Gen. John Bell Hood was enraged when he awoke the morning of Nov. 30, 1864, and learned that the Yankee army had slipped past him at Spring Hill during the night. At breakfast he unleashed his wrath on his generals. A Confederate staff officer wrote, “He is as wrathy as a rattlesnake this morning, striking at everything.”
Hood was still angry when he arrived with the Army of Tennessee at Winstead Hills overlooking the town of Franklin late that afternoon. Through his field glasses he surveyed the strong defenses thrown up by Gen. John Schofield’s Union troops — a long line of entrenched infantry passing in front of the Carter House on the Columbia Pike, past the Gin House toward the river.
With Hood’s anger still driving him and sunset approaching, Hood ignored his general’s recommendations and ordered a direct attack on the dug-in lines, with no flanking maneuvers. Moreover, he would attack without waiting for his last corps to arrive from Spring Hill, thus giving up his numerical advantage.
That anger would come very close to sending the Hawkins Boys to their destruction.
William Worsham, the 19th Tennessee’s regimental musician, remembered Brigade Commander Gen. Otho Strahl’s reaction to the orders. “While we were yet on the Winstead Hills, Gen. Strahl rode off to himself, dismounted, having nothing to say to anyone,” said Worsham. “No one ever noticed this in Gen. Strahl before. He was never reticent, but free to approach and was communicative. We understood afterwards Gen Strahl remarked to two other generals that he would be killed in this engagement.”
As the Hawkins Boys formed for battle, Strahl rode by on his horse and said, “Boys, this will be short but desperate.”
At first it looked as if the Hawkins Boys would catch a break. Strahl’s brigade was to be held in reserve. But as the Confederates advanced, an angle in the Federal lines caused Gen. Patrick Cleburne’s forces to bend to the right, opening a hole in the line on the Columbia Pike. Strahl’s brigade moved to fill the hole.
“With Cleburne on the right of the Columbia Pike, Cheatham’s corps moved forward and soon the whole line was engaged, and charged with that characteristic yell of the Southern soldier,” said Worsham.
The 19th Tennessee was among the first regiments to break the Federal line near the Carter House. But one of the Hawkins Boys, Arthur Fulkerson, would be one of the first to die.
“Strahl’s brigade gained the ditches in front of the Carter house with the Old Nineteenth resting immediately on the pike, Arthur Fulkerson, the Sergeant-Major of the regiment, fell in the charge just before reaching the works, pierced by sixteen bullets,” said Worsham. “The works here in front of us were so high the men could not scale them without help. Gen. Strahl helped one of the Old Nineteenth upon top of the works, when he was shot, and fell over on the side of the enemy. Then another, when he too was shot, but the general held on to him and pulled him back. Tom Alexander of Co. H, said, ‘General help me up.’ ‘No,’ replied Gen. Strahl, ‘I have helped my last man up on the works to be shot in my hands.’ ”
But three men of the 19th Tennessee managed to get over the works. Lt. Frank Hale and Sgt. Lum Waller of Company H along with one of the Hawkins Boys, Lt. William Etter, made it over just in time to be caught up in the Federal counterattack and were lost.
Historian Thomas Cartwright, from Franklin, recounted the horrors of the Federal counterattack thusly.
“150 yards north of Carter house, Emerson Updyke’s Brigade (U.S.) ‘burst out of the ground like demons’ and both sides met on the run like waves crashing together. Now it’s like Medieval times with gunpowder involved. They’re clubbing, clawing, bayoneting, strangling, gouging, shooting and biting each other,” said Cartwright. “After about 20 min of fighting the Federals recapture the inner trench line while the Confederates hold the outer line of trenches.
“Two cannons of the 6th Ohio battery were firing at point blank range with stockings full of mini balls. They said that two sounds could be heard, first the roar of the cannon and then the crushing and snapping of Confederate bones so close to the guns,” said Cartwright. “A drummer boy from Missouri, a 15-year- old Confederate, ran up to one of the cannons and stuffed the mouth of one of the cannons with a split rail from a cedar fence. It’s said they fired the gun and the drummer boy exploded like a ripe tomato in a puff of pink mist, he went straight to Heaven immediately where there is no pain or suffering any more.”
Among the counterattacking Federal units was the 8th Tennessee, U.S., which had companies made up of Unionists from Hawkins, Sullivan and Washington counties. At this bloodiest of moments in the war, East Tennessee neighbor fought neighbor as the 19th Tennessee, C.S., and the 8th Tennessee, U.S., fought over the same ground.
The fighting grew desperate with Gen. Strahl himself loading and firing a rifle like a private. Then he was wounded and members of his staff tried to remove him from the battlefield only to be wounded again. Others tried to move him and were shot down.
The battle continued into the night with soldiers carrying torches as the Confederates launched 13 charges, all unsuccessful. Finally the main fighting stopped around 9 p.m. while skirmishing ended around 11 p.m. as Schofield quietly withdrew from Franklin and continued on to Nashville.
“As soon as it was ascertained that the enemy had left Franklin, the infirmary and relief corps were on the field with torches rendering assistance to the thousands of wounded and suffering,” said Worsham. “Gen. Frank Cheatham walked over the field of carnage that night and looked by the glare of the torchlight into the hundreds of pale faces, silent in death, in many places the dead lying in heaps, and upon the thousands of wounded covered with blood, appealing for water and help, he went, the great big tears ran down his cheeks and he sobbed like a child.”
Among the many that Cheatham walked over were several of the Hawkins Boys. In addition to Fulkerson, who was killed in the initial charge, among the dead were Marshall Looney, E. Webster and Edgar Potts. Among the wounded were H.S. Buran, W.N. McCarty and Ben Shipley.
In the midst of the tragedy, there was one small note of cheer for the Hawkins Boys. Lt. Etter, although wounded, had avoided capture after scaling the works. He took shelter behind the brick smokehouse that stood in the backyard of the Carter House and rejoined Company K in the morning after the Yankees had left.
Gen. Hood declared the Battle of Franklin a victory and sent a congratulatory order out to be read to the soldiers. But, with more than 1,500 Confederate dead and 9,000 total casualties, the soldiers had another opinion as was summed up by Capt. Samuel Foster, 24th Texas Cavalry.
“The wails and cries of widows and orphans made at Franklin will heat up the fires of the bottomless pit to burn the soul of Gen. J.B. Hood for murdering their husbands and fathers. It can’t be called anything else but cold blooded murder,” wrote Foster.