The Widow of the South
By Robert Hicks
Reviewed by Tom Carrico
(Blogger Note: This review was previously published in LAMLight, the physician newsletter of the Lynchburg Academy of Medicine and was referenced in a previous blog post book review of Devil's Dream by Madison Smartt Bell.)
Just when you think there could be no more untold stories of the American Civil War, along comes a gem of a book: Robert Hicks’ The Widow of the South. This book is set in Franklin, Tennessee, the sight of a brutal battle five months before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. The Battle of Franklin has been described by some as the bloodiest five hours of the Civil War. Confederate General John Bell Hood decides to attack well entrenched Unions troops led by Major General John Schofield in an attempt to recapture Nashville. Over the protests of other officers, including Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest, General Hood orders an ill-advised open field uphill infantry charge reminiscent of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. This leaves thousands of dead soldiers and many more severely wounded. The battle descriptions are very vivid and well told. (Indeed they are the equal of Charles Frazier’s descriptions of the Battle of the Crater in “Cold Mountain”.) This novel is much more than a war story, however. It is the narrative of war’s effects on the country, the soldiers and the citizens who are swept up in its enormity.
The main character of the book is Carrie McGavock. She is the mistress of a failing plantation known as Carnton (interestingly enough, from the Gaelic for “place of the dead”). We meet her pre-battle as she suffers from severe melancholy, having never emotionally recovered from the premature death of three of her children from various fevers. Her husband John is a dysfunctional gentleman farmer who has never adapted to the “changes” brought on by the War and cannot deal with Carrie’s depression. He has invested heavily in “the Cause” and suffers financial defeat and loss of his lifestyle and livelihood.
The mansion at Carnton is commandeered as a Confederate field hospital by General Forrest and Carrie springs to life in her new role. The hundreds of wounded and dying soldiers who arrive on her doorstep following the Battle of Franklin enable her to find a purpose for her life beyond grieving her losses. One particular soldier catcher her eye. He is Sergeant Zachariah Cashwell from Arkansas. He somehow survives the charge up the hill as a color bearer, only to be taken prisoner and then shot while trying to escape. He has a potentially mortal thigh wound but is saved when Carrie triages him to the front of the surgery line and a high leg amputation is performed. Zachariah is initially resentful of his survival and Carrie’s role in it, preferring death over life as a crippled amputee. Their relationship grows from one of anger and distrust to one of mutual respect and admiration and finally, love. This continues until Zachariah is well enough to be taken away from Carnton as a prisoner of war.
The rest of the book relates the story of Franklin after the War. The town is repaired, train lines are extended, freed slaves become small business owners and farms are reclaimed, however there lingers much despair and bitterness over personal losses suffered during the War. One citizen who owns the land which was the Franklin battlefield decides to plow over the field, disrespecting the final resting place of thousands of Confederate soldiers. Carrie fights a verbal and political battle over this decision. Finally, Carrie and John and a corps of volunteers exhume all of the bodies and re-bury them in the Carnton garden adjacent to the graves of the dead McGavock children. Carrie catalogues the identity and location of each body. She then dedicates the remainder of her long life to the maintenance of this cemetery and communication with each of the families involved, hence, obtaining the title of “The Widow of the South”. The inevitable late-life reunion with Zachariah Cashwell is poignant and brings this novel to a satisfying conclusion.
This book is made even more remarkable by the secondary characters who are wonderful in their own rights. These include Mattie, Carrie’s slave (a childhood “gift” from her father) and Mattie's son Theopolis. Mattie is the “heart” of Carnton, organizing and basically running the household for the inept McGavocks. The dilemma of the freed slaves is played out by these characters who have never known another life. Mattie decides to stay at Carnton with Carrie following the War and receives criticism from other former slaves including her own son. Theopolis opts to move to town and becomes a very successful cobbler.
This is a novel of war for sure, but it is much more. It is a story of grief and despair, hope and faith and discovery of life’s purpose. Trying times forge character and cement relationships which last a lifetime.
This is a work of fiction, but the characters of Carrie and John McGavock as well as Mattie and Theopolis are real. Carnton exists and survives today with its adjacent cemetery thanks to the work of a non-profit organization. The author is a Board member of this organization and his passion for and dedication to this project shines through on every page. This is a startlingly good story which is incredibly well told.