The Widow of the South was a real woman, a fact I did not realize when we chose the book of the same title to read for our February book club selection. Carrie McGavock did, in fact, exist, and as she and the cemetery of Confederate soldiers she tended on the land of her family’s former plantation, her reputation grew. People all over the still-healing nation came to know her devotion to one of the largest private military cemeteries ever built. When Oscar Wilde made a tour of the United States in 1882, he insisted that itinerary would include a visit to Tennessee, “to meet the Widow McGavock, the high priestess of the temple of dead boys.”
Carrie McGavock, her family home of Carnton, outside the little town of Franklin, Tennessee – all these became symbols of the sacrifice of a nation in the final months of the Civil War. Why did Carrie McGavock become “The Widow of the South”? Why Franklin, Tennessee, a town many of us have never heard of, in this anniversary year 150 years after the Gettysburg battle? As a child, I was lucky to have parents who took me to visit historical sites, so I thought I knew quite a bit about the Civil War – Harper’s Ferry, Bull Run (Manassas), Antietam, the courthouse at Appomattox? The movies gave me scenes of Sherman’s burning of Atlanta and “the turkey shoot” at the battle of Petersburg. Now, history websites give me short lists of “famous” bloody Civil War battles that include Chickamauga (Georgia), Chancellorsville (Virginia), Spotsylvania (Virginia), Shiloh (Tennessee), and “the Battle of the Wilderness” in Virginia. I’ve at least heard of all of these places, whether or not I know all the details.
Perhaps in 2013, we are too far removed from the Civil War and the Reconstruction period that followed. This era has been either completely romanced for us by film or TV mini-series, or it has become nothing more than a chain of dry facts and figures memorized for history tests. In the mid-1980s, author Robert Hicks was invited to be on the board of a nonprofit organization founded to restoring the Carnton “Big House”. Hicks was already involved in museum projects dedicated to Southern music and culture, but immediately became drawn into the story of Franklin. His work with restoration at Carnton drove him to a ton of research on the pivotal place it served in our nation’s history. A talk with celebrated Civil War historian and award-winning author Shelby Foote convinced Robert Hicks to go ahead with his idea for a historical fiction work that might breathe life into the people involved in the battle of Franklin and its aftermath.
In his research, Hicks found memoirs written by General Isaac R. Sherwood, who had been a Lieutenant Colonel with the 111th Ohio Infantry when he was wounded at the Battle of Franklin. General Sherwood was one of the last Civil War veterans to serve in Congress after the War. In his Memories of the War, Sherwood eloquently and succinctly explains how the surrender of the Confederate Army happened at Appomattox in April of 1865, but that the final outcome of the War was decided at Franklin. “Franklin dug the grave of the Confederacy,” Sherwood wrote. “The final day was Appomattox, four months after Franklin; but Appomattox was not a battle. It was an event, surrender…. The epochal date was April 1865, but the forces that made that date possible were marshaled on the green hills around the Harpeth River, south of Nashville…. The finger of destiny was lifted, pointing the open road to Appomattox.”
On an Indian summer afternoon, on November 30, 1864, Confederate forces marching to Nashville met entrenched Federal troops in the little town of Franklin. In a battle lasting a little more than five hours, 9,200 men fell dead – 2,500 Union and 6,700 Confederate casualties. This is more casualties in five hours than in the nineteen hours of D-Day in World War II, and on one of the smallest battlefield areas in the United States. In the aftermath, a town of 2,500 people were left to try to take bury or heal more than three times the number of their population, with few resources.
The “Big House” at Carnton became the largest field hospital in the area. Carrie McGavock and her servant-friend-lifelong companion, Mariah, spent hours tending to wounded and dying men, tearing up sheets, clothes, linens, curtains, and anything they could find to make bandages. Thousands of dead men ended up in shallow graves in the Carnton fields. Eventually, those not claimed were moved, by the McGavock family, to a plot of land close to their house, which became the infamous cemetery. Carrie McGavock kept meticulous records of each body’s identification – the soldier’s name, rank, what state he fought with – for the rest of her days. Although a relatively young woman when the Confederacy fell at her feet, the experience had changed her for life. In this way, she became a symbol of what the nation, as a whole, had lost.
Robert Hicks’s novel, The Widow of the South, gives honor and new life to a place and a time we as a nation should remember, amongst all the pomp and circumstance of these anniversary years of our nation’s Civil War. Hicks allows his cast of characters to be real people, with sorrows and regrets, pride and the possibility of hope. The people of The Widow of the South are a study in contrasts, as the nation was in 1864, and as it continues to be now.