The Top 13 Controversies at Franklin: Part 5

by Brett Schulte on January 14, 2014 · 1 comment

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.

5. Why did Union division commander George Wagner decide to stay in an advanced position at the Battle of Franklin despite overwhelming odds?

This question is probably the most important one of the entire battle. When George Wagner decided to keep the brigades of Conrad and Lane in an advanced and exposed position far south of the main Federal works, he was doubly courting disaster. First, there was the great possibility that his men would be outflanked and his division decimated. Second, and even worse for the Union cause, Wagner’s fleeing troops would in all likelihood shield Cheatham’s advancing corps from the fire of the Federal forces stationed in the main line, thus allowing the Confederates to get extremely, uncomfortably close to the Union works. It is quite likely that no break of the Union line would have occurred had Wagner withdrawn to the main line when Cox had ordered him to (when the pressure became too great).

Eric Jacobson has several ideas on Wagner’s thoughts and reasoning that afternoon (page 283-284):

It remains unclear what caused George Wagner to behave so erratically at Franklin, but whiskey is believed by many to be the cause. Wagner was a dependable and brave soldier and had never before acted so strangely as he did during the afternoon hours at Franklin. Wagner was exhausted, hungry, and in pain from his fall. If Wagner got hold of a whiskey bottle following his altercation with Opdycke and subsequent conversation with Cox, who knows what effect alcohol may have had on him. The evidence for Wagner’s drinking or intoxication is limited primarily to a letter that David Stanley wrote in 1883 to Marshall Thatcher. In the letter, Stanley is obviously answering a question Thatcher had asked about Wagner drinking at Franklin. Stanley wrote that Wagner was “full of whiskey” and in “vainglorious condition…” It is interesting that Stanley admitted neither he nor Schofield knew anything about Wagner’s alleged intoxication. Whatever the reason for Wagner’s erratic behavior, the entire episode involving the non-withdrawal of his two brigades would be among the most hotly debated topics in the post-wars years.

Obviously Wagner had some things working against him that day. He had already been on high alert all night as the rear guard division for the entire army, and both he and his men (Opdycke’s at least) did not have a chance to eat that morning. The fall from his horse could not have helped the situation either. Like Hood, Wagner may have still been operating under the effects of strong emotion after his war of words with Emerson Opdycke. If the author refutes Hood’s use of opium based on no or flimsy evidence, I think the same should be done here for Wagner. One letter based on admittedly second-hand information should not constitute evidence that Wagner was under the influence of whiskey that afternoon. It is apparent that Jacobson does not believe the available evidence points to any obvious conclusion in the matter.

Wiley Sword has a rather succinct, and entirely plausible, explanation for why Wagner originally decided to hold (page 173):

As he retreated about 2:00 P.M., Wagner, evidently on the spur of the moment, determined to follow the spirit of Stanley’s orders to hold back Hood’s advance to the extent possible. Halfway back across the two-mile valley he ordered Lane’s brigade to halt and occupy the southern slope of a stone-strewn hill on the west side of the Columbia pike, known locally as Privet Knob.

Later, Sword continues (again on page 173):

Evidently, Wagner intended to utilize this line in the same manner that his rear guard had withdrawn: to retreat if pressed by alternately passing his brigades, one behind the other’s deployed front. Since it was not expected by Conrad that they would fight along this line [a little north of Privet Knob, closer to the main Union line], his men were allowed to rest without entrenching.

And finally (on page 175), Sword says:

Wagner , meanwhile, rode to the Carter house, where instead of an anticipated rest he was notified to report to and act under the orders of Jacob Cox of the Twenty-third Corps–the informal commander of the main defensive line.

Wagner wearily reported to Cox in person and explained his earlier orders from Stanley. Undoubtedly he mentioned the Confederate en masse advance and his difficulties with Opdycke. Cox thought for a minute. He had just received Schofield’s orders to withdraw all the troops across the river after nightfall. There seemed to be no reason to change Wagner’s instructions or compel Opdycke to march back and join Conrad’s line. Thus, Cox merely told the Fourth Corps division commander that he should act according to his earlier orders.

