Civil War historical fiction: ‘The Widow of the South’


As the Civil War dragged on for three long years, with much death and destruction, President Abraham Lincoln was in danger of not being re-elected in 1864. As discussed in my previous article, Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s capture of Atlanta, Ga., in early September helped insure Lincoln’s victory at the polls in November.

However, the commander of the defeated Confederate forces at Atlanta, Gen. John Bell Hood, decided to break off contact with Sherman’s army and head north, with the intention of invading Ohio. Sherman, meanwhile, began his “March to the Sea” across Georgia with part of his army, but sent a sizable force, under Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas, to Nashville, Tenn., to contend with Hood’s northern movement.

On the way north, Hood allowed a part of Thomas’ army, under Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield, to slip past a trap the Confederates had set, but caught up with them at a small town named Franklin, south of Nashville. A bloody battle was fought there on Nov. 30.

The John and Carrie McGavock family, which owned Carnton — a red-brick Federal-style mansion on the battlefield — was trapped in the middle of one of the monumental conflicts of the Civil War, known as the Battle of Franklin. They were caught between almost 40,000 Confederate and federal soldiers. The battle began around 4 p.m., and five hours later, 9,500 Union and Confederate soldiers were dead, wounded or missing.

During the battle, Carnton became a field hospital, and by the middle of the night, 300 suffering men jammed the house, while hundreds of others spilled across the lawn and into outbuildings. By dawn, the bodies of four dead Confederate generals were laid out on the back porch.

Carrie McGavock’s sheets, towels and tablecloths, and John McGavock’s shirts were torn up for bandages. Wounded men bled and died on the floors and under the stairs.

These actual events were the basis for author Robert Hicks’ novel, “Widow of the South,” with Carrie McGavock in the lead role. Hicks’ membership on the board of the Historic Carnton Plantation motivated him to write about what happened there, to preserve the memory of Carrie McGavock and what she accomplished in her life.

Hicks chose to approach the story like that of a Russian novel, e.g., “Dr. Zhivago” and “War & Peace.” He focused on how people can bring about the transformation of others through their own behavior and actions.

The crux of the novel deals with Carrie’s care for the wounded soldiers, and her struggle to honor the Rebels who lost their lives, by setting aside acreage on her plantation for a cemetery to re-inter those hastily buried on the battlefield. Hicks writes that John and Carrie McGavock later reminisced about the dead men lying on the battlefield.

John said, “‘All their faces, Carrie. I couldn’t look at them and not wonder what they had been thinking. So many looked as if they wanted to say one more thing.’” Carrie then wondered, “What would those men say if they could finish those sentences John had seen on their lips? I prayed they would not speak to me, that I would not hear them.”

The remains of 1,481 Southern soldiers now lie in the 2-acre cemetery, grouped by state of origin, with individual gravestones that replaced the original wooden markers. John and Carrie personally maintained the grounds until their deaths in 1893 and 1905, respectively.

Reading this powerful rendition of historical fiction may generate a desire to visit the Carnton plantation house, which is open to the public, and to walk among the graves in the nearby McGavock Confederate Cemetery. For more information about visiting Carnton, call (615) 794-0903.

The Battle of Franklin is the focus of another historical novel, titled “The Judas Field.” Howard Bahr’s classic examination of how the trauma of battlefield experiences causes post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the subject of my next article, which has its setting in Tennessee and Mississippi.

Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War,” available at Bethany Beach Books, Browseabout Books in Rehoboth and Allison’s Card Smart in Milford. His latest book with co-author Rick Schaus, due out in May 2019, is titled “‘Lee is Trapped, and Must Be Taken’: Eleven Fateful Days after Gettysburg, July 4-14, 1863.” Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com

or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.

 

By Tom Ryan

Special to the Coastal Point