Franklin 150th: The McGavocks, Carnton, and the Battle of Franklin

In the late afternoon of November 30, 1864, 30,000 Confederate troops, under General Hood’s direction, made an attack on General Schofield’s federal defenses in Franklin, Tennessee.  With up to 10,000 casualties in the five hour engagement, scores of dead and wounded were left on the battlefield or carried to make-shift field hospitals in and around the town of Franklin. The largest of these hospitals was Carnton Plantation, settled a little over a mile from what is now the hallowed ground of the battle. Throughout the night and next day, over 300 soldiers came to Carnton. Because of the house’s close proximity to the battlefield, John and Carrie McGavock, owners of Carnton, played an integral role in assisting the wounded, as well as caring for the dead.

(Left) John McGavock, ca. 1848.  (Right) Carrie Winder McGavock, ca. 1848.  Both images are oil on canvas painted by Washington Bogart Cooper. Images courtesy of Historic Carnton Plantation.

(Left) John McGavock, ca. 1848. (Right) Carrie Winder McGavock, ca. 1848. Both images are oil on canvas painted by Washington Bogart Cooper. Images courtesy of Historic Carnton Plantation.

As line after line of Confederate soldiers rushed towards the entrenched Federal forces throughout the evening of November 30, the casualty list skyrocketed. The chaos is evident in Capt. William Gale’s letter to his wife, dated January 14, 1865: “The fight was furious, and the carnage awful beyond anything I ever saw….Charge after charge was made. As fast as one division was shattered and recoiled, another bravely went forward into the very jaws of death, and came back broken and bloody.”[i] Even off the field at make-shift hospitals such as Carnton, chaos ensued. In the same letter to his wife, Capt. Gale commented on the conditions at Carnton upon his arrival the morning after the battle: “Every room was filled, every bed had two poor bleeding fellows, every spare space, niche and corner, under the stairs, in the hall, everywhere….”[ii] Blood soaked the floors where doctors cut off limbs and performed surgeries. When one soldier died, another took his place, and when the house “could hold no more, the yard was appropriated until the wounded and dead filled that, and all were [still] not yet provided for.”[iii] One confederate soldier was lucky enough to garner a spot by the fire the night of the battle; another, who suffered from a leg wound, was not so lucky. He later wrote, “The house was overflowing with wounded.… [I] spent the night on the ground in the yard.”[iv]

Despite the chaos, Carrie McGavock and her family stayed calm. Carrie didn’t sleep that fateful night, but did what she could to ease the suffering by dispensing tea, coffee, and alcohol, “un-affrighted by the sight of blood, unawed by horrid wounds, [and] un-blanched by ghastly death….”[v] Her skirts trailed blood, and without the help of slaves, as John had sent them to Alabama for the duration of the war, Carrie continued to nurse the injured with a few others. Unprepared for the massive influx of wounded, the doctors at Carnton ran out of bandages. Carrie ripped up “her old linen, then her towels and napkins, then her sheets and tablecloths, and then her husband’s shirts and her own under garments” for the doctors’ use.[vi]   Despite Carrie’s and her household’s ministrations, around 150 of the men brought to Carnton died that night. It is thought that three Confederate generals who were killed in the battle may have also been carried to Carnton (Patrick Cleburne, Hiram Granbury, and Otho Strahl), but some researchers think differently. One lieutenant remembers seeing the generals’ bodies on the back porch with finely embroidered handkerchiefs over their faces.[vii]

The large number of men who did not make it through the night at Carnton does not compare to the number left on the field after the battle. Union forces headed toward Nashville on December 1, leaving in their wake several hundred dead Union soldiers, as well as around 1700 Confederates.   Lt. Edwin Rennolds walked the fields the day after the battle and remarked, “we found the dead lying so thick that we could have walked on them without stepping on the ground, a sight I never saw elsewhere.”[viii]   Many of the dead were identified and placed in shallow graves throughout the battlefield. Hasty wooden plaques were placed with the bodies. However, by 1866, many of the wooden markers had become unidentifiable, or had been removed and used as firewood. Additionally, the McGavock’s neighbors were thinking of returning the battlefield to farmland, which raised the question concerning the remains from the battle. In response, the McGavocks donated 2 acres of their land to establish a Confederate cemetery for those killed at the Battle of Franklin. They raised the funds with the support of the town to hire George Cuppett, a Confederate veteran, to oversee a few men, including his brother, in the exhumation and re-interment of around 1500 Confederate soldiers to this cemetery organized by state. Cuppett made careful note of each soldier’s name, state, regiment, and final resting place in a small notebook, which Carrie kept throughout her life.

