Living History: The Legacy of the Battle of Franklin, Then and Now

The cannons fired in Franklin, Tennessee, on November 30, 1864, can still be felt reverberating today. That afternoon, the Battle of Franklin became seminal to the outcome of the war, the Confederacy’s last gasp for hope of regaining Nashville. The next morning, 10,000 men were dead or wounded. Five months later, the Union was restored, and the country set about the slow process of rebuilding itself.

In 2005, the sale of a 110-acre golf course and country club located adjacent to Carnton prompted a larger conversation — what does the story of what happened here 150 years ago mean to our future? A group of community-minded preservationists saved that land from development, turning it over to the City of Franklin to become the Eastern Flank Battlefield Park. 

Back then, National Geographic said that “Of all the Civil War’s major engagements, the Battle of Franklin is the most unjustly forgotten.” The effort that took place over the next decade represents the largest battlefield reclamation in American history, along with a comprehensive interpretation of not only the military action but the human side of the aftermath. Carrie McGavock’s endeavor to remove bodies from mass graves on the battlefield—1,481 of them, 558 still marked Unknown—and reinter them on her land at Carnton is the stuff of epic novels. But it happened here, and Robert Hicks’ bestseller Widow of the South shared it with the world. Franklin’s legacy was no longer forgotten.

Still, the story doesn’t end there. Eric Jacobson, CEO of the Battle of Franklin Trust that manages Carnton and Carter House in Franklin and Rippa Villa in Spring Hill, says that his mission is not simply to get people to understand what happened on that day, that year, or even in the course of the whole four years. 

“We want people to understand the larger impact, that it still impacts us,” Jacobson says. “The results of the war still impact each of us today.”

The Carter House was ground zero for the battle, where two tidal waves collided in the largest full frontal assault in the history of warfare on American soil. Confederate Captain Tod Carter made it from Georgia only to die in his own yard. Immediately after and for months to follow, Carnton became Franklin’s largest field hospital. Permanent blood stains on the floor punctuate the horrors that family and their patients faced. The two properties used to operate independently, but the Battle of Franklin Trust was formed to tell the whole story more effectively in 2009. Last year, they began managing Rippa Villa in nearby Spring Hill, Tennessee, another historic house museum and 100-acre farm critical to the narrative. Not only did an overnight blunder there allow 20,000 Union soldiers to march right past the Confederates, precipitating the Battle, but Ripa Villa also embodies the institution of slavery in the antebellum South. 

Years ago, when Jacobson was writing his first book, For Cause and For Country, he didn’t know how to start, so he wrote the first chapter last. 

“The first sentence is, ‘Compromise was dead.’ I think that’s all you need to know,” he says. “One group of Americans was trying to rip the country apart, and another was trying to keep it together, with four million slaves in the middle. That reality challenges people’s thinking.”

Last year, the Battle of Franklin Trust placed a historical marker at Ripa Villa, recognizing the enslaved who fought for their freedom in Nashville and beyond as part of the United States Colored Troops (USCT). The “Fuller Story” initiative that launched in 2019 amid national debates around monuments yielded new interpretive signage on Franklin’s Public Square, providing the context of human beings sold there before the war and the struggles and triumphs of post-war years for the formerly enslaved. In 2021, a bronze monument to the bravery of USCT troops from Williamson County was unveiled. All of it helps us better understand the impact of what happened here to the generations who came before us.

“The granite confederate monument and bronze USCT monument represent people who played a role in the development of our nation. They existed in the same environment then, and they can certainly exist in the same environment now,” Jacobson says. “Places like Franklin, where African slavery occurred, and terrible battles were fought, and Reconstruction played out, have a moral responsibility and obligation, to be honest. Our job is not to entertain people but to tell them the truth.”

The Battle of Franklin Trust offers a range of tours covering all aspects of our Civil War story, and the Tennessee Campaign tour includes all three properties. Tickets can be purchased in the Visitor Center at 400 Main Street, Suite 130, in downtown Franklin.

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