Thursday, March 28, 2013

THE WIDOW OF THE SOUTH by Cheryl Pierson

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MY APOLOGIES FOR THE LACK OF PICTURES. I TRIED ADDING THEM AND EVERY TIME I DID IT BLOCKED OUT PART OF MY TEXT. I HAD SOME FANTASTIC ONES, TOO, BUT MAYBE THE FILM LINK AT THE END WILL WORK!

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 McGavock’s 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.

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’ 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 when 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.”

Here's a link that I hope will show up for you--a very interesting short piece that CBS news did on Carnton and Carrie's story.

http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=2219925n
Here's the Amazon link for the book THE WIDOW OF THE SOUTH
http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_c_0_18?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=widow+of+the+south&sprefix=Widow+of+the+South%2Caps%2C196



24 comments:

  1. Cheryl, what a terrific story. Now I will have to read that book. I'm so glad you posted about Carrie. We owe her and others like her a great debt. The only reason my brother and I were able to locate our grandmother's grave was that a woman dedicated herself to preserving the names of those in a small country cemetery. Unfortunately, she didn't record the plat of graves, but at least we know the name of the cemetery.

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  2. Caroline,
    I can't begin to even describe how wonderful that trip to Carnton was. My husband even enjoyed it and he's not as crazed as I am about all things historical. LOL That house was just gorgeous, and what a job they had done of restoring it! And to hear the guide talk about the conditions and the way Carrie gave of herself to these men, well, it was just incredible. Although the book is fictionalized, of course a lot of it IS true. One thing the author put in was that Carrie supposedly fell in love with one of the wounded soldiers. Don't think that is true, but it sure made for a good story, and it sold books, and that's what helped them get back on their feet and be able to afford the things they had to do to renovate. that is wonderful about knowing where your grandmother's grave is. I'm still looking for my great grandfather's.
    Cheryl

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  3. It's marvelous how history can come alive when you visit the place actual people lived. It seems you can get a real feel for the characters and their setting that way.

    Morgan Mandel
    http://www.morganmandel.com

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  4. Morgan, I know what you mean. I was just fascinated at the lengths they went to to make the place as it was then. They talked about how they stripped, very carefully, the layers of wallpaper until they got to the original one, then sent the sample to a place that manufactured the same pattern for them! Just stuff like that. Another thing that I thought was just unbelievable was how the house had been sold out of the family, and other people had lived in it. I don't know how you could ever let something like that go...and who would buy it, unless they planned to renovate it? But anyhow, it was a wonderful trip and what an experience!
    Cheryl

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  5. Cheryl this is an amazing piece of history about the US Civil war. I cannot imagine the scene of this magnitude and what these people saw and id.. Thanks for sharing this..

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  6. Great article, Cheryl. That sounds like a fascinating place to visit.

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  7. Kathleen, it was really chilling to walk through that graveyard; to stand right where the doctors had stood on top of the bloodstained floor.I would love to go back again--you can't see everything the first time. There were two other houses to look at but we didn't go. The book, THE WIDOW OF THE SOUTH, has several black and white pics in the back of the people, the house, and the cemetery.
    Cheryl

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  8. Matt, it was just amazing. I would love to go back again. To take in the renovations of the house, the things that they used, pictures on the walls, etc., and to walk where they did and see the the rooms as they once were (or similar)and then to imagine it with hundreds of wounded men lying everywhere...the guide was really good at conjuring up mental images. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Maybe you'll get up that way one of these days--it was worth it.
    Cheryl

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  9. I love touring historic places and homes. I can feel the history seeping into my bones!

    Enjoyed your post.

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  10. Maggie, I feel the same way. Carnton was just fascinating, and they've done a wonderful job of restoring it. There was a third floor no one was allowed to go up to...kinda made me wonder....
    Cheryl

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  11. I saw The Widow of the South for sale at my book club years ago and put it on my wish list, but never bought it. Well, you've inspired me to read it now.
    I love history, but even more, I love to experience it by going to historical places and "feel" the way it must have been.
    I loved this post, Cheryl.

