The 44th Missouri at Franklin

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Don Troiani’s depiction of Opdyke’s Tigers and the 44th Missouri Infantry sealing the breakthrough at Franklin. Courtesy of Don Troiani.

“The challenges faced by the Missouri troops were immense.  In addition to being exposed to combat for the first time, they were faced off against Maj. Gen. John Brown’s Confederates, who were some of the best troops in the Southern army.  This was no easy task for certain, but through sheer force of will the 44th Missouri held together, even while under incredible pressure to prevent the Confederate breakthrough from expanding.” – Eric Jacobson, historian

At full combat strength, the men of the 44th Missouri in November 1864 were fresh recruits from northwestern Missouri, and the unit just organized in September in the western frontier town of St. Joseph. With limited military training, the green unit was ordered east in November to join Brig. Gen. Jacob Cox’s XXIII Corps in the Army of the Ohio, just as Lt. Gen. John B. Hood’s Army of Tennessee advanced north towards Nashville from Atlanta. As Hood’s army moved north into Tennessee, his and Maj. Gen. John Schofield’s armies maneuvered to flank each other at Columbia and Spring Hill. In the early morning of November 30, 1864, Schofield’s army had slipped past the Rebels and began to entrench just outside of the small town of Franklin, Tennessee – and the inexperienced soldiers of the 44th Missouri would be at the center of the fray in a matter of hours.

“The three brigades were marched at once [along the Columbia Turnpike], making their front conform to its angles,” Cox wrote, “Their arms were then stacked in rear, intrencing [sic] tools distributed, and each regiment ordered to cover its own front.”[1] Brigade commander Col. Silas Strickland positioned his two veteran units – the 72nd Illinois and the 50th Ohio – in the front entrenchments, with the raw 44th Missouri and 183rd Ohio in the second line of defense. The Missourians were placed in front of the Fountain Carter house, which naturally created a salient in the Federal defense works. To the northwest of the Carter house, splitting the 44th Missouri’s line in two, four guns of the  20th Ohio Battery was positioned to reinforce the line with artillery.

At 4:00pm, roughly 20,000 of Hood’s Confederate troops marched forward. Maj. Gen. Ben Cheatham’s corps on the left and Lt. Gen. A.P. Stewart’s on the right. Maj. Gen. Nathan Forrest’s cavalry corps was split in two, covering the flanks. They had a massive feat in front of them – two miles of open ground to reach the entrenched Federals. In the very front of the Federal defenses, Brig. Gen. George Wagner had two of his brigades in an exposed salient, unanchored and unsupported. When Brown and Cleburne’s divisions hit his two brigades, they were quickly routed and forced into the defenses to Strickland’s brigade’s position. The fleeing Federals led to mass confusion and a break in the lines. Strickland’s men were unable to shoot oncoming Confederates, because retreating Federals were mixed in the melee.

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Map showing the Confederate assault on the Federal lines outside Franklin. In the center, you will see the Carter House, where the 44th Missouri was positioned. Courtesy of Hal Jesperson. 

Soon, the 100th Ohio and the 72nd Illinois broke and fell back to the 44th Missouri’s line. Col. Robert Bradshaw, commander of the 44th Missouri, continued to rally his men by holding “the colors of his regiment in his hand,” until he “fell pierced by seven balls within the ranks of the enemy.”[2] They “retreated in great disorder and confusion, literally running over the 44th, who, not withstanding the shock, stood firm.”[3] The oncoming Confederates penetrated nearly 50 yards into the defenses and collapsed 200 yards of the Federal line. Col. Emerson Opdyke’s IV Corps brigade was held in reserve, just behind Strickland’s brigade’s main line. Seeing the rush of Confederate troops and subsequent Federal collapse, Opdyke ordered his “tigers” to fill the holes in the line. The 44th Missouri helped seal the breakthrough west of the Columbia Pike, “by throwing together fence trails and any other material out of which a barricade could be hastily made.”[4] According to Cox, “all the circumstances show that the gap west of the Carter house was the longest open.”[5] Between the 44th Missouri’s valiant stand and Opdyke’s efforts, the breakthrough was sealed – but it was certainly not without sacrifice for the Missourians.

On November 30, 1864, the 44th Missouri had 900 men. By the end of the fray, they had 360 reporting for duty. They lost more men than any other regiment in the Battle of Franklin. One of these men was Pvt. Benjamin E. Kirgan of Company F, who was “killed in fighting . . . his body fell into the hands of the enemy with his effects, papers, etc.”[6] Before the war, he was a carpenter and a father of two young boys in Carroll County, Missouri. Kirgan was also a combat veteran, originally serving in the 7th Missouri Cavalry from 1861 until 1862. Col. Bradshaw was wounded during the battle, but survives and is noted by the Missouri General Assembly for his “personal heroism which call forth the admiration and praise of a generous people.”[7] Pvt. Houston Evans of Company B was wounded and taken prisoner, ending up at Andersonville, where he miraculously survived. The 44th Missouri’s first engagement was one of the bloodiest and haunting battles of the war. Their performance is one to be remembered.


Sources:

1. Jacob Cox, The Battle of Franklin, Tennessee, November 30, 1864: A Monograph (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1897), 51.

2. Journal of the Senate of the State of Missouri, Twenty-Third General Assembly, 1865, 50.

3. Report of the Adjutant General, 1865, 276.

4. Cox, The Battle of Franklin, Tennessee, November 30, 1864: A Monograph, 118.

5. Cox, The Battle of Franklin, 118.

6. Compiled Service Record of Benjamin E. Kirgan, National Archives and Records Administration.

7. Journal of the Senate of the State of Missouri, Twenty-Third General Assembly, 1865, 50.


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