From the evidence, it appears that Cox told Wagner that the appearance of the Confederate infantry was in all probability a sham, a deception to convince the Union army they were about to attack, while actually preparing to bypass Franklin by another flanking march. Since little more than heavy skirmishing was anticipated, Cox only added that Wagner should slowly retire his two brigades within the main lines if compelled to do so. The tenor of Cox’s instructions was unmistakable: to hold off Hood so as to allow the Federal army to get away.

Alethea D. Sayers has a little to say on the matter as well (at http://www.johnbellhood.org/franklin.htm):

Despite animated pleadings, General George D. Wagner became furious, ordering that the men of these two brigades should be held in their position by bayonet if necessary. Wagner would not have a repeat of Bradley’s rout at Spring Hill. Additionally, it was reported that the Union general had been nipping at the flask through out the afternoon.

As with Eric Jacobson above, I found it interesting that Sayers mentions the possibility that Wagner had been drinking. As I mentioned above in my comments on Eric Jacobson’s views, it seems to me that if you are going to mention Wagner’s drinking based on one credible second-hand source, it is only fair to mention the possibility of Hood’s laudanum use based on similar flimsy evidence. With that said, Ms. Sayers brings up a point that I don’t believe the authors covered. Wagner was probably embarrassed by Bradley’s failure at Spring Hill, and it is possible he wanted to make sure it did not happen again. By the time he realized the Rebels really were going to attack, it was too late to do anything else.

To me all of these various opinions are very interesting. Jacobson and Sayers seem to blame Wagner for the confusion, while Sword places the blame on Cox. In for Cause and for Country, Jacobson discusses testimony from various aides that seems to refute what Sword is saying above. This is one instance where I do not have a strong inclination to agree with one or the other point of view. It seems to me that post-war discussion by participants would be meant to paint themselves and their friends in the best light possible. Cox’s aide also happened to be his brother. Is it possible he altered the facts to paint his brother Jacob Cox in a better light? I would be interested in hearing Eric Jacobson’s take on this situation, as I might be way off base. Perhaps Eric found other sources that all tended to back Cox.

13 Controversies at Franklin

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Gene Schmiel January 19, 2014 at 12:31 pm

I have been following this series with great interest, especially when it focuses on Jacob Dolson Cox, who is the subject of my biography, “Citizen-General: Jacob Dolson Cox and the Civil War Era,” which will be published in April by Ohio University Press.

In segment 5 the issue of what Cox told Wagner and what Cox intended particularly piqued my interest. You note that Sword says that “from the evidence” Cox told Wagner that the Confederate’s massing of troops was “in all probability a sham.”

While all the Union commanders, including Cox, presumed that Hood’s best approach would have been a flank attack, and while Schofield planned for exactly that on the Union left, Cox was prepared for anything, including a frontal attack. He had seen Hood engage in that tactic again and again during the Atlanta campaign, although he had told his wife in early August that “It is said that the opposition to Hood’s policy of hurling them [his men] against our works has become so strong that he has had to give it up.”
Obviously, Hood had not given up that tactic, and Cox wisely and dutifully prepared for that eventuality. Wagner himself commented on the strong breastworks Cox had created (as did Confederate generals Bate and Lee in their reports afterward). Further, having seen Wagner in action when the Union fended off the Confederate advance toward Columbia a few days later, Cox presumed that Wagner would follow his orders and do his duty, including withdrawing at the appropriate time, if pressed.Wagner instead disobeyed his orders and, as Cox told his wife two days after the battle, “the enemy soon drove in the two advanced brigades who were ordered to fall back before getting warmly engaged.”

So, “from the evidence,” it is unlikely that Cox told Wagner that the Confederate advance was probably a “sham,” but rather that it was a very real possibility.

Looking forward to more of this series, and I’m sure I’ll be chiming in again.

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