- 30 Nov 2022 13:14
November 30, Wednesday
When General Hood awakens to find that the Federals he had thought bottled up in Columbia, Tennessee, have eluded his troops, he is as “wrathy as a rattlesnake.” Breakfast this morning, to which Hood summons Brown and all of his other chief subordinates, is an unseemly affair marked by shouted recriminations and heated denials. Men white with anger accuse each other, utter threats, demand apologies. Hood scorches them all for, as he puts it, ruining “the best move in my career as a soldier.” His chief blame falls on Cheatham, who vehemently denies the charge. At no time does Hood condemn himself in any way for the debacle. It wasn’t his own negligence or confusion—or even plain mishap—that has let the Federals escape. As he ruminates on the wrongs done him, he decides ultimately that not only his generals but also his men are at fault. They have, he says, lost their courage. He hadn’t crushed Stanley yesterday afternoon because, very simply, his men are afraid to fight. This is a theme that Hood has harped on in the past. As he sees it, the army’s previous commander, Joseph Johnston, had softened the men during the summer when he retreated all the way from Chattanooga to Atlanta. According to Hood, the troops are “Still, seemingly, unwilling to accept battle unless under the protection of breastworks.” As before, when he had assumed command of the army from Johnston in front of Atlanta, Hood decides that the only cure for such cowardice is to throw his troops into battle.
The Confederate army’s morale, already depressed by the failure at Columbia, plummets further. Despite their anger and misgivings, the Confederate officers and men quickly break camp, obeying Hood’s orders to pursue the enemy up the Columbia Pike toward Franklin. In the lead is Patrick Cleburne’s division of Cheatham’s corps. Born in Ireland, Cleburne migrated to America as a young man, settling in Helena, Arkansas. He organized a rifle company when the war began and went on to prove himself a remarkable soldier in battle after battle. Although he is known as “the Stonewall Jackson of the West” and his men admire him passionately, Confederate politics have blocked his advance to corps or army command and he remains a division head under men less competent than he. As the war has wore on, a romantic strain in Cleburne’s personality has become evident. His adjutant, Captain Irving A. Buck, noticed it particularly as they neared Spring Hill yesterday. They paused in the village of Ashwood, where “the beautiful little Episcopal church was in the purest Gothic style, its walls and sharp-pointed roof concealed by ivy, while the flowers and shrubbery looked fresh and green even on this bleak November day.” Cleburne reined in his horse, Buck will recall, and stopping a moment to admire the place murmured “that it was almost worth dying for, to be buried in such a beautiful spot.”
At Franklin, while the Confederates hasten in pursuit, General Schofield surveys his options. He doesn’t like what he sees. The town is tucked in a tight bend of the Harpeth River on the south bank—an awkward place, as he sees it, to make a stand. He itches to get his forces on the move again, to hurry them the final eighteen miles to Nashville and a union with the troops of General Thomas. But Schofield fears that he won’t be able to get his wagon trains across the Harpeth before Hood arrives. The two bridges at Franklin are damaged and unusable; Schofield deems the river unfordable, and he scuttled his pontoons when he left Columbia to lighten his train for the forced march north. The commander had asked Thomas to send a pontoon bridge to Franklin, but he now discovers to his dismay that none have yet arrived. The situation shakes Schofield, who is worn out in body and mind by the struggles of the past week. There seems to be nothing to do for the moment but stand and fight, so Schofield orders General Jacob Cox to have the two divisions of Schofield’s own XXIII Corps dig in astride the turnpike, then to deploy one IV Corps division on the right flank. Cox is to “hold Hood back at all hazards till we can get our trains over, and fight with the river in front of us.”
Cox, examining the ground, is delighted to discover that he could not have asked for a better position to defend. The handsome brick house he has chosen for his headquarters, owned by a farmer named Fountain Branch Carter, stands at the high point of a wide, almost treeless and slightly undulating plain. If Hood attacks, he will have to cross almost two miles of open ground, extending from a low ridge to the south known as Winstead Hill. Using the Carter house and its cotton gin as a central point, Cox stretches his line in an arc anchored on the Harpeth below and above the town and enclosing the tight bend in the river. The men, despite their fatigue, are soon busy digging rifle pits and building entrenchments as they listen to skirmish firing in the distance and see the “ever present and everlasting wagon train coming in on the run.”
