By Richie Lawry
It was 4:30 In the morning when Major General Schofield and Brigadier General Cox rode into the outskirts of Franklin, Tennessee, and commandeered the house belonging to Fountain Branch Carter. Cox’s division was the vanguard of the Federal army under General Schofield’s command. The Federal army had been marching all night after quietly slipping away from the Confederate army in Spring Hill.
The day before, Confederates seemed to have the upper hand. By 4:30 P.M., they had almost ten thousand troops in Spring Hill with another ten thousand two miles away. The Federal army of around seven thousand men was pinned down, with the nearest reinforcements two hours away. At sundown, the situation seemed grim to the Federal defenders behind their barricades. There was confusion in the Confederate ranks as battle plans changed. Confusion gave way to frustration as night fell. The Confederates started fires, cooked supper, and bedded down for the night. Many of them were only two hundred yards from the main road north out of Spring Hill.
Under cover of darkness, the Federal army was able to make its way past the Confederate positions. After marching all night, they made it to Franklin. General Schofield hoped that the pontoon bridge he had requested from Nashville would be at the Harpeth River. Unfortunately, the pontoon was not there yet, so the Federal army was trapped between the river and the Confederates.
Around the southern edge of Franklin, there were old entrenchments dug by Federal forces a year earlier. General Cox put his troops in the old defenses and ordered them to improve the breastworks. The defenses passed through the property of Fountain Carter. By that afternoon, most of the Federal army was entrenched in a line from riverbank to riverbank of a loop in the river, hoping to retreat across the Harpeth River when it became possible.
The history came to life for me as we toured the Carter House in Franklin. Our tour guide was able to help us understand the events of that fateful day. Her straightforward, concise storytelling brought the day’s happenings into focus and helped us visualize the battle. As I stood in the exact location, I could imagine the Federal soldiers in their breastworks watching as the Confederates appeared in the open fields to the south around 3:30 in the afternoon. From their vantage point two miles away, it looked like a grand military review, but the Federal soldiers were somber as they watched thousands of Confederate soldiers fall into formation.
Federal division commander, Brigadier General George D. Wagner ordered his men to take their position along an elevation about half a mile from the main Federal works. His three thousand men were between the Federal line and the amassing Confederate army. Col. Emerson Opdycke led a brigade in George Wagner’s division. When General Wagner ordered Opdycke to join his fellow brigade commanders, he saw the folly of such a position and was in no mood to follow Wagner’s commands. The position was isolated, and already the Federals could see swarms of Confederates appearing on the next ridge. An attack was imminent, and there was no chance for Wagner’s small force to stop the assault. Instead, Opdycke deployed his brigade about two hundred yards behind the Carter House.
Wagner’s decision to move into the field between the two armies was a mistake. The Confederate line overwhelmed Wagner’s men. The Federal defenders stampeded back towards the main line after firing a single volley. The Confederates followed in close pursuit, using their Federal foes as human shields. Afraid of hitting their comrades, the riflemen on the Federal main line held their fire as they watched the intermingled crowd surge towards them. As a result, the last half-mile of the Confederate advance was largely uncontested, allowing the charge to hit the main line with full force.
As the Confederates poured into the breach in the Federal line, Emerson Opdycke’s brigade, instead of being in retreat with Wagner’s other men, was in reserve, about 200 yards north of the Carter House. Opdycke quickly ordered his brigade forward to the breastworks. Opdycke’s counterattack helped seal the breach. Thousands of men surge into a deadly vortex of combat with shovels, bayonets, sabers, and pistols. Hand-to-hand fighting around the Carter House was furious and desperate. Firing continued around the Carter house and gardens for hours. Each side fired through or over the top of the parapets at close range, trying to dislodge the other. After hours of fighting, the call came for the Confederates to fall back.
Our group listens quietly as the tour guide tries to help us understand the extreme violence and carnage that happened that fateful November day in 1864. There were so many casualties in the area around the Carter House that men died standing up because there were so many bodies that they couldn’t fall. She showed us the farm office, a small clapboard building that is full of bullet holes. The house and outbuildings have hundreds of bullet holes still showing. Of 15,000 Union troops engaged, some 200 died, and more than 2,000 were wounded. The Confederates had 23,000 men at Franklin; around 1,750 died, and 5,500 were injured or captured. Private Sam Watkins of the 1st Tennessee called it “the blackest page in the history of the war.” When recounting the battle, one soldier said, “It was as if the devil had full possession of the earth.”
As I stood on the battlefield in Franklin and contemplated the carnage that happened there, I thought about another great battle. Revelation chapter 12 presents what I feel is a good way for a Christian to view history. It describes a great spiritual war raging behind the scenes. The apostle John saw a vision of war in heaven. He saw the dragon defeated and hurled down to earth. “Then there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon and his angels. And the dragon lost the battle, and he and his angels were forced out of heaven. This great dragon—the ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, the one deceiving the whole world—was thrown down to the earth with all his angels.” Revelation 12:7-9 (NLT)
Gentle Reader, the book of Revelation presents a vivid image of reality. It is the spiritual reality behind the wars that rage around us. Just like Satan whispers temptations in our ears, he also creates dissension among countries and urges them to fight. I love studying history, and history reveals an unending cavalcade of war and struggle. But God has promised that there will come a time when there will be no more war. “The Lord will mediate between nations and will settle international disputes. They will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will no longer fight against nation, nor train for war anymore.” Isaiah 2:4 (NLT) I’m longing for that day.