Civil War Nurse at the Battle of Franklin
Carrie McGavock’s plantation home, Carnton, on the outskirts of Franklin, Tennessee, was used as a hospital after the Battle of Franklin on November 30, 1864. She not only oversaw the care of the wounded in and around her house, she was responsible for making sure that nearly 1500 Confederates were reinterred in a cemetery on the McGavock property.
Carrie Winder and John McGavock were married in December 1848. They had five children during the subsequent years, three of whom died at young ages: Martha, Mary Elizabeth and John Randal. The surviving children, Winder (1857-1907) and Hattie (1855-1932), witnessed the carnage at their home.
The first construction on the property took place in 1815 by John’s father Randal McGavock, a prominent local politician who was friends with two future U.S. presidents, James K. Polk and Andrew Jackson, who stayed in the McGavock home on more than one occasion. McGavock named the property Carnton, which was derived from the Gaelic word cairn which means a pile of stones marking a grave.
Carnton was a working plantation of 1,400 acres of which 500 acres was used to raise wheat, corn, oats, hay and potatoes. After his father died in 1843, John McGavock took possession of the property and continued to farm it until his death. Under his direction, Carnton grew to become one of the premier farms in Williamson County, Tennessee. He started renovating the home in the late 1840s, adding a two-story Greek Revival porch onto the rear of the home.
Prelude to Battle
In late July 1864 General John Bell Hood assumed command of the 30,000-man Confederate Army of Tennessee while the Confederates were pinned inside Atlanta by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman. Hood made a series of desperate attacks against Sherman but finally relinquished the city on September 1, 1864. No longer able to wage an offensive against the massive Federal force, Hood retreated into Alabama to regroup.
In early November, Hood moved north into Tennessee, hoping to draw Sherman out of the Deep South by threatening his supply base at Nashville. Sherman did not take the bait. He sent General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio, 30,000 strong, to deal with Hood’s threat while he took the rest of the force on his famous March to the Sea, during which his men destroyed most of central Georgia.
Hood knew that there were already 25,000 Union soldiers under General George Thomas entrenched in Nashville, and he hoped to defeat Schofield before the two forces joined. After a month of sparring along the Tennessee and the Duck Rivers, on November 28 Hood surrounded half of Schofield’s army in the town of Columbia, Tennessee, where they skirmished with Hood’s cavalry under General Nathan Bedford Forrest, but soon withdrew north across the Duck River.
As Schofield continued to retreat, Hood missed a golden opportunity at Spring Hill to trap the other half of Schofield’s army on the south side of the river. In the dark of night the Yankees passed within earshot of the Rebels camped along the road. This movement was noticed by some Confederates, but no effort was made to block it. By morning, Schofield had successfully extricated his entire force from Spring Hill and was en route to Franklin.
Realizing that he had missed a chance to attack the Union force, Hood was incensed, blaming his officers for the failure to block Schofield’s advance. Hood immediately ordered a pursuit to Franklin, where he would have one more chance to crush Schofield before he could join General Thomas’ force at Nashville.
Arriving at Franklin at 6:00 a.m. on November 30, the lead Union troops began preparing arc-shaped fortifications along the southern edge of Franklin. The Union rear was protected by the Harpeth River. The bridges across the river had to be repaired before the bulk of his forces could cross, so Schofield decided to make a stand. While the bridge work commenced, his soldiers began shoring up the earthworks, which were complete by noon.
Hood’s columns reached Winstead Hill, two miles south of Franklin, around 1:00 p.m. Hood ordered his commanders to prepare for a frontal assault on the formidable Union defenses. However, Hood was at a disadvantage because one of his three divisions and much of his artillery had not yet arrived. His subordinates attempted to talk him into calling off the attack, but he would not relent.
Battle of Franklin
At 4 p.m. on November 30, 1864, one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War began when Hood recklessly attacked the entrenched Federal army in a massive frontal assault larger than Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg – the last great charge of the war. The Rebel lines moved in nearly perfect unison across two miles of open ground, and were immediately torn by scores of Union cannon; Hood had only one battery positioned to counter the enemy fire.
Yet the line continued to sweep forward and quickly overwhelmed two brigades of Yankees in the outer trenches, half a mile in front of the main line. Charging and yelling, the Confederates in the center crossed the last half mile of their assault largely unopposed; the riflemen behind the breastworks were unwilling to shoot into the swirl of men in their front, which now included their friends in the outer trenches.
The Confederates slammed into the Union center with full momentum and splintered the defenders around the Carter House. Thousands of men now surged together in the Carter gardens. After a long period of brutal hand-to-hand combat, the Yankees were able to close the breach and throw back the Confederates. Despite the heavy casualties, Hood believed that the Union center had been badly damaged.
Swept by musketry and artillery fire, the Rebels pressed on until they reached the tall abatis of the main fortifications. They had no choice but to try to claw their way through the strong branches while muskets were discharged literally in their faces. Union soldiers would later write about the sight of twisted and contorted corpses amidst the timber.
Darkness fell early that winter evening, and the majority of the combat occurred in the dark and at close quarters. Parts of the Union’s outer trenches fell to Hood’s men, but they did not penetrate any further and suffered significant casualties. The Confederates retreated, reformed, and renewed the attack several times, but could not break through the Union lines.
Unwilling to accept defeat, Hood continued to throw uncoordinated attacks against Schofield’s works. Around 7:00 p.m. Hood’s third corps arrived on the field, and he sent his left wing to lead another assault. Storming forward, these Confederate units failed to reach the Union line and became pinned down. For two hours an intense firefight ensued until Confederate troops were able to fall back in the darkness.
