FRANKLIN: BIVOUAC OF THE DEAD

Christopher Kiernan Coleman

“In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays.  Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls….And lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.”

—Col. Joshua Chamberlain, 20th Maine

John Copley, a Confederate veteran of the battle, later rendered this panorama of the attack in 1893.

There are ghosts, and then there are GHOSTS.  Not just a stray apparition or two, mind you, but dozens–perhaps hundreds of the restless dead. 

     That’s the way it is with Civil War battlefields; and when you combine a whole town of old buildings to haunt, well then, you have a place very much like Franklin, Tennessee.

There are any number of folk in Franklin who have forgotten more about the history of the battle than I could possibly tell you about in a month of Mondays. The same holds true for its many haints and haunts.  For those unfamiliar with the battle, however, a little background is in order.

John Bell Hood was appointed by Jefferson Davis to head the Army of Tennessee during the summer of ’64. Davis did not think its previous commander, Joe Johnston, had been aggressive enough—which is to say, old Uncle Joe didn’t like to get his men killed needlessly. But President Davis had vowed to defend Southern Honor to the last drop of poor Southern dirt-farmer’s blood, since their blood was red, not blue like his.

Mind you, the Army of Tennessee was a first rate outfit; it was second only to Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in fighting ability, élan and experience.  The only difference between the two was that this army suffered from the same debility that had plagued British cavalry during the Napoleonic Wars.  Napoleon had once said that British cavalry was “the noblest and most poorly led,” and while the commanding generals were all men of Honor, their judgment in the field sometimes was found wanting.

General Hood was a brave officer—no one can deny him that—but he had never commanded an entire army in the field. He had also lost a leg and an arm at Gettysburg and Chickamauga and by the time he took charge of the army, while he was neither drunk nor high on morphine, as some would later claim, he had to have been in great pain by this stage of the war, and was certainly greatly fatigued from his catastrophic wounds; perhaps also his judgment may have been impaired from the strain and pain. At the very least, Hood overly optimistic in assuming his subordinates could carry out orders correctly, which in this army was not always the case. 

At Springhill, Tennessee, on November 29, 1864, Hood seemingly had Union General Schofield’s army trapped, with troops coming up from the south and another force blocking the road further north for the Yankees. Yet the morning light revealed the Yankees escaped in the night.

When he found the Yankees gone the next morning, one witness described Hood as “wrathy as a snake.”  Pursuing the Federals to Franklin, Hood resolved to attack them regardless of the cost.  He threw his infantry across two miles of open field against the Union rearguard, who had had all day to dig in.

On the grounds of Carter House the Rebels came close to overrunning the Yankee rear-guard defending the town. The fighting was hand to hand and vicious.

It was not for lack of bravery or aggressiveness that the Army of Tennessee failed to defeat the Yankees that autumn afternoon.  They charged headlong into a withering fire and fell by the thousands.  Five generals and at least twenty colonels died leading the charge. 

Even nightfall did not stop the bloodletting. Rebel troops kept pressing the attack in the dark, the dead piling up in heaps before the Yankees trenches.  A few days later, servants of the Carter family, whose house had been smack in the center of the death-dealing, had to use garden rakes to clear the grounds of the house of the thousands and thousands of spent leaden bullets.

To compound the tragedy of the day, the men who fell before the Yankee muskets were not strangers in a strange land. They were the husbands, sons and brothers of the families of Franklin and neighboring communities. 

Captain Carter was mortally wounded only yards from his own home during the Battle of Franklin. His ghost has been sighted on numerous occasions on the grounds of the house.

To this day, Carter House is haunted by the ghost of Captain Tod Carter, who died within sight of his father’s home.  Other ghosts haunt the Carter House and the nearby Lotz House, standing just across the street.  Because the Columbia Pike ran through the Union Defenses right here, this spot was the weak point of the Federal defenses and it was here where fighting was hottest.

On the rear verandah of Carter House five Confederate generals were laid out after the battle, while nearby the dead were stacked like cordwood.

Another famous haunt is Carnton Mansion, the center of a grand plantation belonging to the McGavock family, lying on the eastern fringe of the battlefield.  Five dead Confederate generals were brought here and laid out on the back porch. Other Confederate dead were piled like cordwood in a great long heap. Eventually, most were buried on the grounds of the plantation. 

With so many young men cut down in their prime, the Mansion has several ghosts–some thought to be former family members. As chronicled in greater depth in Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, there are many eyewitness reports of ghosts haunting the grounds around Carnton.

Nor are these spots the only places in Franklin, Tennessee where the ghosts of the Civil War dead still linger.  The day after the battle, both sides moved on to Nashville, where there was a siege and battle in December. In Franklin the wounded lingered on in agony for weeks. Amputations, disease and cold all took their toll.  Local families took many of the wounded in, but the number of casualties was overwhelming and many died from lack of care.  The old buildings that still stand in the core of town house many such ghosts. Where today are boutiques, recording studios, law offices or residences, the mortally wounded suffered in pain for week after week in the winter of ’65, some just barely alive. As the song relates, it was the time they drove old Dixie down.

Carnton Cemetary in Franklin where the Confederate dead bivouac for eternity. Some come back from time to time to patrol the grounds.

BIVOUAC OF THE DEAD

The muffled drum’s sad roll has beat The soldier’s last tattoo; No more on Life’s parade shall meet That brave and fallen few. On Fame’s eternal camping-ground Their silent tents are spread, And Glory guards, with solemn round, The bivouac of the dead. ———-Theodore O’Hara

The restless dead still abide in the heart of the prosperous city of Franklin and in between the gentrified suburban subdivisions, upscale boutiques, and busy soccer moms flitting to and fro, one may still occasionally encounter a Civil War soldier’s restless shade who does not quite know the war is over.

For more about the gaggle of ghosts in Franklin–and Civil War ghosts in general–see Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, and Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee.

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