Civil War Wiki


U.S. National Register of Historic Places
Living history re-enactors in front of Carnton
Location: Confederate Cemetery Lane, Franklin, Tennessee
Built/Founded: 1825
Architectural style(s): Greek Revival
Governing body: Private
Added to NRHP: January 18, 1973
NRHP Reference#: 73001857[1]

Carnton is a historic plantation house and museum in Franklin in Williamson County, Tennessee. Carnton is the setting for the well-received novel The Widow of the South, by author Robert Hicks. The sprawling farm and its buildings played an important role during and immediately after the Battle of Franklin during the American Civil War.

Antebellum years[]

Initial construction[]

The first construction at Carnton took place in 1815 by Randal McGavock (1768–1843), who had emigrated from Virginia, settling in Nashville, Tennessee. Significant work on the home started in the mid 1820s using slave labor. McGavock named the property after his father’s birthplace in County Antrim, Ireland. The term “Carnton“ was derived from a Gaelic word cairn that means “a pile of stones”. A cairn is sometimes a pile of stones marking a grave, which makes this place name a sad prophecy.

Early on, the main house was adjoined to the smokehouse or kitchen by a two-story wing. The smokehouse was the first structure in the property (c. 1815). The kitchen was destroyed by a tornado in 1909. The remains can clearly be seen today and were being excavated by archaeologists.

Patriarch: Randal McGavock[]

Randal McGavock was a prominent local politician, serving as Mayor of Nashville for a one-year term in 1824. He knew President James K. Polk and was good friends with President Andrew Jackson, who stayed in the McGavock home on more than one occasion. Jackson gave a rocking chair to the McGavocks, and it is one of the several original artifacts or pieces of furniture one can see when touring the home today.

The home was ready for the McGavock family to permanently occupy in the late 1820s. At the time it was 1,400 acres (6 km²) of which 500 acres (2 km²) was used for farming. In the 1830s, McGavock had 250 hogs, cattle, and sheep.

Son: Col. John McGavock[]

Randal McGavock died in 1843, leaving his property to two sons, James and John (1815–1893). John took possession of the Carnton property. He continued to farm it until his death in 1893. John married Carrie Winder (1829–1905), who is famously known as the "Widow of the South".

John McGavock started renovating the home in the late 1840s, preferring a Greek Revival style to the Federal style it was birthed from. Thus, he added a two-story Greek Revival portico and two dormers in the attic. In the 1850s, McGavock added a two-story porch onto the rear of the home.

There are Greek Revival touches in the interior as well, including then-fashionable wallpapers, faux-painting and carpets in most every room. Three distinct wallpaper patterns have been discovered on the third floor. The central passage downstairs appears much as it did in 1864 during the Civil War. The wallpaper design, though a reproduction, is based on a popular design for the time. The parlor also saw a Greek Revival upgrade in the form of a fireplace mantel, new wallpaper and carpeting. The china set in the dining room is original to the McGavock family and contains over 200 pieces, all hand-made, each completely unique. The clock on the mantel in the parlor is original to the family and it still works, counting the time like it did in the hours after the Battle of Franklin in December 1864.

In December 1848 John married his cousin Carrie Winder of Ducros Plantation House in Thibodaux, Louisiana. The couple had five children but only two would survive past 1864. McGavock sent his slaves to Alabama in 1862, so in 1864 there were no McGavock slaves present.


Carnton's Greek Revival style back porch

Carnton during the Civil War[]

Just prior to the Civil War, the McGavock’s net worth was about $339,000 in 1860, which is about $6 million in 2007 dollars. Among the crops the McGavocks grew in the mid-19th century in middle Tennessee were wheat, corn, oats, hay, and potatoes. The McGavocks were also involved in raising and breeding thoroughbred horses.

Carnton became the epicenter for tending the wounded and dying after the Battle of Franklin on November 30, 1864. The home was situated less than one mile (1.6 km) from the location of the activity that took place on the far Union Eastern flank. Since most of the battle took place after dark, from 5 to 9 p.m., the McGavocks witnessed the fire and explosion of guns and muskets that permeated the sky over Franklin on that Indian summer evening.

More than 1,750 Confederates lost their lives at Franklin. It was on Carnton's back porch that four Confederate generals’ bodies—Patrick Cleburne, John Adams, Otho F. Strahl and Hiram B. Granbury—were laid out for a few hours of the Battle of Franklin.

Some 6,000 soldiers were wounded and another 1,000 were missing. After the battle, many Franklin-area homes were converted into temporary field hospitals, but Carnton by far was the largest hospital site. Hundreds of Confederate wounded and dying were tended by Carrie McGavock and the family after the battle. Some estimates say that as many as 300 Confederate soldiers were cared for by the McGavocks inside Carnton alone. Scores, if not hundreds more, were spread out through the rest of the property, including in the slave cabins. Some wounded had to simply sleep outside during the frigid nights, when the temperature reached below zero.

