Gen Thomas’ Campaign against General Hood
Georgia, Alabama & Tennessee, 1864


Typescript Held by the Wisconsin Historical Society-State Archives, Madison WI
Used by Kind Permission of the Archives

Atwater and His Account of the 51st Illinois at Spring Hill and Franklin. Merritt B. Atwater was born was born in New Haven, Connecticut on January 8, 1823. He migrated to Chicago before the Civil War. He joined Company G of the Fifty-First Volunteer Infantry at formal inception of the regiment, September 1861. Atwater was subsequently promoted to the captaincy of Company G and served out the war in that capacity. Due to thinning of the command ranks of the regiment, Atwater was for brief periods of time in command of the regiment, as senior captain in the field with the regiment.

After the war, Atwater spent a number of years living in Newton, Iowa, engaging in the lumber trade, and raising a family with his wife Charlotte. In the late 1880s, Atwater removed to Wisconsin and there became a member of Milwaukee’s E. B. Wolcott Post of the Wisconsin G.A.R. Atwater presented the piece that follows as a talk before the members of the E. B. Wolcott Post. A copy of the talk was placed in the files of the post.

Slight changes have been made to the Atwater text, primarily in the matter of punctuation so as to clarify the narrative flow of an originally oral presentation. A few other clarifying modifications are shown in square brackets.

A Summary of the Actions at Spring Hill and Franklin. The Fifty-First Illinois infantry and the brigade (3rd, under command of Luther P. Bradley), division (2nd, under command of George D. Wagner), and corps (4th, under David S. Stanley) to which it belonged were part of the force split off from Sherman's Georgia army in September 1864 after the fall of Atlanta. At that time John Bell Hood replaced Joseph E. Johnston in command of Confederate forces in the Georgia theater, split his army, and sent a large force (40,000) back into Alabama and Tennessee with the intention of threatening Nashville and even the North. The Federal forces assigned to contest Hood's intentions were under the command of Major General George Thomas with headquarters at Nashville. Thomas problem was not numbers - he had 65,000 men under his command - but concentration. His divisions and brigades were scattered. The 4th Army Corps and the 23rd Army Corps were, like Hood, leaving Georgia to hurry back through Alabama and Tennessee, there to unite with Thomas at Nashville. Two divisions of the 4th and and one division of the 23rd corps, all under command of John Schofield (23rd Corps), rendezvoused at Pulaski, Tennessee around November 13 and then moved north toward Nashville, seventy-five miles distant. Their course would take them up through Lynnville, Columbia, Spring Hill, and Franklin, and then on to Nashville.

There was drama to this. Schofield backed up toward Nashville as slowly as possible, dangerously slowly, for the purpose of buying time for Thomas to concentrate troops that were streaming toward Nashville from Missouri, Kentucky, and parts of Tennessee. Schofield ran the risk of being overrun from the front or of having his route to Thomas cut off by elements of Hood's force who gained the roads by moving in from his flanks.

The fighting at Spring Hill on November 29, 1864 occurred as Hood sought to cut Schofield off from Thomas and Nashville, assail Schofield from front and rear, and thus defeat one of Thomas' armies before his forces came together. It was a race. The Federals thwarted Hood's intention and held themselves together. At Franklin, the 4th and 23rd Corps halted their march north toward Nashville and Thomas, turned and faced Hood, held him, damaged his army severely, and in the night after the Battle of Franklin again took the road toward Nashville.

In a very small nutshell such is the context of Atwater's presentation. This website offers the beginning of the regiment's history on the campaign against Hood, The Retreat from Pulaski to Nashville: Part I.

It is with some reluctance that in what follows I have treated somewhat of myself, inasmuch as it savors of egotism. I have reflected that by this method of speech that it is the way and perhaps the only way in which much of the individual work of the soldier, who is here a very important part in the achievement of the general success of our arms, can make known a part of the unwritten history of the late war. I have excused myself, and I trust you will. Another view of this matter may in some minds obtain: this, that a spirit of "Young Americanism"
1 manifests itself and, if this be true, then I must plead guilty and that I do belong to that class who feel as though they must assert themselves and who went in to put down the rebellion and succeeded.

In the following narrative, I have taken in part what came under my own observation and knowledge and in part from history, referring to history to corroborate my own recollections. Some of you may have been through this campaign and can testify to the truth of this relation. Those of you who have not can verify it by its history.

If I shall have made this narration of events of interest to you, I shall be greatly pleased and its object and purpose obtained.

