The Widow McGavock

continued from Hear the Cannon Boom

The woman walked alone down among the graves, her black skirts brushing the headstones as she passed.  Ever few steps she would stop, bend down, and remove a stray branch or leaf from a grave before continuing on.   She walked on into the distance, down the long center aisle until she disappeared into the afternoon mist.

Caroline Elizabeth Winder McGavock’s life prior to 1864 was like any other wife of a plantation owner in the South.  She raised her children, oversaw the keeping of the house and helped her husband manage his affairs. But this would all change in November 1864.


Carrie, as she preferred to be called,  was very much a woman of her time in many ways, but ahead of her time in others.  She’d grown up in New Orleans, Louisiana, the daughter of a sugar cane planter. She tended to favor the wearing of black, even as a young woman – something that caused eyebrows to raise in a time when debutantes were more known for their feminine frills.  Perhaps this was foreshadowing of the darkness that life would eventually bring – a fate from which she carved her own legend.

Carrie married her cousin John McGavock and moved to Tennessee, just south of Nashville in the little town of Franklin.  John McGavock, grandson of Irish immigrants, was the son of a former mayor of Nashville.  He inherited his father’s 1,400 acre plantation, Carnton, in the early 1840’s.  The name Carnton comes from the Gaelic cairn, which means a pile of stones.  Cairn can also refer to a burial ground – ironic considering what Carnton would become.


Carrie and John would have five children, but tragedy struck Carnton far before the Battle of Franklin.  Their little son John didn’t survive a year after birth.  They buried daughter Mary Elizabeth at the age of seven and her older sister Martha would die in 1862 at the age of thirteen, leaving only Hattie and Winder to survive to adulthood.

On November 30, 1864 as the Battle of Franklin unfolded around the house, it must have been terrifying for the McGavocks.  They would have seen the glow of cannon and musket fire in the night sky as it rattled their windows.  Carnton was less than a mile away from the action, so it wasn’t long before the wounded started arriving in their yard.  As the night went on dozens became hundreds. Wounded men rested under the nearby trees, throughout the house and in all the outbuildings at Carnton.  Huge fires were built wherever possible for warmth on what must have been a cold night.

The Independant Tourist
Blood stains at Carnton (photo courtesy of The Independent)

The battle didn’t begin until late in the afternoon of November 30 and continued on after the sun fell.  The men battled for about five hours in close combat and mostly in the dark. The casualties were tremendous. Roughly 9,500 were killed, wounded, missing, or captured. Of this number, 7,000 were Confederates.



Throughout the night, the cries of the wounded and dying could be heard in the darkness and inside the house must have been hell on earth.  Makeshift tables were made with wooden planks and doors removed from hinges.  Doctors dealt with mangled arms and legs the only way they could – via amputation.  Without anesthesia, the screams in the night must have been nightmarish.  Carrie’s children, Hattie and Winder were rather young during this time, but most likely scurried around the house, along with their mother, trying to help where possible.  Any type of cloth was used for bandages, including old linens from the family cupboard.  It is said that there were men in every nook and cranny of the house.  Their blood still stains the wood floors of Carnton to this day.


It is estimated that up to 300 men were treated inside the house that night, with an unknown number outside. By the next morning, 150 men had died in the house and three Confederate generals, including Patrick Claiborne, lay dead on the back porch.  When Carrie emerged from the house it is said the hem of her dress was soaked with blood. How does one go through such an experience and not be forever changed?

The men that never made it to Carnton, were buried near where they were fell. Wooden markers were placed on each grave with any information known about the deceased – name, company, and/or regiment. Over the next couple of years, the markers started to rot or became firewood and the land was needed for cultivation.  As a result, the citizens of Franklin raised money to relocate the graves elsewhere.  The McGavock’s donated the land for a cemetery and the work began.

As each grave was dug up, any information available about the soldier was logged into a book.  It took about ten months to complete the task and once the bodies were reburied at Carnton, the logbook was handed over to the McGavocks for safe keeping.  In total, there were almost 1,500 soldiers moved to their new resting place at Carnton.


Carrie oversaw the upkeep of the cemetery for the rest of her life.  She answered letters from families searching for a lost son, father, or brother, trying to provide closure where possible. She was known to take daily walks in the cemetery, picking up branches or pulling weeds – maintaining the graves out of respect for the sacrifice given.

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Carrie McGavock, the Widow of the South (photo courtesy of Carnton Plantation)
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McGavock Cemetery – circa 1866 (photo courtesy of The Tennessee Magazine)

Today, Carrie and her family rest in the same cemetery. The headstones of her boys still lying at attention in neat rows.  Visitors still come to walk through the halls of Carnton and admire the beautiful gardens in the spring, but it is a walk through the cemetery that haunts them.

It is the thought of what happened here long ago that stays with them long after they are gone.

All photos not marked are by the author.


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