While the troops work, Schofield shakes off his alarm and fatigue to make further defensive dispositions. Having discovered that the Harpeth is fordable after all, he crosses a dozen of his guns and posts them on the far side of the river in a redoubt called Fort Granger, built last year to protect Franklin’s two bridges. He also instructs General Thomas Wood’s division of IV Corps to ford the river and protect the wagon train when it crosses. James Wilson’s cavalry, meanwhile, scout along the north bank, ready to delay the Confederates should they bypass Franklin and cross the river to fall on Schofield’s rear. And the engineers get busy rebuilding the two half-destroyed bridges so the wagons can cross. Gradually Schofield begins to breathe more easily. By nightfall all his wagons will be on the north bank and he will be ready to put his men on the pike to Nashville—assuming, of course, that Hood doesn’t attack him first.
The Confederates are now close. The Federal rearguard, made up of General Wagner’s division with Colonel Opdycke’s brigade covering, is giving ground but retiring in good order. When Hood reaches the south side of Winstead Hill about 2 pm, Wagner’s regimental flags already dot its slope. Hood sends Stewart’s corps forward to flank the hill and force the Federals off it, then rides up for a look. For a long time he studies the Federal line through his field glasses, standing on his crutches under a tree. Forrest, who is with him, counsels against a head-on attack. he has fought here before and knows the strength of the Union position. But he thinks Schofield’s flanks vulnerable. “Give me one strong division of infantry with my cavalry,” he says, “and within two hours I can flank the Federals from their works.” Hood refuses. He is determined to smash the Federal lines in a frontal assault. General Cheatham finds the prospects appalling. “I do not like the looks of this fight; the enemy has an excellent position and is well fortified.” Hood snaps that he prefers to fight them here, and remarks that the Federals here have had only a few hours to build defenses, whereas at Nashville “they have been strengthening themselves for three years.” Cleburne, already criticized for supposedly not pressing hard enough at Spring Hill, declines to counsel against an attack. he rests his field glasses on a stump and studies the enemy line, murmuring at last, “They are very formidable.” He writes briefly in a small notebook, sitting on the stump. At last Hood closes his glasses, cases them, and turns to his officer. “We will make the fight,” he says.
At his headquarters in a nearby house Hood outlines his plans. They are murderously simple. Without waiting for Stephen Lee’s corps or for most of his artillery, which is still hours away on the road from Columbia, he will hurl Cheatham’s and Stewart’s men at the Federal trenches. What is more, the main attack will be made directly up the turnpike, striking the middle of the enemy line, although it is evident that this is the Federals’ strongest point. It will be a headlong assault in the old manner—and it will restore the nerve, as Hood sees it, od his jaded troops. He has always associated valor with heavy casualties, even questioning the courage of subordinates who have kept their losses down. Now he will force his men into a bloodbath for their own good as an army. So deep is his conviction—and so intense his rage over Spring Hill—that Hood doesn’t bother to deploy his troops effectively for what is already a risky assault. The principal thrust up the turnpike will be made by only seven of the eighteen brigades Hood has at his disposal: the three in Cleburne’s division, the four in John C. Brown’s. Brown, who will move up the west side of the pike, puts two brigades—under Brigadier Generals States Rights Gist and George Washington Gordon—in his front line. The two others, commanded by Brigadier Generals John C. Carter and Otho F. Strahl, will form a second line. Cleburne, who has a wider front to cover on the right side of the pike, is forced to spread out his three brigades in a single line: Hiram Granbury’s Texans on the left, Daniel Govan’s troops in the center, and Mark Lowrey’s on the right. The other division in Cheatham’s corps—three brigades under General Bate—is sent off to the left to make an attack in conjunction with a division of Forrest’s cavalry. On the far right, Stewart’s corps is deployed with its right flank on the river. Forrest and two of his divisions will attempt to drive back Wilson’s Federal horsemen north of the river.