Commander & Comrades:
In my younger days I joined an Independent Military Company, the National Blues at New Haven, Conn. The charter of this company was granted in the early history of that colony. The company under the command of Benedict Arnold (then a loyal citizen) went to Canada and fought at Quebec in the French & English war before the American Revolution. The French surrendered to the English in 1763. This honored and ancient organization now exists under the same charter. They were denominated as Light Artillery, having four four-pound smooth-bore field pieces. Why they were called “light” artillery – conjecture – may it not have been because they were armed with fourteen-pound, flint-lock muskets? It was in this company that I received my first knowledge of military tactics and which fitted me to take an active part in the late war. Soon after the firing on Fort Sumter, a company of men met in the Sherman House in Chicago and organized a battalion after the French method. The battalion was to be armed and commanded by its own officers; a medical corps was to be attached, with ambulances and medical supplies. The duty of this battalion was to bring the wounded from the field during an engagement and to fight if necessary. The army regulation had made no provision for such an organization, and accordingly a committee was appointed and sent to the legislature then in session at Springfield to procure an enabling act. While the subject received favorable notice, yet most of the summer had passed and nothing was done and the legislature adjourned.

About the middle of September 1861, I was invited to attend a military meeting, to be held in the Portland Block in Chicago that evening, and I accepted. At that meeting a “slate” was made for the nucleus of a regiment, consisting of the field & staff officers. This roster was sent to the Adjutant General’s Office at Springfield, Illinois, and the next day an Order was received creating the Fifty-First Illinois Infantry a regiment. The writer hereof enlisted September 20th, 1861, the first recruit, and engaged to raise a company for the regiment, raised the company and had the privilege of naming its officers.2

In the school of the soldier as taught by Scott, Hardee, Upton, or later tactics, ample instruction is given in the manual of arms, the marchings and counter-marchings, changing fronts, forming in column of division, and other formations necessary to the movement of any army – also the movement in retreat, which last movement as laid down in the tactics, is supposed to exist under most favorable conditions, and [there is] comparatively no provision for a “P D Q” or rapid retreat. Happily for the soldier the instinct of self-preservation steps in and helps him out, together with what knowledge of tactics he may have, and thus he is saved from a soldier’s death. A notable case of this kind came under the writer’s notice at the Battle of Franklin, Tenn., which will be noticed later.

After the fall of Atlanta and before Gen. Sherman commenced his famous march to the sea board, Gen. Hood with a well appointed army of 40,000 men of all arms crossed the Tennessee River at Florence to cut off Gen. Sherman’s rear and prevent him from carrying out his long conceived plan of moving his army through the enemy’s country to the sea board. The Fourth Corps had fallen back to Chattanooga, from where the Second Division made a three-days forced march down the Alpine Valley and returned to Chattanooga to intercept Hood, while Sherman had moved a part of his force to the relief of Gen. Corse, who was besieged at Alatoona Pass. This accomplished, Gen. Sherman began his march uninterrupted to the sea board, and Gen. Hood commenced his march, his objective point being Louisville and Nashville. Meantime, the Fourth Corps, numbering about 12,000 men, commanded by Major Gen. Stanley, having again united, were ordered at once by Gen. Sherman to report to Gen. Thomas. Its leading division reached Pulaski, Tenn., a small town on the railroad about 40 miles north of Decatur, on the 1st day of November, where it was joined by the other two. Gen. Sherman also ordered the 23rd Corps, ten thousand men, under command of Major Gen. Schofield, to report to Gen. Thomas, reaching Pulaski, with one division on the 14th November. The whole force gathered there was less than 18,000 men. The situation at Pulaski with an enemy nearly three times as great on the flank was anything but cheering. On the 20th, Gen. Thomas directed Gen. Schofield to prepare to fall back to Columbia. The two divisions of Gen. Cox and Wagner were ordered to march to Lynnville, about half way to Columbia, on the 22nd. On the 23rd the other two divisions under Gen. Stanley were to follow with the wagon trains. It was not a moment too soon.

On the morning of the 24th, Gen. Cox, who had pushed on to within 9 miles of Columbia, was roused by sounds of conflict away to the west. Taking a crossroad leading south of Columbia, he reached the Mount Pleasant pike just in time to interpose his infantry between Forrest’s cavalry and the hapless brigade under command of Col. Capron,3 which was being handled most unceremoniously. In another hour Forest would have been in possession of the crossings of the Duck River,4 and the only line of communication with Nashville would have been in the hands of the enemy.

