The Widow of the South–by Cheryl Pierson

I read a book, and I knew I had to go see this place for myself… It all started when I read THE WIDOW OF THE SOUTH by Robert Hicks, a novel he wrote 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, Carnton,  in middle Tennessee, where he and his brother James had been raised,. The McGavocks 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’s 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.

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.”

(This is a picture of Carrie as a young woman.)


Have you ever read a book that made this kind of impression on you? A book that, just from reading about a place, made you want to go there and see it more than anything else? What was it? I’d love to hear about the places you’ve gone after you read about them and just KNEW you had to see them for yourself!


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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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30 thoughts on “The Widow of the South–by Cheryl Pierson”

  1. I visited this place as a child too young to understand its meaning and to absorb its significance. I’d love to go back now. What an awesome blog! I have read many HWR books by authors such as Rosanne Bittner and Linda Broday that have made me want to visit sights of historical Indian battles. I have also read many books that have made me want to visit Yellowstone, Wyoming, Montana and up in that area. Since I have barely started reading again in November 2016 after decades of not reading I haven’t visited these places.

    • Stephanie, if possible, you should go back. I would love to go back again myself. It’s really impossible to take it all in in one trip, IMO. I never would have known about it if Robert Hicks had not written that book, and I really loved that book–there are actual photos in the back of it, and Carrie’s companion, Mariah, is one of the most interesting characters because of her ability to “see” into the past lives of each dead person. That was just fascinating to me. I hope you’ll be able to go there again and revisit it!

  2. Love this blog. Just this blog alone made me want to go visit Carnton. I have read a many HWR books that have had places I would love to one day see for myself

    • I’m the same way, Janine. I would love to go back in the past, too, just for a visit, mind you! LOL But of the present day places that are there for us go visit, this is really one of the most interesting ones if you love history and the Civil War is interesting to you.

  3. I have read books that make me want to go there. The joy is I did go to some and it was just like the book.

    • Isn’t it wonderful when that happens, Debra? That was how I felt about Carnton! I think for me it was much more satisfactory because I had read the book first and could think about the things I’d read in the story as I was actually seeing the grounds.

    • I would love to go overseas and visit — my dream vacation would be to go to Ireland and Scotland and just be able to have all the time I needed to do research into my family tree!

  4. Thank you for sharing your very interesting post. We visited Laura Ingalls Wilder’s home place. It is wonderful to visit these places we have an interest in.

    • Melanie, that reminded me of a funny story from a long while back. I had a friend who had a daughter the same age as mine, and another one the same age as my son. We did quite a lot together, and she told me the story of when she and her hubby and their girls had gone on vacation to visit relatives in Minnesota, and were on the way home, and she had mentioned wanting to detour and go to the Laura Ingalls Wilder home place. Well, her hubby was all like, “No, I just want to get home!” So when they switched out to take turns driving, he went to sleep and she detoured and by the time he woke up they were almost to the museum. LOL Thrilled her girls to death, but he was not too happy about it. LOL I would love to go see that place!

    • This was a good place to visit because it wasn’t too far off the ‘beaten path’ for us on our way from Oklahoma to West Virginia, and I’d wanted to see it for so long! Hubby was agreeable because it was a Civil War battle and he was interested in that. It was really well worth doing!

    • Hebby, so glad it inspired you to read the book–and I would definitely recommend doing that before going, though it’s not something you’d have to do to enjoy the trip. To me, it made it so much more exciting because I could relate what I was seeing to what I’d read in the story. I know you would love it if you ever get the chance to go there.

    • Just goes to show how important titles are–I saw the title and cover of that book and didn’t really know what it was about, but it caught my attention enough to look into it further. From reading the cover material, I thought I wanted to read the book, and from reading the book, I wanted to go see it “for real”–I’m glad you stopped by, Denise!

  5. Fascinating. The loss of life is still staggering, and it’s great to see an example of how it impacted on the left-behind. I’d so love to visit this place, and add it to those I’ve already seen. They are so atmospheric.

    • Christine, this one truly does have atmosphere so thick you can almost touch it. I would love to go back for another visit. You can’t possible process everything in one trip there. So much to see and take in and just think about as you’re looking at it all. I hope you’ll get to visit it one day.

  6. Thank you for this historical lesson. We should never forget the ones that fought for what they believed in. Regardless of the side, these men and women fought and gave all for their side.

    • So true, Jerri! And you can really feel it there. Can you imagine having to dig up all the dead men and rebury them? What a horrendous job, but one they completed! And Carrie devoted her entire life to overseeing the burial grounds and “visiting” the men. I wonder how her kids must have felt about all that.