The Battle of Franklin had lasted barely five hours during which some 9,500 soldiers were killed, wounded, captured or listed as missing. Nearly 7,000 of that number were Confederate troops. The losses among the Confederate leadership were disastrous: six generals killed, including Patrick Cleburne, one of the army’s finest division commanders; another five wounded, one captured, and sixty regimental commanders killed or wounded.
With the Confederate assault defeated, Schofield’s men began crossing the Harpeth around 11:00 p.m. and reached the fortifications at Nashville the following day. Despite the defeat, Hood continued to move against Schofield and Thomas. Just two weeks later, he hurled the remnants of his army against the Yankees at Nashville with equally disastrous results.
Carnton is a Field Hospital
Carnton was less than a mile from the eastern Union flank. Since most of the battle took place after dark, the McGavocks witnessed the fire and explosion of guns and muskets that permeated the sky over Franklin. After the battle, many Franklin homes were converted into temporary hospitals, but Carnton was by far the largest field hospital, where hundreds of wounded and dying Confederate soldiers were treated.
That cold winter night, John and Carrie McGavock were at Carnton with their two surviving children when hundreds of wounded and dying Confederates began to stream into the shelter of the grove of trees near the house. Soon big fires were built to give the suffering some warmth, and all the farm outbuildings were filled with wounded.
Many were taken into the two-story brick McGavock home, where surgeons worked at improvised tables to amputate mangled arms and legs and bind wounds. The floors of the home are still stained with the blood of the men who were treated here. About 150 wounded soldiers died in the house during the night. As their bodies were removed, their places were quickly filled by other wounded men.
Hundreds of Confederate wounded and dying were tended by Carrie McGavock and her family. Her two children, Hattie (age nine) and son Winder (age seven), probably provided some basic assistance to the surgeons as well. Some estimates say that as many as 300 Confederate soldiers were cared for inside Carnton alone. Scores, if not hundreds more, were spread out through the rest of the property, including in the slave cabins.
John and Carrie McGavock described the scene at Carnton after the Battle of Franklin:
Every room was filled, every bed had two poor, bleeding fellows, every spare space, niche, and corner under the stairs, in the hall, everywhere. And when the noble old house could hold no more, the yard was appropriated until the wounded and dead filled that. Our doctors were deficient in bandages and [Carrie] began by giving her old linen, then her towels and napkins, then her sheets and tableclothes, then her husband’s shirts and her own undergarments.
On the morning of December 1, 1864 the residents of Franklin faced an unimaginable scene: over 2,500 dead soldiers, including 1,750 Confederates. Witnesses say Carrie McGavock’s dress was soaked with blood at the hem that morning. The bodies of three Confederate generals killed during the fighting were laid out on Carnton’s back porch: Patrick Cleburne, Hiram Granbury and Otho Strahl.
Burying the Dead
According to George Cowan’s History of McGavock Confederate Cemetery, all of the Confederate dead were buried as nearly as possible by state, and wooden headboards were placed at each grave with the name, company and regiment painted or written on them. Many of the soldiers had been buried on the battlefield in Franklin where they fell, mostly on property belonging to Fountain Branch Carter and James McNutt.
Over the next eighteen months (all of 1865 through the first half of 1866) many of the wooden grave markers either rotted or were used for firewood, and the writing on the existing boards was disappearing. John and Carrie McGavock donated two acres of land adjacent to their family cemetery behind Carnton for the McGavock Confederate Cemetery, where the Confederate dead could be re-interred together.
Image: McGavock Confederate Cemetery
Carnton is in the background
The citizens of Franklin raised the money and a team of men led by George Cuppett took responsibility for the reburial operation in the spring of 1866. By June, some ten weeks later, the last Confederate soldier was laid to rest. Some 1,481 Rebel soldiers from every state in the Confederacy, except Virginia, were now at peace. Cuppett recorded the names and identities of the soldiers in a record book, which he then turned over to the McGavocks.
In 1896, the John McEwen Bivouac veterans’ organization raised funds to replace the wooden headboards in the cemetery with granite markers. Carrie McGavock maintained the cemetery with African-American workers until her death in 1905. The original cemetery book is on display upstairs in the Carnton mansion.
Later, an iron fence was built around the graveyard. It was the idea of Mary Ann Harris Gay of Macon, Georgia, who traveled to Franklin to visit the grave of her beloved half brother, Lt. Tom Stokes of the 10th Texas. As she looked at the neat rows of wooden markers, she was appalled to see free range cows trampling the graves. She realized the graves needed protection and launched a fund-raising drive to add the iron fence around the graveyard. Most of the money came from Texas.
A prayer by Reverend John Hanner which mentions Carrie McGavock was quoted in Confederate Veteran magazine in 1905:
We thank thee for the… feeble knees she lifted up, for the many hearts she comforted, the needy ones she supplied, the sick she ministered unto, and the boys she found in abject want and mothered and reared into worthy manhood. In the last day they will rise up and call her blessed. Today she is not, because thou hast taken her; and we are left to sorrow for the Good Samaritan of Williamson County, a name richly merited by her.
Today, the McGavock Confederate Cemetery is a lasting memorial honoring those fallen soldiers and the Battle of Franklin. It is the largest privately owned military cemetery in the nation. The McGavock family owned Carnton until 1911 when it was sold by the widow of Winder McGavock.
Every year, Carnton receives visitors from all over the world. The site is maintained and managed by the Battle of Franklin Trust, a non-profit organization which also manages another historic Battle of Franklin home, the Carter House. The property consists of 48 of the original 1,400 acres and includes the restored antebellum home, a recreated one-acre 1847 garden, slave quarters, smokehouse, springhouse, and the adjacent Confederate Cemetery.