Gen. Stanley, who had left Pulaski in the afternoon of the 23rd, reached Lynnville after dark. Rousing his command at 1 o’clock in the morning, by 9 o’clock the head of his column connected with Cox’s in front of Columbia, having marched 30 miles since two o’clock of the preceding afternoon. These timely movements saved the army from utter destruction. When Gen. Sherman had finally determined on his march to the sea, he requested Gen. Rosecrans in Missouri to send to Gen. Thomas two divisions under Gen. A. J. Smith. These troops did not arrive. Had they come as intended, their disposition would have been such that the battles of Franklin and Nashville would have been relegated to the category of “events” which never came to pass.

As fast as the Union troops arrived at Columbia in their hurried retreat from Pulaski, works were thrown up, covering the approaches from the south, and the trains were sent across the river. But, the line was found to be longer than the small force could hold, and the river could easily be crossed above or below the town. Orders were given to withdraw to the north side on the night of the 26th, but a heavy storm prevented. The next night the crossing was made, the railroad bridge was burned, and the pontoon boats were scuttled. It was an all night’s job, the last of the pickets crossing at five in the morning.

It was now the fifth day since the retreat from Pulaski began, and the little army had been exposed day and night to all sorts of weather except sunshine and had been almost continually on the move. From deserters it was learned that Hood’s infantry numbered 40,000, and his cavalry under Forrest 10 or 12,000 more. The Union Army was slowly increasing by concentration and the arrival of recruits. It now numbered at Columbia about 23,000 infantry and some 5,000 cavalry, of whom 3,500 were mounted. Gen. J. H. Wilson, who had been ordered by Gen. Grant to report to Gen. Sherman and of whom Gen. Grant wrote, “I believe, he will add fifty percent to the effectiveness of your cavalry,” had taken command of all of Gen. Thomas’s cavalry, which was trying to hold the fords east and west of Columbia. In spite of every opposition, Forrest succeeded in placing one of his divisions on the north side of Duck River before noon of the 28th and forced back the Union cavalry on roads leading toward Spring Hill and Franklin. At one o’clock on the morning of the 29th, Gen. Wilson became convinced that the enemy’s infantry would begin crossing at daylight and advised Gen. Schofield to fall back to Franklin. At 3:30 the same morning Gen. Thomas sent him similar orders. Daylight revealed the correctness of Wilson’s information. Cheatham’s Corps, headed by Gen. Cleburne’s division, a division unsurpassed for courage, energy, and endurance by any other in the Confederate Army, before sunrise was making its way over Duck River at Davis’s Ford, about five miles east of Columbia.

The weather had cleared, and it was a bright autumnal morning, the air full of invigorating life. Gen. Hood in person accompanied the advance. When Gen. Schofield was informed that the Confederate infantry were crossing, he sent a brigade under Col. Sydney Post on a reconnaissance along the river bank, to learn what was going on. He also ordered Gen. Stanley to march with two divisions, Wagner’s and Marshall’s, to Spring Hill, taking the trains and all the reserve artillery. In less than half an hour after receiving the order, Stanley was on the way. On reaching the point where Rutherford’s Creek crosses the Franklin Pike, Kimball’s division was halted by order of Gen. Schofield and faced to the east to cover the crossing against possible attack from the quarter. In this position Kimball remained all day. Stanley with the other division pushed on to Spring Hill. Just before noon, as the head of the column was approaching that place, he met a cavalry soldier “who seemed to be badly scared”, who reported that Buford’s Division of Forrest’s Cavalry was approaching from the east. The troops were at once double-quicked into the town, and the leading brigade, deploying as it advanced, drove off the enemy just as they were expecting, unmolested, to occupy the place. As the other brigades came up, they also were deployed, forming nearly a semi-circle, with Opdyke’s Brigade stretching in a thin line from the railroad station north of the village to a point some distance east, and [John Q.] Lane’s from Opdyke’s right to the pike below. Gen. Bradley5 was sent to the front to occupy a knoll some three-fourths of a mile east, commanding all the approaches from that direction. Most of the artillery was placed on a rise south of the town. The trains were parked within the semicircle. Hardly had the three brigades, numbering all told, less than 4,000 men reached the position assigned them, when Bradley was assailed by a force which the men declared fought too well to be dismounted cavalry.6 At the same time, at Thompson’s Station three miles north, an attack was made on a small wagon train heading for Franklin, and a dash was made by a detachment of the Confederate cavalry on the Spring Hill station northwest of the town. It seemed as if the little band, attacked from all points, was threatened with destruction. Bradley’s Brigade was twice assaulted but held its own, though with considerable loss, and only a single regiment could be spared to reinforce him. The third assault was more successful, and he was driven back to the edge of the village, Bradley himself receiving a disabling wound while rallying his men.

