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And Union Troops, Too, For A Long-Lost 1923 Movie About The Battle of Franklin

[dropcap]U[/dropcap]nder high-piled clouds, soldiers in blue and gray clashed on a hot morning on the killing field of Franklin, Tennessee. Flags aflutter, gritty Confederates repeatedly charged as huge explosions sent “great geysers” of dirt flying. The wind carried battle smoke across the field, a witness wrote, in a “never-ending current.”

“Federal gunners, stripped to the waist, sweated and cursed at their flaming field pieces,” according to an account. When the Confederate flag fell to the turf during an attack, an eager Southerner was there to swoop up the treasured flag. In an odd twist, a Federal sharpshooter wearing a curly blond wig squeezed off shots from behind a low stone fence.

Above the wild fray, a commander could be heard barking out orders: “Tell them to fall back! Make them retire! Retreat, retreat, retreat!” On the Union left flank, intense hand-to-hand combat broke out, and after ammunition ran out, soldiers grappled in “desperate wrestling matches.”

[quote style=”boxed” float=”left”]This Battle of Franklin was all Hollywood[/quote]

As the battle reached a crescendo, the commander demanded both sides cease fire. The soldiers grudgingly complied. In fact, the begrimed combatants eventually joined each other for a huge barbecue lunch, courtesy of the local Kiwanis Club. Casualties were extremely light—several sprained ankles, a few black eyes, and at least one case of sunstroke. After the last gun had been fired, 10,000-12,000 spectators—vastly more than the number of civilians who witnessed the First Battle of Bull Run—headed home. These scenes were not the least bit surprising.

After all, this Battle of Franklin was fought September 27, 1923, and it was all Hollywood.

If you’re looking for evidence of the real Battle of Franklin, fought on November 30, 1864, you can easily find it on Fountain Branch Carter’s bullet-scarred house and outbuildings on Columbia Pike or on the bloodstained floors of nearby Carnton, the stately ancestral home of the McGavock family. If you’re looking for the Hollywood movie version of the great battle, you won’t find it on YouTube, Netflix, HBO, or anywhere else. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Grab a cold drink and some popcorn, and let’s hold off before we roll the credits.

Prime Time The lead duo for Holubar’s film were Hollywood actors Blanche Sweet and Henry B. Walthall. (Library of Congress)

Sixteen years before the epic Gone With the Wind debuted, production began on The Human Mill, an adaptation of Alabama native John Trotwood Moore’s 1906 historical novel The Bishop of Cottontown. Moore, Tennessee’s state librarian and archivist, based the book around his state’s cotton industry. One of the main characters was “General Jeremiah Travis,” who, along with his stereotypical faithful slave “Bisco,” figured significantly in the book’s chapter on the Battle of Franklin.

Shot on location in middle Tennessee, the movie about the Old South featured in leading roles Blanche Sweet and Henry B. Walthall, the son of a Confederate captain who had fought at Franklin. In 1915, Walthall played “The Little Colonel” in Birth of a Nation, the highly controversial, Civil War–themed silent film. But the real star of The Human Mill was 33-year-old director Allen Holubar, a former silent movie actor and husband of famed actress Dorothy Phillips.

A “man of easy and immediate personal charm, with piercing quick eyes,” the California native was the stereotypical Hollywood movie man of the era. Holubar “offered his public gray whipcord riding breeches, high-laced boots, multi-colored silk sport shirts, a pipe, and a jaunty panama,” Marshall Morgan wrote in 1950 in an excellent, two-part retrospective for The Nashville Tennessean Magazine about the making of The Human Mill.

Arriving in Tennessee in mid-September, his first trip to the South, Holubar initially made his headquarters at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, the city’s first million-dollar hotel. The region, unfamiliar with big-time Hollywood movie making, was “agog” by the presence of the director and his crew, according to the local newspaper. “Fully half the population of middle Tennessee seems intent on helping us film the scenes,” noted Holubar, a director of nearly three dozen films, “and the other half wishes to appear in them.”

