Wednesday, July 17, 2013


It all started when I read THE WIDOW OF THE SOUTH by Robert Hicks, a novel about a woman who made the dead soldiers of the War Between the States her life's work. By the time I finished reading that book, I knew I had to go visit this place, Carnton, where she had lived and devoted her life to the dead.

Carnton is the name of the plantation just outside of Franklin, TN, where Carrie Winder McGavock and her husband John made their home with their two children, Hattie and Winder. There is so much history that comes before the fateful Battle of Franklin that changed Carrie’s life forever that there is no room to include it in this post.

So I will start with a brief nutshell of the circumstances. At the time of the Battle of Franklin, November 30, 1864, Carrie’s children were nine (Hattie) and seven (Winder). Carrie herself was thirty-five, her husband, John McGavock, fourteen years her senior at forty-nine. They had been married several years, Carrie coming from Louisiana to marry John, who was quite a wealthy man for the times, worth over six million dollars in our present day currency. He owned the flourishing plantation where he and his brother James had been raised, Carnton, in middle Tennessee. The McGavocks raised wheat, hay, corn and potatoes as well as maintaining a thoroughbred horse ranch.
Carnton, (Scottish for “the place of stones”) was less than one mile from the battle that took place on the far Union Eastern flank. Most of the battle took place after dark, from 5-9p.m., so the McGavocks could see the firefight that went on over the town of Franklin that evening. Because their plantation was so close, it became a field hospital for the Confederate troops.

This, according to the Wickipedia account:
More than 1,750 Confederates lost their lives at Franklin. It was on Carnton's back porch that four Confederate generals’ bodies—Patrick Cleburne, John Adams, Otho F. Strahl and Hiram B. Granbury—were laid out for a few hours after the Battle of Franklin.

More than 6,000 soldiers were wounded and another 1,000 were missing. After the battle, many Franklin-area homes were converted into temporary field hospitals, but Carnton by far was the largest hospital site. Hundreds of Confederate wounded and dying were tended by Carrie McGavock and the family after the battle. Some estimates say that as many as 300 Confederate soldiers were cared for by the McGavocks inside Carnton alone. Hundreds more were moved to the slave quarters, the outbuildings, even the smokehouse—and when the buildings were full, the wounded had to lie outside during the frigid nights, when the temperature reached below zero.

After the battle, at 1 a.m. on December 1, Union forces under Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield evacuated toward Nashville, leaving all the dead, including (several hundred) Union soldiers, and the wounded who were unable to walk as well. So when morning came, the 750 or so residents of Franklin faced an unimaginable scene of what to do with over 2,500 dead soldiers, most of those being 1,750 Confederates.

According to George Cowan's "History of McGavock Confederate Cemetery," "All of the Confederate dead were buried as nearly as possible by states, close to where they fell, and wooden headboards were placed at each grave with the name, company and regiment painted or written on them." Many of the soldiers were originally buried on property belonging to Fountain Branch Carter and James McNutt. Many of the Union soldiers were re-interred in 1865 at the Stones River National Cemetery in Murfreesboro.

Over the next eighteen months (from all of 1865 through the first half of 1866) many of the markers were either rotting or used for firewood, and the writing on the boards was disappearing. Thus, to preserve the graves, John and Carrie McGavock donated 2 acres of their property to be designated as an area for the Confederate dead to be re-interred. The citizens of Franklin raised the funding and the soldiers were exhumed and re-interred in the McGavock Confederate Cemetery for the sum of $5.00 per soldier.

A team of individuals led by George Cuppett took responsibility for the reburial operation in the spring of 1866. By June, some ten weeks after the start, the last Confederate soldier was laid to rest at McGavock Cemetery. Some 1,481 Rebel soldiers would now be at peace. Soldiers from every Southern state in the Confederacy, except Virginia, is represented in the cemetery.
Sadly, George Cuppett’s brother, Marcellus, died during the process of the reburials. Just 25 years old, he is buried at the head of the Texas section in the McGavock Cemetery. He is the only civilian interred there.

The McGavocks, especially Carrie, took great care to preserve the identity of the Confederate soldiers. The original names and identities of the soldiers were recorded in a cemetery record book by George Cuppett, and the book fell into the watchful hands of Carrie after the battle. The original book is on display upstairs in Carnton. Time has not been favorable to the identities of the Confederate soldiers though. 780 Confederate soldiers’ identities are positively identified, leaving some 558 as officially listed as unknown.

Most of the above was taken from the Wikipedia article about Carnton and the McGavocks. Now you know the FACTS, but let me tell you about my impression of this remarkable woman and the cause she put above all else.

Robert Hicks's book, THE WIDOW OF THE SOUTH, is a fictionalized story about Carrie and John McGavock and their lives, but that was what made me want to travel to Franklin and see the house for myself. I put the description that Wikipedia gave near the beginning because I can’t begin to do it justice. It is one of the most gorgeous, meticulously restored homes of that period you will ever see. They do not allow pictures AT ALL as you’re touring inside. Many of the pieces of furniture, glassware and the pictures that are on the walls have been donated by the McGavock extended family and most everything in the house is a genuine period piece, whether it belonged to the family or not.

