“The Crowning Wave of Southern Valor:” The Battle of Franklin, Tennessee

In June 1897, William Wirt Thomson of Greene County, Mississippi,

W.W. Thomson - 1874 Miss. Legislature LOC
Photograph of William W. Thomson taken when he was a member of the Mississippi State Legislature in 1874-1875 – Library of Congress

traveled to Nashville to attend the 7th annual United Confederate Veterans reunion. After the reunion ended, Thomson took a side trip to the nearby town of Franklin Tennessee, the site where he had fought nearly 33 years earlier.

Visiting Franklin stirred up many old memories for Thomson – he had participated in the battle as the captain of Company A, “Gaines Warriors,” 24th Mississippi Infantry, seen his regiment decimated, and himself captured and sent to a prison camp for the remainder of the war.

Captain Thomson wrote an article about his trip to Franklin entitled simply “The Battle of Franklin, Tennessee,” which was published in The Pascagoula Democrat-Star on September 3, 1897 – it’s an eloquent account of an old warrior visiting the scene of his final battle:

For a distance of nearly twenty miles, the railroad running south from Nashville passes down through a valley of surpassing beauty and loveliness. Nature has been wonderfully prodigal of her beautiful scenery all along those miles of valley and mountain, and the hand and taste of man has added much thereto.

Just where this great thoroughfare crosses the Archer river, on the south side, lies a high plateau, almost level, and surrounded on three sides by this picturesque little stream. Here, in its golden setting of fields of waving grain, sets the historic little town of Franklin, with its straight, clean, tree-bordered trees radiating out from a broad, well-kept plaza or open space, around which are ranged the handsome public buildings and offices of Williamson County, out of which Franklin is the county site. Just south of the town, and stretching away to the east and west in beautiful undulations, and with a valley in its midst, is another and higher plateau, while still further south the horizon settles down on a range of wooded hills, on the crest and near the center of which, clearly silhouetted against the evening sky, stands a tree, alone, and higher than those near by. To this tree the citizen who may accompany you will point and tell you “That is Hood’s Tree.”

View North from Hood's Headquarters on Winstead Hill - Battles & Leaders

View north from Hood’s headquarters on Winstead Hill (engraving from Battles and Leaders of the Civil War)

Bathed in the haze of a summer evening, this scene so calm, so lovely, so quiet and pastoral, is so nearly a dream of heavenly loveliness, that you can scarcely be made to believe that here, thirty-three years ago, was fought the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, perhaps the bloodiest ever fought on this earth.

From that lone tree, a great Confederate commander looked down and

John Bell Hood
Lieutenant General John Bell Hood – Library of Congress

watched his grey legions – the veteran  remnants of the grandest army the world has ever seen, as they charged across the valley and up the slope to where Thomas, “The Rock of Chickamauga,” with his trained and tried troops stood waiting to receive them. With the river behind and on two sides of him, Thomas and his army were fighting for their very existence, while the flushed and victorious Confederates were rushing forward to strike what they fondly believed would be a crushing blow – a blow they hoped would end the war, and free their loved Southland from the hated invader forever. “Man proposes, God disposes.” From side to side of this beautiful valley, the tide of battle and carnage rolled, and from right to left, heroes dashed on to death, and fell. At the old gin house, and across the pike at the Carter house and the “bloody angle,” destruction stalked supreme and the demon of death held his highest carnival. Around the old gin, Missourians and Texans, Mississippians and Tennesseans, Alabamians and Arkansians – all mingled in heaps together; and amid them lay Cleburne and Adams and Granberry, general and colonel and private – heroes all, no rank, no distinction, all glorious together.

Franklin Cotton Gin
Post Civil War Photograph of the Carter Cotton Gin at Franklin – Civil War Trust

Across the pike at the Carter house, on the “bloody angle,” lay the gallant Strahl, and piled three and four feet deep in the trenches were the veterans who in other days and in other battles had followed the peerless Walthall and Tucker to victory. Here on this fateful corner, the gallant Ball planted the colors of the 24th Mississippi, and with his white girlish hand on its riven staff, lay with his face on the works, pierced with sixteen bullets, and beside him Capt. Ben Toomer, “the noblest Roman of them all.” It was a battle of the giants, and nature stood aghast, while from his place by that lone tree Hood stood and watched his matchless soldiers melt away, until the murky clouds of war and the smoke from the burning woods below, covered the valley and shut it all from view.

