Bloodstains and Bullet Holes
The historic Carter House and antebellum Carnton Plantation bear Civil War battle scars as vivid as when they were made 143 years ago
By Larry Woody
The town of Franklin, 20 miles south of Nashville, is a tranquil community with elm-shaded streets, neat homes and quaint little shops on the town square. But look closer and you discover dark reminders of one of the bloodiest days in American history.
Three blocks from downtown, the historic Carter House and several of its out-buildings remain pock-marked by hundreds of bullet holes, and a couple of miles down the road at Carnton Plantation the wooden floors remain stained dark by the blood of the wounded.
Flip back the pages of history to 4 p.m. Nov. 30, 1864, when General John Bell Hood marched his Army of Tennessee down from Winfield Hill and toward waiting Federal columns, commanded by General John Schofield and firmly entrenched on the southern outskirts of town.
It was a mild Indian Summer afternoon as some 25,000 Confederates swept across the two-mile plain in parade form, banners snapping in the breeze, bands playing, officers on horseback shouting orders as bayonets and sabers flashed in the amber sunlight.
“The panorama matched the famed Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg,” says Carter House historian Thomas Cartwright.
Indeed, it surpassed Pickett’s Charge in both sheer size and unimaginable carnage. Less than three hours after the charge began, a blood-red sun sank on almost 10,000 casualties — 7,300 Confederates and 2,633 Federals, according to the Civil War Battlefield Guide.
Among the casualties — 11 Confederate generals, the highest such toll in any battle of the four-year war. Six of the generals died or were mortally wounded on the field. Five others were wounded, and one was captured. Sixty-five other field commanders fell at the head of their attacking columns.
General Patrick Cleburne had two horses shot from under him during the charge and was leading his men on foot when he fell mortally wounded in front of the Federal works. For years a Pizza Hut served as the “historical marker” where he fell; recently a preservation group purchased the site and erected a proper marker.
Prior to the battle Cleburne had ominous forebodings, confiding to fellow general Daniel Govan: “Well, Govan, if we are to die, let us die like men.”
Private Sam Watkins, author of the Civil War classic, Company Aych, was part of the assault. He later wrote, “The air is loaded with death-dealing missiles. It seemed that the very elements of heaven and earth were in one mighty uproar. The earth is red with blood. It runs in streams, making little rivulets as it flows. We advanced on, to their works. It appeared to be but one line of streaming fire. The dead were piled on one another all over the ground.”
The Carter House sat in the epicenter of the battle. A brief Confederate break-through was halted by desperate hand-to-hand combat in the backyard.
“It gives you a haunting feeling to stand on the site today and imagine what it was like that terrible afternoon,” says Cartwright, who frequently conducts Carter House tours. “You can almost smell the powder smoke.”
Scattered firing continued into the night as Schofield pulled his army back and escaped to the safety of strong Federal works at Nashville.
At dawn General Hood, known for his unflinching ferocity in battle, was seen crying like a child over his shattered army. He regained his composure, pulled together the tattered remnants of his command, and stoically pursued the retreating Federals to Nashville — where on Dec. 15-16 it was virtually annihilated. Hood, who had lost the use of an arm at Gettysburg and a leg at Chickamauga, resigned and the once-feared Army of Tennessee was never again an effective fighting force.
Meanwhile back in Franklin, civilians were frantically trying to care for the thousands of wounded men left behind Hood’s march. They were taken into private homes, the most prominent of which was the nearby Carnton Plantation. That night the bodies of four Confederate generals — Cleburne, John Adams, Hiram Granbury and Otho Strahl — lay on the back porch of the plantation house. Inside, Army surgeons worked frantically, performing amputations.
“Piles of arms and legs reached the windowsills,” Cartwright says. “The furniture, floors — everything in the house — was soaked in blood.”
Grim evidence of that terrible night remains recorded on the wooden floors. In one room, dark bloodstains are evident in front of a window where blood dripped from a make-shift operating table — probably a door laid across two chairs — and seeped into the wood. Similar dark stains are evident in an adjacent room where severed limbs were tossed.
Many of the dead were hastily interred on the battlefield where they fell. Later most were disinterred for reburial in the family cemetery of John and Carolyn McGavock, owners of Carnton Plantaton.
General Robert E. Lee surrendered his tattered Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, Va., on April 9, 1865, the date most historians ascribe as the day the Confederacy died; but others believe the heartbeat ceased five months earlier, on a bloody November afternoon in Franklin.
“This was such a historically significant and desperate battle — for soldiers on both sides — that it continues to hold a strong fascination,” Cartwright says. “When we began our tours in 1989 we had about 4,000 visitors. Last year we had over 30,000. Interest in the Civil War is growing, and people all around the country are becoming aware of what a remarkable site the Battle of Franklin is. The War reaches out, across all the years, and touches you.”