The Third Battle of Franklin, September 27, 1923
James B. Jones, Jr.
April 10, 1863 saw the first Civil War engagement in Franklin, Tennessee. It was little more than a skirmish . But the second battle took place on November 30, 1864, when General John Bell Hood's Confederate Army of Tennessee was broken into shambles in the bloodbath that is known as the Battle of Franklin. Almost six decades later, on September 27, 1923, an eight day campaign by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (then Metro Pictures) ended when an explosion-roaring, musket-cracking, cavalry-charging, tromping reenactment of that Civil War slaughter was filmed. The action was so compelling that many believed the battle scene footage would exceed the scenes in "Birth of a Nation," and were excelled only by those in "All Quiet On the Western Front."
The event was staged for the filming of the dramatic battle scene in "The Human Mill," Hollywood's version of the romantic novel of the antebellum South, The Bishop of Cottontown, by Tennessee's John Trotwood Moore. The film was directed by Metro Picture's Allen Holubar, noted as a master at his trade.
Holubar arrived in Nashville on the morning of September 19, 1923. He was a man of great personal charm, which quick piercing eyes. He was already famous as the director of such 1920s movie hits as "Hearts of Humanity," "Man-Woman-Marriage," and "Hurricane's Gal." He had given Rudolph Valentino his first push toward worldwide acclamation in "Once to Every Woman." He likewise gave the German actor Eric Von Stroheim early exposure. Holubar came to Nashville wearing was almost the standard Hollywood director's uniform of a pretentious Panama hat, pipe, silk sport shirt, gray whipcord riding breeches, and high-laced boots.
Three baggage cars arrived with Holubar in Union Station, Nashville, carrying movie properties ranging from costumes to camera equipment and were pushed onto a rail siding. Accompanying Holubar were H. Lyman Broening and B.C. Haskin, head cameramen; Jack Pierce, makeup chief and leading extra, who sported his newly grown bristling black beard, cultivated for his movie role; Roy Musgrave, still camera expert; Carl Hernandez, explosives expert; the costume, Captain Koch, formerly of the German Imperial Army; Ernie Smith, the property custodian and an unidentified electrician. The movie crew signed into the Hermitage Hotel. A week or so earlier the assistant director, Vincent McDermott, had arrived in Middle Tennessee to select the site for the reenactment and to close the necessary business deals. The presence of these men led to wild rumors and the beginnings of movie fever in Nashville. When Holubar arrived the fever reached infectious proportions in the capitol city.
After a brief press conference Holubar conferred with John Trotwood Moore, author of The Bishop of Cottontown. The two got on famously and Moore conducted his guest on an automobile tour of historic sites in Nashville and environs. Moore, who according to his wife, believed his publisher "robbed him of the greater part of the sales of the book," had by may been in contact with Holubar who had purchased the rights to The Bishop of Cottontown . Holubar responded to Moore saying in part that "it will be necessary because, because of the technique and limitations of the screen, to make some changes and character iliminations [sic] in your story. I would like you to write me your version of the most important characters, bearing in mind that for the purposes of a motion picture and the commercial limitation of the footage of the picture, condensation is necessarily in demand." Nevertheless, Holubar claimed that while many motion pictures had obscured the author's original intent, "I wish to avoid this...." A re-issue of the book with still pictures from the movie was a great notion claimed the director. In July, previous to Holubar's visit, Moore began promoting his "new story" to the Hollywood director. It was a saga about Andrew Jackson and the Creek Indian War. According to Moore:
I am arranging to go to New York with my new historical romance of Andrew Jackson and the Creek War, which I am calling Red Eagle and White. [sic} I wrote this book with the screen in view, and those who have read the manuscript say it will make a wonderful picture. Would you care for me to sent you a brief synopsis of it?
There was more than the innocent promotion of his historical narrative in Moore's heart. Correspondence between Moore and his secretary and apparent publicist, the Byzantine and cryptic S.M. Cherry of the Department of Education, indicate a much more calculated intent. Cherry advised Moore:
I am very anxious for us now to get down to the minute details that will make the story a s success and enable Mr. Holubar to feel warranted in offering a price for the new book, which without any fulsome flattery [sic] is by far your best with the exception of the name It is too weak a name for such a production. Might as well name Jack Dempsey Algernon or Cyril.
We should have every movement and word...arranged that the very best impression is made on Mr. Holubar, and I have tried to arrange the details so perfectly that at least he will listen to my advice about the new play [i.e. Red Eagle and White] --for that is the main and in fact the only real plan I now have. While it is true that the value of the "Bishop" will add to the advance worth of the new, there is plenty o' meat [sic] in the coming story to commend it to any real director.
