A visit to Franklin...

Last week, my wife, Traci, had an opportunity to visit the Williamson County Archives and Museum in Franklin, where an audience gathered to hear her speak about her book, Onward Southern Soldiers: Religion and the Army of Tennessee in the Civil War.

Five years after first publishing Traci’s book with The History Press, we remain grateful for the outpouring of support and interest we’ve received for Onward Southern Soldiers. It is a testament to the durability of her scholarship and to the passions readers have for her topic.

Traci delivers a lecture before one of many audiences that have gathered over the years to here her speak about the role religion played in the motivations of men who fought with the Army of Tennessee in the Civil War. Author photo.

Franklin, of course, was once the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. At the Battle of Franklin in November of 1864, the Army of Tennessee lost over 6,000 dead and wounded, including six dead Confederate generals. Altogether, some 10,000 American soldiers became casualties at Franklin. When recollecting the battle years later one man said simply, “It was as if the devil had full possession of the earth.”

Following her talk, Traci took a self-guided tour of Franklin’s Civil War sites, including a brief walk along an area of Franklin once overrun by development. In the years that followed this bloody battle, the march of progress overtook portions of the battlefield. Commercial development consumed the land.

Concern for the loss of tangible remnants of the Battle of Franklin served as one of several factors that motivated Traci to pursue a degree in Public History. This shared concern also led the community of Franklin to preserve portions of the battlefield from the ravages of modernity.

Franklin now serves as a model for battlefield preservation throughout the nation. The citizens of Franklin deserve praise for their diligent work to restore these historic sites. The effort remains a work in progress, but after years of struggle, the results are beginning to pay off.

Sergeant John Johnston, Army of Tennessee, CSA, fought at the Battle of Franklin. Years later, he visited the site of the bloody engagement and drew a map of the battle along with notes of his personal recollections. Johnston’s hand-drawn map shows areas where specific skirmishes occurred and where his ancestors lived and their final resting places.
Image courtesy of the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

The demolition of the Pizza Hut in 2005 (left) and the marker commemorating Patrick Cleburne's death as it appears today.
Image and caption credit: The Civil War Trust.

This artist's rendering shows what a Battle of Franklin park will look like in the not-too-distant future. By purchasing land and removing commercial buildings, the citizens of Franklin have created a contiguous park allowing visitors to reflect on one Civil War's bloodiest episodes.
Image and caption credit: The Civil War Trust.

Times have changed dramatically since our nation’s earliest efforts to preserve Civil War memory. While Civil War monuments and the mythology of the “Lost Cause” continue to influence our narrative and shape public memory, they are no longer the sole source of remembrance.

Following the sesquicentennial anniversary of the war, a healthy debate has emerged from this period of commemoration concerning how best to present a more complete picture of the war and its primary cause—the institution of slavery. Still, society continues to struggle to come to grips with this “peculiar institution” and its legacy.

Battlefield preservation efforts like those taking place in Franklin provide us with an opportunity to learn. By asking difficult questions at the very site where conflict boiled over into battle, we move beyond the mere recitation of battlefield maneuvers and military strategy. We gain an opportunity to engage the public in a conversation about our shared Civil War memory by exploring the painful truths of war.

As Franklin continues to preserve the history of its role in the Civil War through battlefield preservation, we should commend its citizens for their commitment to preserve the past. We must not forget what took place here. To do so would be a disservice to the memory of those who died on this hallowed ground.

Traci Nichols-Belt is the author of Onward Southern Soldiers: Religion and the Army of Tennessee in the Civil War, published by The History Press. Traci holds a Master's degree in public history from Middle Tennessee State University and a Bachelor's degree in Political Science from Anderson University. Her principal research interest is the Civil War, with a particular focus on the impact of religion on the military. Traci has appeared on radio and television to speak about the role of religion in the Civil War, and she has had her writings published in the Tennessee Historical Quarterly and in The New York Times Civil War blog, Disunion.