At this point the two armies are probably evenly matched, since Hood has denied himself the use of one of his three corps and virtually all of his artillery. But numbers are less important than the terrain—those two miles of open ground the Confederates will have to cross, unprotected by even a fence or an occasional stand of trees. Hood will later avow that Cleburne supports the plan of attack with high enthusiasm, but the Irishman’s brigade commander and friend, Govan, a fellow Arkansan, will remember that “General Cleburne seemed to be more despondent than I ever saw him. I was the last one to receive any instructions from him and as I saluted and bade him goodbye I remarked, ‘Well, general, there will not be many of us that will get back to Arkansas,’ and he replied, ‘Well, Govan, if we are to die, let us die like men.’ ”
On the Federal side, all this morning General Cox has been refining their position. One weakness is the point where the Columbia Turnpike runs through the Federal trenches; here a gap in the breastworks has been purposely left open to allow the last of the artillery and wagons, as well as the men of Wagner’s rearguard, to pass through. To protect the gap, Cox posts four guns at the opening. Then he has a second trench line dug 200 feet to the rear across the road. On both sides of the turnpike the main line angles back in gradual steps, conforming to the perimeter of the town. A second line protecting the turnpike angles back similarly on higher ground, and here more artillery is deployed to fire over the first line and sweep the field in front. By midafternoon Cox has done what he can, and he takes a few moments to rest and survey the scene, as do his men. Many have eaten and some are dozing. At Cox’s headquarters the horses are fed and saddled and the orderlies lounge on the grass, while the officers are sitting on the veranda smoking or sleeping as the mood takes them. The day has proven to be a bright and warm one, “a good example of Indian summer.” Except for the occasional straggler, nothing is to be seen between the Federal lines and Winstead Hill two miles away.
But despite the atmosphere of calm readiness, the Federal dispositions are flawed in one crucial way. The mistake was made after George Wagner’s division—the Federal rearguard—abandoned Winstead Hill in response to Stewart’s flanking move. As his three retreating brigades neared the main Federal works, Wagner received an order—perhaps from Schofield, although the records will be unclear—directing him to halt his troops astride the turnpike about half a mile out. Wagner is to remain there, or so several postbattle accounts will maintain, only until Hood shows signs of advancing in force. Then he is to retreat inside the trench line, forming a reserve near the Carter house and its big cotton gin. Wagner takes his orders to mean that he is to hold his exposed forward position no matter what. Colonel Opdycke, whose brigade is bringing up the rear of Wagner’s division, apparently objects to this. He declares that troops stationed in front of the main breastworks are in a position to aid the enemy—and no one else. Adding that his men are utterly worn out and need relief, Opdycke marches his brigade the last half mile up the pike and into the Federal lines. Wagner stays where he is, however, placing his other two brigades on opposite sides of the turnpike and ordering them to scratch hasty entrenchments in the earth. And there they remain, fatally exposed, until Hood’s advancing troops are upon them.
A bare half-hour before sunset, Hood’s regiments in their yellowish brown “butternut” uniforms begin their advance, marching onto the plain in battle order. The Federal soldiers watch transfixed as the low sun burnishes the enemy bayonets and the Confederate bands play “The Bonnie Blue Flag” and “Dixie.” Rabbits bound ahead of the advancing Confederate lines. Quail coveys burst upward. The attacking brigades march to within a mile of the Federal lines, then pause before beginning their charge. The men wait quietly. General Cleburne marks out squares on the soft ground and begins a game of checkers with leaves of different colors. A few of the troops eat all the rations they carry, in the expectation of being killed. The bands strike up again as a skirmish line starts out soon the entire army is on the move.
As the Confederates near, panic begins to build in the two Federal brigades Wagner is holding in the two Federal brigades Wagner is holding all alone 470 yards to the front. Everyone in the Federal line expects Wagner’s men to fall back when a direct attack comes, but there they stand, their flanks in the air and about to be overlapped. Several Federal officers gallop to Wagner’s command post, warning him to move his men. “The orders are not to stand except against cavalry and skirmishers,” one shouts. But Wagner, perhaps confused, perhaps thirsting for glory, refuses to order his men back. Striking the ground with his walking stick, he replies, “Never mind; fight them.” Wagner’s troops, veterans and new recruits alike, know that a disastrous blunder is occurring. The Confederates are close now. Then the enemy troops pause, redress their lines, and charge. At last Wagner’s subordinate officers give the order to fire, and a heavy volley crashes up and down the line. Some Confederates fall but the others pick up speed, screaming as they dash forward. This is too much for Wagner’s brigades; the troops break, streaming back toward the Federal breastworks. Scores are shot as the run, and nearly 700 are taken prisoner.
