A short drive from the neon lights and country twang of Nashville, Tennessee lies the charming, shabby chic town of Franklin. It is here that you will find the haunting and historic Carnton Plantation. Steeped in history, the sticks and stones of this antebellum beauty have a story to whisper to those who visit; a tale of war, love and loss, life and death; how one family carried on through devastating adversity as, what is considered by some to be the bloodiest and most horrific battle of the American Civil War, played out in their own front yard.
Carnton’s story begins in 1826 when patriarch Randal McGavock built the great house. Randal was an influential man in early Tennessee history. He often rubbed elbows with American Presidents and once served as mayor of Nashville. The plantation became well known for producing fine thoroughbred horses, livestock and a multitude of crops. After Randal’s death in 1843, his son John inherited Carnton. In 1848, John his younger cousin Caroline “Carrie” Elizabeth Winder and began a major renovation to the big house and grounds. A two storied portico complete with columns, panels, corbels and scrollwork, was built onto the big house.
Popular decorative wallpapers, rugs and decor were installed throughout the mansion’s interior. Cedars and boxwoods were planted along the walkways. The pride and prosperity of Carnton was on full display for all to see. Though Carnton thrived, the McGavocks were not immune to the cruelties of life and dark whims of fate. The first three children born to John and Carrie died in early childhood. Martha, Mary Elizabeth and John Randal are buried in the small family cemetery on the property. A grieving parent had but to glance out a window to see their resting place day after day.
It wasn’t until the birth of their daughter Hattie in 1855 and son Winder in 1857 that their family was complete. One can only imagine the devastation of losing not one, but three children in such a short period of time and the toll it had to have taken on the marriage. As a prosperous planter and slave holder in the South, John’s loyalties lay with the Confederacy when the American Civil War erupted in 1861. The McGavock slaves were sent to Louisianna so that they would not be taken by the federal army. As a middle aged man, John was considered too old to enlist but supported the cause by helping supply rebel troops.
The grieving Carrie sewed uniforms for their rebel relatives and neighbors. When federals caught wind of the aid provided by the McGavocks, they struck a mighty blow by taking massive amounts of livestock and resources from the farm. One would think the McGavock family had suffered enough devastation and misfortune, however the worst was yet to come. On the afternoon of November 30, 1864, the McGavocks found themselves helpless witness to the fierce five hour Battle of Franklin, where thousands upon thousands of soldiers fought, bled and died on the dark on the grounds of their once genteel home.
The big house quickly filled up with the wounded and dying. Then the slave quarters and outbuildings began to fill. Carnton had become a huge field hospital where all hands were needed to staunch wounds, assist surgeons amputating mangled limbs and pray over the dead. Even young Hattie and Winder helped where they could. Over the hours, the once fine carpets were saturated with blood, soaking the wooden planks beneath them. It is reported that, as Carrie worked tirelessly over the soldiers, the hem of her dress was crusted with the blood of the dead and dying.
By the time the last shot rang out, it is believed over 9,500 soldiers, including four Confederate Generals, were wounded, dead, captured by the enemy or missing. After the able bodied remnants of the armies left the battlefield and the dust settled, there was a overwhelming number of dead to be buried. Every effort was made to identify the soldiers and bury them with rough wooden crosses and headboards with their names and service detail written on them. Unfortunately, these crude gravemarkers weathered poorly and, during hard times, were used as firewood.
The McGavocks designated two acres of land next to their family plot to serve as a cemetery for the rebel soldiers. The majority of the federal soldiers were removed to nearby Stones River National Cemetery. Residents of Franklin helped raise money to have the remains exhumed and reburied with permanent stone markers in the McGavock Confederate Cemetery. This was a painstaking process and detailed information on soldiers and their units were logged into a ledger. Carrie McGavock became the keeper of the book once the arduous task was completed.
She managed the care of the cemetery for decades until her death in 1905, earning herself the nickname, “The Widow of the South”. After Carnton fell out of the family’s hands, it began to suffer from neglect and became a near ruin. That is the fate of so many fine old homes. A major effort brought Carnton back to its former glory in the 1990’s and now it serves as a wonderful museum. You can take an excellent guided tour of the main house where the history is palpable. The blood stained floors and Carrie’s cemetery book are among the many treasured artifacts on display.
Several outbuildings and a garden have been lovingly restored and are open to exploration. There is also a visitor’s center complete with historical displays and a tasteful gift shop. But to me, the family and Confederate cemeteries were the highlight of the Carnton experience. Row upon row of neatly organized and detailed graves of the rebel soldiers represented by white markers stand in proud formation as if awaiting inspection in the Confederate Cemetery. If you go through the wrought iron gate at the back of the military section, you step into the far less formal family plot.
Here, ornate monuments and eloquent epitaphs grace the stones of long lost McGavocks, including John and Carrie’s children. Lush green ivy grows and trails loving fingers over a select few stones. Though I have been blessed to never know such personal tragedy, I understood the heart of Carrie Elizabeth Winder McGavock at that moment, standing with a beating heart among the dead. I could easily picture the horror and surrealness of that fateful day. Oh, poor Carrie! A mother’s fear and pain.
To have lost so much. To absolutely cherish the children that survived above all else, then see that horror and complete devastation all around them. She likely wanted to spirit them away to a safe haven when no such place existed. Instead, she watched as her babies joined the tragic chaos of war time triage. Chubby little fingers and stubby little legs were the makeshift orderlies and unwitting brother in arms to grown ups that were as lost and frightened as they. I imagine Carrie felt as if death stalked her!
But what strength and grace to make it her life’s mission to tend the garden of lost soldier’s. Maybe she simply wanted to remember those that died on her watch, under her roof. To remember what most would try so desperately to forget. Perhaps she thought of those young men as some poor mother’s lost baby. Who better to empathize with a mother’s heartbreak than a young woman who had buried three of her own? Perhaps it was a way to control an unbearable situation. Heaven knows she did it with grace and dignity. In a sense, perhaps the cemetery saved her.