Posted Online: Feb. 02, 2013, 8:05 pm
Illinois men fought in hand-to-hand combat at Franklin
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By Tom Emery
Contrary to popular belief, there were few instances of bayonet fighting in the Civil War. The battle of Franklin, though, was one example, and many Illinois men paid the price.
On Nov. 30, 1864, Franklin, some 20 miles south of Nashville, was the site of combat many historians describe as "desperate." The bravery of the combatants, though, is overshadowed by leadership that many consider suspect.
The 28,000 Union troops were led by Maj. Gen. John Schofield, a product of Freeport, Ill., who was known for his precision and organization. After the war, he would ascend to superintendent of West Point and commanding general of the U.S. Army. But he also engaged in "petty quibbling" and an "underhanded vein." At the time of the battle of Franklin, Schofield was sending derogatory reports on his commander, George Thomas, to Ulysses S. Grant, in an attempt to relieve him.
Schofield also clashed with his cavalry commander, Shawneetown native James H. Wilson, who was "never one to be bashful about claiming success." Described as a soldier with "considerable ability" but "massive conceit," Wilson, too, was the target of critical reports from Schofield.
Commanding the 27,000-man Confederate Army of Tennessee was John Bell Hood, a West Point classmate of Schofield's who had lost an arm and a leg in the war. As a result, the suffering Hood reportedly was taking a considerable amount of laudanum, which accentuated his reckless nature. Schofield had blundered his way into a trap at Spring Hill south of Franklin on Nov. 29, but Hood, remarkably, did not recognize the situation and ordered no attack, allowing his enemy to escape.
Given new life, Schofield dug in at Franklin behind partial breastworks facing an open field. Starting at 3:30 p.m. on what Captain James Sexton of the 72nd Illinois called "a bright, invigorating Indian summer day," thousands fell as Hood sent wave after wave in a full frontal assault to dislodge the Federal center.
The assaults resulted in some of the bloodiest hand-to-hand fighting of the war. One Illinois colonel wrote that "it would be impossible to picture that scene in all its horrors. I saw a Confederate soldier ... thrust one of our men through with the bayonet."
As in many battles, flag bearers fell in great numbers. The battle-hardened 36th Illinois scrambled to save its flag, which was "splintered several times" with its "precious folds in tatters." Still, Private Charles Sears, of Aurora, seeing two comrades fall with the banner, grappled with "a burly rebel" for the remnants, screaming "No you don't, unless you take me with it."
Many Confederates recognized the futility of the assault before it even started, including the brilliant Patrick Cleburne, whose division was in the center. Cleburne, considered one of the finest division commanders in the Confederacy, fell near the 36th Illinois, whose regimental historian wrote that Cleburne was "mustered from service forever."
He was one of six Southern generals killed at Franklin. Among them was Tennessean John Adams, who rode to the front of his brigade, spurred, and galloped headlong into the Federal works. In the 65th Illinois, Private James Barr watched in awe as Adams crossed the ditch and rode up the parapet, while Col. W. Scott Stewart ordered his men to hold their fire in view of such courage. Seconds later, another bullet killed Adams instantly.
The assaults continued unsuccessfully until 9 p.m., and in those five hours, casualties were staggering. Schofield lost 2,326, and Hood's recklessness cost nearly 7,000 men. Franklin may have sounded the death knell for the proud Army of Tennessee, but the bloodbath for both sides was summarized by the morbid words of Confederate Private Sam Watkins, who wrote, "Death had held high carnival."
Tom Emery of Carlinville, Ill., is developing a project on Illinois generals in the Civil War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (217) 710-8392.