The small town of Franklin, Tennessee had been a Federal military post since the fall of Nashville in early 1862. Late in the summer of 1864, Confederate President Jefferson Davis replaced Gen. Joseph E. Johnston with Gen. John Bell Hood. Hood, a West Point graduate, had won acclaim for his achievements in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. He had also suffered a grievous wound to his left arm at Gettysburg and his right leg had been amputated near the hip after being shot at Chickamauga. After the fall of Atlanta in early September 1864, Hood began formulating plans for an invasion of Middle Tennessee, with the goal of recapturing Nashville and prolonging the war. Hood and his Army of Tennessee, over 30,000 strong, moved up through northwest Georgia, northern Alabama, and crossed the Tennessee River at Florence. His hardened veterans, screened by Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry, pushed north toward the fertile hills and valleys of Middle Tennessee on November 21, 1864.
Meanwhile, two army corps were detached from Gen. William T. Sherman’s armies in Georgia and sent back to defend Nashville and Middle Tennessee. Gen. George H. Thomas was also dispatched to Nashville to assume overall command. The Fourth Corps, commanded by Gen. David S. Stanley, moved first and entered Tennessee in the first days of November. The Twenty-Third Corps, commanded by Gen. John M. Schofield, moved into Tennessee in mid-November. Gen. James H. Wilson, was placed in command of the cavalry. As Hood’s troops moved into Tennessee some 27,000 Federal troops were positioned between Pulaski and Columbia prepared to contest the Confederate invasion. At Nashville, Thomas had barely 8,000 men available to defend the city.
After several days of maneuvering, during which Hood and his troops nearly cut the Federal army’s route of retreat at Columbia and Spring Hill, fate and circumstance placed Franklin in the path of two great armies. Federal troops arrived at Franklin around dawn and, because the bridges spanning the Harpeth River north of town were impassable, engineers laid out a defensive position south of town and the blue clad soldiers began throwing up earthworks. At the same time, after discovering that the enemy troops had slipped away during the night, the Confederates began marching north from Spring Hill.
Gen. Jacob D. Cox set up his headquarters at the Carter House, located just south of Franklin and on the west side of Columbia Pike, after waking the family around sunrise. Fountain Branch Carter, a widower, had lived in his modest brick home for some thirty-five years. At the time his farm consisted of 288 acres which produced a variety of crops, including corn, grain, and cotton. A total of twenty-eight slaves lived and work on the farm with the Carter family. The Carter cotton gin was located 100 yards southeast of the house and would become the most recognized landmark on the battlefield.
Gen. Cox was given the responsibility of overseeing the construction of the defensive position. The main line of works were located about 260 feet south of the house. The line, as it moved west, soon began arching back to the northwest, following the curve of the slight hill on which the Carter House is located. An interior line of works was also constructed. To the east of Columbia Pike the main line bent slightly southeast so that the cotton gin was inside the breastworks and then the line straightened and continued to the east. By around noon the bulk of the Federal army was in place and plans for an evacuation were already in the works. Within a couple of hours Schofield had issued orders for the withdrawal from Franklin to begin at 6 p.m. under cover of darkness.
The Confederate troops began to arrive on the southern edge of the Harpeth Valley around 1 p.m. Within about an hour Hood had decided to launch a frontal assault, believing that Franklin would be his last genuine opportunity to destroy Schofield before he escaped yet again.
A brief conference was soon held at the Harrison House where strong objections were voiced by some of Hood's subordinates. Gen. Frank Cheatham, Gen. Patrick Cleburne, and Forrest were among those who spoke of their concerns about such an attack. But Hood would not be dissuaded. Time was of the essence and whatever daylight and opportunity remained was fast slipping away. The same could be said of the Confederacy’s attempt at independence. It was a desperate time and the frontal attack which soon commenced would truly be the last great drama of the war. Emotions were running high. As Cleburne mounted his horse, Hood repeated the orders. Cleburne responded, "I will take the works or fall in the attempt."
The battle began at 4 p.m. with roughly 20,000 Confederate soldiers moving forward toward a similar number of Federal troops. The attack itself was far bigger than Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. The two armies came into close contact shortly before 4:30 p.m. and the fighting soon became brutal and fiendishly savage. With the sun down shortly after the two sides fully engaged it was dark by just minutes after 5 p.m. When recollecting the battle years later one man said simply, “It was as if the devil had full possession of the earth.”
During the awful hours as the battle raged and swirled around them, the Carter family took refuge in their basement. Some two dozen men, women, and children, including Albert Lotz and his family from across the pike, waited as the horrors of war seemed to almost engulf them. Fountain Branch Carter had years earlier watched as all three of his surviving sons went off to fight for the Confederacy. The middle son, Tod, had not been home for three and a half years and was serving as an aide for General Thomas Benton Smith during the Battle of Franklin. He was mortally wounded during the fighting and his body was found the next morning and brought by his family back to the house. Surrounded by his father, one brother, sisters, and nieces and nephews, Tod died at home two days later.
At around midnight the Federal army began a careful withdrawal from the battlefield and in short order the Northern troops were en route to Nashville. Left behind was a small town and a battered Confederate army. Altogether, some 10,000 American soldiers became casualties at Franklin and about three-fourths of that number were Confederates. About 2,300 men died, some 7,000 were wounded, and roughly 1,000 were taken prisoner.
By the end of 1865, the Federal government had removed the bodies of the Federal dead and moved the bodies to the National Cemetery at Murfreesboro. In the spring of 1866, the McGavock family donated two acres near their home, Carnton, to establish a Confederate Cemetery where the remains of 1,481 Confederate soldiers were laid to rest.
The Carter House was purchased by the State of Tennessee in 1951 and it was first opened to the public in 1953. Today it is managed, along with Carnton, by the Battle of Franklin Trust and is dedicated to the Carter family and all of the Americans who fought in this battle. Their legacy is our mission.