Entombing the Dead at Franklin
When the armies receded late November 30th, around 2,000 soldiers lay dead on the battlefield at Franklin, outnumbering the town’s population more than two to one. Alongside human bodies were also animal carcasses, particularly horses and mules. Over the course of the Civil War, an estimated 1.2 million horses and mules perished.1 Confederate chaplain Charles Todd Quintard observed as he rode into Franklin December 4th:
“All along the way I found marks of the fight—dead horses, burnt wagons, & carts but at the line of breastworks at Mr. Carter’s house, where the heaviest fighting was done, there was a great number of horses, among which was poor John’s (Marsh) white horse within ten feet of the works. The horse of Genl. Adams was further to the right just on top of the breastworks.”2
The people of Franklin, still reeling from the battle, now faced a dangerous sanitation crisis. Thus began a harried cycle of burial, exhumation, reburial that would last into 1867. The first stage of this cycle began December 1st, the day after the Battle of Franklin. The Confederate army immediately set to work burying its dead soldiers on the battlefield. They hastily placed the bodies in two and a half foot deep trenches running from south of the Carter house over to Lewisburg Pike and covered them with earth. Those who could be identified received a small wooden headboard with their name and company number scratched onto its face. Stephen Vaughn Shimpan of the 1st Wisconsin Cavalry, noted on January 10 “at Franklin…the rebel graves covered the ground in front of our lines. I never saw such evidence of desperate fighting in my experience as a soldier.”3
The Federal dead from the battle were initially buried in three main locations. Those who perished on the battlefield were interred primarily in trenches on Carter land near the railroad and alongside Columbia Pike, to the south of town. The first trench contained about 100 bodies, all unmarked; the second contained 28 dead soldiers, all identified. The other burying ground for Federal dead from the November 30th battle was Franklin’s City Cemetery. About 200 Federal soldiers were buried here, the majority of which died on or after November 30, 1864. Among these numbers were most likely the fallen from Hood’s retreat two and a half weeks later, during which a few United States Colored Troops were killed and buried on Carter Hill.4
After the soldiers’ bodies had been removed, the dead horses and mules still remained. The ordeal of removing them fell to those upon whose land they fell. This would have been a difficult task and would have required a horse or mules to haul away the dead animals, each of which weighed 1,000+ lbs. Over the month following the battle, Moscow Carter hauled 17 dead horses from his yard.5
The winter of 1865 was cold and wet. By early spring, the already-scant earth covering the graves had begun to erode, and limbs protruded from the shallow graves. Many of the grave markers had disappeared, used for firewood by desperate locals. It was clear to everyone that this was not an adequate solution to the problem of the dead.
Searching for a Final Resting Place
In the fall of 1865, Edmund B. Whitman and members of the 111th United States Colored Troops came through Franklin and identified burial locations of the Federal dead. The intent was to exhume and rebury them. The soldiers they located in Franklin were mostly casualties from the November 30th battle, but a portion had died earlier in the war, the earliest dating to March 1862. The men in these earlier graves died primarily from disease, some from the many skirmishes that took place in and around Franklin. Most were buried in Franklin’s City Cemetery. In his initial report, Whitman suggested the bodies be reburied in the existing Federal cemetery at Columbia, or that a new site be selected.6
The Federal Government moved on E.B. Whitman’s suggestion of a new site, in which Franklin’s and some of Nashville’s Federal dead could be appropriately laid to rest. It began an investigation into placing a National Cemetery in Franklin, on the north side of the Harpeth River. The investigation yielded decisive results. Before long, the officer in charge of the investigation reported back that “the citizens of Franklin will do everything in their power to defeat the locating of a cemetery there, and will not sell land to the government at any price. In case a location is taken forcibly, a guard of twenty (20) men will be necessary to prevent desecration.” This sentiment existing in post-war Franklin is not surprising. It calls to mind an incident from the summer of 1862, in which several girls from respectable Franklin families were caught dancing on the grave of a Federal soldier in the City Cemetery. The plan for a national cemetery in Franklin was abandoned.7
While the investigation was underway, men were already at work disinterring the Federal dead throughout Middle Tennessee. This gruesome task fell to United States Colored Troops. The Franklin Review reported in late September 1865: “Some weeks ago a party of negroes, under charge of a white man, arrived here and pitched their tents in the suburbs of the town. They proceeded to resurrect the remains of the Federal dead and to remove them to Columbia. The work was concluded last week, and the party have gone to Thompson’s Station to remove the Federal dead from that place to Columbia.” Whitman estimated that there were about 300 USCTs at work digging up Federal soldiers’ bodies in Middle Tennessee. Once exhumed, each soldier was placed in its own coffin, manufactured in Murfreesboro by the Quartermaster’s Department. With each went a headboard of “red cedar or hard pine, painted and bearing for an inscription the name, rank, company and Regiment, or Unknown, as the case may be.” The number of Federal dead dug up in Franklin ended up being 583, outstripping Whitman’s earlier estimate by more than two hundred.8.
