Widow tells true story of Tennessee woman who buried Southern dead after Civil War battle
By GREG LANGLEY
THE WIDOW OF THE SOUTH
By Robert Hicks
Warner Books, $24.95
I am tempted to describe this book as a Civil War romance. It’s not a romance. It might be called faction — a blend of history and fiction, but it’s more than that. With a literary plot advanced with a journalistic immediacy, it’s a bit like In Cold Blood but also like Cold Mountain. Whatever else it is, this book is good.
The tale revolves around Carrie McGavock, the real life mistress of an antebellum plantation called Carnton near Franklin, Tenn. The McGavocks were a prominent Tennessee family, and Carrie (Caroline) Winder McGavock was the granddaughter of a Tennessee senator. She was born, however, in Natchez, Miss., and raised on a Terrebonne Parish plantation. In 1848, she married her first cousin, John McGavock, and moved to his Tennessee plantation. The McGavocks had five children, three of whom died before 1864.
It was in November of that year, during an unseasonably warm spell, that a great battle was fought in nearby Franklin. Union and Confederate troops clashed and 9,200 men became casualties, killed, wounded or captured. Carnton was commandeered as a field hospital. During the battle, six Confederate generals were killed, and four of them were laid out at one time on the porch of Carnton.
After the battle, some 1,500 Confederates were buried in a common grave on the battlefield. After the war, a landowner wanted to plow up the field where the soldiers were buried. The McGavocks refused to allow that to happen and personally led the work to recover the bodies from the field, then gave two acres of land for their reinterment adjacent to the McGavock family cemetery on the grounds of Carnton. It became one of the largest private military cemeteries in the country. Carrie McGavock tended the soldiers’ graves the rest of her life and became known as "the Widow of the South." She died in 1905.
Those are the facts, but as every good writer knows, the facts don’t tell the whole story. The McGavocks were a prominent family and left some records, but no large cache of personal writings. Hicks decided to use his best asset to reconstruct their personal lives: his imagination. He invents characters like Becky Griffin, who gets pregnant by her Confederate soldier sweetheart only to learn he is killed in the battle. An invented Arkansas soldier wounded at the battle, Zachariah Cashwell, provides more romantic tension.
Hicks also uses major historical figures of the time such as Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate cavalry commander. He gives him voice and a personality that ring true to the times.
"Ma’am, my name is General Nathan Forrest. I’m sorry to make a fuss while you tryin’ to rest, but it can’t be helped. I wish to God it could. We’s using your porch to inspect the field before the fighting begins. Goin’ to be a fight around here later, no mistake. If I was guessin’, I’d say the fighting ain’t goin’ to happen right here, but it goin’ to be close by, maybe around the river to the town. That’s where the enemy has his works. There goin’ to be men passing through this way, and the fighting may come this far," Forrest tells Carrie.
The ex-slave Mariah who has "visions" when she visits the graves of the dead soldiers is a major figure in the book and is based on a real person as well, Mariah Otey Reddick.
Hicks is good with battle scenes too. When another fictional soldier, Ohio lieutenant Nathan Stiles, sees the battle begin, he is nearly struck dumb:
"What I saw was the most beautiful thing I have seen, and I wished to never see it again. In the distance the entire Confederate Army of Tennessee stood on line. All of them. We’d been fighting out here in the west, in Alabama and Mississippi and Tennessee, always hemmed in by rivers and forest and tight little winding roads, and I had never thought about what thousands of men would look like if they stood out and faced us. But there they were. they shimmered in the distance, the warming air making them look wavy like a dream, something from another world. There were flags of all sorts snapping in the wind — the red and blue cross on their battle flag, the odd, faded blue and white flags of one of the divisions in the center. Sounds of brass bands, one playing ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me.’ I wanted them to stay there always, frozen in their splendor."
The key voice in this book is Carrie’s, as it should be. She’s the title character, after all. And she is one of the most fully realized characters ever to grace the pages of a book. We know her inner thoughts and her motivations. Carrie is a woman for whom death is just a door people walk though, one she can send her mind through by using her remarkable memory.
"I remember the voices of my children and the sound of my own voice teaching them their lessons and reading them Bible stories, the sound of the piano, the sound of the tall case clock ticking in the hallway. Nothing disappears. I imagined that the sounds and smells of the children existed somewhere, borne away by the wind. That was a comforting thought. they also existed in my mind, as memories, but of late I had come to distrust those," she muses.
Later, after the battle, after working with the wounded at Carnton, she considers the hurt soldiers in a similar way. "Marcus Sanders was one of the soldiers who died at my house in those days, and most of them left me with memories. They were not all the same men, they were not just bodies. Sometimes my memories weren’t as detailed as those I had of Marcus. sometimes they were just snatches of things: songs I heard a man singing in a weird, high-pitched tongue, songs that drew a little crowd and made some of the men stomp up and down on their boots like they were trying to rattle the trees at their roots; the time one of the men, who claimed to be college-educated, held forth and lectured to a room full of unconscious men on the betrayal of Achilles; the time I watched for hours as a young man from Georgia named Stace carved a leering, bucktoothed face in one of the spindles lining our back porch.
"They all died, and I remember them all."
It is those memories that motivate Carrie to her great task of caring for the dead, for she sees only a flimsy boundary between the here and now and the there and then.
It is a warm, reassuring view of death that gives her comfort and allowed her and others to keep their sanity in spite of dealing with thousands of dead — "they were not just bodies."
The Widow of the South is a wonderful blend of history and art. It tells an epic story in a way that mere facts never could. It’s rich with detail and strong characters. It has some weaknesses. The storyline between Zachariah and Carrie is meant to maintain tension but winds up seeming secondary and unnecessary. Some of the characters seem too modern in their attitudes. These are mostly minor quibbles. This is a very readable book, entertaining and engrossing. A lengthy author’s note at the end offers the real history of Carnton and has paintings and photos of the real characters of the novel.
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