It quickly becomes evident that Wagner’s foolhardy stand has placed the entire Federal army in jeopardy. The gunners and riflemen in the center of the main line aren’t able to fire at Cleburne’s and Brown’s attacking troops without running the risk of hitting their own retreating men. The Confederates immediately see this, too. The shout is raised, “Go into the works with them!” and the Confederates charge forward right on the heels of Wagner’s troops. Many of Wagner’s fleeing men become entangled in an abatis of felled locust trees in front of the Federal earthworks. The Confederate attackers shoot, bayonet, or club the trapped soldiers through the brush. At last the surviving fugitives, most of them veering toward the gap in the earthworks at the turnpike, stagger to safety inside the Union lines. Given a clear field of fire, the Federal infantry and artillery open up with a roar. But it is too late to halt the oncoming Confederates, who continue to advance in a solid body, “with their hats drawn down over their eyes, just as if advancing against a hailstorm.” A raw Ohio regiment happens to be deployed at the gap, and among those men a panic is kindled. As they see their comrades from the advance line rushing to the rear, they too turn and flee. The contagion spreads and in a few minutes a disorderly stream is pouring down the pike past the Carter house toward the town. The guns, posted on each side of the pike, are abandoned, and the works, for the space of more than a regimental front, both east and west of the pike, are deserted. Into this gap the jubilant Confederates swarm, urged on by Cleburne and Brown, and take possession of both works and guns.
The Confederates are winded by their long charge into the Federal breastworks, and the wild excitement of their unexpected success throws some of the units into confusion. But their position seems brilliant. Three Confederate divisions led by Generals Cleburne, Brown, and French have converged on the gaping hole torn in the Union line when George Wagner’s Federal brigades stampeded rearward. If the Confederates can maintain their headlong drive, they will widen the gap—and possibly destroy General Schofield’s entire Federal army. The only man in a position to prevent the breakthrough is Colonel Emerson Opdycke, the strong-minded Ohio officer who marched his brigade inside the Union lines an hour ago, refusing to remain in the exposed position occupied by Wagner. Having gotten his weary troops to safety, Opdycke—who will come out of this day a brigadier general—placed them in the first open spot he saw. This was a meadow about 200 yards behind the Carter house and just east of where the dangerous hole would be torn in the Union line. Opdycke’s men, their weapons stacked and coffeepots bubbling over small fires, are eating and resting around 4 pm when the noise of battle grows louder. Opdycke immediately orders them to form in line. The troops have hardly grabbed their rifles before “a most horrible stampede of our front line troops” come surging and rushing back past Carter’s house. On their heels come the Confederates. Opdycke shouts, “First Brigade, forward to the works!” and his men surge past the Carter house and directly into the gap in the Federal defenses. Just at that moment General Stanley, Opdycke’s corps commander, arrives on the scene to see Opdycke near the center of his line urging his men forward. Deciding that there’s no point in giving orders to a man already doing what needs to be done, Stanley rides forward to offer what help he can only for his horse to be shot from under him and a musket ball to pass through the back of his neck, knocking him out of action.
Opdycke’s brigade gathers reinforcements as it rushes ahead. Two Kentucky regiments and the remnants of Wagner’s other two brigades join the charge. Yelling, weapons held high, the Federals crash into the oncoming Confederates, beginning one of the most savage hand-to-hand struggles of the entire war. Some fight with entrenching tools, the bayonet is freely used, while other club their guns and knock each other’s brains out. When the combatants have a chance to fire their weapons, it’s at point-blank range. Finally, the weight of Opdycke’s counterattack proves too heavy for the Confederates. Because Hood disposed his attacking divisions carelessly, there are no reserves to back up the initial assault and capitalize on the breakthrough. Forced it fall back, the attackers first seek refuge inside the Federal trench line, then scramble over the earthworks to huddle on the outer side, safe for the moment from the firestorm. Federal troops reoccupy most of the main line and throw up a barricade that plugs the gap. It has taken the Federals less than an hour to check the assault and close the gap. But the battle rages on with unabated fury as Confederate attacks strike both front and flank.