Now with four aces in your hand, pleas do not lose your nerve and "call" too early in the game.
What I am most concerned about is having exact and specific instructions from you as to the exact part I am to play and having arranged to safeguard your every interest, I hope no other neophyte [sic] will get mixed up in the plot and plan.
In another letter Moor was counseled by the mercenary Cherry that Holubar
and his staff will have every minute taken up while in Tennessee. To get the new story favorably before him and try to clinch matters before he leaves the atmosphere of it, will require most tactful planing on our part and the playing of the game with chess-like foresight. Too much or too little on the part of either of us may have many dollars worth of bearing on the trade before us. Would it not be a good idea for us to get in writing the whole plan we propose to pursue, and move with precision and care to the one end and one end only -- marketing that Jackson story for its full value. Let the rabble toast Holubar to their hearts content. I think you should be approached by him. Then with your plans carefully outlined, and ever playing the part of noted author, obessed [sic] with great thought and abstruse historical learning, leave me the cold cash problem. Too much gracious hospitality and accommodation may make a fine impression as a typical Southern gentleman, bur right now I want to cross the Chesterfield with a Yankee mint. Let's get together and outline our every step.
Thus there was more at stake than mere cordiality and homespun southern hospitality. Cherry had by August 20 written to Holubar with news that he had found a number of appropriate sites for filming of the battle and added; "I will have for your inspection many more scenes when you arrive that I may save you as much time and travel as possible." Time, no doubt, all the better to put to use to promote Moore's Red Eagle and White to the captive Hollywood director.
The next day Holubar announced the cast of the movie "The Human Mill". The leads were played by Blanche Sweet and Henry B. Walthall, Jr. Walthall, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, was then at the top of his career, having played the significant role of "The Little Colonel," in the movie "The Birth of a Nation." Holubar pointed out that Walthall was the son of a confederate veteran who fought at Franklin, making him perfect for the role. He would never, however, appear in any of the battle scenes. Press releases announced that Holubar was looking for the "Girl Who Looks Like This" and showing a picture of Blanche Sweet. One advertisement claimed: "Many local girls have already called on this director to apply for the part, but the exact type preferred has not as yet put in her appearance at the Metro headquarters."
Holubar next had to determine which site would be the best for his project. On the 20th both Holubar and Moore shared honors at a highly excited luncheon at the Franklin Kiwanis Club. Followed by Kiwanis Committeemen, Park Marshall, a historian and eye-witness to the Civil War clash at Franklin, took his guests on a tour of the battlefield.
Holubar found what he needed on the farm of J.W. Yowell, onetime homestead of the Fly family in Williamson County. The location was about a mile south of Franklin, about a half of a mile from the Columbia highway. The point of view sloped from wooded hills, the fields stretching away for a mile in open vistas to the crest of Winstead hill where General John B. Hood had his headquarters during the original battle. The choice was perfect, except that Park Marshall said it was not historically accurate. As a boy of 10 he had seen the original combat, and the historically accurate Park insisted that the site did not square with the authentic battlefield. It was off by several hundred yards the venerable historian asserted. Holubar, however, was more interested in the other site because of photographic considerations. Mr. Park gloomily left after announcing to all in the entourage that he would have no part in making or perpetuating any historical error.
The site was prepared for the cameras by a crew of 40 men directed by Mr. Vincent McDermott. They built a number of "prop" houses and barns. These representative structures were to be burned during the filming of the battle. Trenches were dug, a stone fence made of weathered rock was built and rail fences were strung across the fields. Cannon were gathered from court houses and even the state capitol grounds. Dilapidated caissons were strategically strewn across the field to add realism to the scene. Virtually hundreds of mines were designed by the movie crew's explosive expert Carl Hernandez. These were to replicate artillery fire and were planted throughout the cinematic battlefield. Each of the mines was covered sifted dirt as a measure to reduce any injury. The detonating system, centered on a switchboard, would enable Hernandez to set off the explosives at will, singly, or in groups. An extensive telephone system was established and extended to remote areas, even to distant Winstead Hill. The system allowed Holubar to direct every move of the battle according to modern methods.
