The Battle for Franklin: Visiting the Widow of the South

Yesterday was the first actual work day for the National Preservation Conference. As with every year the day ends with a special treat for staff which often includes a tour that explains why the city we are in is ideal for preservationists. This year, of course, was no different.

Barely an hour before the meeting I finished Robert Hicks’ Widow of the South a book which tells the story of Carrie McGavock, a woman who despite the recent loss of three children steps up and makes a time that was so terrible mean something. During the Battle for Franklin, which is essentially the death knell for the Confederate Army, Carrie’s house, Carnton Plantation, was chosen to be the best place for a field hospital. What  makes this story so remarkable, aside from the heroic measures Carrie McGavock took that day to save young Confederate lives, is what happened two years later.

1500 soldiers from the battle had been buried where they had fallen. When faced with a landowner who wanted to plow under the land to turn it back into cotton and other commodities, Carrie fought and successfully re-interred all of the boys to her home creating a large private cemetery in her backyard. For five years she wrote to the families, and when the families came to take their boys home, four ended up leaving them there after seeing Carrie’s strength of character.

During our tour we heard from Robert Hicks himself (who is a speaker this coming Friday here in Nashville–something that will be web cast on our virtual attendee page) who described those bloody five hours at Carter House, and later the aftermath at Carnton. We saw the bloodstains that had seeped through the carpet and imagined the upper porch (the columns apparently a bright yellow) lined with a hundred injured souls.

He told us a story of one such Union officer who amidst the fog and the darkening night shot a young Confederate soldier dead. As he turned around he found himself impaled through with a sword, realizing that it was the sword of the young man he thought he had killed.  The duel continued with knives, and perhaps fists, until the Union officer lay injured with nine wounds that by all means should have been fatal.

Twenty years later he marries and has a son. That son is Douglas MacArthur.

Back at Carnton, despite not being able to see the cemetery I think we could imagine what things had been like. Having seen this house described in his novel, I could see the history come to life, but perhaps what is more powerful and more telling is the power we have as individuals to do what is right and to make a change.

Earlier in the day we had been going through the conference schedule and I had been asked to say a few things about Congressman Lewis–and perhaps these are the same words I can say about Carrie McGavock. There are individuals out there who step up and fight for what is right,  regardless of what that means for their personal safety and daily lives.

Congressman Lewis threw himself into the cause of Civil Rights in the 1960’s, Carrie McGavock spent the rest of her life documenting those dead soldiers and made sure that they were remembered, even though the cause had been lost.

Note: While Widow of the South is a fictionalized narrative it is based on real people and a real battle. Visit Carnton’s website here.

View my pictures from Nashville on my Picasa page.

National Preservation Conference in Nashville

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