For the Battle of Franklin, the major scene in the movie, Holubar wanted to shoot on the actual battlefield. In 1923, the bloody plain upon which John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee charged was largely open fields. Today, it’s a hodge-podge of office parks, convenience stores, strip malls, and neighborhoods, with little open space at all. Holubar chose J.W. Yowell’s farm a half-mile west of Columbia Pike and about a mile south of the wartime Carter House, the epicenter of the real battle where nearly 10,000 men became casualties. About a mile farther south loomed tree-covered Winstead Hill, where Hood watched the battle unfold.

Henry B. Walthall, in fact, already had a Civil War film on his resumé—the controversial Birth of a Nation. (Glasshouse Images/Alamy Stock Photo)

Holubar needed thousands of extras for the battle scenes, and he found no shortage of men and boys willing to play army for a day of shooting film and firing blanks. A military academy in Columbia as well as two schools in Spring Hill supplied their entire student bodies. Franklin’s Battle Ground Academy and high school also offered up their male students for the big show. To supplement the youthful ranks, Holubar sought area veterans, many of whom eagerly volunteered.

“I simply sent out cards to all ex-servicemen in the county,” recalled a local attorney who commanded a U.S. artillery battery in France during World War I. “I told them, in substance, that unless they showed up early on the morning of the film battle, there could be no assurance that they could take part.”

Seeking a double for Blanche Sweet, Holubar, a master of public relations, put out word he wanted a local. “If you believe there is a resemblance between yourself and this well-known screen star,” The Tennessean noted under a large, published photo of the actress, “get in touch with Mr. Holubar immediately at the Hermitage hotel.” To ensure historical accuracy, the president of the Tennessee Historical Society, a WWI brigadier general, author Moore, and 91-year-old John A. Fite, who served under Robert E. Lee in Virginia as a colonel of the 7th Tennessee, made themselves available to the director.

On the day of filming, a holiday was declared in Franklin. Stores were closed, and doors of the county’s schools were shut so students could “see how a big motion picture is actually made.” Thousands of visitors jammed the town, population about 3,200. “It seems an uncanny thing,” the local newspaper wrote. “But the filming of this principal scene in the ‘Human Mill’ picture, will, doubtless, be one of the most interesting events the historic little city has ever witnessed.”

On the morning of filming, the most thankless job fell to “Captain” Koch, real first name unknown, “a thick-guttaralled, red-faced” German WWI veteran. He was in charge of movie wardrobes, stored in Franklin’s historic Masonic Lodge, completed in 1826. During the Battle of Franklin, the building was struck by Union artillery fire, and in the aftermath of the fighting, it was used as a hospital for Federal wounded. In what is today a Masonic Lodge restroom, you can still see the scrawling of Union soldiers on a wall.

The film drew the attention of The Tennessean newspaper, and a local reporter noted: “The directors [came] all the way from the Pacific Coast to secure the correct acting and ‘atmosphere’ for their gigantic production.” (The Tennessean)
Yankees, however, were the furthest thing from the minds of most soldier extras—a mob, really—who early that morning in 1923 charged into the three-story brick building on what is now 2nd Avenue South. Intrepid reporter Marshall Morgan described the scene:

“Give us Confederate uniforms!’ members of the crowd yelled, surging forward. ‘We don’t want any damn Yankee uniforms!’ The redoubtable captain, bracing himself against the onrush, wiped his crimson brow. ‘Gentlemen please, gentlemen!’ he roared. ‘How vill de pig-ture be made if no vun vill be a Vederal?’ In what was presumably a burst of inspiration, Captain Koch allowed the first 15 or 20 insurgents to seize Confederate uniforms. After that, with the aid of assistants, he rushed men through the hall so rapidly, and piled uniforms into their arms so vigorously, that hundreds of malcontents emerged to find themselves equipped with rifles, blank cartridges and blue uniforms before they could realize the extent of their humiliation.”

