A few weeks ago while I was browsing the book shelves in the Hinesville Goodwill store, a pretty covered hardback book caught my attention. It was “The Widow of the South,” a novel by Robert Hicks and published in 2005. I read the flyleaf and thought it would be interesting and hardback books only cost 99 cents there now.
After reading the book, I was so glad I had found it. The book is a novel but it is based on a very true story about the Civil War and the largest private Confederate cemetery in the United States.
Carrie McGavock, originally from Louisiana, was a 35-year-old mistress of a 1,400 acre plantation named Carnton on the outskirts of Franklin, Tennessee, when the Civil War came to Franklin. Her husband was John McGavock, worth an estimated $339,000 at the time just prior to the war.
In 2007, that would be about $6 million. John owned many slaves used to work 500 acres that were used for farmland and raising thoroughbred horses. John was too old to join the army so he did what he could to help provide uniforms for the Confederate soldiers. Carrie sewed many pieces of uniforms.
John and Carrie were the parents of five children. By 1864, three of the young children had died. According to the story, Carrie, dressed in all black every day, spent all her time in a dark room rocking and talking to the dead children. Nothing could bring her out of her deep depression so she thought.
Carrie lived in a majestic two story Greek style plantation home that was built in 1826, using slave labor, by John’s father who was the former mayor of Nashville, Tennessee. There were always famous visitors to the home. President Andrew Jackson was one and gave them a rocking chair that can still be seen in the restored home today. Google the McGavock house and see the beauty of it.
Carrie had a 200-piece set of china that she used regularly in her early years of marriage that still exists. The large clock on the parlor mantel that kept time for them on the plantation still ticks.
Carrie really enjoyed walking in the one-acre garden that her husband planned and meticulously planted for her pleasure. It had the largest collection of daffodils in the South. This was where she went for her pondering time and just to enjoy the beauty of the flowers and plants that were enclosed within the white picket fence.
Carrie had a special slave girl that her father had given her when she was a little girl in Louisiana. Mariah grew up with Carrie and followed her to Tennessee when she married. Mariah was the cook and Carrie’s personal servant. They loved each other and stayed together until the end.
Nov. 30, 1864, was the day that changed the world for Carrie and John McGavock. It would never be the same again. Yankee soldiers came riding up to the elegant plantation house and knocked and then came on in and looked through the house. Right there and then they decided that this house was going to be used for the war hospital.
Carrie and Mariah tore up the linens to use for bandages. The dining tables were set up to use for operating tables. She had the slaves roll up much of the carpets and store them somewhere else so they would not be ruined and the silver was hidden.
On Nov. 30, 1864, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War was fought in Franklin, Tennessee. Nine thousand and five hundred were killed, wounded, captured or reported missing in action. Seven thousand of this number were Confederate soldiers. The next day, wagons began arriving at Carnston filled with the wounded soldiers. Carrie was not a nurse but she quickly learned to do what the doctor ordered. She helped hold the soldier as ether was administered and the hacksaw used to saw a leg or arm off. The limbs were thrown out the bedroom window toward the smoke house. In a short while the limb pile was almost to the smoke house roof. There was much blood poured on the bedroom floors and still today one can see the blood stains. Wounded soldiers were stretched out all over the 11 room house and the porches and some in the yard surrounding the house. Still they came. At one time there were four generals lying dead on the back porch.
There were so many dead in town that a trench was dug and the dead put in it and covered. A wooden board was put over the grave that told who the soldier was and the company if it was known. Most of the soldiers that came to Carnton did not survive and the ones that did were taken away as captives as soon as they were able to go. Many just slipped away and disappeared into the night.
The months went by and spring came. Carrie could not stop thinking about all the soldiers that were buried in the shallow graves near town.
Carrie got word that the farmer was going to till the field and plow under all the bodies. She fought tooth and nail to stop him and finally he gave in and let them get the bodies from his field and move them. John donated two acres for the bodies to buried in. Each body was carefully exhumed and the name and any information was written in a black book and categorized according to the state they were from. When all the bodies were finished being situated in their new homes, there were 1,489 Confederate graves.
Carried began getting letters from soldiers’ families asking if she knew the whereabouts of their loved ones. She answered each letter and told the family what she knew and if they were in her black book she told them exactly where they were buried. People began coming to see their loved ones.
Carrie resolved in her mind that these soldiers would never be left alone. She wore the black outfits daily and spent most of her day in the cemetery going from grave to grave with her little black book, usually with Mariah beside her.
This next part of the story is the part I liked best. I am surprised that of 1,489 soldiers that the novelist chose this one boy to write about.
A few years after the dead were reburied, a family came from Liberty County where they lived in the country west of Hinesville along a stream full of bass where they grew corn and kept to themselves.
They were called the Winns. Months earlier they had asked a man at the store in Liberty County if he would write a letter to the woman they heard about in Franklin that took care of some soldiers. They said that were farmers and all they had was corn to pay her for her time but they would be much obliged if she could tell them what became of their son, James Wilson Winn. Carrie consulted her book and wrote them that their son was listed as JWW and was buried among his comrades and that he would not be forgotten.
A year went by and Carrie heard nothing from them until they arrived. They told her they had been traveling for a month and had gotten lost and almost turned and went back home. She showed them the grave and the boy started back to get the shovel. They had come to dig him up and take him back to Liberty. Then the father changed his mind.
Carrie offered them supper but they refused, thanked her and left. A year later they returned with a wagon load of dirt. They told Carrie that they wished to rebury their son. Carrie watched as they began to dig. They wanted to bury James in Liberty County dirt so Carried got her shovel and helped them dig and put the home soil in the grave.
Now, for the true history:
James Wilson Winn was the son of James Wilson Winn (1807-1853) and Elizabeth Rebecca Norman Winn (1819-1861) of Liberty County.
James was only 16 when he was shot on Nov., 1864, in the battle at Franklin. He died on Dec. 1, 1864.
He was a private in the Liberty Volunteers Co. H-25th Georgia Infantry CSA, which was made up of less than 100 men. His parents were both dead at this time.
His brother was William “Willie Winn” John Winn (1838-1906), a colonel in the CSA and later a civil engineer in Georgia. James Wilson Winn has a very nice monument over his grave at No. 58 in the McGavock Cemetery near Franklin in Tennessee.
I highly recommend this book for you to read as I certainly didn’t include all of it.
Love writes a regular column on local history.