Sunday, September 23, 2007

"Widow of the South" & Franklin, Tennessee

Cemetery - Carnton in the background
Robert Hicks autographing his book
Bullet holes in the barn on the Carter property

Robert Hicks' Civil War "New York Times" bestseller historical novel, "The Widow of the South," based on the Carrie McGavock and the Battle of Franklin, TN is powerful. Carrie McGavock, morose over the death of three of her young children, rises to the occasion when her plantation home becomes a military hospital. She personally attends to the wounds and after the war reburies nearly 1500 fallen soldiers in her personal cemetery.

When my husband, John, and I were in Tennessee Carnton was a must-stop as it is for all those who have read the book. We were fortunate to meet the author and have our book autographed. The beauty and serenity of Carnton of today shows none of the horror that existed on November 30, 1864 in what the "National Geographic" calls the "most unjustly forgotten" of all the Civil War's major engagements. It was the bloodiest five hours of the Civil War. The deaths exceeded those of Picket’s Charge and Battle of Normandy. Instead of writing a purely non-fiction book, Hicks explained he was advised to write an historical novel by author Shelby Foote, noted Civil War historian because it is "the storytellers who keep history alive." This story could easily have faded into the past had it not been for his book.

The mansion is beautifully restored making it hard to visualize the time when the porches and all the rooms were packed with the wounded and drying soldiers. Today the grounds are landscaped with flowers. Gone are the piles of dead bodies and amputated body parts that were just tossed out the window of the upstairs room that served as a surgery. Walking through the cemetery and reading the names – Carrie duly recorded the name of each soldier and wrote personal letters

It is amazing how one novel, albeit a riveting one, can benefit an entire region. We stayed at the nearby Brentwood Inn and had breakfast with a couple from California who made a special trip to Franklin after reading the book. In the year after the book was published in 2005 tourism increased 170%. There is a lot to do in the area, which is only 30 minutes south of Nashville.

Not far from Carnton is the Carter House, which served as the Federal Command Post. Carter House has the distinction of being the most battle-damaged building from the Civil War with over 1,000 bullet holes still visible. The family hid in the cellar during the battle. Their son, Tod, was not with them. He had joined the military three years before and was part of the Confederate military that advanced on his hometown. He was mortally wounded on the edge of the property and was carried to the house where he died two days later.

Today the center of Franklin is a National Historic District. On our walking tour, Rene, our guide shared fascinating local stories that included one about a charming Southern belle who enchanted Union officers while smuggling contraband under her hoop skirts. Rene explained that, "A really good petticoat spy could conceal as much as 35 lbs. of food, medicine and information on her person."

The Franklin area is more than a place to learn about the Civil War, there are a plethora of shops including The Factory filled with boutique shops with everything from Antiques at the Factory to the Stoveworks. Ninety-minutes from Franklin is a something that is strictly Tennessee – Jack Daniel’s Distillery. Overall-clad guides give a witty tour of the distillery with no sipping because it is in the dry town of Lynchburg. For wine-lovers, Arrington Vineyards recently opened with Kix Brooks of Brooks and Dunn fame as a partner. Remember "Music City" is only 30 minutes from Franklin and offers an entirely different Tennessee experience.