At this juncture, the right wing of the 51st Infantry under command of Captain Tilton7 having been sent to the support of the right of the brigade, the left wing under command of Captain Atwater covered the regimental front. This part of the line [the part under command of Atwater] being advanced beyond the front of the line next on its right left a gap between the lines that required constant watching by its commander to prevent a surprise. On one of his [Atwater's] trips of observation a squad of men were in full retreat; the presence of the commander, who ordered them back to their ranks, was no doubt impressive and paralyzing, as they continued their retreat.8 Returning to his own command, he [Atwater] charged them to keep cool, that everything was going on swimmingly, and again went to his post of observation, this time to find large bodies of our men in full retreat. Hastily returning to his command, he moved them in good order over the field, faced them about the better to protect our fleeing men. Again in good order this body of men retreated and again faced about and held themselves in readiness to check any advance of the enemy, until our men were well off the field, when they also retired.

In retreating from this field they came to a twelve-rail fence. On its opposite side was a table land about sixteen feet wide, abruptly ending in a perpendicular depression of fifteen feet, along whose base was a stream of water. The field opposite rose in gradual ascent, the view unobstructed. When this little band of men scaled the fence, their organization was broken, but they reached the opposite field in safety. After they had reached the field beyond, a detachment of Confederate troops took position behind this fence and opened fire on the retreating men, some of whom were wounded. Night soon came on and the action on this part of the field ended. In attempting to follow up this temporary advantage, the enemy, in crossing a wide corn field, was opened upon with spherical case-shot from eight guns posted on the knoll, and they soon scattered in considerable confusion.

These attacks came from Cleburne’s Division and were made under the eye of the corps commander, Gen. Cheatham, and the army commander, Gen. Hood. Except this one small division deployed in a long line to cover the wagons, there were no Union troops within striking distance: the cavalry were about Mount Carmel, five miles east, fully occupied in keeping Forrest away from Franklin and the Harpeth River crossing. The nearest aid was Kimball’s Division, seven miles south at Rutherford Creek. The other three divisions of infantry which made up Gen. Schofield’s force – Wood’s, Cox’s, and Ruger’s (in part) – were still back at Duck River. Thus night closed down upon this solitary division on whose boldness of action devolved the safety of the whole force which Sherman had spared from his march to the sea, to breast the tide of Hood’s invasion.9

By 8 o’clock at night – three hours only after sunset – of a moonless night, at least two corps of Hood’s army were in line of battle facing the turnpike, and not half a mile away to the north. The long line of Confederate campfires burned brightly and their men could plainly be seen standing around them or sauntering in groups. Now and then a few would come almost to the pike and fire at a passing Union squad but without provoking a reply. When night came, the danger rather increased than diminished. A single Confederate brigade—like Adam’s or Cockrell’s or Maney’s, veterans [ever] since Shiloh—planted square across the pike, either north or south of Spring Hill, would have effectually prevented Schofield’s retreat, and daylight would have found his whole force cut off from every avenue of escape by more than twice its numbers, to assault whom would be madness and to avoid whom would be impossible.10 Why Cleburne and Brown failed to drive away Stanley’s one division before dark, why Bate failed to possess himself of the pike south of the town, why Stewart failed to lead his troops to the pike at the north, why Forrest, with his audacious temper and his enterprising cavalry, did not fully hold Thompson’s Station11 or the crossing of the West Harpeth half way to Franklin, are disputed questions that we do not care to discuss here. The afternoon and night of Nov 29th, 1864 may well be set down in the calendar of lost opportunities, for by their neglect was preserved this, the Second Division, from complete destruction.

After this memorable action was over, Col. [Allen] Buckner commanding the 79th Illinois Infantry and myself (then in command of the 51st Illinois Infantry) caused to be erected some breastworks to guard against further attack that night. They however were not used except for the men to make their coffee behind, fires not being allowed in our camp. Our troops evacuated Spring Hill at 4 o’clock on the morning of Nov 30th and moved out for Franklin, Tenn., arriving there at two o’clock the same day.

Up to this time Gen. Bradley had been our brigade commander; [with his] being wounded at Spring Hill, the command was turned over to Col. Conrad of the 15th Missouri.

