Colonel Emerson Opdycke’s Report on His Brigade’s Action at the Battle of Franklin

On November 30th, 1864, Major General John M. Schofield’s Army of the Ohio was dug in around the town of Franklin, Tennessee. Schofield’s line extended around the town in a semicircle, with the ends anchored on

Emerson Opdycke 1830-1884

Emerson Opdycke 1830-1884

the Harpeth River. Schofield had been in the process of withdrawing his army from the Pulaski, Tennessee area north to Nashville ahead of the advancing Confederate Army of Tennessee under Lieutenant General John Bell Hood, when he was nearly encircled and cut off near the town of Spring Hill. But Schofield was somehow able to slip his entire force past Hood’s army under cover of darkness and redeploy at Franklin. Now, Hood was closing in again as the Federals finalized their defensive positions.

One of the Union units at Franklin was the 1st Brigade of the 2nd Division of the 4th Corps. The 1st Brigade consisted of the 36th, 44th, 73rd, 74th, and 88th Illinois Infantry regiments, plus the 125th Ohio and 24th Wisconsin. The brigade was under the command of Colonel Emerson Opdycke, a former commander of the 125th Ohio and veteran of many of the major battles in the west.  As the 2nd Division approached the Union outer defensive line, the division commander, Brigadier General George Wagner, ordered two of his brigades to take position about a half mile out from the main Federal line. They did so, but the location afforded little cover. When the rear guard brigade of Emerson Opdycke arrived, Wagner ordered Opdycke to place his men in position to extend his line.

Opdycke vehemently refused. He considered Wagner’s line to be exposed and impossible to defend effectively. He was also angry that his brigade had been engaged in constant rear guard duty and his exhausted men–many who had not slept for 48 hours–needed to stop and eat. The two officers argued back and forth, but Opdycke kept his men moving and they crossed the main Union line and settled in an open location about 200 yards back. Wagner finally gave up and told Opdycke that he was in reserve and should fight wherever he was needed.

Opdycke was correct about the advanced Union position being untenable. Two Confederate divisions under Major Generals John Brown and Patrick Cleburne struck the union line, driving the two brigades back and opening a hole in the center of the Union line. Opdycke’s brigade and two nearby Kentucky infantry regiments charged forward to plug the gap. Much of the fighting was hand to hand and Opdycke himself led from the front, fighting on foot after his horse was shot out from under him. The counterattack was successful, and the center of the Union line held.

After the Battle of Franklin, Opdycke filed this report:

Nashville, Tenn., December 5, 1864.

CAPTAIN: I respectfully submit the following report of the operations of this brigade from November 29 to December 1:
The command is composed of seven regiments: Eighty-eighth and Seventy-fourth Illinois, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Smith; Seventy-third Illinois, Major Motherspaw; Thirty-sixth Illinois, Lieutenant-Colonel Olson; Forty-fourth Illinois, Lieutenant-Colonel Russell; Twenty-fourth Wisconsin, Major MacArthur; One hundred and twenty-fifth Ohio, Captain Bates. At 8 a.m., November 29, we moved from near Duck River on the Franklin pike in the advance, and when within a mile of Spring Hill I was notified that the enemy were advancing into the town. General Wagner ordered me on the double-quick and we soon entered the village, formed line facing north of east. Colonel Smith deployed his command as skirmishers. The enemy were advancing in fair view, with quite a force of cavalry. General Wagner ordered me to drive them off. The line of battle followed the skirmishers and we easily cleared our front. General Wagner sent for a regiment to go to the right, and I sent the Thirty-sixth Illinois. The Seventy-third was ordered to support Colonel Smith, and the One hundred and twenty-fifth was moved up the Franklin pike and deployed to drive away the enemy that was approaching from that direction. By order from General Stanley I placed the Forty-fourth Illinois and Twenty-fourth Wisconsin west of the pike, and near the railroad station. They were well deployed, and connected with the One hundred and twenty-fifth. This disposition thoroughly protected our left and rear, and was maintained till about 4 a.m., November 30. By General Wagner’s orders I then drew in all of the regiments, except Colonel Smith’s, and made dispositions to act as rear guard. I was informed that our situation was critical, and the greatest efforts would be needed. Formed in two lines of battle, and Colonel Smith’s command came from picket and deployed as skirmishers. A section of the Fourth Artillery reported to me at 6.30 a.m. We faced to the rear and moved off in line. As we debouched into the little valley at Thompson’s Station, skirmishing opened. Colonel Smith managed his line skillfully, and sustained no loss. He killed a few rebels, one an officer, within a rod of our line. Stragglers soon commenced filling the road, mostly new men with immense knapsacks. They were so worried as to seem indifferent to capture. I ordered each of my three lines to bring along every man at the point of the bayonet, and to cut off the knapsacks. These orders were obeyed rigidly, and probably less than twenty men escaped our vigilance and were captured. I am sure that we saved 500 men from capture by these severe measures. The enemy continued to annoy our rear all the time, and at 11 a.m. we reached Stevens’ Hill, overlooking Franklin, took position on it, and remained there an hour and a half. General Wagner then ordered me off, and as my rear was clearing the hill, was ordered back there. When I reached the top of the hill I at once discovered heavy and parallel columns of infantry approaching rapidly. I was ordered off again after sending a number of shell and solid shot at the advancing enemy. At about 2.30 p.m. the brigade was massed about 200 yards to the rear of Carter’s house and on the right of Columbia pike—-the main line of defense crossed this pike just in front of C.’s house.