Yet there were other less dramatic scenes to be filmed. At Murfreesboro, for example, it was announced that on Saturday the 29th there would be a barbecue at the Rutherford County fair grounds where the horse race scene would be shot. According to the announcement: "The picture of the horse race will be made a 9 a.m.. Costumes for the ladies and gentlemen will be provided at the floral hall and prizes will be given for the best old fashioned costume of [the] 1870 period and for the best old-fashioned horse-drawn vehicles." An open invitation was issued to everyone to be involved in the shooting of the scene. It was expected that one of the largest crowds ever would be assembled at the fair grounds. A Rotary Club committee was to decide upon the best costumes and vehicles. Likewise, plans were made to shoot a scene near the Columbia Water and Light Company hydroelectric station, while several of the ante-bellum homes of the area would be screened for their appropriateness in the movie.
Meanwhile, people in the town of Franklin and environs were making preparations for a holiday on Thursday, September 27, when the battle scene was to be filmed. Several committees of local business men met and made final arrangements. Businesses were to be closed as were city and county schools Battle Ground Academy, Franklin high school and Branaham and Hughes Academy declared a holiday so that all boys might don the uniforms of the blue and the grey. Thousands of visitors were expected. A holiday atmosphere prevailed, stores would be closed and businessmen agreed to "turn the keys in their office doors for the day."
After determining locations, sets, and pyrotechnic enhancements, it was necessary to enlist and costume extras to shoot the climactic battle scene. This task was not altogether that formidable because a veritable army of volunteers were eager to participate. According to the Tennessean:
From far and near, from the Harpeth hills and valley, from hamlet, town and city, there will foregather thousands of men and boys, some driving handsome motor cars, some belaboring the old gray family horse, others trudging afoot, but all upon the same errand bent -- to participate in the filming of the first motion picture ever made in this location.
The men and boys who were to wear the "ragged gray jackets of their forefathers" and the less valued blue uniform of the Federal army were instructed to meet at the American Legion hall in Franklin at 8 o'clock on Thursday, the 28th, the day the melee was to be filmed. The Franklin post of the American Legion cooperated with the directors of the film and sent notices to all ex-soldiers in Williamson County, asking that they rally to participate in the much anticipated battle scene. Elkin Garkinkle, adjutant of American Legion Post No. 6, and Richard M. Atkinson, adjutant of Legion Post 141, issued a call on Monday the 24th requesting that all ex-service men meet at the State Capitol in the House of Representatives chamber, on Tuesday the 25th at 8 p.m. to complete arrangements for their participation in the film as extras in the battle scene. Director Allen Holubar stated that a special train would be run to Franklin on the 28th, to leave Union station at 7 a.m. to allow extras time enough to be made up for the shooting of the scene. The meeting in the Capitol building was enthusiastic when veterans volunteered for the project. Spanish-American veterans met at the Hermitage Hotel and finalized their plans to participate.
World War I, Spanish-American, and a few ex-Confederates were said to be eager to participate. Civil War veterans were especially desired. Indeed, Director Holubar was of the opinion that the scene's verisimilitude would "not be satisfactory...without the presence of real Confederate soldiers in the lines....every ex-Confederate in the sections is especially invited to be present at the depot Thursday at 7 a.m. in uniform if possible...." Confederate veterans were assured a prominent place when the "cranks on the cameras and the deafening explosions tell all Franklin that the cyclonic encounter is again in her neighborhood." The state cavalry likewise was to participate
The call for volunteers was not limited to military veterans, however, and all males physically able and of the correct age were invited to be involved. Schools were closed in Spring Hill so that students could learn an object lesson about the production of big motion pictures. Visitors from Nashville, including military veterans were to leave Nashville on the morning of the 28th. "It is probable that another opportunity for seeing a like event will never again occur in this vicinity." Over 200 boys from the Columbia Military Academy and the Branaham and Hughes school had also volunteers.
Excitement increased in Franklin as the day of the shoot approached. Even though the big battle scene was not to be filmed until the 27th, Thursday, the burg had been inundated by a swarm of humanity. Literally "hundreds and hundreds" of visitors gathered on the 26th, Wednesday. Downtown streets were a "solid mass all day, while there was a crowd estimated at about 2,000 out near the famous Fly Place watching the workmen as the final touches were being placed on the site...." All roadways to Franklin were flooded with traffic on the 26th and it became difficult for those visitors who arrived in advance to secure sleeping quarters. Many local citizens turned their homes over to the visitors and the town hotel was taxed to capacity.
Invitations had been "meted out to thousands of people by local civic and official heads, and the break of dawn on the day of the 'charge' will be made should find such crowds as have never before seen in this community." The city was ready to entertain visitors, too. An old fashioned Southern barbecue was being prepared to serve at noontime. Preparations had been made to handle all the spectators who will witness the filming of the battle on McCallum's hill, and there was ample room for everyone to have a good view.
Allen Holubar, meanwhile, spent the day at the battleground and was satisfied that was ready for the big event. According to Holubar "the only thing that can stop us now is the weatherman." The cast of 600 volunteers and 60 cavalry troopers, and Confederate veterans were ready. The battlefield had been wired with explosives, identified by white flags, and wired with a telephone system to aid in the allusion of creating spontaneity.
The morning of the big battle scene was punctuated by the confusion, shouting and yelling of hundreds of volunteer extras wishing to participate in the big battle scene. Even though the clash was not to begin until 10 o'clock that morning of the 27th, the clear dawn found the Columbia highway nearly impassable as it was clogged with horse drawn buggies and wagons, automobiles, bicycles, baby carriages and hundreds of plodding pedestrians. Two special trains arrived with "gray-clad warriors." On one of the trains were 104 students from Branham & Hughes school at Spring Hill, and 113 students from the Columbia Military Academy. The other special train from Nashville carried 127 amateur actors, members of Troop A, Forrest Cavalry, and Company B, Confederate Veterans, and veterans World War I. A total of 52 cavalry from the Columbia Military Academy were already on the scene after having ridden through the country side the night before just to take part in the filming of the battle.
Twenty special deputies had been sworn in to augment the local constabulary, and as fast as the movie-spellbound throngs arrived on the scene they were herded into a roped-off hillside area. This position was immediately back of the "Federal" lines, about 50 yards to the rear of the main camera platforms. The audience of spectators had swelled to some 6,000.
One source of calm was the movie costumer, Captain Koch. Extras were to meet at the Masonic Hall in Franklin to be outfitted in blue and grey uniforms. Koch, nevertheless, had his hands full as the hall filled with perspiring extras. This thick guttural-voiced, red-faced veteran of the German Imperial Army at first confronted trouble while Holubar was still at breakfast. The Masonic hall, one of Tennessee's oldest landmarks, had been selected as the armory and supply depot. Before Koch could open its venerable doors and let the hundreds of extras in for blue and gray uniforms he was besieged by a mob of early-birds. "Give us Confederate uniforms!" members of the partisan crowd shouted. "We don't want any damn Yankee uniforms!" The formidable captain barked to the assembled: "Gentlemen -- please, gentleman! How vill de pig-ture be made if no vun vill be a Vederal? [sic]" One venerable Confederate veteran waited for his grandson to emerge from the rear of the hall. When he saw the youngster clad in Federal blue the unreconstructed old gentleman shrilled at him: "Go take those damned rags off!" The adolescent, however, demonstrated a generation gap and ran off to participate, leaving his unreconstructed erstwhile rebel grandfather behind. To quickly eliminate the controversy which could ruin the day's shooting, Koch allowed the first 20 or so "rebels" to be issued gray uniforms. After that, with the aid of his assistants, he rushed men through the hall with such alacrity and piled uniforms and weapons into their arms so energetically that the malcontents emerged to find themselves armed with rifles and blank cartridges and blue uniforms before they realized the extent of their error. By 9:00 columns of foot sore and dusty blue and grey uniformed extras began plodding their way to the battle filming site. The project was running like clockwork.
About 9:20 director Holubar arrived and in a quiet manner began to bring order out of a confusing din. For the next two hours he made final preparations for the big scene, testing telephone wires, while the trajectory of the shells fired from just outside the range of the movie cameras to burst overhead was also checked, making everything ready for the arrival of the 600 or so blue and gray extras.
Upon arriving at the battlefield about 9:30 the extras had next to rehearse their action. The cannon behind the cedar rail fence were operated by blue clad extras, and two American flags were placed in position. Holubar paused to inspect the gun crew and said to his overburdened and grey clad assistant Vincent McDermott that it "seems to me that these boys are entirely too young to be manning a gun." McDermott answered quickly "Chief, every last one of them was at Chateau-Thierry and in the Argonne." Holubar shook his head, grinned, and continued his inspection.
Both McDermott and make-up man Jack Pierce wore Confederate uniforms and took charge of the grey-clad extras. The rebels were prepared to make their first rehearsal of a charge, complete with two buglers. Their first effort was not what was wanted and "the boys in grey charged but too much in mass formation, a la football." . Even more difficulty was encountered in halting them and making them retreat. Also, despite Holubar's admonition against firing any of the guns, the over-eager Confederates and a few of the Union extras could not refrain from firing off a blank or two. In the uniform of a high ranking Union officer, Captain Koch yelled at the prematurely firing rebels: "Boys! Boys! Dere vill be no baddle until der baddle begins! [sic]" A second practice run was equally inadequate.
Holubar in the meantime picked up a field telephone and called an assistant stationed on Winstead hill. Yes, the train of 60 supply wagons, parked on Columbia highway, was ready to snake down the hill and into the picture whenever word came through. The assistant told Holubar that northbound traffic, now blocked off, was backed up for miles and every trapped car was "tooting its horn off."
Holubar then took matters into his own hands. Leaving his post beside the two cinematographers, coatless and megaphone in hand, he went down to where the gray warriors were in formation outside the rail fence. Then in a quiet manner he talked to them man to man. This took tome but it proved to be time well spent. The rebels returned to their trenches as the crowd now in the thousands surged forward anticipating the great charge. The scene was set.
Shortly before noon the bugle call resounded and the charge began. Holubar directed his camera operator: "Shoot the works, Mac." According to one newspaper account:
A...setting of smoke bombs to the right of the scene added effectively to the picture, the wind carrying the smoke across the field in never-ending currents. The boys in gray came struggling forward, cannons boomed, horses reared, men fell. Great geysers of dirt opened up as the hidden mines were exploded by the Metro staff. The explosions gave spectators several thrills as bits of the soft earth covering the explosive came down upon them.
Dr. T.P. Ballou of Nashville played the part of a Union sharpshooter. He sat behind the stone wall in a curly wig and authentic looking battle-dusted uniform. "He gave a most realistic example of determined sharpshooting."
As the battle raged for the next twenty minutes standard bearers were seen to fall, with Confederate flags being quickly seized up by others and carried forward. Into one shell hole went two of the boys in the gray. Both centered their fire upon the sweating and cursing federal gunners. Finally, one staggered out toting his "wounded" comrade across his shoulders towards the rear and fell himself "wounded." Casualties had been chosen in advance and played their parts well. Dr. Ballou, the bewigged sharpshooter, fell face forward and remained still for the rest of the battle. Some careened headlong to lie still while others lurched forward, or crawled in simulated suffering. As the closing scenes were being enacted, men in gray carrying the stars and bars were seen to make a last frantic effort to pierce the enemy lines. One by one they came forward, reaching the rail fence, leaping high in the air to fall back "wounded" and have their flags eagerly clasped and once more carried forward. One astonished Confederate soldier, struggling to his knees under a downpour of earth, expressed the overall reaction of the combatants when he shouted to the camarade lying beside him: "My God, I didn't know it was going to be like this!"
The attempt at recreating the Battle of Franklin was a bit too realistic for one of the Confederate guests. Struggling feebly with a beefy placating deputy he yelled: "Let me at 'em boy! I fit 'em in '64 and I ain't afeerd to fight 'em now!" Another Confederate veteran, Zeb Mitchell received powder burns to his face, while some extras nursed sprains or bruises.
It was not an easy task to stop the battle. A total of 400 feet of film had been shot. Holubar had to dash forward waving his megaphone wildly to attract the attention of his assistants and the fighting extras. It was not until the very last shot had been fired that Holubar began to be noticed. In about twenty minutes, as quiet was gradually restored, the "Union" troops lined up for the plate dinners handed out by the Kiwanis Club. The Metro director was very happy with the days work. According to Holubar: "It will be great. The weather was ideal and after I had that little heart-to-heart talk with the boys they did nobly. For its explosive effects, this battle scene surpasses any I have ever seen taken. The effect of these mines will prove spectacular" Several notables attended the filming: the patronizing John Trotwood Moore, General Harvey H. Hannah of the state railway commission, Col. John A. Fite of Lebanon, aged 96, the oldest Tennessee surviving Confederate officer; Colonel Walter O. Palmer of Belle Meade, Senator Douglas Wilke of Williamson County , and General L.D. Tyson of Knoxville.
According to a newspaper account:
A touching scene was observed as the "soldiers" got their meal, when one of the Confederate veterans, who had taken part in the scene having the center position in the charging lines of gray, came up to thank him in their behalf for the privilege of taking part in the old battle again. The gray-clad veteran asked if the director needed "the boys" for m ore scenes. The director thanked him for their appearance and then with a whimsical smile upon his face told him to tell "the boys" that the battle was over.
The battle was over and the only dust to rise in the air was that generated by the pageant of citizens, spectators and automobiles as the throng headed home. There were no incidents.
Although no one could have known at the time, "The Human Mill" never completed production, principally because of Holubar's untimely death. The movie became one of Hollywood's unfinished epics, and it is probable that only Holubar and a handful of his associates ever saw the footage, which is thought to be lost forever.