Just before midnight Gen. Cox started from Spring Hill for Franklin. At 1 a.m. he was on the road, and the train, over file miles long, was drawn out. At the very outset, it had to cross a bridge in single file. So difficult was this whole movement that it was 5 o’clock in the morning before the wagons were fairly underway. As the head of the train passed Thompson’s Station, it was attacked by the Confederate cavalry, and for a while there was great consternation. Wood’s Division was marched along east of the pike to protect the train, and the enemy were speedily driven off. It was near daybreak when the last wagon left Spring Hill. Kimball’s Division followed Wood’s, and at 4 o’clock Wagner drew in his lines, his skirmishers remaining till it was fairly daylight.12

Our rear guard was commanded by Col. Emerson Opdycke, who was prepared if necessary to sacrifice the last man to secure the safety of the main body. So effectively did his admirable brigade do its work that, though surrounded by a cloud of the enemy’s cavalry, which made frequent dashes at its lines, not a straggler nor a wagon was left behind. The ground was strewn with knapsacks, cut from the shoulders of a lot of raw recruits, weighed down with their unaccustomed burden. The head of the column under Gen. Cox reached the outskirts of Franklin about the same hour that the rear guard was leaving spring Hill. Here the tired, sleepy, hungry men, who had fought and marched day and night for nearly a week, threw up a line of earthworks on a slight eminence which guards the southern approach to the town even before they made their coffee. Then they gladly dropped anywhere for the much needed “forty winks”. By noon of the 30th all the troops had come up, and the wagons were crossing the river, which was already fordable notwithstanding the recent heavy rainfalls. The rear guard was still out having an occasional bout with the enemy. The Columbia Pike, running from Nashville through Franklin and on to northern Alabama, bisected the works, which at that point were built just in front of the Carter House, a one story brick dwelling west of the pike, and a large gin-house on the east side. Between the gin-house and the river the works were partly protected in front by a hedge of osage orange, and on the knoll near the railroad cut close to the bank were two batteries belonging to the Fourth Corps. Near the Carter House was a considerable thicket of locust trees. Except these obstructions, the whole ground in front was entirely unobstructed and fenceless, and from the works every part of it was in plain sight. Gen Cox’s Division of three brigades, Ruger’s Division of two brigades, and Kimball’s Division of the Fourth Corps, all veterans, composed of three brigades, occupied the ground between the Columbia Pike and the river above the town. All the troops in these works were ordered to report to Gen. Cox, to whom was assigned the command of these defences. Gen. Wood’s Division of the Fourth Corps had gone over the river with the trains, and two brigades of Wagner’s Division, which had so valiantly stood their ground at Spring Hill and covered the rear since, were halted on a slope about half a mile to the front and south. Here was posted the third brigade under command of Col. Conrad, in which was the 51st Illinois Infantry, its right resting on the pike.13

As the bright autumnal day, hazy with the golden light of an Indian Summer atmosphere wore away, the troops, who had worked so hard, looked hopefully forward to a prospect of ending it in peace and rest, preparatory either to a night march to Nashville or to a reinforcement by Smith’s Corps and Gen. Thomas. But about two o’clock, some suspicious movements on the hills a mile or two away, the waiving of signal flags and the deployment of the enemy in line of battle, caused Gen. Wagner to send his adjutant-general from the advanced position where the two brigades had halted to his commanding general with the information that Hood seemed to be preparing for an attack. Here was the beginning of the Battle of Franklin.

In a very short time the whole Confederate line could be seen in battle array—from the dark fringe along the river bank, far across the Columbia Pike, the colors gaily fluttering and the muskets gleaming brightly—and advancing steadily in perfect order, dressed on the center, straight for the works. On came the enemy as steady and resistless as a tidal wave. In front of the position occupied by the 51st Illinois Infantry, at easy rifle range, was a knoll that prevented the sight of the advancing hosts of the enemy until they were close upon us. When their heads were first seen above the ridge, our fire was opened on them, but the distance and time were so short that they were soon upon us. While the writer was busy along the line directing the men how to work, he suddenly looked to the right and left—the line was entirely refused, and our little regiment was still at the front. Orders were immediately given to retreat. Here was put in practice the method of retreat previously spoken of and which excelled that taught in the tactics. Some of the men had gone before the order was given, but some others were taken prisoners on the line. A moment more and, with that wild “rebel yell” which, once heard, is never forgotten, the great human wave swept along and seemed to engulf the little force which had so sturdily awaited it, and it was a race to see which should reach our inner line first, whether Union or Confederate.