Even nearly 60 years after the battle, feelings ran especially high in the South about the Civil War. When a Confederate veteran saw his grandson emerge from the Masonic Lodge with a blue Yankee uniform, he became enraged, growling, “Go take those damn rags off!”

Trampling fencing and cornfields, battlefield spectators were everywhere. “The Columbia Pike leading out of Franklin was literally jammed with traffic for more than three hours before the spectacle,” according to a Page 1 Tennessean account about the battle action. “The spectators came in almost every conceivable sort of vehicle. Autos were parked in cornfields, in wood lots and anywhere else that space could be found.” Ropes held the throng back from a small platform on a hillside where the battlefield commander, director Holubar, and his assistants made movie magic.

To prepare the battlefield for the film, trenches were dug and fake houses and barns were constructed. Rail fences were laid, and white flags marked the boundaries of the “killing zone.” Federal cannons came from sources throughout Tennessee, including the state capitol. The technical star of the operation was powder and explosives expert Carl Hernandez, “the master of the minefields.” Beginning about daybreak, the field was mined with explosives that, when exploded, simulated the results of artillery fire. Hernandez controlled that action from a switchboard.

In a touch of movie-making genius, the director invited Confederate veterans to the set, most probably in their late 70s and early 80s. “After that,” Morgan wrote, “the ghostly lilt of Dixie would ride the winds.” At least one of the old soldiers participated in the final charge scene.

Colonel Emerson Opdycke‘s 125th Ohio engages Confederates near the Carter House at a critical point of the fighting, in a painting by Don Troiani. (Troiani, Don (B.1949)/Private Collection/Bridgeman Images)


A stickler for details, Holubar, called “Mars, the God of War” by a local reporter, complained that a Union gun crew appeared to be too young. An assistant told the director the gunners had fought during World War I. The director smiled and walked away. When battle flags appeared to be too new, Holubar had them replaced with scruffier versions. His vision, of course, was to make the battle action as realistic as possible.

Unsurprisingly for a complicated project with thousands of moving parts, the day got off to an inauspicious start. The Franklin mayor—an adviser for the film and witness to the battle when he was 10—stormed off the massive outdoor set because he thought the location was not historically accurate. But Holubar stuck to his guns; the location he chose would remain. After several fits and starts, soldiers found their zone. The result was magnificent, a stunningly realistic 500 feet of movie film. Wrote Morgan about the “ear-splitting inferno of thunder, flame, smoke…”:

“Individual participants, swallowed up in the billowing smoke, blinded by rifle flashes and borne to earth under cascading tons of dirt, remember shreds of their own experiences. The immediate and first general reaction among the troops was the shocked realization that the thing was terrific, far more realistic and hazardous than anyone had foreseen. One astonished Confederate soldier, struggling to his knees under a deluge of dirt, expressed the overall reaction of the combatants when he shouted to the companion lying beside him: ‘My God, I didn’t know it was going to be like this!”

A Confederate veteran, a spectator, was consumed by the action: “Let me at ’em, boy!” he said from behind ropes during a scene. “I fit ’em in ’64, and I ain’t afraid to fight ’em now!”

In focus Director Allen Holubar (right) looks much the picture of health in a photo taken during filming, but became ill and died in late 1923, before completing his movie. (The Nashville Tennessean Magazine)

After the soldiers got their post-battle chow, another veteran who had a bit part in the charge thanked Holubar for his role in the film. It was a touching moment. “The gray-clad veteran,” The Tennessean reported, “asked if the director needed ‘the boys’ for more scenes.” No, Holubar replied with a smile, the battle was over for “the boys.” The director knew he’d created a winner. “For its explosive effects,” Holubar said, “this battle scene surpasses any I have ever seen taken.” Days later, a writer who witnessed the faux battle marveled at what was an almost mystical experience for him. “The past itself was here,” he wrote in The Tennessean. “What had been done to bring it back was a matter of little moment. All the more praise for [Holubar] that he made us forget the quick fire of his imagination, his art, and all his dominance of a thousand details, in the grip of the thing he had produced.”

