Wednesday, December 17, 2014

"The Widow of the South" by Robert Hicks (2006)

You are heading to Tennessee in a week for another 'Tender Tennessee Christmas.' Your sister in law, Krystal sent you a text message the other day with a reading assignment. You are staying at her house in Franklin for the holiday and Franklin just happens to be the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the American Civil War. She told you to read "The Widow of the South," a novel about the battle, and when you got there, she would take you and the whole family on a personally guided tour of the sites mentioned in the book. Naturally, you had the book in your hand within 24 hours.

There once lived a woman who was incredibly famous, Oscar Wilde insisted on visiting her on his tour of the United States. She kept a constant vigil in her private cemetery and her perpetual presence amongst the graves of so many fallen boys brought solace to countless families in the shadow of tragedy, but she is almost completely forgotten today. While she lived, she embodied the mourning and bereavement millions of Americans felt in the wake of the extraordinary loss of life during the Civil War. Her name was Carrie McGavok and this book is not as much about the Battle of Franklin as it is about how she became this symbol of sorrow and unspeakable loss, a living memorial for an entire generation that had been sacrificed in a war few would ever understand. But this is no "The Killer Angels." Hicks makes no effort to pretend that his is a definitive historical fiction. It is a novel that just happens to feature some historical people and tries to create some explanations and some contexts for why they did what they did.

But before Hicks can ponder the meaning of all the sacrifice, he has to get to the battle itself. In November of 1864, Confederate Tennessee had been occupied by Union forces for three years. In May of that year, the soon-to-be-infamous Union general William Tecumseh Sherman outmaneuvered the Confederate Army of Tennessee out of the state they were named after. Soon, Sherman had chased the Confederates all the way through Georgia and into Atlanta. The Confederate general John Bell Hood (famous for leading a fearsome regiment of Texans, and whose monument on the grounds of the Texas Capitol is one of your favorites) now lead the entire Confederate Army of Tennessee. Hood hit Sherman's supply lines in an effort to keep him from driving deeper into the heart of the Confederacy. After a few weeks, Sherman tired of chasing Hood and proceeded unmolested with his devastating March to the Sea. Hood saw an opportunity to move back where his own army had originated and reclaim Nashville and thus, Tennessee, for the Confederacy. Sherman had left a screening army to defend against this, but Hood was confident he could defeat it.

The two forces, Union and Confederate, skirmished with one another over the course of that summer and autumn, neither army ever seeing much of the other in the dense woods and rolling hills of northern Georgia and southern Tennessee. It was a conflict colored by quick battles involving few men. In the obscuring cover of the landscape, neither side could bring their full army to bear on the other. By November, Hood's men were into Tennessee and a race for Nashville had begun. Two Union armies were trying to reach the capital city and the defenses which had been built up for three years there. Hood's Confederate forces were desperate to stop the Federals from getting in place behind those formidable defenses. If he could meet the enemy in battle out in the open, Hood was confident he could destroy them. He had the legendary cavalry commander General Nathan Bedford Forrest running screening actions to hide his army's movement from the enemy and on the night of November 29th, Hood was just twenty miles from Nashville, with only one small river crossing to go before being able to take the city from the south. In a small scale battle at Spring Hill, he had outmaneuvered his opponent and as the sun set on the 29th, there were almost no significant Union forces between Hood's army and Nashville. His plan was to smash Union general Schofield's army on the 30th, (or at least keep it from joining the other Union army, lead by general Thomas) and then race through the town of Franklin, Tennessee, beating the bulk of the Union armies to the capital and declaring the entire state back in Confederate hands.

During the night, however, at Spring Hill, Schofield's entire army was somehow able to slip within a few hundred yards of the Confederate positions. They moved around the Confederate forces with only a few shots fired and blocked Hood's uncontested advance into Nashville. By 6:00 on the morning of November 30th (which means that you started reading this book exactly 150 years after the battle took place!) the Union forces were preparing defensive positions in the town of Franklin. Franklin was set on a hill and had an obvious command of the clear fields to the south. The Yankee troops knew their business and quickly made fortifications that were more than just random debris haphazardly thrown together. They constructed barricades that were taller than their heads, but which had gaps at the perfect height to fire through, making them almost impervious to enemy rifle fire. The Union troops cut down thorny Orange Osage trees and positioned them at the base of their fortifications to force the Rebel troops to stop their advance just as they became most visible to Union gunfire. Furthermore, many of the Union troops were armed with a new weapon, the Henry repeating rifle. This firearm was like the ones you always played Cowboys and Indians with when you were a kid. Unlike most weapons on the field in 1864, the Henry rifle could fire multiple shots without being reloaded. After trying one out on the grounds of the White House, President Lincoln himself had personally insisted that the Union mass produce these rifles and get them in the war as soon as possible. It wasn't a machine gun, but it was the closest thing they could get in 1864.