The Carter House on the Franklin Battlefield – Civil War Trust

Thirty-three years have come and gone, and the stranger who goes there now cannot imagine all this to have taken place amid the beautiful, peaceful scenes that now rise before him on every side. A dim line of yellow clay, almost level with the surface, is all that is left to mark the place where these bloody breastworks stood; and over this, at the Carter house, a few short weeks ago, Irish potatoes were growing on a soil where four hundred and twenty-four of Mississippi’s best and bravest boys poured out their life’s blood. A beautiful female seminary stands on the site of the historic old gin house, and near by Missouri, mindful of her gallant dead, has erected a chaste marble monument to their memory.

This outbuilding of the Carter House at Franklin is pocked with numerous holes from the bullets that hit the structure during the battle – http://www.tripadvisor.com

Irish potatoes and gourd vines mark where Mississippians fell, and other states have nothing. Can it be that it is believed that ingratitude and negligence fosters patriotism? If so, let the Southern youth visit Franklin today and grow patriotic. Greece has handed down through the ages, immortalized in story and song, her Marathon and her Thermopylae, while other grandly historic names will go ringing down through all time, but Franklin, crowned with the heroism and washed in the blood of martyrs of human freedom, will find no place in the record, and no shaft will rise to perpetuate the memory of the Southern soldier there.

It has been said that the battle of Franklin was bad generalship, and a mistake. It was neither the one nor the other. It was the inevitable. Had Hood failed to attack Thomas here, the Confederate soldier could never have been made to believe that he had not lost his supreme opportunity, and that a beaten, demoralized and routed foe had been let slip from his grasp. It was the crowning wave of Southern valor, endurance and vengeance sweeping northward, that dashed its crest into bloody foam on the breastworks at Franklin; and sixteen days later it was the undertow of defeat that drove it south again, beaten, vanquished and discomfited forever.

General Patrick Cleburne leading his troops at the Battle of Franklin by Don Troiani

A fortunate coincidence carried us (myself and wife) down to Franklin on the

Souvenir ribbon from the 1897 UCV Reunion in Nashville – http://www.veteransattic.com


morning after the closing exercises of the grand Reunion at Nashville. Here we met the delegation from Missouri and received a generous and cordial welcome from a people as intensely loyal to the Southern cause, as they were in the days when the storm of battle was raging around them. We were met and taken from the railroad depot in carriages out to and around about the battle field, and from there to the Confederate cemetery, a beautiful spot on a tree-crowned ridge. To this peaceful, lovely spot these great-hearted people have removed, at their own expense, our dead from their graves on the field, and marked each soldier’s resting place with a neat head-stone. Standing here under the trees and amid these graves, Major Aken, a gallant Tennessee soldier, said, “We could almost wish that we, too, had been killed in battle, so that we might be buried here.” Here, George S. Nichols, of Co. B, 1st Tennessee Infantry, whose war record is written all over his honest, battle-scarred face, has stipulated that he shall be laid to rest when death’s reveille sounds to call him home. Mississippi, to her credit this much may be said, has paid these people in ample measure for their care and trouble for her dead; but Mississippi alone, of all the old Confederate states, has done this. To this people it was a labor of love for the old Confederate soldier; they have asked no return, and they never will. But this does not discharge the debt of grateful remembrance that each state owes the heroes sleeping here.

From the cemetery the ridge slopes up to the residence of Mrs. John McGavock,

Carrie Winder McGavock
Carrie Winder McGavock, wife of John McGavock, the owner of Carnton Plantation at Franklin – http://www.civilwarshades.org



and here, too, we were carried to pay a just and willing homage to one of the grandest women of the South, and were received with a gracious hospitality. On her wide veranda she pointed out the spot where five Confederate generals lay dead at the same time, and her spacious hall and rooms were crowded with Confederate wounded, to whom she ministered with her own tender hands the whole of that awful night. With a dauntless heroism she remained in her house and saw Hood’s grey and tattered veterans sweep through her yard and on down into the valley of death, and with a cheek unblanched and a heart unquailing, watched her Southern soldiers dash up against “The Rock of Chickamauga.”

