The Top 13 Controversies at Franklin: Part 4

by Brett Schulte on January 7, 2014 · 3 comments

Editor’s Note: After I’d posted my recent comments on Lee’s possible endorsement of John Bell Hood for army command in 1864, I started going back over a lengthy nine or ten part series I did on Eric Jacobson’s book For Cause & for Country: A Study of the Affair at Spring Hill and the Battle of Franklin.  I had totally forgotten about one of the longest entries, part 8 of the series, in a portion of which I spent comparing/contrasting what Jacobson and Wiley Sword, author of The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah: Spring Hill, Franklin, and Nashville, had to say about some of the numerous controversies at Franklin.  I dusted off this old piece of writing because I thought it might be interesting to readers who have read or who plan to read Stephen M. Hood’s new book, John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General.

Without further ado, here is only a portion of Part 8 in the Jacobson series.  You’ll note that I had a lot of time on my hands in those days, when I was single, without children, and with a job I could leave on Friday and not think about again until Monday morning.  I’ll cover 13 controversies of Franklin in this new series, often in more detail than should probably fit into one blog post.  The entire series will appear at the bottom of this and ensuing posts over the coming weeks.

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Comparison and Contrast

As I mentioned at the end of my last blog entry, I wanted to take a look at some of the main vignettes the Battle of Franklin produced, comparing and contrasting the coverage Wiley Sword and Eric Jacobson give to these events. I have listed each “incident” in bold below and numbered them approximately in the order in which they occurred. After each topic title, I have attempted to discuss how each author views each situation. I am especially interested in hearing readers’ takes on these situations, as I think it might generate an interesting discussion on the Battle of Franklin. I hope to do this also after the next entry in this series, covering Bate’s actions on the left and the close of the battle.

4. If he didn’t want to punish his men, why DID Hood attack at the Battle of Franklin?

Eric Jacobson essentially covers this in his answer to question #2:

Yet the real reason [to attack frontally] is right there in black and white. It had nothing to do with Hood’s allegation that the men would not attack breastworks, which they had proven they would do. Instead, Hood saw his last true opportunity to stop Schofield slipping through his fingers. From Pulaski to Columbia to Spring Hill the Federals had eluded him. Here was the chance to finish the job.

I tend to agree with this statement, as I also covered in question #2.

cppbanner The Top 13 Controversies at Franklin: Part 4

Wiley Sword offers some alternatives to the “punishment” perspective as well. He writes (on page 263):

Hood’s decision to attack at Franklin was essentially an emotional reflex, rooted in his obsession to “prevent the enemy from escaping.” Undoubtedly, he misperceived the nature of the Federal retreat, believing that a demoralized enemy was attempting only to get away without risking battle. Yet equally prominent were such factors as Hood’s physical disability and a draining exhaustion of his mind and spirit. Hood’s frustration following the Spring Hill fiasco caused Stephen D. Lee, the general who seemed closest to Hood, to write after the war, “Franklin was brought about by the great blunder at Spring Hill; there is where the trouble lay and no explanations can evade it.” Also, he blamed Hood’s physical disability, saying that it was doubtful that any soldier so maimed of body should have had such an important command. This want of “physical faculty,” said Lee, “certainly impaired his efficiency as a commander.”

Hood on November 30th was angry, overeager, frustrated, and not reasoning well. His resort to tactics of not firing a gun, but to use the bayonet, was a throwback to Gaines’ Mill. In Hood’s mind failings were often explained in simplistic terms–the want of physical and moral courage. Yet his own failings, and also a vindictive disposition, were masked by his penchant for blaming others.

Worse still, he lacked the competence and ability to learn from his mistakes. The tactical battlefield lessons of the past three years had eluded him. The rifle musket and defensive fortifications had so changed the nature of warfare that to resort to a frontal assault against any sizable number of entrenched enemy troops was little better than mass suicide.

Hood harbored visions of past glory. Disciplined valor had won the day then; a similar attack would ever provide the same result. It was the only way he knew or understood. John Bell Hood was a sad anachronism, a disabled personality prone to miscalculation and misperception. Unfortunately, he was also a fool with a license to kill his own men.

Lastly, Alethea D. Sayers chimes in (at http://www.johnbellhood.org/franklin.htm):

Hood himself stated his reasons for risking a frontal assault, saying he would rather fight the Federals at Franklin, where they had only hours to fortify, than Nashville where they had been erecting defenses for three years.

If you can overlook the amateur psychological profile inserted into Sword’s account, there are some interesting things we can take from the above few paragraphs. He, like Jacobson (who perhaps used Sword as a source in this instance), makes the point that Hood may have thought back to the similar situation of Gaines’ Mill. I can see where Hood might have thought a similar result could be won at Franklin. As I discussed in question #3, I also think Hood was not fully over the disappointing result at Spring Hill, even if I don’t agree on the level of anger and frustration Sword says Hood felt. I honestly think his emotional state may have contributed to his poor decision making process on the afternoon of November 30. I also partially agree with paragraph three. The best generals the Civiil War produced were those who evolved as the lessons of previous defeats were learned. Hood had always been an aggressive general, one better suited perhaps to a division level command. I do not think the situation was as bad as Sword says it was, but it is an argument with some merit. The last paragraph of Sword’s above was simply uncalled for, especially the last sentence. Hood was trying to serve his country as well as he possibly could. I highly doubt he was trying to get his men killed wantonly. His situation at Franklin is to me similar to that of Burnside at Fredericksburg in December 1862. After a strategic movement failed to produce results, both generals resorted to a frontal attack, thinking they had no other option, and both attacks resulted in disaster. Of course the Confederates at that late day (and at any date really) could far less afford a disaster the magnitude of Franklin. In conclusion, it makes the most sense to say that Hood probably attacked frontally because he felt all of his other options were exhausted.

13 Controversies at Franklin

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Ned B. January 7, 2014 at 8:09 am

Brett — Enjoyable series; thoughtful analysis. Thanks for bringing it back.

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Brett Schulte January 7, 2014 at 10:22 am

Thanks Ned. I’m glad my recent reading of Stephen Hood’s new book on JBH brought me back to these posts, which were otherwise buried in the obscurity of 2006.

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jackie martin January 7, 2014 at 12:18 pm

Again, an opinion: John B. Hood certainly had skill as a commander, but his impetuosity and aggressiveness made him better suited, as was previously stated, for a lesser role in the chain of command, a role with a little less responsibility for the fate of SO many lives, i.e., divisional status might have been more his forte. His actions at Franklin reflected that impetuous nature; but also the continuous momentum of the campaign, itself, dictated his decisions and movements, there WAS no other direction to go, except forward. Retreat was certainly not an option, at least to Hood. Rankled and disheartened (not to mention, embarrassed), with Spring Hill, I think Franklin loomed as a good way to vindicate himself of the Spring Hill debacle.
The failure of the Atlanta campaign still stinging mightily, especially ego-wise, he needed to regain his reputation, as well as pull the Confederacy out of the death grip that was rapidly zapping its strength..
“Disciplining” his men by literally pitting them against the Federal “firing squad” at Franklin, does seem wantonly cruel, but there’s no doubt he was extremely agitated by the failure of events leading to Franklin. Possibly subconsciously, he just wanted (needed) to prove to the Federals the fighting force of the Confederacy was still viable and a force to be reckoned with, still.
Of course, when anybody who is suffering physically and mentally, sound judgment suffers, and if there’s ANYTHING needed in a crucial battle, it is SOUND judgment. A change of command was probably warranted for this campaign, but I’m not sure the OUTCOME of the battle would have been much different, however, the blatant slaughter might have been greatly reduced.

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