General Hood observed the Union defenses ringing the southern approaches to Franklin and the two miles of open space between his army and the Federals. He reckoned that this was his moment. He might have been furious about his officers allowing the Federal forces to slip past him in the night, or he might have been impetuous. But he was as aggressive as they came and wanted to hit Schofield's men while they were out in the open, before they could retreat to the safety of their prepared defenses in Nashville, and this was likely to be his last chance. At 4:00 in the afternoon he ordered his army to advance into the city of Franklin from the south, confident they would crush all resistance. There were more Confederate soldiers in Hood's charge that in Pickett's more famous one at Gettysburg, but Pickett's Union targets had been softened up by a massive artillery barrage. Hood's big guns weren't in place to offer his men any such help, while the Union had an entire battery of artillery placed in a fort on the opposite side of the river, perfectly positioned to fire down onto Confederate heads with impunity.

The Confederates advanced in good order over open ground and they must have been a sight to see. It is still to this day, the largest single infantry charge in the history of North America. The fighting was fierce from the beginning. The Federal skirmish lines out in front of the main line held on too long before withdrawing, so that as they made their way back to the main line of defense, the Confederates were right behind them. All along the line, Union troops couldn't fire on the lines of advancing enemy for fear of hitting their own troops.

The waves of Confederates crashed onto the Federal lines with a terrifying Rebel yell. The firing was so intense that smoke obscured everything farther away than ten feet. For a moment, although they were suffering under withering fire, the Confederates broke through the center of the Union line near the Carter House, but a reserve force, unseen by general Hood, moved up to fill the gaps and prevent a rout of Union forces. The Union salient around the Cotton Gin saw particularly savage fighting. Entire Confederate regiments simply disappeared under impossibly heavy fire. Half a dozen Confederate generals died in the fighting and seven more were wounded, but still the rebels refused to retreat. Time and again, they would surge forward to take the Union positions, only to be wiped out once more. As soon as replacement forces could be brought into place, they would be thrown into the fray and they would be destroyed. The fighting was only halted well after night fell and the combatants could no longer find one another in the darkness.

The battle was a disaster for the Confederate Army of Tennessee. In the span of just a few hours, and in the space of only a few hundred yards, they they had suffered over 9,000 casualties. With 1,750 men killed, Confederate losses were even greater than at the infamous Battle of Antietam, and three times greater than Pickett's Charge. The slaughter on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day 80 years later lasted nineteen hours and is revered as one of the bloodiest battles the Americans fought during the Second World War. The five hours at Franklin saw even more casualties than Omaha or Utah Beaches combined. Some dead Confederate officers were found afterwards still standing, still held upright by waist-deep masses of dead bodies pressed all around them, dead officers still commanding armies of the dead. Fifty five of the Confederacy's best brigade and regimental commanders were casualties in the battle, while the Union forces reported fewer than 200 troops killed. The Army of Tennessee was second in size only to Robert E Lee's Army of Virginia, and it had been gutted in one afternoon. The Confederacy couldn't hope to recover from the disaster of the Battle of Franklin.

As the sun rose the next day, Schofield's Union forces withdrew from the city towards Nashville, making the Battle of Franklin a technical victory for the South. But only a fool could think it had been anything but a catastrophe for the Confederacy. The ensuing Battle of Nashville was an undeniable defeat for Hood and his already crushed army. After Nashville, they limped back through Franklin on their way to Alabama. Hood had begun his campaign to take Tennessee with 30,000 men. One month later, he commanded only 15,000. The war would be over within another four months.

But "The Widow of the South" is not all about the agonizing moments of the Battle of Franklin. In fact, it is a 400 page book and the battle is over by one hundred pages in. Instead, the book is about how the people who lived through that battle, and all the other battles during that gruesome war, could possibly come to terms with such a shocking level of loss. It's a story about how people can learn to live on afterwards, even in the face of utter devastation and suffering. Hicks changes perspective and tenses from chapter to chapter, unfolding the events from several different points of view, and in several different styles.

One thing that characterized this book, and most books about the Civil War, is the use of the word "nigger." Even reading it in your own head, written in the pages of a good book, the word is like someone poking an exposed nerve. It is painful and disturbing in ways that make you uncomfortable. Something about the extraordinary weight of hatred and bigotry behind that word lends it a power greater than other epithets. When any one in the book (or in real life) uses the word, it conveys a deeper darkness to their character, a flippancy and dismissal when considering the plight of so many millions. It is a darkness that is the opposite of the qualities and values you want to embody yourself, and that you want to pass on to your children. Using the word here in this context, especially from the mouth of General Forrest who would go on to create the Ku Klux Klan after the war, is right. It is not frivolous or needless. It adds to the story in a way that helps establish an essential, if shameful, part of the fabric of the war itself, but that doesn't make it much easier to see in print.

