began to fall back toward Franklin. Hood’s army attacked Schofield’s forces at Spring Hill, ten miles north of Columbia as the Northerners withdrew. After a series of command blunders, Hood ended the attack after dark. During the night, Schofield safely moved his entire army and supply train along the main turnpike past the sleeping Rebels. The movement did not go entirely undetected, but inexplicably, neither Hood nor any subordinate officers took any action to stop the Federal evacuation. By the morning of November 30, Schofield had escaped Hood’s grasp.
Action at Franklin
Schofield Arrives at Franklin
Marching up the Columbia Turnpike, Schofield’s army began arriving at Franklin before dawn on the morning of November 30. Although Schofield was once again between Hood and Nashville, his army was still vulnerable to attack before uniting with Thomas. The Rebels had damaged both bridges over the Harpeth River at Franklin, and Schofield had abandoned his pontoon bridges when he evacuated Columbia. Having no immediate way to the Harpeth, Schofield braced for another attack from Hood with the river to his back. As his engineers worked to repair the bridges, Schofield set his men to construct breastworks in a semi-circle in front of the town.
The works were formidable, except for an intentional gap in the middle — through which the turnpike passed — that accommodated Union traffic still coming into Franklin. Federal artillery and a retrenchment barrier about 200 yards inside of the main works defended the gap.
Brigadier General George Wagner’s division was the last of Schofield’s army to reach Franklin. As they approached the main Union defenses, Wagner detached three brigades to form an advance line between the two armies. One of the brigade commanders, Colonel Emerson Opdycke, refused the detachment order, claiming that the flat ground Wagner ordered him to defend was untenable. Instead, Opdycke marched his brigade through the Union line to a reserve position behind the gap in the semi-circle. Opdycke’s insubordination would prove fortuitous for the Union army.
Hood’s Army Breaches the Union Lines
By noon, Schofield’s soldiers were prepared for Hood’s next move. They did not have to wait long. Enraged that the Federals had slipped past him at Spring Hill, Hood berated his subordinate officers and then ordered his army to resume its pursuit. Hood’s army began to arrive outside of Franklin at about 1:00 p.m. on November 30, 1864. Once in position, Hood ordered an all-out attack that began about 4:00 p.m. When the assault began, the Confederates easily overran the two divisions Wagner deployed in front of the main Union defenses, capturing nearly 700 Federals as they fled up the turnpike toward Franklin. The Rebels continued in hot pursuit.
Opdyke’s Federals Plug the Gap
By the time Wagner’s men reached the gap in the Union works, the soldiers of both armies were so intermingled that some defenders could not fire for fear of shooting their comrades. At that point, the center of the Union line was in danger of collapsing. As Confederate soldiers began pouring through the breach in the Union line, Emerson Opdycke ordered his brigade forward and plugged the gap. Emboldened by the success of the counterattack, other reserves and retreating Federals joined Opdycke’s soldiers and drove the Rebels back to the original Union line. Hand-to-hand combat in this sector continued for several hours until well after sunset.
Union Success on the Flanks
As the fighting raged at the center, the Federals repulsed two Rebel assaults on their left, inflicting heavy casualties on the Rebels. The Confederates had no more success attacking the Union right later in the evening near dark.
Hood Discontinues the Assault
Stalemated on all fronts, Hood called off the assault after dark with plans to resume in the morning. The successful Union defense bought enough time for Schofield’s engineers to repair the bridges over the Harpeth River.
Schofield Withdraws Under Orders
Under orders from General Thomas in Nashville, Schofield’s army began evacuating Franklin at 11:00 p.m. One of Schofield’s subordinate officers, Brigadier General Jacob D. Cox, argued against the evacuation, feeling that the Federals could finish Hood’s army the next day. Despite Cox’s objections, Schofield followed Thomas’s orders. By noon on December 1, 1864, Schofield’s army began arriving at Nashville.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Battle of Franklin was a devastating loss for the Confederacy. The Rebels suffered over 6,200 casualties, including 1,750 killed, compared to fewer than 2,500 Union casualties, including 189 killed. In addition, Hood lost fourteen generals (six killed, seven wounded, and one captured), plus 55 regimental commanders. Most importantly, Schofield once more escaped Hood’s grasp and united his army with Thomas’s army in Nashville. At Columbia, Spring Hill, and Franklin, the Confederate army faced an opponent of roughly equal strength. Throughout the rest of Hood’s Franklin-Nashville Campaign, the Rebels would face an army nearly twice their size.