Widow of the South: Carrie McGavock

Posted on: March 16th, 2009 by National Trust for Historic Preservation
Carrie McGavork (credit: Carnton Historic Plantation, Franklin TN)

Carrie McGavock (credit: Carnton Historic Plantation, Franklin, TN)

It seems appropriate that Carrie McGavock would be the subject of a blog during Woman’s History Month. For like most women in history she was pretty much left out until recently. One of the reviews of a novel I wrote based on her life, described her as “The most famous Southern woman you never heard of.” He got that right.

When Carrie died in 1905, my favorite of her many eulogies and obituaries worded it best, “Those of us who recall the hours as they became days, the two feet of blood on her skirts and the blood up to her elbows, how she ceased to care for herself as she cared over the dying and how she spent the remainder of her life caring over the dead, we, and all generations after us will rise up and call her Blessed.” Truth is, with the passage of time, we didn’t even rise up and call her “Carrie.” She joined all the women before her and since who have been lost to memory and history.

Carrie Winder McGavock never envisioned her life or deeds to be worthy of remembrance by anyone beyond those she had loved and touched. For if truth be known, she really did nothing more than what women have done throughout the ages, what has always been expected of them. You see men go to war and then women – mothers, wives, daughters and the like – are left to pick up the pieces, to mend, to heal, to bury, to mourn, to remember. Her story, as it unfolded in her home, Carnton, during those five bloodiest hours of the Civil War is not unlike the story of all women, black and white, north and south during those four years of America’s blood bath. Beyond maybe the sheer magnitude of the carnage per hour, there is little that might distinguish her work from all the others before and after her, save for maybe the cemetery – the largest private military cemetery ever created in America – there, in her backyard. And then how she never forgot, spending the rest of her life simply remembering.

That is the power of her story, that she did not forget those who died at Franklin – in her home, on her lawn, in her and her neighbors’ fields.

The Widow of the South

The Widow of the South

Several years ago I had the opportunity to tell her story to Dolly Parton when Dolly was using my cabin for her album photography. Dolly, one of the smartest folks I’ve ever known, got the importance of Carrie’s story when I said that only she, among all of Williamson County, would have more obituaries when she died than Carrie had. She thoughtfully replied, “Yes, but never forget; I had to leave home to get them.”

In the end, that may just be the power of Carrie McGavock’s story and the story of that place, Carnton. She did what was expected and required of her. She did it with little thought or hope of praise or remembrance. She was simply faithful to history and her circumstances. And in so doing, she’s as good a reason as I can give you for Women’s History Month.

--Robert Hicks

Robert Hicks, author of Widow of the South and A Guitar and a Pen will present the Special Lecture on Friday, October 16, at the National Preservation Conference in Nashville, Tennessee. For more information about the conference, visit http://www.preservationnation.org/resources/training/npc/.

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The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

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