Historian recounts Hood’s retreat on 149th anniversary


Historian recounts Hood’s retreat on 149th anniversary

By GREGORY L. WADE

Most everyone in Williamson County has at least some knowledge of the Nov. 30, 1864 Battle of Franklin. But on Monday, Dec. 17 of the same year, another important event in the saga surrounding this area’s role in the Civil War took place. Known as Hood’s retreat, it ended the county’s active role in major fighting of the war. Today Gregory L. Wade of Franklin, founder of the Franklin Civil War Round Table and a frequent writer on Civil War history, shares that story with Brentwood Home Page.

Most everyone in Williamson County has at least some knowledge of the Nov. 30, 1864 Battle of Franklin. But on Monday, Dec. 17 of the same year, another important event in the saga surrounding this area’s role in the Civil War took place. Known as Hood’s retreat, it ended the county’s active role in major fighting of the war.

Today Gregory L. Wade of Franklin, founder of the Franklin Civil War Round Table and a frequent writer on Civil War history, shares that story with Brentwood Home Page.

After the Nov. 30, 1864 Battle of Franklin, Williamson County residents mistakenly hoped that at long last, the war was behind them and they could begin to rebuild. At Franklin, the southerners suffered devastating losses and many of their senior officers, including six generals.

The town was traumatized. The Federals evacuated Franklin as the battle sputtered out and marched through the night into entrenchments at Nashville. The bloodied Confederate Army of Tennessee, under the command of John Bell Hood, staggered in pursuit.

Moving into line south of Nashville on Dec. 2, the Confederates put up a semblance of a siege while facing a growing federal army under the command of General George Thomas. Trainloads of supplies and troops arrived in Nashville building up Thomas’s army while Hood’s men suffered with few reinforcements, in miserable conditions.

On Saturday, Dec. 15, Thomas, under pressure from his superior, General U.S. Grant attacked and drove the Confederates back. At the end of the day, the Confederate line was bent south with Compton Hill (Shy’s Hill) acting as an anchor at the Granny White Pike.

Attacking again on Sunday the 16th, the Confederate lines broke with soldiers fleeing over what is now Tyne Boulevard, Radnor Lake and over to Franklin Road, desperate to escape Federal cavalry and a certain trip to a northern prison camp.

The Confederate right flank under General Stephen Lee held steady near today’s Franklin Road Academy and Peach Orchard Hill. Hood ordered Lee to form a rear guard while the rest of the retreating army would flow back south, thru Franklin.

By dark on the 16th, exhausted southerners were restlessly sleeping on the fields and hills of Brentwood back to where present day Murray Lane intersects Franklin Road, and further south.

In the meantime, Union cavalry General James Wilson, with 13,000 mostly Midwestern farm boys, planned to finish off the southerners in the vicinity of Holly (hollow) Tree Gap at daylight on the 17th. As the sun rose, several brigades of Confederate infantry, mostly Georgians and Louisianans, set up defensive positions in the gap where Franklin Road today crosses just south of the Baptist Children’s Home, near present day Moores Lane. The fighting was intense. The Federals’ noses were bloodied and Wilson later reported the effort to bag the southern army would prove to be much more difficult than originally thought.

The stand at Holly Tree Gap enabled Lee’s rear guard to retreat south to the area just north of Franklin including what is today known as Harlinsdale.

Wilson’s cavalry, at about noon, gathered itself in the area of Spencer Creek and began one of the largest cavalry charges in American history. Some say as many as 6,000 and possibly 10,000 mounted horsemen charged southeast across what is today city park land.

As the badly outnumbered rear guard under Lee braced themselves, intense fighting erupted in the area of Liberty Pike and the ground where The Factory at Franklin stands today. With the bridges destroyed by the main body of Hood’s army, Lee’s soldiers had to swim across the Harpeth River. Some drowned in the chaos. But once again, the Federal attack was blunted, allowing the rest of the Confederates to retreat through Franklin.

The time it took for Wilson’s horsemen to find suitable fords further west again enabled the Confederates to rally, this time on Winstead Hill. In a sharp but brief fight, General Lee was wounded in his foot and turned command of the rear guard to General Carter Stevenson. Like Lee, Stevenson had served in many battles in the war and had been in command of Confederate troops at Lookout Mountain in 1863.

For now, he inherited Lee’s desperate assignment to save the core of Hood’s army. During the ebb and flow of combat, the Confederates moved further south, along the Franklin Pike, where they rallied at the West Harpeth River. Today, Tollgate development is on part of the battlefield and Interstate 840 is just south.

Just a few hundred yards north of the West Harpeth, Wilson’s Union Cavalry deployed for another attack. Stevenson’s men, exhausted after a 15-mile fight, were severely pressured and fell back south across the river, barely hanging on.  

A veteran Confederate artillery unit, Douglas’ Battery, made up of Texans who fought in many of the wars major battles, set up just south of the river on a slight rise. In the gray dusk approaching night, the combat was chaotic.

Confederates in many cases wore blue coats and identifying friend or foe in the cold fog became problematic. Desperate, the southerners resorted to the “hollow square” formation. This was seldom seen in the Civil War and only used when infantry found themselves surrounded by cavalry.

During the melee, James Douglas was nearly captured. His battery, mired in the mud, could not be moved. He escaped capture by jumping on the back of a horse with his brother.

At the West Harpeth, two Indianans, Joseph Hedges and Eugene Beaumont, would be awarded the Medal of Honor for their conduct in the worse of the fighting. Beaumont would receive the honor again in later action at Selma, Ala.

When it seemed most desperate, part of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry arrived just in time. That, along with darkness and exhaustion, ended the fighting on Dec. 17. What remained of the Army of Tennessee would see many more days of hard combat until it crossed the Tennessee River in Alabama.

The fight at the West Harpeth was the last major action seen by the residents of Williamson County in the Civil War. Now they could begin to heal and rebuild.

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