At 1:00 that afternoon, as Confederate commander John Bell Hood on Winstead Hill looked through his spyglass at the Union line two miles away, he could see Union General Jacob Cox’s ongoing “creation” of a massive series of breastworks. Taking advantage of leftover breastworks from an earlier battle and his experiences in the Atlanta campaign, Cox supervised his men’s creation of a horseshoe-shaped line. The men broke down nearby buildings, including a cotton gin, for wood. They dug deep ditches in front of and behind the breastworks. They cut down locust trees to form an abatis. And on the left, commanding Colonel Jack Casement (the future builder of the Union Pacific Railroad) saw his men, mostly farmboys, gleefully cut down acres of Orange Osage bushes. They had used these thorny, sticky branches as hedges for livestock, and now they piled up the cut branches in front of the line where they would prove surprisingly effective.
By mid-afternoon one of the Civil War’s strongest set of breastworks was in place — but it had a critical, inevitable problem. Cox was required to leave an opening in the center of the line on the Columbia Pike to allow the army’s approximately 600 supply wagons to pass through on their way north. Presciently, he created a second defensive line, complete with reserves and artillery, near to the Carter House. The wagons had all passed through the main line just after 3 PM, and commanding General John Schofield issued orders for the army to follow the wagons over the Harpeth at 6 PM .
But 3 PM also saw a crisis in the Union ranks. Col. Emerson Opdycke had earlier refused an order from Gen. George Wagner to stay out in front of the main line, where his brigade was to be part of a trip-wire. Opdycke led his brigade through the opening in the line, reported to Cox — who was a close friend from Ohio– and was told to go to the rear as a reserve. Wagner reiterated his orders to the other brigades, even when, after 3 PM, they saw indications that Hood was going to send his entire army straight toward the Union line. They were in an untenable position, but Wagner, foolishly, was adamant.
Meanwhile, Hood, despite the uniform opposition of his deputies, had decided on a frontal attack. He did no reconnaissance; most of his artillery was still at Columbia; and he could see that the Union had created formidable breastworks. But he likely reasoned that this would be his last chance to defeat Schofield before he withdraw into Nashville. Hood did allow Forrest to make a cavalry attack to the east a little after 3, but gave him only a small infantry escort. He was easily thwarted by the Union cavalry.
The stage was now set for the final large-scale frontal infantry attack of the Civil War. At 4 PM, just 35 minutes before sunset, Hood gave the order to attack, and 20,000 men moved forward against some 13,000.
To be continued tomorrow.
Below are images of the battlefield just before the attack; Emerson Opdycke; an Orange Osage plant; and my book about the Battle of Franklin.