I’ve been reading fictional treatments of the Civil War lately: Shelby Foote’s Novel Shiloh; Stephen Vincent Benet’s epic poem John Brown’s Body; Stephen Crane’s novel The Red Badge of Courage; and Hospital Sketches by Louisa May Alcott. I’ve tried to get into E.L. Doctorow’s novel The March, which should be a slam dunk given the subject is Sherman’s march through Georgia, but I’ve started and stopped three times. I’ll give it another go and either succeed or admit defeat.
The Battle of Franklin: A Tale of a House Divided is a stage play script by A.S. Peterson. With songs (even though it’s not a musical) Patrick Thomas, the play was commissioned by Studio Tenn and produced in 2016. It was a challenge rather admirably met; depicting a battle on the theatrical stage is a difficult feat to pull off, but Peterson does it.
The Battle of Franklin was fought on Nov. 30, 1864, a few miles south of Nashville. The battlefield was the Carter House plantation. A Confederate army under John Bell Hood aimed to take Nashville (occupied by a much smaller army). If they could succeed, they’d cut supply lines to General Sherman’s army in Georgia.
Peterson tells the battle’s story through members of the Carter family: the patriarch Fountain Carter; his son Tod Carter; his daughter Mary Alice McPhail; German immigrants Albert and Retha Lotz: Henry Carter, a slave and Tod’s friend from boyhood; and Henry’s wife Callie Carter. Non-family roles belong to a Union general and a few soldiers. Through these characters, the playwright threads the story of the war, of slavery, of immigration, of friendship, and of the patriarch’s sense of deep betrayal, first by his son enlisting and second by his slave running away to join the Union army.
The intensity and ferociousness of the real battle implies that there will be considerable death and destruction in the fictional one. (The actual battle, with a total of 63,000 troops engaged, resulted in almost 8,600 deaths.) One knows from the beginning that the narrator, son Tod (referred to as Mint Julep) is a ghost, but the deaths won’t stop there. What unfolds is a story in which both sides of the conflict, and the roles of master and slave, are shown fairly and true to the historical record.
Peterson is an author, playwright, editor, and speaker. His books include The Fiddler series, Wingfeather Tales, The Timely Arrival of Barnabas Bead, The Oracle of Philadelphia, In the Year of Jubilation, and The Molehill. His plays include the musical Lindenfair, The Battle of Franklin, Frankenstein, and The Hiding Place. He lives in Nashville, where he’s the executive director of The Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.
The Battle of Franklin is, as its subtitle implies, the story of a country and a house divided. The country, and the house, wouldn’t last in that divided state, and considerable death, destruction, and personal pain was the inevitable price of resolution.
Top illustration: A depiction of the Battle of Franklin, Nov. 30, 1864.