It is said that Winder’s room was used as an operating room. A table was set up by the east-facing window where the surgeries were performed. Today, there is a table there much like what would have been used, along with the crude medical implements that were available at the time. Our guide told us that when the doctor finished an amputation, he would throw the limb out the window, get the man off the table and make room for the next one. Because the doctor most likely wore a rubberized apron, the blood pooled in a kind of horseshoe shape on the floor where he would have stood. He walked in it and stood in it, grinding it into the wood. It is still there, to this very day—a testament to five of the bloodiest hours in the history of the Civil War.

Once, Hattie was asked about her most enduring childhood memory. “The smell of blood,” she replied.

In the book, there is mention made of Carrie’s friend, Mariah, who had once been her slave but chose to stay with her as they had been together since childhood. Mariah was said to have had the ability to look at some of the graves and tell something about the person who was buried there. She had “the sight.”

For the next forty years, after the Battle of Franklin, Carrie dressed in black, visiting the graves every day. She carried the book of names with her. I have to tell you, when I saw that book of names I got chills thinking of the devotion she had to this cause. Those men were not forgotten.

At one point, the house fell into disrepair, but was bought by a historical preservation society and maintained. The cemetery was the largest privately owned war cemetery in the US. Robert Hicks meticulously researched for the book he wrote, and the profits from the book (which made it to the NYT Bestseller List) helped to re-establish this grand old home as a piece of history where we can go to learn firsthand about what happened on that fateful day.

My husband and I toured the house, a gorgeous old mansion, with a wonderful guide who was glad to answer any and all questions. Tours are around $15, and well worth it. The cemetery tour is $5, or you can just walk around and look for yourself, which is what my husband and I did. If you buy the book, I promise you will be as anxious to see this place for yourself as I was.

Walking those same floors that were walked upon by Carrie and her family, and the wounded men, the generals, the doctors…gave me feeling I will never forget. I could almost swear I felt her presence, still there, still watching over the soldiers she devoted her adult life to at Carnton…the “place of stones.”

You can order the Kindle version of THE WIDOW OF THE SOUTH here, and it's also available in print.


  1. Sometimes, when you take the story from history, the story itself is more powerful than anything you can create. Such an amazing person. I wonder how many others have been forgotten as time has passed. Doris

  2. I know, Doris. And I have to say, the book, a fictionalized account, as well as the true story are both so remarkable. Actually walking in the same footsteps of so many of the people I'd read about was just amazing to me. I would love to have bought a copy of the book she maintained of the dead--they had them for sale, but they were something like $37 or so.

  3. This is a brilliant post, Cheryl . Thanks for sharing the pix, the history, and your heart! I hope I can visit here someday.

  4. Cheryl,

    Wonderful article. You can sense your passion. Thanks for writing and sharing this significant bit of history.


  5. Excellent post, Cheryl. I am quite fascinated by the description of the improvised operating theatre.


  6. I had a great time visiting with Cheryl and her husband after they had visited the site -we did lunch then visited the nearby site of the Battle of Murfreesboro. They were very pleasant company, and I (of course) enjoyed showing off some Tennessee history.

  7. Keith- there is a really nice Civil War hospital museum not far from Atlanta, which is about a three hour drive from Franklin TN.

    1. Thanks, Troy. I will have to visit there some day! That sounds fascinating.

  8. Tanya, thank you! You would absolutely love it! It's just a one of a kind place that can't help but create a passion within you when you visit it and see "the place" where it happened. And that cemetery. Just so haunting. I could have spent the entire day there just wandering. It's amazing.

  9. Thanks, Charlie. If I was younger, I'd have to say one of my "dream jobs" would be to live nearby and work there as a guide. They had gone to such trouble to re-create the original wallpapers and so on. And at one time a "regular" family owned it--they had the bloodstains scrubbed up from the floor in one of the other rooms, sanding the floor down. But in Winder's room they didn't do that.

  10. Thanks, Keith! I knew that would pique your interest. They had a wonderful display of medical instruments there and explained the uses for some of them. I'm sure you've seen others like them from that time period, but it was sure a new thing for me. And that staging area by the window was something else. That had to be one horrific sight in the heat of the battle.

  11. Troy, we enjoyed that so much! I wanted to do it again this year, but we didn't have the time, with the kids' schedules and them having to house-sit and dog-sit here. We'll do it again another time, though. It's too good an opportunity to get together to pass up, if we can arrange it. I love to learn about Tennessee history--my great grandparents came from there--near Carthage, TN--a small place called Brush Creek.

  12. This was such a wonderful story about a very special woman. History can be so exciting. It must have been quite a treat to go to that house and feel the history of it surrounding you. Thank you for this wonderful blog, Cheryl.

  13. Sarah, it was just one of the most unique experiences I've ever had. If you get a chance, that book THE WIDOW OF THE SOUTH, is very well worth the read--I know you would love it, and you can get it for Kindle. I truly enjoyed getting to go to that house. I have wanted to do it ever since I read the book several years ago.