The McGavock plantation, called Carnton, was less than a mile southeast of the Union line in Franklin, Tennessee on November 30th, 1864. General Forrest himself declared that the house would be used as a field hospital for the many wounded men he could already predict would result when Hood ordered a charge. As the carnage increased and the day wore on, wounded men were brought to the plantation house by the thousands. The lady of the house, Carrie McGavock is the titular character of "The Widow of the South," even though at the time of the battle she was not a widow. She and her husband had watched three of their five young children die over the last few years, each one taken by a different disease. As a result of this tragedy, Carrie had withdrawn inside her mind. She might have even gone a little bit insane. For years, she wandered the house in silence, shrouded in black and never venturing outside. But the battle brought her out of her mourning reverie. A house filled with dead and dying boys can do that to you.

In the hours and days after the battle Carrie was a woman transformed. She was always moving, always helping. She organized the volunteers to help ease the wounded soldiers' pain and often she was there to personally ease their final breaths. She brought comfort and a stateliness to a dark and terrifying situation. Her compassion and her intimate relationship with death (after losing three children) allowed her to treat her wounded guests with a respect that she carried on even after they had died.

Years later, Carrie heard that the man who owned hallowed ground that had been turned into a killing field had made a decision to plow the field up and plant crops there. She lead the effort to convince him to allow her to move the bodies resting there to her own home at Carnton where she re-buried almost 1,500 Confederate dead. As soon as the last body was interred, Carrie began walking the grounds of her private cemetery, the largest in the United States, checking off the names of the dead, keeping a constant vigil and acting as the memory of a nation. She carried her Book of the Dead, with the names of all of the soldiers with her as she walked her rounds. She did it for years afterwards, for decades, even after her husband died. Carrie McGavock became the Widow of the South. Carrie took orphaned children into her home and raised them as her own. She was looked at far and wide as a living symbol of grief, writing letters to the families of the dead buried beside her Tennessee home, and tending to the graves of so many of their loved ones.

There are other characters in the book, but they all serve as lenses through which to see Carrie. Her husband watched as she sacrificed herself to a greater cause, even at the cost of her own marriage. Her friend and former patient (and maybe the love of her life) Zechariah Cashwell, who had been as broken physically as the nation was emotionally, saw Carrie as the savior that made the catastrophe of the war make some sort of sense. For him, she was someone who proved that people can care about others, and that people can change for the better even in the face of tragedy. For Mariah, Carrie's lifelong servant and friend (and former slave), Carrie was the stability she needed in an unstable and awful time, just as she was for the rest of America.

The gratitude of a shaken nation eventually elevated Carrie to the level of a legend. She was compared to Boudica and Joan of Arc. It was predicted that generations of Americans would remember her name with reverence. But that's not what happened. Carrie was a part of a singular generation, one that needed her. As they aged so did she. When they passed away so did she, and her need to be there to help heal that generation passed on as well.

In the climactic scene of "The Widow of the South" Carrie confronts the man who owns the land that holds the bodies of so many soldiers and she tries to convince him that he shouldn't plow them over as if they were mere fertilizer for his crops. He reminds her that his own son was killed in the battle. His son had gone off to war and the war had brought him back home just to kill him in his own backyard. The father, who is clearly motivated in his desire to plow the battlefield over by enormous grief, reminds Carrie that he never believed in the cause his son had died for anyway. Slavery was wicked and, even worse, the men who lead the side that defended it were liars and incompetents. This man is ostensibly the antagonist of the entire book, but in this moment he becomes the most sympathetic of all Hicks' characters. He makes it clear that his son, and all the sons buried in shallow graves on his property had died in a foolish struggle to perpetuate a shameful way of life. His reaction made you wonder what the proper response is to the sacrifice of so many Confederate soldiers. Was it even a sacrifice, or was it just a waste? How do we honor those who died fighting for the wrong side? Maybe Carrie's is the only way that makes sense.

"The Widow of the South" was a reminder for you that sometimes the world needs those who are willing to sacrifice their lives for the good of others. Sometimes those who sacrifice themselves carry guns into battle, and sometimes they carry unspeakable grief so that others might let go of their own.

On to the next book!

P.S. Here is a google interactive map of the battlefield.,-86.866279&ie=UTF8&om=1&msa=0&spn=0.023807,0.047207&z=15&hl=en&mid=zcZ7DPTsRKe4.kSwuYIv7L-Tg

P.P.S. This is a fantastic 10 minute presentation by a historian on the steps of the Carter House.

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