The Civil War is rife with examples of miscommunication and/or refusals to communicate which led to significantly changed circumstances. John Pope’s refusal to accept the word of several of his senior generals led to Lee’s overwhelming victory at Second Manassas. Burnside’s failure to order — in so many words — William Franklin at Fredericksburg to aim to sweep Lee’s right led to the disaster at Marye’s Heights.
The Battle of Franklin took place on November 30, 1864 after a seemingly-minor miscommunication. On November 27 Union commander John Schofield had used pontoons to build a bridge to get his army over the Duck River at Columbia. He then proceeded to burn them so the Confederates could not use them. Knowing that he was facing a much larger army than his, the Army of Tennessee under John Bell Hood, Schofield even then was planning his withdrawal north.
So he sent a message to commander George Thomas in Nashville noting that the bridge over the Harpeth River north of Franklin had previously been destroyed, and stating, “would it not be well to replace it by a pontoon bridge?” Thomas, perhaps wondering why Schofield was asking a question to which the answer was obvious, replied, “You can send some of the pontoons you used at Columbia to Franklin to lay a bridge there.” In the frantic situation of the next few days, Schofield apparently did not pay attention to the words Thomas used, and instead on November 29 he repeated his request for pontoons, again making no reference to the destruction at Columbia.
Thus, when Schofield arrived at Franklin the morning of November 30, there were no pontoons. He set out to re-build a former bridge, a task which took him and his engineers most of the day. In fact, new pontoons arrived after noon, but Schofield ignored them, continuing on his re-building task. The wagons of the army were able to use the new bridge to get over the Harpeth by the early afternoon, but Hood’s attack at 4 PM ensured that there would in fact be a Battle of Franklin.
Schofield biographer Donald Connelly has written, “the delay to repair and improve the bridge triggered the ensuing battle at Franklin and would fan discord and suspicion between Thomas and Schofield” for years to come.
What if the pontoons had been there as requested? Schofield would likely have been able to get his entire army to Brentwood, 2 miles to the north, by 4 PM. Maybe then historians would have been writing about the Battle of Brentwood as Hood ordered a flank attack led by Nathan Bedford Forrest!
Below are images of what the repaired bridge might have looked like at Franklin, Schofield, and Thomas