The 51st Illinois had constructed a partial breastwork in their front composed of one thickness of rails, supported on either side by stakes bound together with small hickory withes—[the men] having no pioneer tools [the breastworks] were not completed. When the advance of the Confederate troops reached this work, they mounted this fence and, swinging their caps, gave three times three cheers. This delay gave our men a little time for the race which followed. In that wild rush, in which friend and foe intermingled and the piercing “rebel yell” rose high above the “Yankee Cheer” about 700 were made prisoners. The writer hereof, while retreating across this field, saw his brigade commander in advance of him, who, having been struck with a spent ball, placed his hand behind and cried, “Oooh!” A soldier had fallen while in retreat, near the pike. As I passed, he begged to be taken along. Alas, it could not be. How gladly would I have helped him did the time and circumstances permit. Here and there were fallen men, some only wounded, some dying, and some dead. I succeeded in reaching our works unharmed. With loud shouts of “Let’s go into the works with them!” the triumphant Confederates, now more like a wild, howling mob than an organized army, swept on to the very works with hardly a check from any quarter. So great and fierce was the rush that some of the fleeing soldiers were crowded, exhausted, into the ditch outside the inner line by their pursuers, and these sought relief the best they could, until they could crawl safely inside the entrenchments. A large part of Conrad’s and Lane’s men, as they came in, though wholly disorganized, turned about and gave the enemy a hot reception.

On Strickland’s left close to the Columbia Pike was posted one of the new infantry regiments. The tremendous onset, the wild yells, the whole infernal din of the strife, were too much for such an undisciplined body of men. As they saw their comrades from the advance line rushing to the rear, they too turned and fled. The contagion spread and in a few minutes a disorderly stream was pouring down the pike past the Carter House toward the town. The guns were abandoned and the works for a considerable space deserted, only to be occupied a moment later by Cleburne’s and Brown’s men who swarmed into the gap. At this critical period, Col. Emerson Opdycke, who unordered had brought his men within the works, seeing the fearful peril, ordered forward his well-disciplined brigade, which, deploying as it advanced, was soon involved in as fierce a hand-to-hand fight as ever soldiers engaged in. Gen. Opdycke’s horse was shot from under him, and he fought on foot at the head of his brigade. Some of Opdycke’s men manned the abandoned guns in Reilly’s works; others filled the gap in Strickland’s line. These timely movements first checked and then repulsed the assaulting foe, and soon the entire line of works was reoccupied, the enemy sullenly giving up the prize which was so nearly won.

When the Union men in their retreat had gotten well into their lines and when there was nothing to hinder the Union fire, the muskets of Stile’s and Casement’s brigades made fearful havoc, while the batteries at the railroad cut plowed furrows through the ranks of the advancing foe. Time after time they came up to the very works, but they did not cross them except as prisoners. More than one color-bearer was shot down on the parapet. In the ditch outside the works, they lay in death three and five men deep. Many of them attempted retreat across the storm swept field and were cut down by the hundreds. The writer saw Gen. Cleburne with his staff ride on to the works. Horse and rider and some of his staff went down to death. The carnage was great and the field between the outer and inner Union line was thickly strewn with the dead, the dying, and the wounded. It is impossible to exaggerate the fierce energy with which the Confederate soldiers that short November afternoon threw themselves against the works, fighting with what seemed the very madness of despair. Through this blinding medium, assault after assault was mad—and repulsed with fearful destruction. Thirteen times that fateful afternoon, brigade after brigade was hurled against our lines, only to be repulsed with a fearful slaughter. So great was the pressure that some of the officers thought a “forlorn hope” would have to be resorted to. Between the gin-house and the Columbia Pike the fighting was fiercest and the Confederate losses the greatest. Here fell most of the Confederate generals who that fateful afternoon yielded up their lives—Adams and Quarles of Stewart’s Corps; Cleburne and Granbury were killed near the pike. On the west of the pike Strahl and Gist were killed and Brown was severely wounded and Gen. G. W. Gordon was captured by Opdycke’s Brigade inside the works.

While this infantry battle was going on, Forrest with his cavalry had crossed the river some distance east of the town with the evident purpose of getting at Schofield’s wagons, but he reckoned without his host. Hatch and Croxton, by Gen. Wilson’s direction, fell upon him with such vigor that he returned to the south side and gave our friends no further trouble. At nightfall the victory was complete on every part of the Union lines. But desultory firing was kept up till long after dark here and there on the Confederate side, though without result.

The 51st Illinois had received at Chattanooga, just before entering on this campaign, two hundred recruits. They were uniformed and armed but had not drilled a day; it was mostly of these that were taken prisoners.14

As night approached, the smoke of battle hung low like a canopy. The arena between the outer and inner lined was lighted by the constant discharge of our artillery, thus opening to view the entire field, showing a most magnificent scene above but also showing a ghastly scene of carnage and death below.

