As the anniversary of the Battle of Franklin is nigh, I decided to re-issue this item, which gained more readers than any other I’ve posted. It is a classic example of why one should be specific in making requests, especially during a war! Enjoy!
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
5 thoughts on “Battle of Franklin: Pontoon Miscommunication Led to the Battle”
Where was the bridge that the Union army used to eventually cross located? What is it on Main Street or elsewhere?
Sorry for the delay in responding. According to Eric Jacobsson in “For Cause and Country,” Schofield “chose to essentially rebuild the wagon bridge and ordered his engineers to lay new cross beams and stringers and put down wooden planks. The Nashville and Decatur Railroad bridge was also available to the east and Schofield ordered it planked, thus providing two avenues over the Harpeth.”
I’ve never seen it recorded by any contemporary, but Schofield likely chose to repair the bridges at Franklin rather than try to use the pontoons because the Harpeth River was very high and swift on Nov 30. It was described by some Union veterans as impossible to cross, and in fact it is recorded that one of Forrest’s Mississippi cavalrymen (and his horse) drowned trying to cross the river at McGavock or Davis Ford.
That is an excellent thought. Of course it did not prevent Schofield from blaming Thomas later for the late pontoons.
Wow, that was a good article.
I had not known that Schofield had burned his pontoons at the Duck River only a few days before the Battle of Franklin. Why didn’t he automatically send the pontoons to the Harpeth River to support his later withdrawal? Instead he wired Thomas a request for a new pontoon bridge to be sent to the Harpeth without mentioning he burned his own pontoons. Did he put his army at risk by being too embarrassed to admit his mistake?
Schofield got a lot of mileage out of that bridge. Forever after, he blamed Thomas for the late pontoons. He used the existing repaired bridges not only to get his supply trains across, but also himself. He remained safely on the north side while Generals Stanley and Cox fought the battle for him. Of course he took the credit.
By outliving all senior generals, he would get to be Commanding General of the army in 1888. Then oddly in 1892 he was magically awarded the Medal of Honor for some unspecified act during the Battle of Wilson’s Creek which apparently no one ever saw or mentioned. At least he had the good grace not to mention that suspicious award in his memoirs!
I do not have a good opinion of General Schofield. I think he would be lucky to get a barracks named after him.