At one time during the fiercest of the battle, Forrest dashed past her, through the hall and up the stairway to a portico on the second story, the most elevated position on the battle field, and there through his glass scanned the progress of the fight. What a glorious type of Southern womanhood is this gentle, quiet lady! To touch her honored hand is the privilege of a lifetime, to see her smile is like catching a sunset ray from our glorious past, and her fervent ‘God bless you’ a benediction, to receive which, royalty itself might gladly bend the knee.

From her house, along an avenue shaded by locust trees, we were carried to the

George L. Cowan
Wartime photograph of George L. Cowan, who served as part of General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s escort – http://www.findagrave.com

home of her son-in-law, Lieut. Geo. L. Cowan, once a member of Forrest’s escort. Lieut. Cowan is a courtly gentleman of the old school, and under the trees around his pleasant home, his lovely wife – a worthy daughter of so honored and distinguished a mother – had spread a generous and appetizing collation, to which we all did such ample justice as might have been expected from hungry Confederate veterans. In this entertainment Mrs. Cowan was ably assisted by such other charming ladies of Franklin as Mrs. Kincaid, Mrs. March, Mrs. Duke, and the lovely Miss Mary Nichols. After an evening spent in this old Confederate soldier’s home, we were taken back to the depot in time to meet the evening train for Nashville. We departed leaving behind us kind wishes for our generous friends, and carrying with us pleasant memories that will mark this as the red-letter day of our life. Proud? Yes, prouder than ever that we had been a Confederate soldier, and that we are still spared to be a Confederate veteran.

W.W. Thomson

Leaf, Miss., August 20, 1897

While doing a little research into the life of Captain Thomson, I found another interesting story about him attached to the posting about his grave on findagrave.com. The story is apparently from a newspaper article, but unfortunately the person who posted it did  not give the date or name of the paper it was published in:

Honor in the Field

During the battle of Franklin, Major H. M. Spain captured Capt. W. Wirt Thomson,

Harrison M. Spain, 80th Indiana Infantry
Image from findagrave.com

of Co. A, 24th Mississippi Infantry, who reluctantly gave up his sword, saying that he’d rather leave his dead body on the field than surrender it as it was a present from his company and had never been dishonored. The major generously promised that if both lived until the close of the war he would return the sword. In 1874, Capt. Thomson was elected a member of the Mississippi Legislature. He wrote the Adjutant-General of Indiana for the Major’s address. A correspondence ensued and in February 1874 they met and the battlefield promise was fulfilled.

At the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee, November 30,  1864, Captain Thomson’s regiment, the 24th Mississippi Infantry, had 18 men killed, 31 wounded, 14 captured, and 1 missing. Among the captured was Thomson, who spent the remainder of the war at Johnson’s Island prisoner of war camp in Ohio. He was released on June 17, 1865, after taking the Oath of Allegiance to the United States. Captain Thomson went home to Greene County, raised a family, and lived a relatively long life for that day and age, dying at 62 in 1900. He is buried in Leaf Cemetery, Greene County, Mississippi.

I am going to close this post with a link to a song about the Battle of Franklin performed by Billy Ray Reynolds for his album “Privates to the Front.” This is a modern song, but I think it is a perfect tribute to the Southern soldiers that fought at Franklin, Tennessee, so many years ago:


One thought on ““The Crowning Wave of Southern Valor:” The Battle of Franklin, Tennessee

  1. Excellent post Jeff!! The account of Thomson’s encounter with Maj. Spain and the story of the captured/returned sword come from a biographical sketch of Spain that was included in an 1884 publication entitled “Counties of Cumberland, Jasper, and Richland, Illinois. Historical and Biographical. Illustrated.”. A google search of the title should lead you to a full copy of the book, which is available online. The story has been of particular interest to me over the past several years through my research on Maj. Spain, but I have (until now) been unable to find much of anything concerning Capt. Thomson. The article here comes as a wonderful surprise. Thomson’s perspectives on his return to Franklin are just superb! Thanks so much for sharing!

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