By Shelly Robertson Birdsong
Growing up in Williamson County and as a lover of all things southern history, I viewed Carnton as representing all the ideals of history I was fascinated by. And it was right in my backyard! When I was in middle school, a friend and I decided we wanted to spend our summer at Carnton. One might say, that sounds nice, but not happening. Luckily during this time, before the Battle of Franklin Trust, before The Widow of the South, and before Franklin truly hit the map when it comes to Civil War significance; Carnton was, albeit a historically significant and beautiful pre-civil war structure and property, by no means, the fully restored site seen today.
My friend and I were able to march our spunky, history buff selves right into the office (at that time located inside the house where the actual dining room is), and announced that we would do anything if we could come and just BE there. We must have said something impressive because before I knew it, we were making the trek a few days a week to the house where we provided some mediocre, I am sure, cleaning services and greeting of tour-goers. Before the summer was out, thanks to the tutelage of the ladies onsite and in charge: The venerable Ms. Bernice Seiberling and Ms. Connie Clark, Sr.; we learned and began giving tours as part of our experience. Can you imagine? Thus began my love affair with Carnton.
Our days were spent exploring the house and the property and learning more about our community’s history than we could have gleaned from a book. When archivists and historians visited and the archeologists who came for an entire summer to research and dig, we were there, inspecting every artifact as it was being uncovered. I can’t imagine more significant times in my childhood. And the gift of Carnton in my life, continued for years as we got to volunteer and dress (complete with hoopskirt and gown) for the former annual Christmas High Tea, special tours and events and, of course, the great Battle of Franklin 125th Anniversary re-enactment that took over the town in 1989. Hard to imagine our bustling and now very urban community, once saw a full battlefield scene recreated on sites we now see covered in condos, golf courses and churches. There were encampments and “soldiers” on the grounds at Carnton all during this exciting time and, as I recall, even a ball.
Photography By Peyton Hoge
Photography By Bruce Wolf
In time, as I moved on to college and away from Franklin for a few years, it seemed like Carnton suddenly was on the fast track to greatness, from semi-obscurity, as more historians and preservationists realized its true significance and value to our historical story here in Franklin, and the Civil War in general. The story of Carnton’s great mistress, Carrie McGavock, and the creation of the Confederate Cemetery on the property, immortalized by the international bestseller by Robert Hicks – The Widow of the South; the story of generals laying on the back veranda after the battle; yes, even a few famous ghost stories; all the new historical evidence of what took place during the short but hellish and interminable hours of the battle here in our town, and Carnton’s role in the aftermath; all finally gave new life to this once-quiet place. Carnton is, in many ways, such a different place than it was when a wide-eyed girl came to stay for a bit. But no less a place remembered whenever you visit, or whenever you see it as you come up the drive - majestic, grand and full of so much life and history.
Carnton’s history began when it was built in 1826 by the former Nashville mayor Randal McGavock (1768-1843). The McGavock’s were power players in the early years of Tennessee statehood, and throughout the nineteenth century, it was frequently visited by those shaping both Tennessee and American history. These guests of import included President Andrew Jackson. As a result, Carnton grew to become one of the premier farms in Williamson County. Randal McGavock’s son, John (1815-1893) inherited the farm upon his father’s death. John McGavock married Carrie Elizabeth Winder (1829-1905) in December 1848 and they had five children, three of whom died at young ages - Martha (1849-1862); Mary Elizabeth (1851-1858); and John Randal (1854). The surviving children were Winder (1857-1907) and Hattie (1855-1932).
From a purely structural standpoint, some of the more interesting aspects of the house itself, come from extensive research and restoration in recent decades, to restore the home to its original glory. And to showcase it as it would have been on the day that it became fully ensconced in history. All of the paint colors you see in the house are based upon a historic paint analysis, so what you see now is what they had on the walls in 1864. Beautifully ornate, deep and rich colors, fill the rooms and showcase a collection of antiques both original to the home and returned, thankfully, over years of meticulous re-collecting and donations. Family portraits line the walls, and their regal countenance keeps watch over their house, each face sharing a story of residence within those walls.
