The Battle of Franklin: Re-Enactment 150 Years Later

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Confederates advance at Franklin

Confederates advance towards the Union fortifications at the Battle of Franklin re-enactment in November 2014. Copyright image by Bonnye Good, all rights reserved.

Franklin, Tennessee, recently commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Franklin during the American Civil War with a re-enactment.

The historical battle occurred over five hours, from four o’clock in the afternoon until nine at night, on November 30, 1864, and resulted in nearly 10,000 casualties combined from both sides.

On November 15, 2014, about 700 re-enactors, also known as living historians, recreated and embellished the bloody battle in front of 5,000 spectators, according to The Tennessean, while also recreating a large and accurate version of tented encampments behind the Carnton Plantation.

Throughout the historic sections of the town, certain homes, including Carnton Plantation, and other buildings, bore red flags recognizing that they once served as hospitals in the battle’s aftermath.

While the staff (including bus drivers) initially displayed confusion over some of the more mundane aspects of hosting a re-enactment – such as providing maps and accurate transportation information – the Battle of Franklin Trust offered attendees a solid example of a Civil War battle, with special– and priceless– highlights on the farms which shouldered massive burdens 150 years before.

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The Carter House and Grounds, Then and Now

One of those farms was the Carter House, which became the epicenter of brutal fighting. While many battlefields in the United States are now developed or paved over, participants and attendees took full advantage of visiting the Carter House, which now serves as a museum and link to the exact site of carnage during the battle.

The house and outbuildings on the property still bear numerous bullet marks, and signs provide context for both the Carter family members and the Confederates and Union soldiers who fought in bloody hand-to-hand combat across the yard and garden.

bullet holes at Carter House

Civil War historian Roger Busbice points out bullet holes on the Carter House outbuildings to a young visitor. Copyright image by Bonnye Good, all rights reserved.

The Carter House’s large yard now overlooks housing developments and borders a large Four Square home built around the turn of the 19th century, but the Battle of Franklin Trust continues to expand the Trust’s land, making it more clear for visitors to see the original battlefield.

Well-placed trees also help envelop the farm, to allow visitors to forget the modern buildings that surround the property. The Trust has noticeably improved the site just over the last few years.

On the day of the re-enactment, several Union and Confederate soldiers walked the grounds, touring the battlefield while also adding a special ambience. Jeans-clad tourists mingled with the re-enactors dressed in blue, gray or butternut, filling the air with conversations about general history and also obscure facts pertaining to the day.

During at least one bus trip between sites, several Civil War enthusiasts discussed the historical minutiae even as they passed the soon-to-be-razed Domino’s Pizza, which overlooks the memorial to Major General Patrick Cleburne and was the site of General Hiram Granbury’s death. Oddly, a Pizza Hut once occupied the space now dedicated to Cleburne’s memorial; the Battle of Franklin Trust reclaimed it and created a small park dedicated to Cleburne.

During the Civil War, three of the Carter sons served in the Confederate army, although only young Assistant Quartermaster Captain Tod Carter of the 20th Tennessee Infantry actually participated in the Battle of Franklin. The Carter family and several others sheltered in the basement, hearing the battle all around them, and stuffed ropes in the basement windows to keep bullets from penetrating the room in which they sat.

Especially poignant is the marked site where Tod Carter fell, lying wounded all night until his family found him after hours of searching. The family brought him in to his childhood room, where he died two days later. The property’s quiet feel lends itself well to introspection and to visualizing how things unfolded on a much deadlier day.

Carnton Plantation, Home of the Widow of the South

Re-enactor at Carnton Plantation

A Confederate soldier sits on a Carnton Plantation porch after the re-enactment. Note the poor condition of his shoes. Copyright image by Bonnye Good, all rights reserved.

Union re-enactors at Carnton

Re-enactors at the Carnton Plantation added ambience to the day’s events. Copyright image by Bonnye Good, all rights reserved.

Carnton Plantation served as the site for the battle’s re-enactment, where hundreds of soldiers for both sides demonstrated the difficulties of charging across the open field (as did the original Confederates).

The re-enactment took liberties, adding skirmishes, but remained an infantry and artillery battle, omitting the cavalry forces that were absent at the original scene.

The “battle” raged on during the afternoon, with Confederate regiments periodically charging the fortified Union forces. Witnesses could see why the Confederates were at a disadvantage during the original battle; the Union soldiers possessed the high ground and the Confederates had to cross unprotected terrain.

Historically, the large plantation house served as a hospital for the wounded, with at least four of the six Confederate generals who perished in the battle laid out on the porch.

The war-era owners, John and Carrie McGavock, dedicated two acres to a cemetery which they maintained for the rest of their lives. Mrs. McGavock’s dedication earned her the moniker of “Widow of the South.”

Missouri’s 4th Confederate Infantry Receives Special Honors

After the re-enactment, it was clear that the Union army suffered far fewer casualties, and the soldiers marched away from the battlefield towards the encampments.

Meanwhile, in a far more somber fashion, the Confederate soldiers who served in Missouri’s 4th Confederate Infantry marched quietly to the Carnton Plantation cemetery.

As Civil War historian Roger Busbice told Decoded Past, “These were the men who had no homes to return to.” They had already lost everything in the war, but continued to fight for the Confederacy.

Missouri 4th Carnton

Missouri’s 4th silently files into the Carnton Plantation cemetery after the re-enactment. Copyright image by Bonnye Good, all rights reserved.

Busbice appreciated the opportunity to see where his ancestor, Sgt. Joseph B. Simmons fought for the Confederacy in the 46th Georgia Infantry Regiment and suffered an arm wound at the Carter House in Franklin; the wound probably saved Simmons’ life considering the 46th was in the thick of the engagement.

Busbice, who traveled from his native Louisiana to attend, believed that this battle is important to remember because, as he stated, “It was the last great Confederate offensive, the last real chance to change the outcome of the war. At Franklin, the soldiers and their officers displayed super-human courage in a tragically doomed effort.”

The soldiers marched past the family graves and into the larger cemetery that now serves as the resting place for over 1,200 Confederate soldiers. Dedicating a wreath to a particular Missouri soldier from the same unit the re-enactors represented, their commanding officer explained the significance of their sacrifice. This unexpected gesture allowed participants and visitors to briefly, exquisitely, feel the links between past and present.

Re-Enactment of Civil War Battle Connects Past to Present

An Oklahoma-based descendant of the Carter family who once owned the house now inextricably connected with the battle stood on the sidelines as he watched the re-enactment, demonstrating that the family links continue to reach across the decades to witness the struggles the country experienced during the Civil War.

While both the Union and the Confederates armies claimed victory (Confederates suffered greater losses, but the Union army quickly marched to Nashville, leaving the hard-won ground unfortified), this particular battle and its original fierce nature in a seemingly tranquil farm setting helped visitors glimpse a bit of what occurred in 1864.

The Battle of Franklin Trust’s sesquicentennial re-enactment demonstrated the courage and sacrifices required by the soldiers of both armies and also of the men, women and children caught in the crossfire and the aftermath of those few, bloody hours.

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