Members of the 125th Ohio Infantry

Members of the 125th Ohio Infantry

General Wagner was with me in person, and ordered me to fight when and where I thought I should be most needed without further orders. The men got coffee, and at about 4 p.m. General Cox sent me a request to have my brigade ready, and I received no other orders till after the battle. I was familiar with the whole ground and knew that Carter’s hill was the key to it all. The fighting was now heavy, and I commenced moving the command to the left of the pike for greater security to the men and for easier maneuvering in case of need. While thus moving a most horrible stampede of our front troops came surging and rushing back past Carter’s house, extending to the right and left of the pike. I at first thought them only the Second and Third Brigades of our division that were left nearly a quarter of a mile to the front with orders to fall back: but I soon saw that the troops at the main works had left them. When I gave the order “First Brigade, forward to the works,” bayonets came down to a charge, the yell was raised, and the regiments rushed most grandly forward, carrying many stragglers back with them. We deployed as we charged, which took us up in echelon forward on the center, Colonel Smith’s two regiments leading.

Battle at Franklin (1864)

The enemy were following our troops with great celerity and force. He was met this side of Carter’s house by our charge, and at once put to rout with a loss of 394 prisoners, 19 of whom were officers, 1 a colonel, and 9 battle-flags. A battery and a section of another near Carter’s house were abandoned to the enemy in the stampede, and were retaken by this charge and worked by the officers and men of this command. Our lines were now restored and the battle raged with indescribable fury. The enemy hurled his masses against us with seeming desperation. Officers devoted their mightiest energies to bringing up the stragglers to the breast-works, and we soon had the position impregnable. These desperate assaults continued till after dark, when the enemy ceased all heavy efforts against our position. I twice stepped to the front of the works on the Columbia pike to see the effect of such fighting. I never saw the dead lay near so thick. I saw them upon each other, dead and ghastly in the powder-dimmed star-light. My withdrawal was under General Cox’s instructions and was accomplished at midnight. My pickets, under Major Holden, of the Eighty-eighth Illinois, remained an hour later, when he brought them off without annoyance.

The brigade lost an aggregate of 216. Its trophies were 9 battle-flags, 394 prisoners, 19 of whom were officers, retaking a battery and a section of another one, and recapturing the colors of a regiment of another brigade. Many other battle-flags were left by the enemy when our charge put the enemy to flight, but which the men would not stop to pick up till after the battle; in the meantime other troops came up and secured them.

My losses were light, but five regimental commanders were either killed or disabled. Among the former I deplore the death of Lieutenant-Colonel Olson, of the Thirty-sixth Illinois Veteran Volunteers. He was a true, noble man, and a high type of an officer.

The officers and men all did magnificently, but Lieutenant-Colonel Smith was conspicuous even among heroes, and his command captured five battle-flags. Captain Bates, commanding One hundred and twenty-fifth Ohio, was almost beyond reach of praise. He did everything that he ought, and so did each and all. The nation will do them justice; I cannot.

Capt. R. C. Powers, acting assistant adjutant-general, was of eminent service. His high judgment and courage were of great assistance in the achievements of this momentous day. I respectfully ask your attention to notices of individual gallantry in the subordinate reports.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Colonel, Commanding.

Actg. Asst. Adjt. Gen., Second Division, Fourth Army Corps.

Major MacArthur of the 24th Wisconsin was the father of World War II U.S. Army General Douglas MacArthur.

Though he had been insubordinate, Opdycke and his brigade had been in the right place at the right time, and his counterattack played a major part in saving the Federal army at Franklin.  For his actions, Opdycke was promoted to Brigadier General in 1865.

Schofield withdrew from Franklin that night, and joined up with Major General George Thomas’ army at Nashville. Total Union losses at the Battle of Franklin were listed as a little over 2300, of which 189 were killed, though some believe that number is a low estimate. Confederate losses were a staggering 6252, including 1750 killed. Six Confederate generals were killed or mortally wounded, including Patrick Cleburne. Cleburne was one of the South’s better field commanders, and someone the Confederate army couldn’t afford to lose. Despite the horrific losses, Hood gathered up his army and continued on to Nashville, where he was again defeated at the Battle of Nashville on December 15th and 16th.


The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah: Spring Hill, Franklin, and Nashville by Wiley Sword

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XLVI, Part 1

Repelling Hood’s Invasion of Tennessee by Henry Stone. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume IV

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