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“The Widow of the South,” and Franklin, Tennessee

Robert Hicks’ bestseller, The Widow of the South, an excellent historical fiction novel to read before a trip to Franklin, Tennessee.

The Battle of Franklin near Nashville, Tennessee, may not be the most famous battle of the American Civil War. Yet, for lovers of historical fiction, the story told in Robert Hicks’ novel The Widow of the South is gripping enough to inspire travel to Franklin, Tennessee, to see Carnton Plantation and other sites where the story takes place. If you go, you’ll discover why the Battle of Franklin is considered the last great battle of the Civil War.

And, you’ll find plenty of modern-day activities that make Franklin a great destination above and beyond the battlefield. It’s so cute, it even inspired a Hallmark movie, based on Karen Kingsbury’s The Bridge.

The True Story and the Fiction

The Battle of Franklin on Nov. 30, 1864, was one of the worst disasters of the war for the Confederate Army, with nearly 7,000 casualties.  (For a detailed explanation, see the Battle of Franklin Trust website.) During the battle, which raged not just in fields but also in people’s back yards, Carrie and John McGavock’s plantation, Carnton, served as a field hospital for hundreds of injured and dying Confederate soldiers. Today, you can tour their the Greek Revival house and the adjacent cemetery. (See my previous post on the Carter House where the battle also raged.)

 Robert Hicks served on the board of Carnton Plantation and became fascinated with its story. He says in the book’s author’s note, “Carrie McGavock became a ‘living martyr and curiosity.’  She became famous without ever leaving her farm, renowned for her daily wandering in the cemetery, for her mourning clothes, for her letters to the families of the bereaved, and most of all, for her constancy.  From the day the last of the dead was buried in her back yard, she never really left her post in the cemetery, continuously checking her book of the dead.”

Hicks constructed his book using letters and diaries but added a number of fictional characters to the factual mix, including Zachariah Cashwell, a young soldier from Arkansas whom Carrie nurses back to life– and she falls in love with him. Serious Civil War buffs no doubt roll their eyes about the book’s fictional additions.

Hicks says in the book, “I submit my sincerest apologies, to those who require it, for meandering from the history in the interest of telling a story.  Other than Carrie and her immediate family and slave, most of the other characters are either composited of historical figures from Franklin’s past or were born in my imagination.”

Sign describing Carrie McGavock as “The Good Samaritan of Williamson County.”

As you tour, you’ll discover that the Battle of Franklin was anything but imaginary.  Here, the blood stains remain on the floor.

Outside, the cemetery that Carrie created and tended for the rest of her life contains the graves of 1,481 young soldiers, a staggering reminder of the epic battle.

TheCemetery that Carrie McGavock created after the Civil War.
The cemetery that Carrie McGavock created on her plantation after the Civil War.
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Updated and More Inclusive

The Carnton tour used to somewhat glorify the business acumen of Carnton’s white owners. That neglected the horror of slavery and the fact that all of us could succeed in business if our laborers worked for free. I’m happy to report that the plantation has added a Slavery and the Enslaved: Tours at Carter House and Carnton.

So, I maintain that quality historical fiction serves an important role to spark interest in historical events and sites, even though it may not be 100 percent accurate. I, for one, had never have heard of the Battle of Franklin before reading the book. More importantly, historical sites must present their stories from multiple perspectives and with an eye in include the facts, not just those with a nostalgia for the old South.

…And While You’re in Franklin

Yet, everything in Franklin isn’t about war and death. The charming town makes a great girls’ getaway or weekend trip, not just for history buffs. There’s unique shopping an abundance of live music and some charming inns, too. Don’t miss Landmark Booksellers, inspiration for Karen Kingsbury’s novel, The Bridge.

Independent Landmark Booksellers of Franklin, Tennessee was the inspiration of the New York Times bestselling novel ‘The Bridge.’ Photo courtesy Visit Franklin.
Music at Gray’s on Main in Franklin. Photo courtesy of Visit Franklin.