  7. In the mid-1990’s, I chaperoned our son’s 8th grade class trip to Nashville. As part of that trip, we stopped at Carnton. At that time, they had just started the renovations, There was no furniture, wall coverings were stained and peeling, woodwork was dull and splintery, and the floors needed to be refinished. The blood stain was pointed out to us. There was no white fencing, just some ragged sections of different fencing near the cemetery. The outside of the house needed mush repair. About the only things that had been finished were the porches, for safety I am sure. Even the cemetery area needed work. It still gave you the feel of the history of the place and the the passion she had to honor the soldiers. I am so glad they have finished the renovations and the house and grounds are restored to their former beauty. The tour did cover much of what you mentioned, even with the area in such disrepair. I would love to go back and see it now.
    The place I read about and visited was New Orleans. I had wanted to go for years, but couldn’t convince my husband to go.. I finally made reservations and gave him the trip for his birthday. Sneaky, but it worked. He enjoyed it and we have been back several times since. I had started reading Jennifer Blake’s MASTERS AT ARMS 6 book series set in pre-Civil War New Orleans. It gave an excellent feel for the area and culture. I read 3 books before getting there, finished 2 while there, and finished the last one at home. It was really interesting looking for and finding places mentioned in the books. Another benefit was knowing just where the characters were standing or living in the scenes.

    • Oh, wow, Patricia. I can’t remember when that book was written but I would say probably around the mid 1990’s. I know that the money he made from it went to the fund to refurbish Carnton. You should go back and visit it now–it’s so gorgeous, just like it once was. They have worked wonders with that place!

      I’ve only been to New Orleans once and we were there the night before our cruise ship left the next day, so we didn’t get to see much of anything. My sister and I decided instead of trying to get up and rush that morning to fly out and get there, we’d go the night before. We stayed in a hotel that was across the street from Harrah’s casino–went over there to try our luck, but there was hardly room to even sit, and people waiting behind others for them to finish playing so they could take their seat. That was no fun! LOL But at least I got to see it. We didn’t get to do any sightseeing we were so short on time. On the way back we did the same thing, but I was really sick from the cruise–so I didn’t care about anything but the hotel bed. LOL I’d love to go back and visit when I was feeling well and had more time, though.

  8. We also visited Green Gables on Prince Edward Island, Canada. Thankfully it was off season, so it was not crowded and the atmosphere on the island was very relaxed. It really felt like the clack had been turned back many decades. The house and farm are exactly as I expected them.

    • Oh, what a trip that would be! I bet that was one to remember, for sure! How awesome that you’ve gotten to do all the traveling you’ve done!

  9. Hi Cheryl – Our son lived in Nashville for almost 3 years and incredibly, I had read Widow of the South several weeks before one of my trips out to visit him. I went to the Carnton Plantation without realizing at first that it was the location of the novel! I got to go on a tour – as the only visitor – and the gal who took me through was enormously well versed. As a history teacher, I have always found American history, esp. Civil War era, fascinating. I visited the plantation and cemetery again the next year and have re-read the novel. I think it is one of the most beautifully “penned” novels about the Civil War. Powerfully moving and the imagery is unique and so visual. I have recommended this novel to many people over the last several years. Franklin is also one of my favorite towns in TN.

    • Gail, when we went, there were quite a few people in our group and that guide knew that place inside and out. She was really good and answered every question asked. Of course, I suppose if you did that day in, day out you would become well versed in the history of the place, but still, I was in such awe of her. I agree with you about that novel–it is so well-written and so interesting, and kept the history of the place alive as well as making for a very interesting read. Like you, I’ve recommended that novel so often. People probably get sick of me talking about it. LOL I loved Franklin, too. Seemed like a really nice place.

  10. It boggles my mind visualizing all those dead and wounded soldiers, overflowing the house and having to endure freezing temperatures outside. It reminds me of the railroad scene in Gone With The Wind. What an amazing woman and her family. Back in 2000, to celebrate a new century, Doug and I took a four-day trip to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, because I wanted to research the wolf caves where outlaws and cattle thieves holed up to evade capture from the law on both sides of the border. On our first night in Moose Jaw, we took a tour of the Chinese tunnels (there’s a second tour of the Al Capone tunnels but we never had time for it.) That had the most profound effect on me that still affects me to this day. Therefore, Cheryl, I can appreciate how your tour of that plantation stays with you still. War is abominable.

    • Yes, Elizabeth, I kind of had that visual in my mind too, of the soldiers in the railroad scene. But can you even imagine that in a plantation house? On the porches, in all the rooms, in the hallways, in the yards, in the outbuildings, in the fields…And to be one of the surgeons that had to deal with one patient after another with no break, no rest, no sleep…Yes, some places just stay with you, don’t they? That is one I would love to go back and visit someday.

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