The battle began about 4:00 p.m. on November 30, 1864, and it raged for five hellish hours. Some 20,000 Confederate troops, commanded by the egotistical and miscalculating Gen. John Bell Hood, launched a suicidal, frontal assault along a two-mile front, across 400 yards of open fields. Their target — the considerably smaller but well-entrenched and heavily-armed Union Army that earlier had captured the picturesque village of Franklin, Tennessee, a dozen miles south of Nashville. When the sun rose the next morning, more than 6,200 Southern soldiers and nearly 2,500 Union men lay dead on those fields, now covered with corpses and soggy with rivulets of human blood. Six Confederate generals died. Hood, who remained safely away from the front lines, was not one of them.
Graceful trees now cover the field of battle. Newcomers to Franklin — and they are legion — have no clue that the street name in front of me, and five others beyond it, honor the Southern generals who perished here. No visible signs remain that this yard, on which sits the little rock house in which my wife lived from birth until she left for college, once witnessed a carnage so terrible that battle-hardened soldiers were sickened by the slaughter. Today the smoke has long since cleared. The only remaining evidence of war lies beneath this ground, where my father-in-law, now deceased, sometimes uncovered minie-balls and other spent ammunition when he turned up the soil to plant his garden each Spring.
A profound sadness settles over me here on the front porch, where I am reading historian Wiley Sword’s vivid account of the horrendous battle which transpired on this very spot 133 years ago. My great-grandfather did not fight here, but he wore the Confederate grey, and he was a prisoner of war for a while to General Sherman. Americans born and reared outside the Deep South cannot possibly understand the collective psyche which cherishes such memories even yet. Nor can we expect others to appreciate our persistent affection for physical place or our fond identity with an erstwhile culture, despite our absolute renunciation of human slavery — that unspeakable evil from which this land seemingly could be cleansed only by the blood of its perpetrators’ sons.
“But why should that battle define this ground?” I ask myself, looking across yards now ablaze with peaceful autumn leaves. “Or even four years of Civil War, for that matter?” More than 30 years have passed since then for every one year of that four-year war. This same ground has also seen generations of births and marriages and joyful celebrations. Commemorating that war has become a cottage industry, but perhaps it is time to say “Enough.”
We do not disrespect the past by looking to the future, or by living in the present. We are not responsible for our ancestors, but rather for our children. The death that atones for sin did not occur on this battlefield in 1864, but on a rugged Roman cross almost 2,000 years ago outside Jerusalem. That story and no other defines our lives as Christians, whether Black or White, and wherever we happen to be born, or to live, or to die.