The Civil War (Western Theater):
A Guide to Several Battlefields

By J. Brent Norlem, 2009

This is Part One of a Five-Part Article

J. Brent Norlem, a journalist and historian in Minnesota, outlines here a contemporary journey through several battlefields of the Western Theater of the American Civil War. Norlem wrote this piece for Recent photos of some of these fields can be found here. See here for Norlem’s reading suggestions on the Civil War.

Norlem was named the 1972 Dow Jones News Fund National High School Journalism Teacher of the Year. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1947 to 1952 and in the U.S. Army from 1953 to 1957. His paternal great-grandfather, David D. Fronk (1838-1907), is a Civil War hero, serving as a sergeant in the 27th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the motto of which was, “Always at the point.”


Topics in This Piece:

The Battles of Columbia, Spring Hill, Franklin, and Nashville
The Natchez Trace Parkway
The Seige of Vicksburg
New Orleans
The Battle of Shiloh
The Battle of Stones River
The Tullahoma Campaign (including Hoover’s Gap)
The Battle of Chickamauga
The Battle of Lookout Mountain
The Battle of Missionary Ridge
The Battle of Orchard Knob

“On great fields something stays.”
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Civil War general, U.S. Army

Over the last 50 years, many historians, researchers, and students of the American Civil War have arrived at a new appreciation for the conflict’s Western Theater of Operations. An interesting moment for this development came in November 2007 when the excellent magazine America’s Civil War declared on its cover, “The Civil War Was Won in the West!”

If you imagine a line running down the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, you will have a rough division between the Eastern and Western theaters of the war. Action in the Western theater was concentrated in Tennessee and Mississippi.

Heavy newspaper coverage of the Eastern theater – a 19th Century media frenzy – overshadowed vital events in the West (and at sea). The majority of newspapers were in the East; their readers were in the East; thus, such battles as Gettysburg, Antietam (Sharpsburg), and Fredericksburg were covered with special fervor, their reporters having been present at the encounters. Such engagements as the Battle of Franklin, in Tennessee, got scant ink, and the Western theater received short shrift for years. I daresay that some readers of this article will not have heard of the Battle of Franklin.

This piece will focus on the Western theater, providing detailed information about several battlefields worthy of visits, including Franklin. For each battle that I cover, I’ll weave historical background together with details about visiting. I will begin in 1864 in Franklin, and then backtrack to 1862-63, focusing on other locales.

I respectfully suggest that you will get the most from your Civil War battlefield visits if you acquaint yourself with the reasons those sites exist. Many books are available (my choices are listed in Part Five of this article). Various Websites provide an overview of Civil War locales and have suggestions for additional reading. Some of the larger Civil War battlefields offer tour guides for hire (well-versed in all details of the proceedings) as well as audio tapes keyed to maps.


The battle fought at Franklin, Tennessee, 30 November 1864, has been termed “the Gettysburg of the Western theater.” The sequence of events there also involved the Battles of Columbia, Spring Hill, and Nashville. If possible, you should allow two or three days for this tour – perhaps as an adjunct to a trip to Nashville, which, of course, is one of America’s great music cities.

First, some historical background.

In the summer of 1864, following the fall of Atlanta, Confederate Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood led the defeated but still powerful Army of Tennessee into Alabama, then turned north with the idea of investing Nashville, the primary supply depot for the Atlanta-based forces of Federal Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, and the primary Union supply depot of the Western Theater.

Hood reasoned (correctly) that this investment would not only force Sherman to turn his attention from Atlanta to protecting his supply lines, but would endanger all Federal garrisons from Nashville to Atlanta that depended on those supply lines. More importantly, it almost surely would prevent Sherman from joining forces with Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who was in Virginia.

Discerning Hood’s strategy, Sherman dispatched troops to Nashville under Maj. Gen. John Schofield to reinforce the garrisoned city.

