The Door Left Open and a Name Etched in Glass
by Gordon Thorsby
In late 1864, the fate of the Confederacy moved rapidly to a conclusion. On November 30, Spring Hill was a trap that the Union XXIII Corps walked into but the back door was left open and the Federal army made its escape. A period of twelve hours in a small town became one of the greatest controversies of the entire Civil War. The story has been retold but it never grows old.
Whose fault was it for one of the greatest blunders? Was it the fault of John B. Hood? Was it the fault of Gen. Benjamin Cheatham who Hood seemed to vent his wrath? Was it the fault Maj. Gen. William Bate who wanted official confirmation before moving forward across the Pike? Could it have been a mistake by a staff officer in relaying orders? Was it about Hood turning in too early, consumed in a drug addled haze or in too much pain for his infirmities? (The drug story has more recently been negated and discounted.) Should Hood have delivered his orders directly to make sure the job got done (the old saying; to do things right, do them yourself?)
In the Army of Tennessee were brave and capable Confederate generals. There were generals named Patrick Cleburne, Frank Cheatham, A.P. Stewart, Nathan Bedford Forest, Stephen D. Lee, John C. Brown and of course Hood. There were some of the most experienced brigadiers including Govan, Granbury, Strahl, Adams, Walthall, States Rights Gist, and Henry Jackson.
By the next morning, every man in blue had vanished. The sun rose as soldiers in gray began stirring to stoke campfires, get warm, and eat whatever meager rations they had. The smoke from the fires hung low over the field. However, not far off, a dark cloud hung heavy, the general officers knew it, and they suspected a storm was brewing.
At the Rippavilla Plantation and Cheairs House, Hood arrived and ordered key officers to be present at a breakfast conference. Benjamin Cheatham was there as was Forrest. Cleburne and Stewart were loud by their absence although they were nearby and probably could have attended. What was said between Hood and Cheatham is unknown. Later that day a few miles down the road, the fight at the town of Franklin may have been the result of the discussion. We will probably never know.
A Major Vaulx later said to Gen John C. Brown, “he [Hood] was angry and he is going to charge the blame on somebody.”
Sometimes armies worked with everyone doing what they were supposed to do as if they were telepathic. There were often times where mistakes were made in the fog of war. Could Spring Hill have been a perfect storm; where everyone failed together and simultaneously? It seems quite possible.
A small story.
Some generals were said to have etched their names in the window panes at the Cheairs House with a diamond ring. Only one etched pane remains, and it bears the name “Frank.” Could it be Cheatham? His first name was Benjamin but his middle name was Frank. There was one other Frank, that of General Frank Armstrong.
Whoever etched it, they might have written the graffiti to gain immortality on the glass. It wasn’t necessary. Within a few hours, every man in gray who crossed the open fields toward Franklin gained instant immortality.
Note: Rippavilla Plantation is fully restored and on the register of historic places.
For Cause and Country, Jacobsen, Eric A., and Rupp Richard A., O’Moore Publishing,2008.
The Confederacy Last Hurrah, Spring, Franklin, and Nashville, Sword, Wiley, 1992.
The Story of Rippavilla and the Battle of Spring Hill by Brad Kinnison
Photos: Thorsby private collection and Library of Congress.