A carte-de-visite taken by S.J. Terry of the McGavock Cemetery, ca. 1866.  Image courtesy of the Tennessee Virtual Archive.

A carte-de-visite taken by S.J. Terry of the McGavock Cemetery, ca. 1866. Image courtesy of the Tennessee Virtual Archive.

Not all soldiers buried in the McGavock Cemetery died at or as a result of the Battle of Franklin. Several soldiers who were mortally wounded at the Battle of Nashville are buried in the McGavock Cemetery, as well as a few soldiers who were killed in a skirmish in Franklin in 1863. Johnson K. Duncan is the only general buried there; he died as a result of malaria in 1862, and at the request of his wife, his body was reburied at Carnton prior to 1870. Additionally, one civilian is buried in the graveyard: Marcellus Cuppett, George Cuppett’s younger brother, who passed away in 1866 while working on the re-interment project. There are no Federal soldiers buried at Carnton, as most of those killed at the battle were moved to a national cemetery in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Despite the careful efforts of George Cuppett and the McGavocks, around 500 soldiers buried in the cemetery are still unidentified.

Although the last wounded soldier from the Battle of Franklin left Carnton in July of 1865, the McGavocks continued care for the 1500 dead left behind. Because many of the Confederate Army’s officers and regimental commanders were injured, killed, or taken as prisoners at the Battle of Franklin, the exact numbers and names of those taken to Carnton is still a mystery. Regardless, the bravery, selflessness, and generosity of the McGavocks has provided a lasting memorial to those who gave their lives to the Southern cause 150 years ago.

A portion of the McGavock Cemetery, with Carnton Plantation in the background. Image courtesy of the Battle of Franklin Trust.

A portion of the McGavock Cemetery, with Carnton Plantation in the background. Image courtesy of the Battle of Franklin Trust.

 

[i] Gale, Capt. William, letter to Kate Gale, 14 January 1865, Confederate Veteran 2, no. 1 (1894), 4.

[ii] Ibid., 5.

[iii] Ibid., 5.

[iv] Smith, Benjamin Laffeyette, letter, n.d., Carnton Plantation. http://www.midtneyewitnesses.com/eyewitness-book-series/franklin/confederate-soldier; Thompson, Joseph N., letter, n.d., Carnton Plantation. http://www.midtneyewitnesses.com/eyewitness-book-series/franklin/confederate-soldier

[v] Gale, 5.

[vi] Ibid., 5.

[vii] Magnum, Lt. Leonard H., A Memorial and Biographical History of Johnson and Hill Counties, Texas, Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1892; 141

[viii] Rennolds, Lt. Edwin H. A History of the Henry County Commands which Served in the Confederate States Army, Jacksonville: Sun Publishing Company, 1904), 108. https://archive.org/details/historyofhenryco00renn

Bibliography

Battle of Franklin Trust. “Carnton Plantation and Battlefield.” Battle of Franklin Trust. http://carnton.org/carnton_history.htm

Gale, Capt. William. Letter to Kate Gale, 14 January 1864. Confederate Veteran 2 no. 1 (1894): 4-5. https://archive.org/details/confederateveter02conf

Knight, James R. The Battle of Franklin: When the Devil had Full Possession of the Earth. Charleston: The History Press, 2009.

Magnum, Lt. Edwin H. A Memorial and Biographical History of Johnson and Hill Counties, Texas. Chicago: Lewis Publishing Company, 1892.

Rennolds, Lt. Edwin H. A History of the Henry County Commands which Served in the Confederate States Army. Jacksonville: Sun Publishing Company, 1904. https://archive.org/details/historyofhenryco00renn

Smith, Benjamin Laffeyette. Letter, n.d. Carnton Plantation. http://www.midtneyewitnesses.com/eyewitness-book-series/franklin/confederate-soldier

Sawyer, Susan. More than Petticoats: Remarkable Tennessee Women. Kearney: Morris Book Publishing, 2013.

Terry, S.J. McGavock Cemetery of Confederate Dead. Carte-de-Visite. ca. 1866. Tennessee Virtual Archives. http://teva.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15138coll6/id/532/rec/53

Thompson, Joseph N. Letter, n.d. Carnton Plantation. http://www.midtneyewitnesses.com/eyewitness-book-series/franklin/confederate-soldier

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