“It is not Allen Holubar that we remember as the thrill of the scene still strikes at our hearts,” he added, “but the gray ghosts that he brought to life and the old battle that roared again across a famous field because of him.”

Sadly, Allen Holubar’s masterpiece never made it into a theater. Apparently under severe mental and physical strain during filming in Tennessee, the director returned to California, where he underwent a gallstone operation. While convalescing at his Hollywood home, he died on November 20, 1923, with his wife, 7-year-old daughter, and his mother at his bedside. “Stricken while filming his greatest picture,” read a headline on his obituary in the Los Angeles Times.

“All Tennessee grieves with you,” Moore wrote in a telegram to Holubar’s wife. “No one ever so completely won our hearts….” Production on The Human Mill had been suspended, and ultimately, the movie was never completed.

Spurred on by Second Hour of Glory, Morgan’s 1950 newspaper series on the film, Tennessee officials tried to secure a copy of the battle scenes from MGM to show at a local fair. But the studio’s search was fruitless. “We have several contacts in Hollywood,” a fair official said after receiving the bad news, “and it’s possible the film may be in a private film library.”

Since then, no trace of The Human Mill has surfaced. Like the gray ghosts on Franklin’s Bloody Plain, it has vanished into the mists of history.

John Banks is a regular columnist for Civil War Times and the author of a popular Civil War blog ( Banks lives in Nashville, Tenn.

His John Hancock Graffiti left by one Union soldier on the walls of what is now a bathroom at a Franklin-area Masonic lodge, which was used as a hospital after the battle. (Photo By John Banks)

Potty Words

Where to find soldiers’ graffiti in Franklin

History often isn’t pretty. Case in point: the second-floor men’s room in historic Hiram Masonic Lodge No. 7 in Franklin, Tenn. On a wall next to the urinal there, you’ll find graffiti by 14th Michigan Sergeant John Cottrell and other Union soldiers who occupied the town from 1862-63. The 14th Michigan was one of several regiments garrisoned at nearby Fort Granger.

Of course Cottrell—quite a ladies’ man according to a diary the Masons purchased on eBay —and his comrades had no idea at the time they were defacing a restroom. The bathroom was added sometime in the 20th century, well before the Federals’ graffiti was uncovered during a 1970s renovation. On the same wall where Cottrell wrote his name, rank, regiment, company, and date of defacement (August 25, 1863), even more soldier graffiti has been uncovered. Civil War–era graffiti appears elsewhere in the building, too.

Wardrobes for The Human Mill, the 1923 Hollywood-produced movie, were stored at the lodge, built in the 1820s and now a National Historic Landmark. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson, a Tennessean and a Mason, met members of the Chickasaw Nation there during treaty negotiations with the tribe. During the Battle of Franklin, the building was struck by errant Union cannon fire, and in the aftermath of the fighting on November 30, 1864, it was used as a Federal hospital. The Union army also used it as a barracks. –J.B.


Hallowed Ground: An 1874 map by William Emery Merrill depicting the Franklin battlefield. Merrill, a Wisconsin native who graduated No. 1 in the West Point Class of 1854, did not fight at Franklin, but did serve in William Sherman’s army during the Atlanta Campaign. He served in the U.S. Army’s Engineering Corps after the war. (Library of Congress)

Grim Reality in Tennessee

Real Life Drama

The lost film of Franklin was inspired by the actual battle that helped ruin the Army of Tennessee

When Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman turned his back on Atlanta on November 15, 1864, and headed east on his March to the Sea, he left behind military drama in central Tennessee, where John B. Hood’s Army of Tennessee found itself pitted against the Union forces remaining in the Volunteer State under the overall command of Maj. Gen. George Thomas. Based in Nashville with 26,000 men, Thomas also oversaw Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield’s 30,000-man Army of the Ohio, which was positioned near the Tennessee-Alabama border to keep an eye on Hood.

