The Top 13 Controversies at Franklin: Part 11

by Brett Schulte on February 25, 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.

***

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.

11. Union Brigade commander Emerson Opdycke suggested after the war that he beat CONFEDERATE soldiers over the head with a pistol at the Battle of Franklin, rather than just his own Union stragglers. Was he telling the truth?

I decided to include this point after reading one of Eric Jacobson’s footnotes on page 343 of for Cause and for Country. In the footnote, Jacobson concludes:

Much has been said about Opdycke breaking his pistol over the heads of Rebel troops. This story was concocted by Opdycke after the battle when he was seeking promotion. In a letter written soon after the battle, Opdycke said he broke it over the heads of Federal soldiers. This version is corroborated by Scofield in The Retreat From Pulaski, see p. 38. Read footnote No. 10 on page 252 of the Longacre and Haas book to see how Opdycke’s story evolved.

That seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?

Sword, of course writing a decade earlier, doesn’t seem to have known about Opdycke’s forged claim (from page 203):

Opdycke, now dismounted, was in the midst of the fighting, firing his revolver until the barrel was empty. Quickly reversing his pistol, he grabbed it by the barrel and violently swung with the butt at the heads of the enemy. When the cylinder wedge came out and the barrel fell off, Opdycke grasped an abandoned rifle musket and began bludgeoning the enemy with it.

Sword quotes as his source A History of the Seventy-Third Regiment of Illinois Infantry Volunteers (Springfield, IL, 1890), pages 444 and 463, and also quotes Opdycke’s September 1866 letter held at the United States Army Military History Institute. If anyone has copies of these sources or knows if the 73rd Illinois’ regimental history is online somewhere, I’d love to hear from you.

It seems that Jacobson has reliable evidence that Opdycke fabricated the tale. I do not currently have access to any of the sources described above, so I’m going to have to provisionally go with Jacobson on this one until someone comes up with a good reason for me to do otherwise.

13 Controversies at Franklin

***

Check out the Siege of Petersburg Online for daily posts on battle accounts in newspaper articles, diary entries, letters and more!

What are your Top 10 Gettysburg Books? See what a panel of bloggers said recently.

Want to read some interesting Civil War content from amateurs and pros alike? Check out the Top 10 Civil War Blogs and Top 10 Civil War Blogs: 11-20.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Richard Rohr February 26, 2014 at 3:19 pm

Brett, I took a look a my copy of the history of the 73rd ILL and did not see any reference to Opdyke specifically striking anyone. If no one has sent you a copy I made a bmp copy of a jpeg, of course a few misread characters but still readable. Do you want? Richard

Reply

Brett Schulte February 26, 2014 at 8:08 pm

Richard,

Yes, please do send it along. Use the contact form at the top of the blog to get into email contact with me, and we can talk details. Thanks!

Brett

Reply

Gene Schmiel February 27, 2014 at 10:16 am

The background of Opdycke’s claim (whether true or not is difficult to say, given the chaos of that moment) is that he very much wanted recognition as the one who alone “saved the day” at Franklin while acting on his own initiative, without orders. As noted in the Longacre and Haas book (pages 261/265), Opdycke was annoyed in the days after the battle both that his commander (and good friend from Warren, Ohio) Jacob D. Cox did not use the specific phrase “Opdycke saved the day” in his official report and also that Cox said he had ordered Opdycke to meet the Confederate charge.

As I discuss in my upcoming book about Cox, after the war Opdycke and Cox engaged in an extensive correspondence about the Battle of Franklin in which Opdycke obsessively demanded that Cox use that phrase and also acknowledge that Opdycke acted on his own initiative. As Cox noted in a late 1881 letter, “I am sorry that you have been angry with me for 17 years about Franklin and credit for that battle, your role in it, and under whose command you were operating.”

In his two books which covered the Battle of Franklin, Cox wrote both that he had ordered Opdycke to meet the Confederate challenge, but that, in the chaos of that moment, the order likely never arrived and Opdycke did act on his own initiative. However, Cox did not state that Opdycke alone “saved the day.” As he told his friend in that same December 1881 letter, “we all agree that your act saved the day; your error is assuming little or nothing was done by others. You must give others their roles.” Opdycke would have none of it. He later wrote Cox, “I wish to be justly dealt with…It is a monstrous injustice to refuse us (him and his men) full credit.”

That letter was written a few months before publication of Cox’s book in the Scribner’s series, which covered Sherman’s march to the sea, the Franklin-Nashville campaign, and the 1865 Carolinas campaign. It was also one of the the last letters between the two men, their friendship irrevocably broken over this issue. As Cox told John M. Schofield, his correspondence with Opdycke was “a painful and long controversy,” and he had ended his relationship with Opdycke “with a tartness” he was “sorry to use.”

So, whether or not Opdycke embellished the record about whom he hit with his pistol, it seems possible that in his obsessive frustration over not getting the recognition he demanded, Opdycke was likely tempted to do everything he could to make his case stronger.

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: