Franklin reclaims part of battlefield
Civil War preservationists flex might with razing of Pizza Hut
Thomas Cartwright, executive director of The Carter House in Franklin, takes a swing at the former Pizza Hut building on Columbia Avenue as demolition begins.
FRANKLIN — When the metal arm of the trackhoe piloted by Franklin Mayor Tom Miller plunged through the roof of what had long been a Pizza Hut yesterday, it scattered roofing shingles, lumber and bricks to loud approval from a crowd of about 200.
In that moment, decades of frustration for many came to an end.
The land where the pizza restaurant once stood, bought by the city for $300,000 earlier this year, will be converted to a park to memorialize the soldiers who fought and died there during the Nov. 30, 1864, Battle of Franklin.
The occasion served as a display of political might on the part of preservationists on Franklin's Board of Mayor and Aldermen. For some, including many in the national preservationist community, the gesture serves as a sign that Franklin is changing its image as a city that had forsaken its Civil War heritage.
"There's no question there's a number of preservationists on our board, but I think there is a groundswell not just in Franklin but throughout the country of people wanting to preserve the past, and you're seeing that brought out in Franklin," Miller said afterward,
With TV crews perched, a surreal scene unfolded that mixed celebration with commemoration while a crowd that included Civil War re-enactors, local and state politicians such as Rep. Lincoln Davis and sightseers clutching digital cameras gawked as the restaurant was smashed by Miller and others in a ceremony complete with speeches, sledgehammers and, afterward, brie and refreshments.
Jim Lighthizer, president of the national group Civil War Preservation Trust, recalled how years ago he told a group of Franklin preservationists that if they wanted to exact change they had to get involved politically.
"What we have is nothing short of a miracle," he said yesterday.
The city's purchase of the Pizza Hut property, along with the nearby Country Club of Franklin for the same reason, has drawn criticism from some people who have said leaders need to worry about basic infrastructure such as roads before they delve into amenities such as more parks. Still others have questioned the accuracy of some preservationists and historians' statements about where the fighting took place, though the vast majority of that criticism has surrounded the country club property — not the Pizza Hut.
Overnight, a graffiti artist decorated the Pizza Hut building with the Latin motto, "Deo Vindice," translated as "God will Vindicate," which was on the Great Seal of the Confederacy. But the old restaurant, its signature red roof removed earlier, was viewed as an atrocity to many like local historian Ed Bearss.
Bearss, 82, chief historian emeritus for the National Park Service, World War II veteran and participant in Ken Burns' Civil War miniseries, asked people to think about Pizza Huts being built on a long list of battle sites, including Omaha Beach or Mount Surabachi, among others. The demolition of this restaurant was "a long step to what is soon going to be bulldozed a blight on the soldiers who fell here," Bearss said.
If a groundswell developed here in Franklin, it came to national attention in April when National Geographic writer Adam Goodheart wrote a story for the magazine about the erosion of the nation's battlefields. Part of the pictorial was a shot of the Pizza Hut side-by-side with photos of the six Confederate generals who were killed during the Battle of Franklin. One of them, Gen. Patrick Cleburne, is believed to have been shot near where the restaurant stood.
The Franklin portion of the article received the most attention, Goodheart said in a phone interview. What's happened in Franklin is unique and is an example of a larger change occurring in communities, he said.
"The battlefields are part of the national consciousness, and what we think of when we think of America are these landscapes," Goodheart said. "I think people realize that America is slipping away from us day by day, and they're starting to wake up to the magnitude of the problem."
J.T. Thompson, president of the Battle of Nashville Preservation Society, believes that after years of neglect "the planets are lining up" for preservation here after years when preservation was ignored. He is trying to raise $55,000 toward the purchase of historic site Shy's Hill in Nashville.
"It's once in a blue moon that people start to get it," he said.
The Battle of Franklin happened 141 years ago yesterday, which also happened to be Franklin resident and preservationist Tommy Murdic's 52nd birthday. An African-American, Murdic said there is support for the project among black residents in Franklin.
Did the demolition of the restaurant add something extra for his birthday?
"But of course," Murdic said, beaming. "Being born right down at Doctor Johnson's hospital on November 30, 1953, this thing has come full circle. That date was meant for some reason. Today, 52 years later, it's falling together."