Today is the 158th anniversary of this key battle, which led to the triumph of the Union in the West.
Confederate commander John Bell Hood launched the final frontal infantry attack of the war at 4PM that day. While George Wagner’s men held off the onslaught of some 20,000 men for a while, the small group was quickly overwhelmed. Many were captured, but the others ran pell-mell toward the opening in the breastworks on Columbia Pike. As Union commander John Schofield directed artillery attacks against the rebels from Fort Granger, the rebel onslaught came to the main line and, in the middle, went through and over it. To their left and right their attacks were thwarted, including to the east as the Confederates got entangled in the Orange Osage and were easy targets for Jack Casement’s men’s repeater rifles. But in the middle, the Union’s crisis was at hand. At about 4:30, five minutes before sunset, the Union forces were teetering on the edge as the men fought in a maelstrom of rifle fire and hand-to-hand combat.
But then the Union forces came to the fore to “save the day.” Commandant on the line General Jacob Cox had had the foresight of setting up a second line. Seeing the crisis, he sent a courier to tell Colonel Emerson Opdycke to come to the center to assist. He then rode to the center, rallying his men from the second line, and they responded. Several regiments, including the 44th Missouri, 175th Ohio, and 183rd Ohio, rushed to meet the challenge, even as the artillery from Fort Granger and the rifles from Casement and General Ruger held the left and right. Soon after, Opdycke and his brigade arrived and helped to seal off the rebel attack, forming a new defensive line along Cox’s second line. By 5 PM the crisis had been met and the Union suffered no more rebel incursions.
Hood, viewing the battle and seeing something resembling the Union disaster at Chickamauga, continued to send his men forward in the dark. From 5-7 PM they suffered countless casualties. At 7 Hood sent some of S.D. Lee’s men, who had just arrived from Columbia, to test the Union right, and they too were thwarted. Though the fighting continued until after 10, at 7 Cox told Schofield he could hold the line indefinitely. Soon after, Schofield telegraphed Thomas that the day had been won and that he would follow Thomas’s orders to continue the withdrawal over the Harpeth that evening. Cox protested that he could finish off Hood the next day, but Schofield demurred.
At midnight the Union forces began their withdrawal over the Harpeth toward Nashville. By leaving the field to the Confederates, the latter was, at least technically the victor. But this was a classic Pyrrhic victory — Union casualties were 1/3 those of the Confederates, with the death count 1700 vs. 170. Six Confederate generals, including Patrick Cleburne, were killed, and dozens of senior officers in the devastated Army of Tennessee were dead or seriously wounded. The Union army, fighting behind strong breastworks, proved that fighting on the defensive was, by this stage of the war, the preferred approach. The Confederates proved that Napoleonic infantry charges were pointless and hopeless in the age of booming cannon, repeater rifles, and strong breastworks.
Two weeks later, at the Dec. 15-16 Battle of Nashville, Hood’s Army of Tennessee was finally obliterated. But it had suffered an irreparable blow at the Battle of Franklin.
Below are images of the battle, including illustrating the two Union lines; a painting of the fighting near the Carter House; a Kurz and Allison painting showing General Cox leading his men; and my book about the battle.