Photography By Bruce Wolf
One of the many architectural features of note, are the closets in the home. Most homes of the day did without built-in closets, but at Carnton, all of the bedrooms have two small, shallow closets, one on each side of the fireplaces found in every room. Original wallpaper fragments are visible on the third floor, and these scraps were used to make reproductions you see in the house today. Again, bright colors and patterns that offset the home’s contents beautifully, including 19th century furniture and fixtures and original McGavock family items, all set out and in place to tell the family’s poignant story.
The affluent but normally bucolic existence on the farm outside of town, must have been lived quite benignly until the Civil War took hold of the south and all of its inhabitants. Then, beginning at 4 p.m. on November 30, 1864, everything the McGavock family ever knew was forever changed.
The Confederate Army of Tennessee furiously assaulted the Federal army entrenched along the southern edge of Franklin. The resulting battle, believed to be the bloodiest hours of the Civil War, involved a massive frontal assault larger than Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. The majority of the combat occurred in the dark and at close quarters. The Battle of Franklin lasted barely five hours and led to some 9,500 soldiers being killed, wounded, captured, or counted as missing. Nearly 7,000 of that number were Confederate troops. Carnton served as the largest field hospital in the area for hundreds of wounded and dying Confederate soldiers.
A staff officer wrote that “the wounded, in hundreds, were brought to the house during the battle, and all the night after. And when the noble old house could hold no more, the yard was appropriated until the wounded and dead filled that.”
On the morning of December 1, 1864, the bodies of four Confederate generals killed during the fighting, Patrick R. Cleburne, Hiram B. Granbury, John Adams, and Otho F. Strahl, lay on Carnton’s back porch. The floors of the restored house are still stained with the blood of the men who were treated here.
In early 1866, John and Carrie McGavock designated two acres of land adjacent to their family cemetery as a final burial place for nearly 1,500 Confederate soldiers killed during the Battle of Franklin. The exhumation of the bodies from the battlefield began in April 1866. A team of men were hired to remove the dead from the battlefield and rebury them in the cemetery we see today. It is one of the largest privately-owned Confederate cemeteries in the country, with 1,481 men buried there who died at the Battle of Franklin, and then several more men were added over the years. The cemetery is owned by a separate entity: The McGavock Confederate Cemetery Corporation, founded in 1911. The first stone marker was installed in the cemetery and dedicated on July 4, 1866.
The McGavock family-owned Carnton until 1911, when Susie Lee McGavock, widow of Winder McGavock, sold it. In 1973 Carnton was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1977 the house and ten acres were donated to the Carnton Association, Inc. by Dr. and Mrs. W. D. Sugg. The house had suffered from years of neglect and disrepair by that time. Since then, the Association has been vital in restoring and maintaining the site through tours, gift shop sales, membership, special events, and generous donations.
Carnton the house, the grounds and cemetery and the battlefield park are all available for anyone to enjoy and capture their own bit of Williamson County history. Stand on the back veranda and close your eyes, imagining an unusually warm autumn day and all that happened next. Walk the grounds and hear the voices of all those who lost their lives and spent their final moments in the embrace of Carnton. See a nursery set for the innocence of childhood, flanked by blood-stained floors and a surgeon’s table by the window. Williamson County’s house encapsulates the history of our community in ways no other site can and yet is but a piece of the overall story of our community’s place in American history. Visitors can tour the house and restored gardens, cemetery and battlefield park and participate in tours that combine additional significant sites in our area.
So, whether a tourist visitor coming to hear the story of Franklin or a local who has never explored our community’s history - Plan your tour today.
1345 Eastern Flank Circle
Franklin, TN 37064
615. 794.0903 | boft.org