Confederate cemetery cared for by devoted woman at Carnton, site of one of Civil War's bloodiest battles
Rocking chairs line Carnton’s back porch where four Confederate generals were laid out after their deaths at the Battle of Franklin. At the far end, the plantation’s garden reflects the period’s style.
One thing I love to do on vacation is tromp through history. I've been all sorts of places -- Graceland in Memphis, Tenn., the grassy knoll in Dallas, and Philadelphia's Old City.
Some parts of history draw me more, such as the Civil War. I took the ferry to Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C. I've watched the "North and South" miniseries -- all three parts -- at least three times each and I visited the plantation that stood as a major set for it.
So when I hit Nashville for a writing conference, I had to hit one of the nearby battlefields.GETTING THERE
My trip to Nashville was an experiment in going mapless -- my Google map directions from the airport to the hostel were so wrong, I decided to chuck the drawings all together. I walked into the visitors center in downtown Nashville and asked which interstate to take to Carnton Plantation in Franklin, the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the war and the largest privately owned military cemetery in the nation.
The man offered to draw me a map, but I declined.
"It's a Civil War battlefield -- surely, there'll be signs on the highway," I said. He nodded, and off me and my rented minivan went down Interstate 65, about 30 minutes south of Nashville, past Brentwood, to the city of about 65,000.
I was right -- signs announce which exit to take, how many more miles, and once you're in town, which turn to make.
At one point, I thought surely I'd missed a turn, but then I saw the last sign. Then I drove through one of the many beautiful neighborhoods I'd drive through that week.
One thing that always ruins my first impression of most historic sites is the parking lot full of modern cars.A PLACE IN HISTORY
Randal McGavock, friend of President Andrew Jackson and well-known Nashville resident, finished Carnton in 1826. The name derives from the Gaelic word cairn, meaning a pile of stones, which sometimes mark a grave.
His son, John, inherited it in 1843. He married Carrie and they had five children, but only two lived to adulthood.
Nashville was taken by Union forces in 1862. This was a problem for slave owners because now when slaves ran away, they only had to get to Nashville to be free instead of the Ohio River. A large number of slaves was considered 10 or more -- John owned 39. He shipped his slaves to Alabama, which made them free before they would have been in Tennessee, which didn't free slaves until 1866.
John held the title of colonel, but it was an honorary title and he'd never seen military service.
At 4 p.m. on Nov. 30, 1864, Carnton bore witness to one of the bloodiest five hours of the Civil War, according to the Battle of Franklin Trust website. The Confederate Army of Tennessee attacked the Federal army entrenched on the southern edge of Franklin as they marched to Nashville.
The majority of the combat happened in the dark and at close quarters. The Battle of Franklin lasted barely five hours and about 9,500 soldiers were killed, wounded, captured or counted missing when it was over. Nearly 7,000 were Confederate troops. Carnton served as the largest field hospital in the area for hundreds of wounded and dying Confederate soldiers,
The McGavock family was affected by the Battle of Franklin when their home became a field hospital for wounded Confederate soldiers -- the largest in the area following the battle.
According to the website, a staff officer later wrote that "the wounded, in hundreds, were brought to (the house) during the battle, and all the night after. And when the noble old house could hold no more, the yard was appropriated until the wounded and dead filled that."
The McGavock family owned Carnton until 1911 when Susie Lee McGavock, widow of Winder McGavock, sold it. It passed through several owners -- even being used as a hay barn for a time -- until 1977, when the house and 10 acres were donated to the Carnton Association, Inc. by Dr. W. D. Sugg, according to the trust's website.
In 1973, Carnton was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.CARNTON TOUR
Carnton Plantation has been open to tours since the 1970s. Guided tours last about an hour and start about every 30 minutes.
Derek Peck, historical interpreter at Carnton, led my private tour. It was private because I was the only one on the plantation when the tour started. That meant I could ask all the questions Iâ€ˆwanted and look as long as I could.
Carnton has the grand presence of antebellum architecture -- the home is built in the Federal style, but the columns and other features added later were indicative of the Greek Revival style, popular around the time of the Civil War.
It has high ceilings, hardwood floors, a large back porch and antiques.
One of the outbuildings has furniture that slaves used on display.
Some of the furniture is original to the house, but everything else is from the period.
In the dining room, the walls look like a hand-painted mural of an open-air scene, but it is wallpaper. The wallpaper is a match to the original patterns -- scraps were found in the attic and were reprinted from the original company and hung throughout the house during the restoration.
Painted portraits of different McGavoks hung in nearly every room.
On the front porch, Peck explained how Carrie stood there and watched the soldiers march down the path on their way to battle.
Upstairs, he spoke of where the children took lessons and how the nursery became a theater of operation when the Confederacy took over the home.
Of note on the tour are the floorboards. At first glance, they look as though they've been stained and marked with time. But it's more than that -- the dark brown rings and splotches are blood stains. Peck told me the stains would never come out, no matter how hard they were cleaned.
Walking through rooms once meant for babies, and hearing how they were turned into surgery rooms where doctors amputated limbs and wounded and dying soldiers lined the floors brought history to life.THE GRAVES
The McGavock Confederate Cemetery is the largest privately owned and maintained military cemetery in the United States. The Franklin chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy has maintained the plots since 1905.
The stones are lined up in orderly rows, like most military cemeteries, and divided in sections by state. Some stones bear names -- 780 were identified while 558 remain unknown.
Large trees loom over the graves, contained within a wrought iron fence, in view of the plantation.
In 1866, John and his wife, Carrie, set aside nearly two acres of their property so almost 1,500 Confederate soldiers who died in the Battle of Franklin could be reinterred. The soldiers had initially been identified -- Confederate Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood didn't want them buried in mass graves -- and buried in shallow graves in December 1864.
The McGavocks would care for the graves until their deaths -- John in 1893 and Carrie in 1905.COMING UP
Several annual events are scheduled to mark Carnton's past.
Nov. 2 and 3 will bring Blue & Gray Days, which draws more than 500 school children and hundreds of adult spectators every year.Â It opens to the general public at 12:30 p.m. on Nov. 2. Event hours on Nov. 3 are 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
It marks the 147th anniversary of the Battle of Franklin. Held by the Carter House, another historic Franklin property, and Carnton. Guests can meet Civil War re-enactors including Dennis Boggs as Abraham Lincoln, a surgeon and a blacksmith and have hands-on experience with clothes, trades, photography and weapons of the past, according to information from the trust.