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The Widow of the South

by Robert Hicks

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating


The Widow of the South
Carnton Plantation in Franklin, Tennessee is a mystical place. Ghosts of the Civil War's bloodiest single-day battle, November 30, 1864, still have a palpable presence. Stand in the rooms with floors stained with the blood of the Confederate soldiers grievously wounded and dying. Know that this home was packed with the wounded, the maimed, the dying. Know that surgeons operated in the front parlor; they stopped to wash their bloody hands only when they could no longer hold their amputation knives. The best surgeons were judged by the speed with which they could remove an arm or a leg. Look out the windows and remember that discarded limbs were tossed out the window where they stacked up some ten feet to the sill. Remember that at one time 5 Confederate generals lay dead on the back porch, aligned in perfect military precision.
It was madness. It was a microcosm of the insanity of this particular battle and war in general. The shining light was Carrie McGavock, the wife of Colonel John McGavock, the owner of Carnton Plantation. She came to be revered for her steadfastness during that terrible time and the years that followed. Battered personally by the death of three young children, she "adopted" the sick and dying and did more than seemed humanly possible for the dead. Bandages were made from her towels, bed linens, tablecloths, napkins, and finally her undergarments. Then, when it was all over and the graves of some 1,500 casualties were to be plowed under, she had them dug up and reburied them near her home. To the end of her days she kept watch over her dead. It is only through her steadfastness that we know who most of these soldiers were.

In telling her story the Widow McGavock says, "I look back on that time (when Carnton was a hospital) and wonder if it was then when (my children) learned that the story never came to an end, that it goes on and on, and that people eventually forget how it began and where it was supposed to end."
The last battle still goes on today, as it does in many communities with Civil War battlefields. The Country Club of Franklin is immediately adjacent to the grounds of Carnton. Its owner proposed a planned urban development, which would mean the small grounds remaining of Carnton would be hemmed in on all four sides by homes. One's approach shot to the 7th green now aims for the west chimneys of the house, while the 18th fairway parallels the cemetery for a distance. This battle seems to have been won by those who wish to stem the development and preserve these 112 acres. The course will close October 31, 2005 and the land will come under the control of the Historic Carnton Plantation. The course will be restored to its appearance during the battle.
Hicks, a long-time member of the Carnton Plantation Board of Directors, has written a masterful book which captures the agony of that awful day. Echoes of Spoon River Anthology find characters describing their last moments on Earth amid the horror of what must have been, even including Pickett's ill-fated charge at Gettysburg, the most ill-conceived battle in the war. Hicks' descriptions of battle are excellent. "We stood there, listening to the sound of the air pulled apart by bullets... I realized that the cracking sound I'd been hearing was not the sound of balls hitting the gin house... The dead and dying were packed so tightly that men were charging right over them, shattering legs, arms, and ribs. It was the sound of bones snapping."

In five hours, more than 6,500 men died on both sides. After defending Franklin so vehemently, the Union Army stole away in the night to Nashville, leaving the battlefield to the Rebels. It was a Pyrrhic victory for the back of the Confederacy had been broken, and Appomattox five months later was just the ceremony attendant to this terrible battle.

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