Where to Stay

The new Harpeth Hotel, a Curio Collection by Hilton luxury hotel, is the only hotel in downtown.  There are also a wide array of charming B&Bs.

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A Civil War Battle in Your Backyard: The Carter House and the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee

At first glance, visitors to the lovely Carter House in Franklin, Tennessee  would never guess that it was the scene of one of the Civil War's bloodiest battles.
At first glance, visitors to the lovely Carter House in Franklin, Tennessee would never guess that it was the scene of one of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles.

We’re standing in the dimly-lit cellar of the Carter House in Franklin, Tennessee, about half an hour south of Nashville. Our guide holds us in rapt attention as he paints a mental picture of the battle that raged outside.  We begin to imagine being in this very spot 150 years ago when one of the biggest clashes of the American Civil War blasted away just outside the cellar doors.

This is where, on November 30, 1864, Union forces commandeered the Carter family’s house to be used as the Federal command post.  images-1The Carters and one other family huddled for hours during the night while roughly 60,000 soldiers from the Union and Confederate armies came together in perhaps “the bloodiest five hours” of the Civil War, the Battle of Franklin.

Most people are familiar with the Battle of Gettysburg, but the not-so-well-known Battle of Franklin was larger, longer, and deadlier than Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. In the biggest Civil War battle you’ve never heard of, John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee faced off with John M. Schofield’s Army of the Ohio and the Cumberland, much of the time in hand-to-hand combat.  The battle resulted in around 9,500 casualties with 2,000 dead, 6,500 wounded and about 1,000 missing. (As a comparison, the number of casualties at Franklin was roughly comparable to those of the allies during the D-Day invasion of Normandy.) When the smoke cleared the next morning, the family emerged to find dead and dying men literarily heaped in piles.  Fourteen Confederate generals (six killed or mortally wounded, seven wounded, and one captured) and 55 regimental commanders were casualties.The Army of Tennessee never fought again as an effective force and Hood’s career was ruined.

See a related Battle of Franklin post about Carnton Plantation and the “Widow of the South.”

Visiting the Carter House is particularly impressive because it’s Carter House, Franklin TNdifferent from what one sees visiting most other Civil War battlefields.  In Gettysburg, for example, one sees wide open farm fields and wooded areas like the famous Little Round Top.  Here in Franklin, visitors see the bullet holes in the buildings and get a sense

The far office is the site's most bullet damaged building.
The farm office is the site’s most bullet damaged building.

of what is was like as the armies came up the pike to fight in a more settled area. Beyond the battle, it’s interesting to get a glimpse of the Carter house, its furnishings and the farm buildings where life of that era took place.

Unfortunately, modern life has crept into this historic site to the detriment of the story of this battle. Our guide had to describe the armies moving up from down by Domino’s Pizza, which doesn’t exactly enhance the visitor experience. Unlike more well-preserved battlefields like Shiloh and Gettysburg, the trench lines and places of savage combat here in Franklin were, over the years, covered over with homes, industrial sites, shops, and parking lots. Whether through ignorance or a desire to forget, the places where hundreds lay dead or dying became places to buy pizza or cold beer.  Yet a determined group of preservationists (including the Heritage Foundation of Franklin, Save the Franklin Battlefield, the Battle of Franklin Trust, and the Civil War Trust) are fighting their own battle—to reclaim the Franklin battlefield, often acre by acre, tract by tract.

Coming Events to Mark the 150 Anniversary of the Battle of Franklin

November 14-15, 2014 – Blue & Gray Days
Blue & Gray Days draws hundreds of school children and adult spectators every year. Hosted by both The Carter House and Carnton Plantation, guests will meet Civil War re-enactors and get hands-on experience with clothes, trades, and weapons of the past. This living history experience is the perfect field trip and great for families. For additional details or to make field trip reservations, please contact Angell Roberts at (615) 794-0903 or angell@battleoffranklintrust.org.
November 15-16, 2014 – The 150th Anniversary Battle of Franklin Re-enactment
Re-enactors from all over the country will come together to bring the Battle of Franklin to life. Camps will be open for visitors to walk-through and experience civilian and soldier life in the 1860s.

