The Widow of the South–by Cheryl Pierson

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, 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.

Carrie McGavock as a young woman

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.”




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A native Oklahoman, I've been influenced by the west all my life. I love to write short stories and novels in the historical western and western romance genres, as well as contemporary romantic suspense! Check my Amazon author page to see my work:
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31 thoughts on “The Widow of the South–by Cheryl Pierson”

  1. Cheryl, Carrie McGavock’s story is fascinating. Thank you for sharing it with us. Based on your earlier recommendation of this book, I bought the darn thing and added it to my TBR pile. I’m going to have to start ignoring you before my Kindle explodes! 😀

  2. Absolutely fascinating.. now I am going to go find the book and read it. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

  3. What an awe-inspiring story, Cheryl. Can’t even imagine what it would be like dealing with all those dead and wounded, especially back in those days. Such devotion. I would love to see that place. Your description made it come alive. Thanks for a beautiful blog.

  4. Simply awesome story, Cheryl. The humanity of spirit shines through in Carrie’s story…after such a gruesome war, she did the kind and noble and repectful thing. Thanks for sharing this story.

  5. what a interesting post,made me want to know more,,,never heard of this before an im from Tennessee,,thanks for sharing that bit of history with us

  6. Cheryl, I love this. Wow, you really brought it to life and made ME want to go there. I went on a tour of a plantation once, a beautiful old house near New Orleans. i was probably 19 years old and I didn’t begin to appreciate it as I should have. And I don’t think it had any history like this involved.
    Love this post!

  7. I was in New Orleans for a Cornhusker Football bowl game. and I spent New Years Even on Bourban Street, THAT I remember but a lovely old preserved plantation house? Nope, all but forgotten. Youth is wasted on the young!!!

  8. Cheryl, what a fabulous story – thanks for sharing it with us. I’d never heard of these folks or this battle before and such tales always make me shiver.

    I’ve toured many a plantation house and historic home before and I always find these glimpses into the past so fascinating.

  9. Kathleen!LOL This is well worth the read, believe me. There are bits of “fictionalized history” in there, but it makes for such a compelling story, all the way around. And seeing it in person was just unbelievable. I so wished we could have taken pictures.

  10. CateS, if you want the paperback version you can get it on Amazon for .01 plus the postage. I have two copies of it, and I never loan out either of them. LOL It’s that good.

  11. Thank you, Elizabeth–that’s such a compliment. I’m glad I could describe it well enough to be able to interest people–that’s one of those places that, when you go there, you think, “How could I ever describe these feelings, this emotion, of standing in the very spot where those surgeons stood?” And the cemetery…I get chills just thinking about it now.

    I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, my filly sis!

  12. Char,
    I think also after losing some of her children, she must have been comforted to be able to actually do something for these men who needed her, both before death, and after. This story just tugs at my heartstrings more than any other of the Civil War.

  13. Carrie McGavock was a special woman. I’d never heard of her until your post today. Very interesting. It’s always neat to see where people’s passion lies. Hers was definitely to the Confederate soldier. I’d love to tour that house in Franklin. I’ll put it on my bucket list and see what happens. Thanks for such an intriguing post today!

  14. Vickie,
    It is well worth the price of admission, and I wish we’d had more time to tour all the buildings, but our time was short, so I at least got to see the main house and the cemetery. It’s set back off the road near a residential area–you actually drive through the neighborhood to get back to the plantation. It’s just a lovely place. My great grandparents on my mom’s side came from TN–Brush Creek. It’s a beautiful state.

  15. Mary, you crack me up! I believe that, too–Youth IS wasted on the young! People don’t appreciate anything until they’re grown. And even then, it might be WAY after they’re grown. LOL I really enjoyed this trip–more than the rest of the vacation. I would like to have just stayed another day and gone back to see it all again–it’s a lot to take in on a guided tour.

  16. Thanks, Winnie–it gave me chills just going through it, especially after having read the book. It was one of those places even my husband was interested in (though he says he did it for me…) LOL

  17. Hey Linda!
    I’m so glad you enjoyed reading about Carrie and the Carnton plantation. If you’re ever able to go, you will not be disappointed, I promise. It’s a place I would go back to again for another tour, if I could talk the hub into it.
    I hope you get to go.

  18. Fascinating.

    I was surprised to learn recently that, after the Civil War, Clara Barton ran an Office of Missing Soldiers.

  19. Wow, Liz, I didn’t know that. I saw the book that Carrie carried with her with the names of the dead in it. I still get teary when I think of it and her years of steadfast devotion.

  20. This story gets to me every time I read it, Cheryl. It’s just so touching. What an amazing woman.


  21. Hi Kirsten,
    She really was amazing. I don’t know why my links to the video and book didn’t come through. Darn it! Anyhow, I would love to go back and visit again. It was quite an experience.

  22. Hi Charlene,
    I know what you mean–I’m just in awe of Carrie McGavock, over 100 years since she died! Her devotion and care of those men is something to be admired. Very sad, as well, because of the circumstances and the fact that they had to be disinterred from their original burial places and moved.
    But at least they were there on HER land, where she knew they would be safe.

  23. Kathleen,

    You are very welcome. I feel the same way–there’s always something interesting here at P&P, and the historical learning is amazing!

  24. Cheryl, I enjoyed this so much. My own Civil War book, This Time Forever, takes place in Chattanooga, and had an antebellum mansion which became a hosptial and the hero is a surgeon. One on my chapters is about the Battle at Stones River so this gave me chills. I have to read this book. And since my daughter lives near Franklin, I do plan to visit Carnton very soon. Thanks so much for all this information.

  25. Thanks, Doris. I’m so glad I was able to get the photos to show up! I always feel like “Aunt Clara” on Bewitched when blogs do what I intend for them to do. Thanks for coming by!

  26. Oh, yes, Linda. You must go! That would just be an invaluable research trip for your writing. And you will get chills when you go through that place. It’s amazing. I’m so glad you came by today.

  27. I went to Carnton with my son’s class about 15 years ago. The cemetery was/is a sad testament to the time. When we were there, they were just starting the restoration of the house. There were just empty, worn rooms. They were giving minimal tours and a brief history of the site. I would love to go back and see it in its restored beauty. I have the book but it is still sitting in my massive TBR mountain.

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