A century plus forty years ago Union Brig. Gen. Charles C. Gilbert directed Col. John Coburn to lead a contingent out of the Federal lines in Franklin, Tenn., to head south seeking forage and information about Rebel activity in the area. It wasn't long until his lead elements discovered more Confederate activity in the vicinity then they anticipated.
Early in the mission, a message to General Gilbert from Coburn said: 'We are on the Columbia Road and have repulsed a force of about 2,000 to 3,000 rebel cavalry. They have disappeared in front and are now flanking us on our left. That is, on the Lewisburg Pike " What should we do? I think we can advance, but there will be at once a force in our rear.'
Colonel Coburn would indeed run into more than he had anticipated. Further south in Columbia, Confederate Brig. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, serving under Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn, had been ordered along with fellow Brigadier Red Jackson, to mobilize their troops for a scouting foray north. A collision of two armies was inevitable.
Thompson's Station lies along the Nashville and Decatur railroad about eight miles south of Franklin, the site of future slaughter itself. In Thompson's Station, a series of hills run at a right angle, east to west of the north/south Columbia Pike.
Another hilly range is about one mile south of the first and in between is a rolling meadow. It was in these hills where the Union regiments of Midwestern boys stumbled into the lead scouts of General Van Dorn's command. First contact was late in the evening of March 4, 1863, so little was accomplished until the next morning when some of General Jackson's artillery fired welcome rounds at the Federals. The Battle of Thompson's Station was on.
As if fighting on unfamiliar ground against an experienced and tough foe weren't enough, Coburn had other problems as well. His cavalry, under Col. Thomas Jordan, curiously left the field 'early,' leaving the infantry stranded with no flank protection. Coburn later reported, 'That a colonel of cavalry and a captain of artillery, should, without orders, leave the field with their entire command " was a contingency against which all human foresight could not provide"'
After intense fighting General Forrest ably led his men around the Union left and to the Federal rear. Soon Coburn, without cavalry and any viable route of escape, faced defeat. To his credit, Colonel Coburn commanded his men bravely, but the combination of his subordinate's bad judgment and Confederate tenacity led to his demise. Included in the casualties was one of Forrest's favorite horses, Roderick.
Wounded, the horse had been turned over to the general's 17-year-old son, Willie, to be taken away from the action. The horse broke free and was hit with a final fatal wound when he tried to follow the General.
Coburn's losses were 48 killed and at least another 1,500 wounded and captured. Certainly, part of the significance of the battle was the early exit of his cavalry and artillery under Colonel Jordan. General Van Dorn reported his losses of 357 killed, wounded and missing.
While not a critical action strategically, The Battle of Thompson's Station was important in serving notice to the Federals that the Rebels in Middle Tennessee continued to remain a dangerous foe. These Confederates helped keep the areas south of Franklin in contention while reminding Union commanders that Van Dorn and Forrest's and Jackson's commands were a significant problem. They helped tie up many Union resources for months to come.
Thompson's Station remained very much a farming community until the mid-1980s when General Motors announced plans to build its Saturn plant just a few miles away in Spring Hill. While boom times in Nashville were already impacting the shape of communities like Thompson's Station, the arrival of Saturn would change things at a much quicker pace.
Land prices skyrocketed and new housing developments began to appear. Today much of the battlefield is covered with modern development. The plain between the two hill ranges where Union and Confederates fought has all but disappeared. Some areas on the Confederate left remain undeveloped and stonewalls which served to protect southern infantry still exist. The Federal line on the northernmost range of hills remains undisturbed and cedar covered, much like during the battle.
Very few of the newest residents, many from industrial areas of the northern United States, have any idea that this fight even occurred on these grounds. There is today a horse farm on what was the right rear where Forrest's men looped around to capture Coburn's command. Somewhere on these grounds is where Roderick was killed. Appropriately enough, the farm is called Roderick Farms. Local lore has it the horse was buried there.
An antebellum mansion, Homestead Manor, still oversees the base of the hill where the Union right made its doomed stand. Some say a young girl watched from her cellar when soldiers ran across the home's grounds and witnessed a color bearer shot down. She left the cellar and held the flag up defiantly until it was taken by a passing Rebel. Other soldiers placed her back in the cellar as they passed the structure.
Now, 140 years later, any hope of preserving major portions of the field is low. A major interstate currently being constructed just to the north is certain to continue the march to development with resultant loss of historical grounds.
'As it now stands, there are no plans to save any of the Thompson's Station Battlefield,' says Thomas Cartwright, curator of the Carter House Museum in Franklin and a Middle Tennessee Civil War authority. Only a lonely historical marker on the side of busy Columbia Pike provides a hint of the action that took place there.
The Middle Tennessee battlefield corridor, which comprised Nashville, Spring Hill, Franklin and many lesser-known engagements, has suffered greatly under the earthmovers' blade. Only in very recent years has active battlefield preservation, if only on a modest scale, had much success in any of these domains.
The Battle of Nashville Society, the Save the Franklin Battlefield and some Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites (APCWS) work in Spring Hill have made some recent gains. However, other Middle Tennessee locations such as Brentwood and Thompson's Station have little hope of meaningful preservation. As Cartwright says, with land values skyrocketing, time is running out for new tract purchases.
The loss of ground where a quick and intense action led to Union defeat and controversy is a tragedy. It is a loss to students of General Forrest who lose the opportunity to view the ground where the cavalry leader added to his rising reputation.
It is a loss to all historians who witness an entire historical watershed disappear. And it is especially a loss to the citizens of Tennessee who will miss a chance to preserve much of the areas rich Civil War history.
Gregory L. Wade is involved in several preservation groups in the Middle Tennessee area. A graduate of Middle Tennessee State, he has been published on related Civil War topics and works to help publicize lesser-known actions in the Middle Tennessee area.