Great Books to Great Boots in Nashville, Tennessee

If you think reading is a solitary pursuit, you need to go to a book festival. 

Southern Festival of Books on the Leglislative Plaza in Nashville, Tennessee
Southern Festival of Books on the Leglislative Plaza in Nashville, Tennessee

I moseyed down south to the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville a couple of weeks ago and found myself amidst about 30,000 kindred spirits. I strolled among rows of tents full of books and publishers–like an art fair for book lovers–set up on the capitol city’s Legislative Plaza.  Program in hand, I had the difficult task of choosing among the 212 sessions, three performance stages, and 325 authors speaking and signing their books during the three-day event.

Sessions (usually about an hour) took place in Nashville’s gorgeous public library,

So many books and authors, so little time.
So many books and authors, so little time.

Legislative Plaza rooms, and in War Memorial Auditorium. Authors talked about their books, like a book club discussion.  In fact, book clubs showed up to ask questions and share their enthusiasm for books their groups had read. I especially enjoyed hearing William Landay talk about his experiences as a prosecutor and the ideas that went into writing his bestseller, Defending Jacob.  Another of my favorites, Meg Wolitzer, read from her book The Interestings and talked about how her own background influenced the story.  But, the fest offers something for lovers of every literary genre, a look at regional writers who you may not know, as well as appearances from big name writers who this year included  Bill Bryson, former Vice President Al Gore, Rick Bragg, Roy Blount, Clyde Edgerton, Chuck Palahniuk and others. It was a little slice of heaven for book enthusiasts and the throngs there offered clear proof that, though the publishing industry is changing dramatically, readers are more passionate than ever about books and relish the opportunity to connect with authors and with their fellow readers.

Encouraging the Readers (and Writers) of the Future

I was also impressed with the Festival’s efforts to boost childrens’ interest in literature.  It offered sessions for teachers, parents, and young readers from toddlers to YA.  Take for example, panels such as “Building Kids Imaginations through Picture Books: Museums, Libraries, Engineers, Mice and More” or “Zombie Tales of the Undead for Teens and Tweens,” or singer Janis Ian reading her book, The Tiny Mouse. In fact, about 60 of the featured authors this year write for children and teens. The biggest event:  kids screamed for Rick Riordan (author of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series) like he was a rock star.  Read more about the Festival in Publishers Weekly.

A Great Lit Trip

A trip to a book festival makes a great trip for a book club, a group of friends, or mother/daughter combos, especially if the festival takes place in exciting destinations such as those next on the calendar of book fairs–the Miami Book Fair International in November, The Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival in March, and the Los Angeles Time Festival of Books, in April. With all of the fun things to do in these cities–fun food, night life and beaches, they make terrific destinations, book festivals aside. To plan a trip, check out my book Off The Beaten Page: The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Book Clubs, and Girls on Getaways. You’ll find essays, reading lists and itineraries for each of these cities. And, check out my other posts on book festivals.

Beyond the Books

Boots and music on Broadway, Nashville
Boots and music on Broadway, Nashville

If this sounds a little too book-obsessed, for a weekend in the Country Music Capitol, I want to assure you that we took advantage of the other great stuff to do in Nashville. Exhibit A, my new cowboy boots, perfect footwear to wander up and down Broadway, Nashville’s main music thoroughfare, where country tunes pour forth night and day.

You never know who you'll meet on the street in Nashville.
You never know who you’ll meet on the street in Nashville.

(For classic country music, be sure to make a stop at Roberts Western World and Tootsies Orchid Lounge.)  Right in the neighborhood, we found good eats at Merchants and The Southern Steak and Oyster.  For more Nashville ideas, take a look at this article on GoNomad.