The assault on the Federal left by Stewart’s corps moves swiftly at first but then runs into trouble. At a railroad cut, two of Stewart’s Mississippi brigades are caught in a deadly enfilading fire from Federal artillery posted across the Harpeth River to the east. Then several Confederate brigades stumble into a grove of locust trees that the Union defenders have turned into a tough, thorny abatis. This barrier slows the attack; Federal repeating rifles, especially those of Colonel John S. Casement’s brigade, do the rest. One of Walthall’s brigades, led by Brigadier General William A. Quarles, finally breaks through the abatis and rushes to the Federal earthworks, only to be pinned down by a murderous crossfire. Quarles is wounded in the head; within hours the ranking officer in his brigade is a captain.
Artillery fire from across the river also chews into Major General William W. Loring’s division, which is advancing on the far right of the Confederate line, even as the whole division is suffering from galling musketry fire by the enemy entrenched in their immediate front. Especially hard hit is the brigade led by Brigadier General John Adams. Seeing his men start to falter, Adams gallops forward, waving his sword and urging on his troops. Adams’s headlong charge carries him directly onto the Federal earthworks. Awestruck, Lieutenant Colonel W .Scott Stewart, commanding an Illinois regiment, shouts for his men to hold their fire because “Adams was too brave to be killed.” But when the Confederate general tries to snatch the regimental flag, the color sergeant shoots him down in a flash. Adams’ horse is also shot and falls partly on top of him, its forelegs over the parapet. Federal soldiers haul the carcass off the wounded enemy general. Then they give Adams water, but he dies a few minutes later. Still farther to the right Loring’s other brigade, under Brigadier General Winfield S. Featherston, is also in trouble. Faced by withering Federal fire, the brigade advances hesitantly, stops, then begins to fall back. This brings Loring on the scene, white with rage. A fiery individual, swift to anger, the one-armed general gallops to the head of the brigade shouting, “Great God! Do I command cowards?” Then to show the men how it is done, he turns his horse’s head toward the Federal earthworks and sits motionless in the saddle for more than a minute, a perfect target in his impeccable general’s uniform, sword belt about his waist, a large dark ostrich plume sweeping from his hat. Somehow, he comes through unscathed.
Despite Loring’s dramatic gesture, his men fail to dent the Federal line. Many of them, along with survivors from Walthall’s division, are pinned down within a few yards of the Union works. Over on the Confederate left the assault also stalls. There General Bate’s division had had considerable ground to cover before reaching the Federal trenches. When Bate finally gets close enough to order the attack, it is almost dark. His force of Georgians and Floridians is relatively small, and the defenders—two sizable divisions commanded by Generals Nathan Kimball and Thomas Ruger—are able to hold off the Confederate charges, then pin down many of the attackers.
As dusk approaches, Confederate troops along the line cling to the outer edge of the Federal works. Many hope that if they stay long enough the defenders will break. “We had never seen the Federals fail to run under like circumstances,” an Arkansas private will boast. But the Federals troops aren’t about to abandon the fight, especially since they know the Harpeth River is at their backs, making an orderly retreat impossible. The battle becomes an endurance contest, the pinned-down attackers pressing themselves to the earth, unable to go forward but perfect targets if they try to go back. Every man who tries it is “at once exposed and shot down without exception.” In many places the two armies are separated by only a few feet. Occasionally men on both sides of the barricades climb to the top, thrust loaded pieces over, and shoot blindly. Some soldiers who raise their heads are seized by the hair, pulled over the parapet, and killed. A number of Confederates remain in the bottom of the ditch, clutching handfuls of earth. When they see Federal rifle barrels poking under the head log, they hurl the dirt to blind the shooters.