A Confederate force met Schofield at Columbia, Tennessee, 24-28 November, 1864. The cavalry of Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest attacked the Federals with the intent of holding Schofield’s forces there until the full Confederate Army of Tennessee could be brought up. Vicious fighting ensued, with a Federal rear guard successfully holding off Confederate forces until the bulk of Schofield’s units were across the Duck River. Nevertheless, 29 November at Spring Hill, Schofield found himself cut off by Hood’s main Confederate force. Hood had a superb opportunity to entrap Schofield’s force and destroy it. Heavy fighting was suspended at nightfall, both sides setting up camp. Hood intended to obliterate Schofield’s smaller army in the morning. But during the night, Federal scouts found a single road north totally unguarded. The Federals muffled the hooves of their horses and mules, also the wheels of their cannons and their nearly 900-wagon supply train, and quietly stole past the Confederate division of Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Cheatham, passing so close that the features of Confederates at their campfires were clearly discernable. For drama and importance, this stealthy movement matches that of Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville.

Hood awoke in the morning to find the Federal forces gone. He was enraged, and ordered a frontal attack on the prepared Federal defenses at Franklin.

Hood should have been out patrolling his units during the night. He received reports of strange goings-on with the Federals but he didn’t ride out to survey the appropriate areas. This is unforgivable in any army. It’s the responsibility of the commanding general to see that posts are properly manned, pickets are properly posted, necessary work is performed. (The United States forgot this a few times during World War II, most notably at the Battle of the Bulge.)

Was he drunk that night? Several descriptions of Hood’s supper on the 29th mention “much toasting” late into the proceedings, in anticipation of a big victory the next day, but there is no hard, specific evidence that he was hammered.

Hood’s screw-up at Spring Hill represents one of the most interesting (and overlooked) “what ifs” of U.S. history. If he had destroyed Schofield’s smaller army as he planned, he might have re-invested Tennessee, taken Nashville, brought Kentucky into the Confederacy, and possibly given enough momentum to anti-war Northerners to allow them to prevail in their efforts to end the war. Secession would thus have been confirmed. Terrible damage would have been done to democracy (still a fragile and tender concept in the 19th century) and to efforts to end slavery.

In addition, Hood’s fury in the wake of his screw-up caused him to make decisions that cost his army dearly in the subsequent Battle of Franklin.

It took some time for Hood and his team on 30 November to get their army ready for an assault on the Federal defenses at Franklin. Hood raged about, his anger possibly fueled by pain from his mangled arm and lost leg, his judgment likely clouded by the laudanum he used to subdue the pain (which he should have swigged only when absolutely necessary). His divisional generals counseled strongly against a direct attack on Schofield’s prepared works at Franklin, but Hood was insistent. Perhaps at that moment he was functioning on the razor’s edge between competence and insanity.

At 1600 hours on 30 November, Hood gave the signal to advance, and the Battle of Franklin was underway. A Confederate division led by Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne drove part of Col. Joseph Conrad’s brigade from their shallow, hastily dug rifle pits (many of the pits were dug with bayonets). Conrad’s Federals fled this first line of defense for the relative safety of the prepared defenses at Franklin. Columbia Pike was the only opening in said defenses. Numerous Federal soldiers were shot in the back as they ran along the pike; others were captured.

Many Federals miraculously made it back to the main defenses and joined their fellows. Some of these men found themselves fighting in front of Fountain Branch Carter’s cotton gin, across Columbia Pike from Carter’s two-story brick home and outbuildings; some fought at the revetments abutting the Carter Garden. Those sites were the bloodiest and most viciously fought locations along the Federal defenses. The Federals, from their position in front of the Carter cotton gin, watched as Cleburne’s division advanced, Cleburne in the lead. They saw Cleburne twice unhorsed by Federal fire. They watched as Cleburne, on foot in front of his division, waved his soldiers on with his kepi, held in his left hand, his sword brandished in his right. Cleburne came so close that they could see the details of his uniform. And they watched Cleburne fall, killed by a single shot to his chest. Hundreds of his men died around him. (See End Note No. 22 for more on Cleburne.)

