Monday, November 29, 2010

Carnton Plantation and The Widow of the South

Carrie McGavock of Tennessee stood on her back porch one sunny November Day and watched an army of half-starved, mostly barefoot men march towards a battle that would forever change the landscape around her beloved home.

As part of a recent trip to Nashville, Tennessee, I stood on that same porch and tried to imagine what it was like for Carrie that day and in the days that followed. By four o-clock that afternoon she would have been listening to the horrific sounds of the battle taking place to the north. The battle continued into the night, and by midnight the carpet on the floors of her home would have been visible only when a wounded, dead, or dying, Confederate soldier moved or was moved by care-givers. The wide hallway furnished so elegantly to receive visitors, the family parlor where she sat in the evenings to do needlework ... the formal dining room with the table that could seat over twenty for dinner ... had disappeared beneath a sea of bleeding, stinking, filthy, bodies. Survivors who looked back on that day would remember Carrie's dress changing over the course of the candle-lit night as the sleeves and hem of her dress became more and more stained with the evidence of her nursing.

As I stand in Carrie's house and look up at the portrait above the fireplace, I try to imagine that lovely woman changed by what had happened just a few miles north. The battle would not be remembered in the nation's collective memory as were Shiloh, Antietam, and Gettysburg. And yet the casualties would be greater in a narrow span of time than at any of those other battles. Franklin Tennessee's population in 1864 was only a few hundred. The battle left the earth strewn with over six thousand casualties.

At some point my imagination breaks down. Even as I look at the blood stains still evident on the floors of Carrie McGavock's home, visit the graves of the thousand-plus soldiers buried within view of the house. Horror in Carrie McGavock's life happened at home.

Where does the story that appears on the pages of the best-selling novel The Widow of the South depart from what really happened? One of the members of our tour group asked that very question. The tactful docent said that they were grateful for the visitors who came to Carnton Plantation because of Richard Hicks's historical novel.

Fiction captures imaginations and carries us away to another time and place. In so doing, it can gently teach the past and send us on journeys to learn the truth behind the story. In the case of Carrie McGavock of Carnton Plantation, visitors are introduced to a woman who, one November Day, had history arrive on her literal doorstep and did what she could to mend it.

As I stand on her back porch on a November day nearly 150 years after that event, I wonder what it was like to step out this doorway the morning after the battle, look to my left, and watch as defeated soldiers filed by to pay their respects to the four Generals whose bodies lay just a few feet away. I wonder what it was like to have my children staying in a room off the kitchen because their bedrooms upstairs are operating rooms. Will they ever be able to forget the cries and moans of the patients ... or the thud above their heads as another addition to the "limb pile" lands by the fireplace? Putting my self in Carrie McGavock's place, I know that, as a mother, I'll make certain the carpet is replaced so they don't have to see the blood stains. I'll hope they never have to live through anything like this again. I'll hope they live ... because disease is surely coming in the aftermath of today's nightmare.

Carrie McGavock is better known in 2010 thanks to a novelist. I don't know what she would think of what he said about her, but as a woman I'm grateful that people know her name. Other women in other famous Tennessee places are barely a footnote. More about them in my next post.

--stephanie g.


  1. Wonderful post, Steph. You pinpointed what I love about history, about finding a real person from the past who faced tremendous odds, who makes us wonder and empathize and feel... That's why we read, isn't it? To feel. In the movie "Shadowlands" about the life of C.S. Lewis, the main character says, "We read to know we are not alone." I think Carrie McGavock would take comfort in knowing someone is reading about her today.

  2. Steph, you took me there, both now and 150 years ago. Kudos to historical writers. I look forward to reading about the other women from long-ago Tennessee. I used that C.S. Lewis quote Nancy mentioned in one of my stories, referenced by a character.