The history of 1861-1865 is an unconquerable mountain of moral lessons, action, heroes, villains, violence, politics, honor, compassion, culture; the core of American history.
One of the most brutal battles of the Civil War occurred at Franklin, Tennessee, November 30, 1864.
Lt. General John Bell Hood, a hero of Gettysburg, Gaines’ Mill, Antietam, and Chickamauga and his 27 thousand men of the Army of Tennessee had the previous evening inexplicably allowed their quarry, John Schofield’s Union Army of the Cumberland (28,000 men) to escape their trap at Spring Hill. Schofield’s entire army should have been captured – but it was not to be.
Hood’s goal was Nashville, occupied by the Union since the fall of Forts Donelson and Henry on the Cumberland River in early 1862. Now, it was late 1864 and the star of the Confederacy was flaming out.
After Schofield escaped the Spring Hill trap in the darkness of the early hours of November 30th he made his way ten miles north to Franklin just 15 miles from the protection of the heavily fortified Union-held city of Nashville – also Hood’s goal (that is, to liberate the city).
Hood followed the Union army to Franklin trailing them by several hours. What happened at Franklin next would strike horror and awe into the hearts of Americans forever afterward.
Hood determined to charge the Yankee positions, dug in behind breastworks with extensive artillery coverage. A frontal assault was ordered, and the Confederate Army of Tennessee stepped off from Winstead Hill. 20,000 men would make this charge across two miles of open ground – double the distance of Picket’s Charge at Gettysburg and surpassing it in number of men engaged. The two miles from Winstead Hill to the Union works at Franklin offered the Confederates no cover – they would be constantly under fire.
The Confederate charge at Franklin would be the last grand charge of the Civil War.
One of the men in this charge was General John Adams, a Nashvillian and commander of a Confederate infantry brigade on the right flank of the Confederate advance at Franklin.
Mounted on his dark war horse “Old Charley” in the midst of a massive infantry charge Adams was an astounding example of leadership, leading by example – follow me! Wounded in the arm during the charge Adams refused to dismount; he rode forward to the Federal works at Franklin still mounted leading his men.
The target of the Confederate charge at Franklin was a two mile long line of entrenchments fronted by a mound of earth 6 feet high behind which Federal soldiers took cover. Sam Watkins in his Civil War memoir Company Aytch introduced the battle of Franklin with this:
Kind reader, right here my pen, and courage, and ability fail me. I shrink from butchery. Would to God I could tear the page from these memoirs and from my own memory. It is the blackest page in the history of the war of the Lost Cause. It was the bloodiest battle of modern times in any war. It was the finishing stroke to the independence of the Southern Confederacy. I was there. I saw it. My flesh trembles, and creeps, and crawls when I think of it today. My heart almost ceases to beat at the horrid recollection. Would to God that I had never witnessed such a scene! I cannot describe it. It beggars description. I will not attempt to describe it. I could not. The death-angel was there to gather its last harvest. It was the grand coronation of death
Adams, under fire the entire two mile gallop to the Union line leaped his horse on to the top of the Union works. For a moment General Adams was a magnet of attention and the most obvious target in that swirling hurricane of death.
For a moment he sat in the saddle with Old Charley standing on the Union works six feet above the ground to be seen by friend and foe. There must have been an otherworldly, timeless moment or more when the universe of war stopped as men in blue and gray stood astounded at the surreal bravery of Adams. There must be few moments in life like this one where the attention of thousands, the admiration of friend and enemy is directed to one man among thousands.
“We looked to see him fall every minute, but luck seemed to be with him. We were struck with admiration… He was too brave to be killed. The world had but few such men. … We saw scores of officers fall from their mounts… but the one great spirit who appealed the strongest to our admiration was Gen. John Adams… He was riding forward through such a rain of bullets that no one had any reason to believe he would escape them all, but he seemed to be in the hands of the Unseen, but at last the spell was broken and the spirit went out of one of the bravest men who ever led a line of battle.”
(The Gallant Dead: Union and Confederate Generals Killed in the Civil War, by Derek Smith)
Quickly, General Adams grasped the staff of the national flag from the color guard of the 65th Illinois manning the works beneath him. There had been shouts from Union defenders to not fire on Adams as he was simply “too brave to die.” When he grabbed the colors the swirling, timeless moment of invincibility for General Adams ended.
“Our Colonel Stewart … called to our men not to fire on him, but it was too late. Gen. Adams rode his horse over the ditch to the top of the parapet, undertook to grasp the ‘old flag’ from the hands of our color sergeant, when he fell, horse and all, shot by the color guard.”
(Eyewitnesses at the Battle of Franklin)
John Adams on the Union works at Franklin will forever be a central moment in American history – bravery such as his is timeless.
Adams’ actions at Franklin place him among the pantheon of America’s bravest.
History is important because it shows continuity in American life – that we have met crises and successfully passed through them all. Heroes like General Adams and so many like him who wore the blue and gray during the Civil War set a standard of courage and selflessness that cannot help but inspire us.
The following poem was written by a soldier of General Adams’ brigade. The poem may have once appeared in a Confederate veteran publication in the late 19th century, though I cannot verify this. What I can verify is that this post represents the debut of this poem on the internet and to a well-deserved wider audience most particularly during this sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War.
General John Adams In His Heroic Ride at the Battle of Franklin
He who was bravest of all who were brave,
His laurels of fame meekly wearing;
He who to fear was never a slave,
Tho’ the death shells were hissing and tearing.
Heart that was tender, yet heart true as steel,
The poor, weak, and helpless all blessed him;
The sad had no sorrow that he could not feel,
The children all loved and caressed him.
Hero of battles in the dark days of old,
That He like a dark dream behind us;
We who were born ‘neath a blue peaceful sky,
With only his deeds to remind us.
His life was full of the promise that he gave,
The glow to life’s bud in the morning;
But when his loved country, her honor to save,
To all her proud manhood gave warning.
He saw the bright star of his hope quickly set,
In the twilight of peace that was waning;
He answered the call like a true son, and yet
He knew not the crown he was gaining.
At Santa Cruz, DeRosales with Kearney the brave,
The hot sun of Mexico beaming,
Upon the broad plain where war-banners wave
From the Capitol with tall turrets gleaming.
He reared to his name in the glittering sands,
A monument of valor undying;
Where white bleaching bones from different lands,
Together in silence are lying.
No age has a hero grander than he,
No hero a monument higher;
From pole unto pole, from sea unto sea,
Than he reared ‘mid the battles death fire.
At Franklin he sat like a lion of old,
Upon his sorrel war-charger prancing;
His face calm and silent, like bronze in the mold,
At the head of his column advancing.
There where he charged at the head of his men.
The thick smoke of battle around him;
There in the arms of the foe, alone, when
The battle was over they found him.
Up to the breast-works he rode like a king,
While the bullets their death songs were crying;
Up to where Death hovered low on her wing,
And his comrades by hundreds were dying.
On to the ramparts he rode, where the breeze
The enemy’s colors were swelling;
And on them he died grim Fate to appease,
Ah! the tale is too sad for the telling.
He sat on his horse in the face of his foe,
A halo of glory around him;
He died, while the stars of his country sank low,
With the Blue and the Gray piled around him.
He sleeps with the dust – he is taking his rest
‘Neath soft twinkling stars in their glory.
With a gray uniform buttoned close o’er his breast –
A hero too grand for a story.
Let him sleep ‘neath the blue, let him sleep with the Gray,
The silence of nature around him;
He lives in the hearts of his people today;
A hero, unrivaled, they’ve crowned him.