Across the field, the Federal musketry and artillery fire slaughters Hood’s men—officers as readily as privates. General Adams is dead. So is Brigadier General Hiram Granbury, commander of the famous Texas Brigade; he was shot within a few yards of the Federal works. States Rights Gist, the hard-fighting South Carolinian, is also mortally wounded. Then a rumor runs through the ranks that chills the men: Their beloved Irish-born general, Patrick Cleburne, is down. Cleburne had ridden into action on a borrowed horse, which was killed under him. One of Cleburne’s messengers had jumped from his own mount and handed the reins over to Cleburne. The Irishman had one leg up when a Federal canon shot killed the second horse. At that point Cleburne, according to General Daniel Govan, had drawn his sword and started running forward on foot. “He then disappeared in the smoke of battle and that was the last time I ever saw him alive.”
Sporadic firing continues as dusk deepens into night, gun flashes flickering along the trench line. Some Confederate officers conclude that their position is hopeless. General Gordon, still pinned to the earthworks, discusses the situation with a young soldier who is lying beside him in the ditch. They agree their only chance of survival is to give up. So they shout to the enemy across the works to cease firing, then when the firing eventually ceases cross the works and surrender. other Confederate generals, however, are determined to continue the fight. Otho Strahl, trapped like Gordon in the ditch outside the Federal trenches, stands among the dead as he loads rifles for infantrymen to fire over the earthworks at Federals dimly visible on the other side. Federal fire soon hits Strahl, knocking him down. Strahl calls for Colonel Stafford to turn over his command. A Tennessean Sergeant Cunningham crawls over the dead, the ditch being three deep, about twenty feet to Colonel Stafford. The wounded Strahl has only moments to live—his staff officers start to carry him to the rear, but he is hit by another shot, then a third that kills him instantly. Meanwhile, Cunningham finds that Colonel Stafford has also been killed. With both of the brigade’s ranking officers gone, Cunningham decides that he and the handful of men left need new orders. Racing to the rear, he reports to division headquarters, only to fund that Major General John C. Brown has also been put out of action by a serious wound. An overbearing staff officer instructs Cunningham to report to General Strahl. “This assured me,” Cunningham will later write, “that those in command did not know the real situation.”
In fact, the Confederate leaders have been out of touch almost from the beginning. General Hood has remained on Winstead Hill, more than two miles to the south, throughout the battle. His view has been obscured by the guns’ dense smoke, which hangs motionless in the still air, and then by growing darkness. The commander of Hood’s largest corps, General Cheatham, is stationed on another high point, Privet Knob, his view equally obscured. The two men have communicated little during the battle; neither issue any fresh orders. The commander of the other Confederate corps involved in the fight, Alexander Stewart, has his hands full on the right and can do nothing to direct the army’s overall movements. Hood’s third corps, headed by General Stephen Lee, is still toiling up the Columbia Pike when the battle begins. Only one of Lee’s divisions manage to make a belated attack, and it is repulsed. Handicapped by a lack of coordination, Hood’s army has beaten itself to death in piecemeal assaults against the Federal ramparts, the soldiers fighting on their own until they are either dead, wounded, or exhausted beyond caring.
On the Federal side, the hovering smoke has also obscured what is happening. But the alarm caused by the early collapse of the center of the line has been followed by a calm determination to hold on at all costs. Soon it becomes clear to the Union officers and men that their rifle and artillery fire are inflicting dreadful losses on the attackers. As darkness approaches, Major General Jacob Cox, architect of the Federal defenses, can sense that the fight is won. But General Schofield’s orders to fall back across the Harpeth River and retreat to Nashville still hold. Cox sends his brother and aide, Captain Theodore Cox, to Schofield’s headquarters to urge a change. Hood has taken such punishment, General Cox believes, that the Federals can counterattack in the morning and destroy the enemy. Schofield, however, will have none of it. He has been in a command post on the northern bank of the Harpeth throughout the battle and has little feel for what has happened. And he evidently discounts the fact that while the battle was raging around Franklin, his cavalry chief, General James Wilson, has been handing the redoubtable Nathan Bedford Forrest an unprecedented shellacking. Forrest crossed the Harpeth south of town with two divisions, intending to fall upon Schofield’s flank and rear. Wilson, attacking in full force, drove Forrest’s troopers back upon and then across the river. It is the first time that Forrest has been beaten by a smaller force in a stand-up fight. Wilson’s victory has removed the threat of the fast-moving Confederate cavalry. Despite this, Schofield remains uncertain, imagining that Hood’s army might yet cross the river and circle in his rear. The withdrawal will proceed as ordered.