According to Thomas L. Connelly and James Lee McDonough, authors of the excellent “Five Tragic Hours: The Battle of Franklin” (1983), the battle cost the Confederate Army of Tennessee about 7,000 men: some 1,750 killed (including six general officers and numerous field-grade officers – six other general officers were badly wounded and put out of action permanently); about 4,500 wounded (3,800 so disabled as to be placed in the makeshift hospitals in Franklin); and 702 captured. A comparison of losses in other great Civil War battles, e.g. Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Shiloh, Stones River, etc., will show what truly horrendous losses the Confederates suffered in five hours. The Army of Tennessee (End Note No. 1) had been wrecked – not by U.S. Maj. Gen. John A. Schofield, but by Confederate Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood.

At about midnight, Schofield began quietly withdrawing his Federal force from Franklin. Schofield’s engineers had re-bridged the Harpeth River, swollen to near-flooding with winter rains. Schofield left behind only the Federal dead and those in too poor condition to travel, and marched his men 13 miles to join Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas’s force at Nashville. Hood, meanwhile, reorganized the Army of Tennessee and deployed in the hills to the south of Nashville, threatening the city, which, as noted, was the primary Union supply depot of the Western Theater.

Severe winter weather – freezing temperatures with sleet and ice – delayed Thomas attacking Hood (to the increasing ire of Lt. Gen Ulysses S. Grant, who kept telegraphing Thomas to begin his assault). Finally, at 0600, 15 December, the Battle of Nashville began. Federal black troops under Col. James B. Steedman made a diversionary attack on Hood’s center, while Thomas’s main force assaulted Hood’s weak left flank, which crumbled. By nightfall, Thomas was convinced that he had defeated the Army of Tennessee.

During the night, Hood re-linked his shattered lines about two miles to the south. The next morning, 16 December, Thomas ordered an attack on Hood’s right at Overton Hill. The Confederates eventually repulsed this attack, but at 1600 hours, the aggressive U.S. Maj. Gen. John MacArthur (father of Gen. Douglas MacArthur) led a concerted attack on the Confederate left deployed on two steep hills. Townspeople watched as tiny blue figures swarmed up the hills and rolled up the Confederate force. What was left of the Army of Tennessee fled south in panicked disarray, heading for the relative safety of Alabama, never to fight again.

Franklin, Tennessee, provides an excellent base from which to tour these battle sites.

The Old Town area of Franklin exudes great late 1800s/early 1900s allure (be sure to visit Courthouse Square) and provides a relaxing atmosphere for post-battlefield-tour browsing, shopping, and people watching. Tree-filled neighborhoods are comprised of dozens of charming antebellum homes. Numerous hotels and motels are available in the newer areas of town. Franklin boasts excellent cuisine to appeal to various tastes. A personal long-time favorite is the Franklin Chop House (go early or make reservations) which offers some of the best steaks in the nation. Fine fare can also be had at the Bunganut Pig, an Irish pub within walking distance of the Carter House.

A tour of the Franklin Battlefield should begin with the Carter House, the central point of the Federal defensive line during the battle. Pock marks from Confederate bullets cover the south walls of the red brick house and also mark the Carter Plantation office (used as Federal headquarters during the battle) and the plantation tool house. A cannon solid shot remains embedded in the brickwork of the house. The Carter House Museum has, in addition to excellent exhibits, maps that help visitors orient themselves to the battlefield. The museum staff is friendly and eager to be of service. Especially lucky visitors might get commentary or insights from curator Thomas Y. Cartwright Ph.D, the amiable, bright, and loquacious curator who some will instantly recognize from his appearances on the History Channel.

The Carter House has been blessed with multiple additions and reclamations during the past five years, thanks to the efforts of curator Cartwright and the nonprofit organization known as Franklin’s Charge Inc., a consortium of the African-American Heritage Society, The Carter House, Inc., the Civil War Preservation Trust, The Harpeth River Watershed Association, the Heritage Foundation of Franklin and Williamson County, Historic Carnton, Inc., The Land Trust for Tennessee, Inc., and Save the Franklin Battlefield. Franklin’s Charge Inc. has proved to be outstandingly effective in its efforts to reclaim and restore to 1864 character as much of the original Franklin battlefield as possible.