In 1866, the Federal dead from Franklin were moved down to Columbia and buried in the southeastern corner of Rose Hill Cemetery. They joined over 800 Federal soldiers who had perished in and around Columbia during the war, as well as Confederate dead. Soon the cemetery corporation who owned Rose Hill was dealing with outcries from Maury County citizens, affronted that Federal soldiers, especially black Federal soldiers, were buried alongside Confederates. Whitman advocated moving all Federal dead from Confederate locals and concentrating them in one massive cemetery. He recommended, however, that they remain “on Southern soil,” where “they would help to educate the children whose
fathers fought to dismember their country, to love and cherish it and to seek its honors and rewards.”9
The very next year, in 1867, the Federal soldiers from Rose Hill Cemetery were disinterred and moved to the National Cemetery at Stones River. A grand total of 1,300 troops were moved, including the Franklin dead. At Stones River National Cemetery, they finally reached their third and final resting place. In 1882, the local Ladies’ Memorial Association erected a monument to the Confederate dead at Rose Hill Cemetery.10
The Legacy of the Confederate Dead
Simultaneous to the removal of the Federal dead from Franklin in 1866, the townspeople embarked on their own quest to find a fitting resting place for the remaining Confederate dead. That spring, John and Carrie McGavock donated two acres of land on their plantation to serve as a cemetery for Franklin’s Confederate dead. Disinterment took place from April to June, led by ex-Confederate soldier George Cuppett. The dead were reburied according to the state for which they fought, with a section for unknowns. With this act, the McGavocks took over the task of maintaining and remembering the Confederate dead as well as interpreting and continuing the legacy of the Battle of Franklin.11
“Long afterward, although grown infirm and elderly, Mr. McGavock conducted tours of the battlefield’s prominent positions, retold the valor of the Confederates, and carefully preserved the identity of the dead in the cemetery.” John R. Neff 12
This legacy passed from parents to child. Hattie McGavock Cowan, once a little girl whose life was punctuated and changed by the Battle of Franklin, became the first chapter president of Franklin’s United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1895. She and other women became forces in the Lost Cause narrative, utilizing memorialization of the dead as a way to shape a town’s, region’s, and nation’s memory of history. The problem of the dead in Franklin seemed to be satisfactorily resolved. But time has shown memory of the Civil War dead to remain a powerful and agitating force in American politics and life into the 21st century.13
1 – Livia Gershon, “A Horse-Eye’s View of the Civil War,” on JSTOR Daily, https://daily.jstor.org/a-horses-eye-view-of-the-civil-war/ (Accessed 2 Jan. 2020).
2 – Rick Warwick, ed. “Diary of Dr. Charles Todd Quintard,” in the Williamson County Historical Journal, no. 29 (Nashville: Panacea Press, 1998), 71.
3 – Thomas R. Flagel and Rachael A. Finch, “Sowing the Seeds from the Angel of Death’s Last Harvest” on the American Battlefield Trust, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/sowing-seeds-angel-deaths-last-harvest (Accessed 2 Jan. 2020).
“Stephen Vaughn Shipman Diary,” Wisconsin Historical Society, http://content.wisconsinhistory.org/cdm/ref/collection/quiner/id/37611, 10 (Accessed 2 Jan. 2020).
4 – E.B. Whitman to Captain A.R. Eddy, December 1865; NARA, Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, RG 92 (1774-1985).
5 – Brian Craig Miller, “The Dead At Franklin,” The Opinionator, a New York Times blog, from https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/12/01/the-dead-at-franklin/ (Accessed 2 Jan. 2020).
6 – Whitman, RG 92, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
7 – John R. Neff, Honoring the Civil War Dead: Commemoration and the Problem of Reconciliation (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2005), 158.
Official Records, June 24, 1862.
8 – Whitman, RG 92, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
Nashville Daily Union, 23 Sept. 1866.
9 – Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, RG 92, National Archives, Washington D.C.
10 – Ibid.
11 – Eric A. Jacobson and Richard A. Rupp, For Cause & for Country (Franklin: O’More Publishing, 2006), 456-57.
12 – Neff, 158.
13 – David Currey, “The Virtuous Soldier,” in Monuments to the Lost Cause: Women, Art, and the Landscapes of Southern Memory, Cynthia Mills and Pamela H. Simpson, eds. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2003), 140.