Among the spoils of war were 33 Confederate colors, captured by our men from the enemy. The casualties of the Union forces in this battle were 189 killed, 1033 wounded, and 1104 missing. That of the Confederates was 1730 killed, 3800 wounded, and 702 missing. The historian of this campaign says, “The loss to the Union Army, in all its fighting, from the Tennessee River to Nashville and back again, was less than 8,000 killed, wounded, and missing.” It was the opinion of some of our officers that, had our little army been reinforced by 10,000 men in time for this action, or if A. J. Smith’s command of 14,000 men, whom Gen. Sherman in the early part of this campaign had requested Gen. Rosecrans in Missouri to send to Gen. Thomas, had so reported, the Battles of Franklin and Nashville would have been relegated from the calendar of events that were to be to those that need not to have been. The effective force of the Union troops that were actively engaged in the Battle of Franklin was only about 13,000 men while that of Hood without his cavalry was about 40,000 men.15

Near the tree that stands near the cotton gin just within our line was a deep hollow, very like an amphitheater. After the battle was over our men made a fire in this hollow and sat around it, waiting for orders to evacuate. Their commander [Atwater] took the opportunity to visit some of the hospitals in the town in quest of any of his men he could find if there were any wounded. He failed to find them. In a church which was full of the wounded of both armies, a heart-rending scene was presented—men groaning with pain, some calling for water, others requesting to be covered being cold. Their wants were attended to as well as could be with the facilities at hand, and they were left to the care of those whose duty it was. Returning to the camp, I saw some men gathered on the sidewalk, and a musket was passed through a window into a house, and the men followed by the door. Curiosity prompted to see what was going on, and I went in. Gathered there were half a dozen Union soldiers, together with half as many Confederate prisoners whom they were guarding, and the family. They were about to sit down to a bountifully prepared supper and invited me to join them. Seeing they were friendlily disposed, I remained, and it goes without saying that it was most heartily enjoyed after living on army rations scantily prepared.

[I returned] to the regiment or what there was of it. The 51st Illinois Infantry retired from the field at eleven o’clock at night with but two officers and twenty-three men on the 30th of November and took up their line of march for Nashville.16 After the Union Army had moved out of Franklin, a house near the bridge was set on fire, by the light of which a section of the a Confederate battery opened fire on our rear guard, then crossing the bridge. A Union battery was recalled and opened its fire upon them from the north side of the river, under cover of which the rear guard passed safely over.

As the Union forces marched over the road, it was the orders to march one hour and halt for rest fifteen minutes. So great had been the pressure on the men from Pulaski to the present time, their exhausted nature required rest and, when halted, sat down by the roadside fence and in a moment were asleep. Some even slept while marching. Those who did not awake as the column moved on were aroused by the rear guard. If they did not heed it, they were taken prisoners by the advance guard of the enemy, who followed closely in our wake.

In the movement of the forces from Franklin to Nashville, the 51st Ill was the second regiment from the front. Its commander,17 who had shared the overwork and fatigue of this exhaustive campaign, fell asleep upon his horse. The horse, being desirous of more elevated company, moved along and twice was found riding with the brigadier general and his staff. When the horse found his mistake, he moved back to his place. Our brigade reached Nashville at 10 o’clock the next day and went into camp. Thus ended the campaign up to Nashville. Those of us who have been through the fiery ordeal, through dangers seen and unseen, and have been preserved and permitted to return to our homes and to loved ones, should be thankful for the watchful Providence that has borne them safely through.