In 2006 a pizza restaurant was razed that for decades had occupied the spot where Patrick Cleburne and hundreds of Confederate soldiers were killed (the presence of the restaurant on that particular ground was considered an abomination by numerous Civil War scholars and students). The demolition was accompanied by the cheers of a large crowd of Civil War enthusiasts, some of whom traveled quite a distance to witness the event. Ultimately, that area will be restored to its 1864 condition and will exhibit a memorial to Cleburne and his attacking Confederates.

North across Cleburne Street (which did not exist until the 20th Century) is a large lawn and a private home that is sited exactly where the Carter cotton gin stood at the time of the battle. Plans to acquire that property, raze the house, and build a replica of the cotton gin are in the works, awaiting funding.

A logical next stop on a tour would be the lovely Carnton Plantation on the eastern side of the battlefield, where the McGavock Mansion served as a surgical hospital following the battle, its grounds covered with makeshift hospital tents and the bodies of four of the six Confederate generals who were killed. The McGavock Mansion, the slave quarters, and other plantation properties continue to undergo meticulous (and costly) restoration to exactly as they were in 1864.

After the battle, the bodies of the Federal dead were well-interred and marked, but Confederate dead were buried hastily, usually where they fell. Warm spring weather and rains partially unearthed many of the cursorily buried Confederate corpses. Moreover, during the 18 months following the battle most of the Confederate grave markers rotted, the markings on the boards disappearing, and many of the markers were used for firewood. To cope with this deplorable situation, John and Carrie McGavock donated two acres of their property, adjoining their family cemetery, for proper re-interment of the Confederate dead. The citizens of Franklin raised the necessary funds, and a team of four, led by George Cuppett, managed the reburial operations in the spring of 1866, a project that took 10 weeks. There are now 1,481 Confederate soldiers, representing every state of the Confederacy but Virginia, interred in the McGavock Confederate Cemetery, making it the largest private Confederate cemetery in the nation. Most of Franklin’s Federal dead were re-interred after the war to the Stones River National Cemetery at Murfreesboro.

Fort Granger is but a short drive from the Carnton Plantation. This earthen fort, on the northeast bank of the Harpeth River, overlooks the eastern half of the Franklin battlefield. Artillery at Fort Granger continually raked the attacking Confederate troops with canister, grape, and solid shot, causing carnage. The fort has been maintained in good condition. Excellent explanatory signs have been emplaced, and a large deck overlooking the eastern flank of the battlefield has been built, giving visitors essentially the same view enjoyed by the Federal cannoneers during the battle.

About a mile south of the Carter House along Columbia Avenue is Winstead Hill, an overlook from which Hood and his staff directed the attack on the Federal works at Franklin. The site is often used for lectures about the battle; covered bleachers have been built there. Several memorial plaques dot the site, and there are markers showing the positions of Confederate units attacking the western half of the Federal defensive line.

A short drive south is Spring Hill, home of a huge General Motors automobile plant and, as noted above, the site,on 29 November 1864, of a prelude to the Battle of Franklin. After the Battle of Spring Hill, as mentioned, Federal scouts discovered that the Confederates had left a road unguarded. An additional note on this moment in history – Confederate Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Cheatham seems to have been absent from the camp that night; rumors were rife among his troops that he was visiting the notorious Jessie Helen Peters (née McKissick) while her husband, Dr. George B. Peters, was away. Whatever the case, the Federals were able to slip by the Confederates during the night and head for the relative safety of the prepared defensive works at Franklin.

The Spring Hill Battlefield entrance is immediately northwest of Saturn Parkway (Kedron Road exit) in Spring Hill. Although this section of the original battlefield is permanently protected, it is feared that commercial development in economically booming Spring Hill will consume the rest of the original battlefield. The Civil War Preservation Trust ranks the Spring Hill Battlefield as highly endangered. One can take advantage of an excellent walking interpretive tour of the battlefield which presents a good view of the terrain.

Some additional sites worth touring in the Spring Hill locale:

Oaklawn Estate is a beautiful antebellum mansion that sits on 83 acres of the original plantation; it was used by John Bell Hood as his field headquarters for the Spring Hill and Franklin battles. Preservationists are alarmed that an adjacent 154 acres were bought at auction by a Nashville business concern.

