By JOHN McBRYDE
Eric Jacobson came to Franklin in 2005, about the time the land around Carnton was converted from a golf course and protected from any future development.
He started working for Carnton and the Carter House a year later, and has been CEO for the nonprofit Battle of Franklin Trust since 2014. Jacobson, who is from Minnesota and grew up with a passion for both history and baseball (lifelong Twins fan), continues the efforts to ensure that more land and property that date to the Nov. 30, 1864, Battle of Franklin are saved for future generations.
Franklin Home Page: You’ve been working on the project known as the “fuller story” for the last year, along with three pastors in Franklin, to have historic markers installed around the Franklin square that would tell more about the lives of African Americans before, during and after the Civil War and the Battle of Franklin. Why is that such an important task?
Eric Jacobson: I’ll read from a document that was written when Texas seceded: “We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various states were established exclusively by the white race for themselves and their posterity. But the African race had no agency in their establishment, but they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race.” Someone today will ask, “Why do we have to put up these markers?” That’s why! Because we’ve been lying to ourselves for 150 years and because right in [the Franklin town square] people were bought and sold for years, whether it was in the market house or on the steps of the courthouse or the ground between the two or on the ground between the two of them. …
I’m just trying to do the right thing, and we’ll get there. That will be a great day for this town. I think the average person, the average visitor, now or 30 years from now can look at that Confederate monument [known as “Chip”] and those interpretive signs and understand that the two things existed in the same realm.
FHP: You and three local pastors — Kevin Riggs of Franklin Community Church, Chris Williamson of Strong Tower Baptist Church and Hewitt Sawyers of Harpeth Primitive Baptist Church, have worked to get these markers installed. What prompted the fuller story effort?
EJ: I think the fuller story just sort of happened. It happened because things were happening [on a national level]. For me personally, the whole thing materially changed in 2015 when people were murdered in church in South Carolina [Charleston] because of the color of their skin. Then, of course, Charlottesville happened [white supremacist rally in August 2017]. I think we’re reckoning with the Confederacy. We’re not just reckoning with slavery, with history, with monuments or flags, we’re reckoning with the Confederacy.
One of my proudest achievements will be seeing those markers installed. I’ve been proud to be here and save battlefield ground and bring folks out and tell the story, but that’s going to be a proud day.
FHP: In addition to the fuller story, the Battle of Franklin Trust has been working alongside the city of Franklin and Franklin’s Charge and through grants to open up more land for Carter Hill Park on Columbia Pike. There has already been significant progress from the days when that area near the Carter House was laden with a Pizza Hut, a Domino’s and an unsightly shopping strip. What’s the latest there?
EJ: We’ve spent all together about $17 million to save 150-plus acres. It’s been worth it, especially when you see all that open space around the Carter House. Bit by bit, we’re taking it back. We’ll take whatever becomes available. The Ceramic and Craft Workshop building was the most recent — that’s seven-tenths of an acre for $1.3 million. We’re about to close on that, and we’ll tear it down. Whenever something comes up, if we think it’s in our line of sight and we think we can buy it, we’ll do it.
FHP: You’ve written three books — For Cause & For Country, The McGavock Confederate Cemetery and Baptism of Fire. Are you working on a fourth?
EJ: I am. It’s on George Wagner, a division commander [for the Union Army] here [during the Battle of Franklin]. I think he’s an interesting story. He’s obviously very much a part of the Spring Hill and Franklin drama, but he’s a case study for citizen soldiers. He didn’t have any military experience. He believed that what was happening was treason, open rebellion — right or wrong, that’s what he thought and he fought with those convictions to save this country. He made a terrible mistake here that cost a lot of men their lives and he died not long after the war, in 1869.
What really interested me was, he was among this group of men who we’ve often forgotten when we analyze the war. These men believed in something they couldn’t even see; they weren’t fighting for their homes or a piece of ground. They certainly weren’t fighting for slavery or even against slavery. They were fighting because they believed the United States of America was worth fighting for, and I think that’s a pretty noble endeavor.
FHP: What do you like most about your job?
EJ: I don’t have a passion for history, … but I believe that history is important. I believe that where we came from matters. I think it sets some guideposts for the future about what were’ supposed to do and about what we’re not supposed to do. But I will admit that the other part of it that’s incredibly rewarding is breaking down old barriers, busting through walls, like with the fuller story, like with telling people what really happened. … I think facts matter, and some people on the [Battle of Franklin Trust] board and staff would probably say I’m almost obsessed with it. I think facts are the most important thing. …
I think it’s really, really important not just to preserve history but [to make it] something to talk about. We’re moving toward the 250th anniversary of the founding of this country. … We should all thank God for what [the country’s founders] did. We should take a moment and really think about what they gave us. That sounds a little like flag-waving talk but I think it’s true. They were flawed like all of us, but, my God, they gave us something that was pretty incredible.