The Federal troops begin pulling back about 11 pm. By midnight they are marching quietly through Franklin toward the bridges. By 3 am the men of the rearguard have crossed the river and burned the bridges behind them. The army is again on its way north. Schofield abandons his wounded. Hundreds of men unable to walk are left in makeshift hospitals in Franklin to await the Confederates. Other wounded soldiers are still up on the line. So are a good number of perfectly healthy troops. To avoid alerting the enemy, Federal officers passed the order to withdraw in whispers; many men who slept in exhaustion didn’t hear it. They will awaken in the morning to find themselves prisoners.
Before the departure, Federal Colonel Tristram T. Dow from Illinois had walked onto the field. “No enemies were there but those disabled or dead,” he will recall, “and the cries of the wounded for help were very distressing.” The scene is equally appalling for the many Confederates who, despite their fatigue, are soon prowling about in the dark trying to find friends and relatives. Searching for his brother near the center of the Federal line, “I could have trodden on a dead man at every step,” Chaplain James McNeilly will write. “The dead were piled up in the trenches almost to the top of the earthworks.” McNeilly finds his brother’s corpse less than fifty yards from the Federal line, near the body of Patrick Cleburne. He lay “flat on his back, as if asleep.” He had taken a bullet squarely in the heart. Cleburne’s body will be buried tomorrow in the beautiful churchyard at Ashwood that had brought him a moment’s peace yesterday. Also wandering the battlefield on this dark night is an elderly slave known as Uncle Wiley Howard, a servant to General States Rights Gist. Howard finds his master at last, lying in a field hospital on the Confederate far left. When the general dies, Howard remains with the body until morning, then takes it for burial. For the Confederates, the toll is a 1,750 killed, 3,800 wounded, and 702 missing for a staggering 6,252 lost out of 20,000 to 27,000 men in action. Schofield’s Federals number between 22,000 and 27,000 engaged and they suffer far fewer casualties: 189 killed, 1,033 wounded, and 1,104 missing for 2,326. Most of the Federal casualties are from Wagner’s division, incurred in the breaching of the forward line.
This morning General Hatch’s command of Sherman’s army moves toward Grahamville. By now a large force on Confederates, including troops from Charleston as well as elements of Gustavus Smith's Georgia militia from Savannah, that suffered such bloody losses against Sherman’s rearguard at Griswoldville. When the Federal advance began, General Hardee and Lieutenant General Taylor, who had been together at Macon, were gravely concerned. The Savannah & Charleston Railroad is their sole route of withdrawal to Charleston. If they lose it, Hardee’s whole force, such as it is, would be trapped in Savannah when Sherman arrives.
It happens that the battered militiamen reached Savannah this very day as the Federals are approaching the railroad. As soon as Smith’s troops get there, Smith hustles them over to the South Carolina side of the river. The militiamen take careful position along a causeway at Honey Hill Honey Hill, three miles south of Grahamville. There, 1,400 men, along with five artillery pieces, dig in. Hatch’s force is delayed by the Confederates, who set the fields and woods afire to confine the Federals to the road. Hindered by “dense undergrowth and swamps,” the Unionists make little progress. By afternoon the Federals began to withdraw and by 7:30 pm they have retreated from the field. Hatch suffered over 750 casualties; Smith, less than 50. The fighting is a reverse of their last bloody encounter with Sherman—they inflict ten casualties for each one of their own and keep open Hardee’s railroad escape route into South Carolina.
Sherman marches on, with a skirmish at Louisville, Georgia. There is also action near Dalton, Georgia; Kabletown, West Virginia; and Snicker’s Gap, Virginia. At Honey Hill or Grahamville, near the South Carolina coast, Federal troops from Hilton Head move out to attack. their purpose is to enlarge Union holdings and outposts in the area and cut the Charleston & Savannah Railroad. But Georgia militia throw back the Federals, who then withdraw. There is no real attempt to aid Sherman by marching from the seacoast, though this had been discussed.
In a message to Beauregard, President Davis says he believes Sherman “may move directly for the Coast.” The Confederates must concentrate and his army must be reduced and rendered ineffective. Davis thinks Hood will not have an effect on Federal strategy until the Confederates reach Union territory.
Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.