1Young Americanism was a cultural movement of the 1840s, dwindling in the 1850s, related to the Manifest Destiny current of thought in the United States. Writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Herman Melville, political figures such as Stephen A. Douglas, and political philosophers such as John O’Sullivan gave voice to the movement. It was bold and aggressive in its rhetoric of American energy and destiny. The movement lost momentum in the latter 1850s, though it long remained a reference point for understanding the mid-1800s. Some admired the swagger of the movement; others execrated it. The future colonel of the Twenty-Sixth Missouri Volunteer Infantry, George Boomer (age twenty-six at the time), lamented in a letter to his mother in 1858, "Fast living, ‘Young Americanism,’ and extravagance in every form, is the peculiar evil of our time. It degrades the moral character, corrupts the mind, and vitiates the taste." Clearly, Atwater was of another school—and he was speaking three decades later when Young Americanism was by-gone—and linked himself to Young Americanism with pride. Edward L. Widmer has written well on all this in Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City, New York and London, Oxford University Press, 1998. The Boomer view is in Mary Amelia Boomer Stone, Memoir of George Boardman Boomer, Boston, Press of Geo. C. Rand & Avery, 1864, p. 110. Back
2The Regimental History page on this site has extensive information on formation of the regiment in Autumn 1861. Back
3Colonel Horace Capron, of the Fourteenth Illinois Cavalry, commanded a cavalry brigade in the Twenty-Third Army Corps of the Army of the Ohio. The brigade was comprised of the Fourteenth and Sixteenth Illinois Cavalry regiments, the Fifth Indiana Cavalry, and the Eighth Michigan Cavalry. Capron's Brigade, in the context Atwater discusses, was under attack from Forrest's Cavalry and being driven west toward Columbia and the pike. Back
4The Duck River lay east-west, just north of Columbia, across the routes to Franklin and Nashville. Back
5Brigadier General Luther P. Bradley was the first lieutenant colonel of the Fifty-First Illinois, then its colonel, and then commander of the brigade, which at Franklin was one of the three brigades of George Wagner's Division, the other two being those of John Q. Lane and Emerson Opdycke. Back
6It was first rumored about that Bradley’s brigade was driven from their position “by nothing but dismounted Cavalry”. For example, Emerson Opdycke to wife Lucy, Dec 2d 1864, To Battle for God and the Right: The Civil War Letterbooks of Emerson Opdycke, Glenn V. Longacre and John E. Haas, eds. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, pp. 249, 251. This was not the case. Bradley’s troops initially skirmished with men of Forrest’s cavalry, but then Cleburne’s division arrived, attacked Bradley’s lines, easily outflanked the position and drove the brigade back. Back
7Captain Albert Murray Tilton, Company C, Fifty-First Illinois Infantry. Born in New York. Enlisted in Middleport, Illinois in October, 1861. Back
8A bit of self-mocking humor on Atwater's part: the men in flight toward the rear ignored his commands—intended to stop them in their tracks. Back
9Mt. Carmel was a town almost straight east of Spring Hill. Rutherford Creek was a tributary of the Duck River. Rutherford Creek, running south-southwest toward the Duck River cut across the pike, which ran north to Spring Hill. Jacob D. Cox and Thomas H. Ruger were the commanders of the two divisions of the Twenty-Third Corps at Spring Hill and Franklin. Stanley's Fourth Army Corps was comprised of three divisions. Nathan Kimball commanded one of them; George Wagner another, the division of which the 51st Illinois was a part, which was keeping lonely strung-out watch. Thomas Wood commanded the third division of the 4th Corps. Back
10The Federal column passing in the night a few yards from the Confederate units was the margin of escape. The thing hung in the balance. "When Gen. Hood's sleepy army awoke at Spring Hill, and he found how skillfully Gen. Schofield had marched his command past him during the night, and an examination by daylight showed him how easily he could have cut us in two at any time during the night or headed us off entirely the previous afternoon, had he known our exact situation, he was so chagrined that he cursed everybody, high and low; censured Cheatham and Cleburne, and the entire forces that were present, for not taking possession of the road," Levi T. Schofield, The Retreat from Pulaski to Nashville, Tennessee, Cleveland, Press of the Caxton Co., 1909, p. 28. This is the account of a Twenty-Third Army Corps observer in the Spring Hill and Franklin events. Back
11Thompson's Station was a town a few miles north of Spring Hill. Thompson's Station was another point where Confederate forces might have cut Schofield's main route north to Thomas. Back
12Thus, the two divisions of the Twenty-Third Corps pulled out of Spring Hill for Franklin first. They were followed by the Fourth Corps. Wagner brought up the rear. Back
13In 1864, south of the town of Franklin, the terrain dropped gradually off and sloped gently toward the south. The Fifty-First Illinois, along with the other regiments of Wagner's second and third brigades were posted where this southward slope commenced. The main fortifications were at their backs, at the skirts of the town, five hundred yards to the north. Back
14Both the Fifty-First Illinois and the Forty-Second Illinois had, in September and October, had a number of draftees and substitutes for draftees assigned to them by the Illinois adjutant general. Prisoner-of-war records for the regiment do not support Atwater's statement that most of the captured men were draftees and substitutes. (However, there were disproportionate fatalities among the new men at Spring Hill and Franklin: Company F of the Forty-Second Illinois had six men killed at Spring Hill on November 29. All six men were new to the regiment.) Back
15Atwater's counts are askew. Back
16Officially, the Fifty-First Illinois reported 53 men killed and wounded and 98 missing. A number of the missing were actually dead, lost in the melee of the retreat to the main line, and never heard from again—as the field and burial obligations were left in the hands of the Confederate army. Back
17Captain Albert Tilton of Company C was in command of the regiment until he was wounded on November 30. As next senior captain, Atwater was in command thereafter. Back