Hood was content to let Sherman go because he had grandiose plans of his own: cross the Tennessee River into its namesake state, move quickly to get between Schofield and Nashville, take that city, and then head into Kentucky. Hood even hoped to pick up enough recruits along the way to take them east and join the Army of Northern Virginia. Despite the implausibility of success, Hood’s 27,000 men left Florence, Ala., on November 21 and pushed hard for Nashville, marching through freezing rain and inclement weather at a pace that took them 70 miles in 3 days.

Schofield’s force was near Pulaski, Tenn., on the Columbia-Nashville Pike, east of Hood, and the Union general fell back to Columbia on the Duck River to block the Confederates. On November 24, Hood reached Columbia, and boldly bypassed Schofield by swinging east of the town and then crossing the river. Hood had achieved an important goal of his campaign. But following the Battle of Spring Hill on November 29, in one of the more bizarre incidents of the war, Schofield’s men were able to retreat north to Franklin by marching essentially unchallenged past the Rebel camps lining the roadway. Even though many of the Confederates watched the Union columns heading north, and the Federals could see dozens of Southern cooking fires, no Rebel attack was launched.

The Union troops arrived at Franklin the morning of November 30 on what would be an unseasonably warm day. The Federals could not cross north of the Harpeth River because the bridges needed repair, and they began to shore up earthworks that had been in place since 1863 near the home of Fountain Branch Carter, as well as to build new ones. The Harpeth River anchored the Union defenses on both flanks.

The pursuing Confederates soon arrived, and Hood made his headquarters on Winstead Hill, about 3 miles south of Franklin. Angry at the missed opportunity at Spring Hill, Hood was determined to ram his way through Schofield’s defenses. Hood arrayed 20,000 troops, with minimal artillery support, for a massive assault that would force them to cross two miles to reach the Union earthworks.

Hood’s generals mostly opposed the attack. Brigadier General Daniel Govan remembered that his division commander, Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne, was “more despondent than I ever saw him,” and told Govan, “if we are to die, let us die like men.”

The attack began around 4 p.m., and a stunned Ohio private watched as “column after column began to pour over the hills and down into the valley and up through the ravines.” The bloodbath that followed was of epic proportions.

Two Union brigades were caught out in the open and routed. As those troops fled along the Columbia Pike, which bisected the center of the United States earthworks, they created confusion that permitted Hood’s men to pierce the Union center near the Carter House and its cotton gin. A headlong Federal counterattack, however, drove back the Rebels.

Later, Union cavalry stopped a mounted Confederate attack on Schofield’s left flank north of the river. Until about 7 p.m., however, the frontal assaults continued to crest on the Union works with horrific bloodshed. When the fighting finally ended, an estimated 6,257 Confederates were casualties, including 14 generals—six of whom, including the beloved Cleburne, were killed.

Schofield’s 2,326 casualties were also substantial, but during the night he used the repaired bridges to get his army to the safety of the Union lines around Nashville. Hood laid siege to the city, but two weeks later Thomas attacked out of his defenses. Devastating assaults by the “Hammer of Nashville” on December 15-16 destroyed the Army of Tennessee as a cohesive fighting force.–D.B.S.

“I recollect seeing one man, with the blood streaming down his face from a wound in the head, with a pick axe in his hands, rushing into a crowd of the enemy and swinging his pick….A rebel colonel mounted the breastworks and…demanded our surrender…Private Arbridge…thrust his musket against the abdomen of the rash colonel, and with the exclamation, ‘I guess not’ instantly discharged his weapon. The…shot…actually let daylight through the victim.”
– Captain James A. Sexton of the
72nd Illinois, describes the frenzied
fighting near the Carter House.

“I was in the last charge, about sundown….The air was all red and blue flames, with shells and bullets screeching and howling everywhere, over and through us, as we rushed across the cotton fields strewn with fallen men. Wounded and dying men lay all about in ghastly piles, and when we reached works at the old cotton gin gatepost, only two or three of my companions were with me….I was tumbled over by a Yankee bullet and was dragged over and laid a prisoner of by the old gin house.”
– Captain James Synnamon of the
6th Missouri, CSA, describes the last
Rebel attack near the Cotton Gin.