A brief drive away is Ferguson Hall, also known as the Martin Cheairs Mansion, built in 1852-53. Before and during the Civil War, except for a few weeks, it was the home of the aforementioned Dr. George B. Peters and his wife Jessie Helen (née McKissick), famed for her beauty, referenced above in connection with Maj. Gen. Cheatham. Herein lies a tale, if you will forgive my jumping backward, chronologically, to early 1863. Following the Battle of Stones River in 1863 (see below), Confederate Maj. Gen. Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee retreated to more secure bases. Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn, commander of Bragg’s cavalry, moved his troops to Spring Hill and made Ferguson Hall his headquarters. A rumor quickly sprang up that Van Dorn was carrying on an affair with Jessie Peters, who was observed going to and from Ferguson Hall at odd hours. Dr. George Peters became aware of the situation and on the morning of 7 May 1863 he called on Van Dorn at his Ferguson Hall headquarters. Later that day, Van Dorn was found dead at his desk, a bullet wound to his head. Dr. Peters was never brought to trial. Jessie Peters is surely worthy of the attention of a historical novelist.

Also interesting: the Nathaniel Cheairs Mansion and Rippavilla Plantation, originally owned by Nathaniel Cheairs, both open to the public. A number of Confederate generals breakfasted at the Nathaniel Cheairs Mansion (not to be confused with the Martin Cheairs Mansion), home of Confederate Major Nat Cheairs, the morning that it was discovered that Federal forces had slipped out of the Confederate noose at Spring Hill. The Rippavilla site is comprised of a well-maintained antebellum Greek Revival mansion and some outbuildings, including an original slave cabin, and the Freeman Bureau School, sitting on about 65 acres of the original Spring Hill battlefield.

A 15-minute drive north from our Franklin base takes us to Nashville. Alas, the site of the Battle of Nashville succumbed long ago to commercial development – Nashville urban sprawl and the southern suburbs of Brentwood, Grassmere, and Green Hills occupy the battlefield site. However, Fort Negley, about two miles south of downtown Nashville and once the heart of the Federal defenses (Nashville was the most fortified city in North America during the Civil War) was restored in the 1930s and again restored in the 21st Century, opening to the public in 2004. The only other commemorations of the Battle of Nashville are Traveler’s Rest Plantation Civil War Museum near the intersection of Interstate Highway 65 and Highway 255, and numerous State of Tennessee historical roadside markers.

A suggestion. Tour Fort Negley in the morning, then check out Traveler’s Rest Plantation in the late morning or early afternoon. From Traveler’s Rest, drive north on Interstate 65 to Interstate 440 East, to Interstate 24 North, to Interstate 40 East, to Interstate 155 North (Briley Parkway), to Exit 11 and the Gaylord Opryland Resort complex and the Opry Mills Shopping Center. Exploring the incredible, sprawling 2,883-room Opryland Hotel is well worth the journey in itself. The hotel has several places to eat, catering to nearly everyone’s tastes (personal favorites are the Cascades Restaurant with its running waterfalls, the Old Hickory Steakhouse, and the revolving Atrium Lounge for people watching).

Across the street from the Gaylord Opryland is the enormous Opry Mills Shopping Center with many specialty shops. A short walk from the hotel is the famous Grand Ole Opry House (performance tickets may be purchased at the hotel as well as the Opry House box office). One can also catch a shuttle at the hotel to tour the famous Ryman Auditorium of Nashville, original home of the Grand Ole Opry and venue of countless country & western music performers, and the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Almost adjoining the Gaylord Opryland Hotel are the dock facilities for the General Jackson Showboat, a personal favorite for cruises down the Cumberland River. It is especially enjoyable to glide by the lights of Nashville by night, transporting one back mentally to the days when great steamboats carried passengers as far as the Tennessee River and beyond. During the Civil War, many units of Federal soldiers arrived in Nashville by boats on the Cumberland.

The Hermitage Plantation, home of President Andrew Jackson, one of the largest open spaces in the Nashville area, is eight miles away. A guided tour of the Hermitage and its grounds takes a bit more than two hours and is well worth the time.

Now then. Where to go next?