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A proper burial: The story of a wife who finds purpose transforming her Tennessee plantation into a hospital and cemetery during the Civil War

Franklin, Tennessee. It is November 1864, and many of us (Civil War buffs) have been here before.

We recognize this gentle slope that rises to the Carnton plantation and the terraced mansion surrounded by great trees. Nearby are a neglected garden and a spacious backyard where 1,500 Confederate soldiers will be buried (eventually). Historians call the Battle of Franklin “five of the bloodiest hours of the Civil War” –— a place where 9,200 men died on a single day in an encounter that Robert Hicks calls “horrible, beautiful and sudden.”

Hicks’ account of this historic disaster contains a catalogue of bizarre details gleaned from historic records of the event. As the Confederate forces march on the entrenched Union army, the attack gradually becomes a headline rush in which the rebel forces cast aside equipment, clothing and personal effects in their eagerness to confront the enemy.

It is a suicidal charge, and as the Confederate fatalities mount (6,700), the stampeding forces find themselves marching over the bodies of their comrades. Survivors report hearing the audible sounds of bones breaking beneath their feet. In the final hour of battle, many died of suffocation.

Hicks describes an old cotton gin, which is located in the midst of the carnage. A great mound of baled cotton acts as a shield for a Union detachment, and as the intensity of the gunfire mounts, the air is filled with drifting clouds of shredded cotton that float over the battlefield. Many of the dead and dying are covered by this surreal, artificial snowfall.

Like Howard Bahr’s memorable novel, The Black Flower, Robert Hicks’ The Widow of the South graphically captures that day — not only the sights, sounds and smells of the battle, but the trappings of a forgotten culture. However, as the world of bombazine, courtesy and charm wither in the fiery blast of warfare, something vital and perverse is born from this carnage. For want of a better word, Hicks calls it “love.”

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Carrie McGavock was in mourning when the Battle of Franklin exploded in the fields adjoining Carnton plantation. The recent loss of three of her five children — each the victim of a prolonged illness — had plunged her into a bitter depression. Grief unhinged her mind, causing her to hoard laudanum as part of a scheme to take her own life. However, before she could act, Gen. Bedford Forrest arrived in her parlor to inform her that her home had been “requisitioned” as a hospital for the Confederate forces.

Within hours, hundreds of dead and dying soldiers are packed into the rooms on the ground level. As Carrie and her devoted servant (and lifelong friend), Mariah, bear witness, the McGavock plantation is transformed into a bloodstained bedlam. Carrie finds four dead generals on her porch and she watches in astonishment as two surgeons convert an upstairs bedroom into an operating ward. The following day, a great mound of amputated limbs appears in her yard.

Carrie and Mariah are enlisted into service — carrying water and tearing up bed sheets and clothing for bandages. However, instead of finding herself traumatized by the increasing horror around her, Carrie becomes infused with a strange strength and certitude. Asserting herself as the “mistress of Carnton,” she supervises her household in feeding, nursing and burying 1,500 men.

As the days pass, Carrie becomes convinced that “destiny” (or God) had given her a role to play in the final days of the Confederacy. She writes letters, comforts the dying and maintains records of the Franklin burial sites. Eventually, she assumes responsibility for moving the Confederate dead from the mass graves on the battlefield, and reburies them on her own land. The cemetery is neatly organized according to state of origin with a personal marker for each grave.

Carrie quite literally becomes “the widow of the South” in her role of caretaker for the McGavock Cemetery. She corresponds with hundreds of people who are searching for the graves of relatives. Visitors to Carnton are greeted by a woman dressed in “widow’s weeds” and a veil — a woman who acts as their guide and host. In many instances she provides personal information — her memory of a son or husband who died in her home. In time, her memorial will attract the endorsement and support of the Daughters of the Confederacy.

This amazing story has one puzzling aspect. Hicks has created something of an anomaly in that he has grafted a “love story” onto his plot. No doubt, he perceived a need to enhance Carrie’s remarkable life by providing her with a “love interest” — a wounded Arkansas soldier.

Zachariah Cashwell loses a leg to the surgeons at Carnton — and his heart to Carrie. The attraction is mutual, and although the relationship flirts with the erotic, it remains unconsummated. After all, Carrie has a gentle, humane (and exceptionally tolerant) husband.

Even though Zachariah leaves Carnton and becomes a kind of one-legged rogue who survives on his wits, an enduring bond has been established. He will return. In fact, The Widow of the South begins with his poignant, final return — to take his place among his comrades in the McGavock Cemetery.

The devotion of the two lovers is heartfelt and moving. Zachariah is a complex and appealing character, and I am a devotee of dying lovers who return ... at last! However, I also feel that the incredible (true) story of Carrie McGavock has sufficient drama and richness. She doesn’t need a fictitious lover to enhance the quality of her life (or the novel’s plot).

Now, having said that, let me add that I’m delighted that Zachariah and Carrie spent a little quality time together. Caught in anguish and suffering attending the Battle of Franklin, they both deserve all the diversions they can find.

The Widow of the South is replete with subplots. The household servant, Mariah has “second sight” — a gift she finds invaluable in communicating with the dead soldiers in the McGavock Cemetery. Her son, Theopolis, eagerly assumes his role as a shoemaker in Franklin and a citizen of the “new South.”

Zachariah also befriends Jerrod, a one-eyed gambler, who deserves a novel of his own. In one episode, the two friends become a part of an archeological excavation of an ancient Indian burial mound near Franklin — an endeavor that plays in counterpart to Carrie’s reburial of the dead at Carnton. Now, add to this mix a set of doomed lovers. The boy falls at the Battle of Franklin and the girl dies in childbirth. There’s also a greedy landowner who threatens to desecrate the battlefield and the dead girl’s vengeful brother who steals a pistol .... Enough!

Suffice it to say that The Widow of the South has a convoluted, complex plot that blends fact and fiction in a mesmerizing mix.

The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks. Warner Books, 2005. $24.95 — 426 pages.

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