Thursday, February 7, 2008
The Widow of the South
My book club meets tonight to discuss The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks, which is set during the last months of the American Civil War. The Battle of Franklin (Tennessee) happens right outside Carrie and John McGavock's plantation, Carnton, on November 30, 1864. Due to Carnton's size and proximity, Confederate commanders inform the McGavocks that they will use their home as a hospital. However, this is not the first tragedy to to come home to the McGavocks. They have recently lost three of their five children to illness and are struggling with overwhelming grief. Carrie retreats within herself. She rarely leaves her room and refuses to give up her black mourning clothes. She is so devastated that the doctor fears she may accidentally overdose on the laudanum he prescribes. So, John only gives her one dose at a time. She decides that she doesn't want to take it and hides it in another bottle. She takes comfort in the fact that she could drink the whole bottle if she decided to. She doesn't really want to die, but she doesn't know how she'll live either. Women of her day had very few options. Carrie keeps this option open to herself. She questions her faith in God and struggles with an irrational guilt because she couldn't keep her children alive.
It's not until the first soldiers begin to arrive that Carrie begins to wake from her living nightmare. In the beginning, it's simply the overwhelming amount of work involved in caring for so many badly injured and dying men that keeps her going. She begins to take comfort in the fact that she is needed and can be useful. There is one soldier in particular that she is drawn to -- Zachariah Cashwell. In chapters that alternate between the characters, we learn about Zachariah's past. Beyond the physical wounds he suffered in battle, he bears the emotional scars left following his mother's abandonment when he was a small boy. The pain is what seems to draw Carrie and Zachariah to each other. There is a physical attraction, as well. But, they both know that they shouldn't do anything about it, and they don't.
Over the course of weeks following this devastating battle, she writes letters home for the soldiers, tends their wounds and directs their burial. Through her relationship with Zachariah and the care she gives the soldiers, she is able to let go of some of her own grief. She realizes how odd it is that something this horrible could help her deal with her personal grief.
Many of the dead were buried where they fell on the battlefield. To preserve the remains and honor their sacrifice, Carrie has the bodies reburied on her land. The cemetery is laid out systematically to include areas for each of the states. So, all of the Alabama boys are together and all of the Tennessee men are together. She also painstakingly records the names and states of the soldiers whenever possible in a book, which she keeps on her person at all times.
As usual, life goes on and everyone deals with the changes wrought by war. Carrie decides that she will never quit wearing her mourning clothes. She will spend the rest of her life tending the graves of the men and boys who died during the Battle of Franklin. She will not let them be forgotten. She becomes somewhat of a heroine to many. People from all over the South write to her trying to find information on their husbands, sons and fathers. She is the keeper of the book. She is the Widow of the South.
This book is written as historical fiction. It is based in fact on the actual battle that took place in Franklin, Tennessee on November 30, 1864. Carrie McGavock is real and was known as the Widow of the South for her efforts during and following the war. An Author's Note at the end of the book gives information about Carnton and John and Carrie's descendants. The cemetery at Carnton in Franklin, Tennessee, is still the resting place for more than 1500 (of the over 9,000) young men who died that day.