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  12. Sarah, you can order it from Amazon too, and they have some used copies for like $.01 + $3.99 postage. It is very well worth the read. If you ever get over that way, that's a must see. I am so glad you enjoyed the post. Be sure to click on the link at the bottom for the video, (it's short, but gives you a wonderful insider's view into the plantation and they talk about Carrie and her life and even talk to some of her descendants.) and the other link will take you to amazon for the book!
    Cheryl

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  13. That's so cool that you were able to visit the site and learn all those details that make the story come alive.

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  14. Cheryl--I could have sworn I commented on this post. Oh, well, I've been a little rattle this week, so forgive me.
    I loved this story, and how you wove your own experiences in seeing it into the story. I'm as pleased as you that the house and area were restored. She was quite a lady, and a great patriot.
    Thanks for the wonderful tale.
    Hint: if you can't add text next to a photo--and believe me, I do not know why this happens at times--Center the photo and it will look like you wanted it that way. It looks good, too.

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  15. Jacquie, I have to tell you there were two highlights to my trip last year--going to WV was NOT one of them...LOL But getting to stop there in Franklin and tour Carnton was one, and getting to meet Troy and have lunch with him was the other.He's just like I thought he'd be. We had a great time.
    Cheryl

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  16. Celia, I hope you and everyone else has a chance to watch that short little piece I posted the link to at the bottom of the post. They did a great job of explaining how it all came to be and they show some of the inside of the house--that picture of Carrie is hanging in the house, too. The pictures I tried to post...they all ended up clumped together. First they were all at the beginning, no matter where I put the cursor. Then I tried to be a IT guru and move the html code, which I can do sometimes. This time it just kept going back to where it was originally. And then it was cutting out part of the text! So I took them all out and just put the one of Carrie at the end. That video is better anyhow.
    Cheryl

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  17. Oh, gosh, Cheryll--I forgot to say I watched the entire video and loved it so much. I don't know how I forgot that. It was very moving and the author who wrote the book was so wonderful. I loved it. Thanks for adding that to your post.

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  18. I'm so glad you watched it, Celia. It's well worth it.

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  19. Hi Cheryl,
    Fabulous post, quite chilling in places. But what a woman Carrie was. It always saddens me when I read of soldiers buried in unmarked graves.

    Regards

    Margaret

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  20. Women's History and the untold stories that are now coming out are so priceless. What a gift to have walked where she walked and seen what she may have seen. Thank you so much for sharing your and her journey. Doris

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  21. Thanks, Margaret. You know, I feel the same way--those unmarked graves just seem so very sad and lonely. And I think of the families left to wonder where their loved one fell. In the cemetery, it's divided up into states--like there's a section for the men from Tennessee, one for the men from Alabama, etc. and there are markers where they have put many of the dead together in a section for unknown soldiers from each area, when they could.
    Cheryl

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  22. Doris,
    That tour of the plantation and cemetery will stay with me forever. That afternoon, my husband, Troy S. and I went over to the Stones Mountain Cemetery where they re-interred some of the dead soldiers. It's divided up into states' areas, too. Carrie was quite a woman. I really loved her story.
    Cheryl

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  23. Wow! I really have to get this book now, Cheryl! I got chills just reading this account of Carrie. It's so tender how much she cared for these men even after death. And that the plantation was called "the place of stones" long before the war, how eerie.

    --Kirsten

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  24. Kirsten, that was one of the things the guide talked about. The family was from Scotland, and had a place there called "Cairnton"--which means the same thing. Isn't that weird? I think that's the eeriest thing -- makes you think about her destiny being decided before anything ever happened. There are actual pictures of her in the book, walking through the cemetery.Yes, this will have to be a must read for you now! LOL (Thankfully it's cheap if you get it used on Amazon.)
    Cheryl

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