Carrie Winder McGavock - Widow of the South[]

Carrie led the Good Samaritan services for the family on behalf of the Southern soldiers after the battle. She made breakfast the following morning, and witnesses say her dress was blood soaked at the bottom. Doubtless, many soldiers died inside the home or out on the grounds of the plantation due to the horrible Battle of Franklin. At least 150 died the first night.

Carrie's two children, Hattie (then nine) and son Winder (then seven) witnessed the carnage as well, probably providing some basic assistance to the surgeons as well. Many of the floors in Carnton became stained as the Confederate blood soaked through the carpets and seeped into the wood floors. Many blood stains are still present today. The heaviest stains are in the children’s bedroom which was used as an operating room. Today one can gather a sense of the tragedy by examining the medical equipment and supplies displayed.

Initial burial of the soldiers – December 1864[]

After the battle, at 1 a.m. on December 1, Union forces under Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield evacuated toward Nashville, leaving all the dead, including (several hundred) Union soldiers, and the wounded who were unable to walk as well. So morning, the 900 residents of Franklin faced an unimaginable scene of what to do with over 2,500 dead soldiers, most of those being 1,750 Confederates.

Confederate General John Bell Hood gave orders to burial details to work through the battlefield and gather the Rebel dead by units, regiments, and companies. He did not want the Southern boys buried in mass graves, whose identities would sure to be lost in time. Most of the 1,750 boys were identified by name, rank and unit before being buried on the battlefield in shallow graves two to three feet deep. Wooden markers were created to mark their identity. Many of the soldiers were originally buried on property belonging to Fountain Branch Carter and James McNutt. Many of the Union soldiers were re-interred at the Stones River National Cemetery in Murfreesboro.

Deterioration of the graves – 1865 through April 1866[]

Over the next eighteen months (from all of 1865 through the first half of 1866) many of the markers were either rotting or used for firewood, and the writing on the boards was disappearing. Thus, to preserve the graves, John and Carrie McGavock donated 2 acres (8,100 m2) of their property to be designated as an area for the Confederate dead to be re-interred. The citizens of Franklin raised the funding and the soldiers were exhumed and re-interred in the Mcgavock Confederate Cemetery for the sum of $5.00 per soldier.

A team of four individuals led by George Cuppett took responsibility for the reburial operation in the spring of 1866. By June, some ten weeks after the start, the last Confederate soldier was laid to rest at McGavock Cemetery. Some 1,481 Rebel soldiers would now be at peace. Soldiers from every Southern state in the Confederacy, except Virginia, is represented in the cemetery.

Sadly, George Cuppett’s brother, Marcellus, died during the process of the reburials. Just 25 years old, he is buried at the head of the Texas section in the McGavock Cemetery. He is the only civilian interred there.

Soldiers' identities preserved originally[]

The McGavocks, especially Carrie, took great care to preserve the identity of the Confederate soldiers. The original names and identities of the soldiers were recorded in a cemetery record book, probably by George Cuppett, and the book fell into the watchful hands of Carrie after the battle. The original book is on display upstairs in Carnton.

Time has not been favorable to the identities of the Confederate soldiers though. 780 Confederate soldiers’ identities are positively identified, leaving some 558 as officially listed as unknown.

Postbellum years[]

Carrie's devotion[]

It would fall to the McGavocks to care for the nearly 1,500 Confederate dead for the remainder of their lives. John died in 1893 and Carrie in 1905. Carrie's shepherding of the fallen of Franklin lasted 41 years. Rev. John W. Hanner was quoted in Confederate Veteran magazine praying, mentioning about Carrie in 1905 (CV 30, p. 448):

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. (Quoted in Jacobson:McGavock, p. 37)

Today, the McGavock Confederate Cemetery is the largest privately owned and maintained military cemetery in the United States. The Franklin Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy has maintained the cemetery since 1905.

Carnton's post-McGavock years and restoration - 1907 until present[]

When Winder McGavock died in 1907, his widow sold the house a few years later (c. 1911). Since then, Carnton has passed through the hands of several owners. By the late 1970s, the property was in horrible disrepair and nearly unsalvageable. However, in 1978 Carnton fell into the hands of the Carnton Association when they acquired the house and 10 acres (40,000 m2). The property has been in constant renovation since, and by the late 1990s it was restored to its former elegance and glory. Carnton has never received any funding or support from local, state or the Federal government. The private sector is responsible for the success of preserving the plantation.

Carnton today[]

Today, Carnton receives visitors from all over the world as many people visit to learn the true story of the Widow of the South, Carrie McGavock. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


  1. "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2009-03-13. 

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