Review by Geetha Kulkarni
Robert Hicks’ The Widow of the South is a novel set in Franklin Tennessee, during the American Civil War. In 1864, the Confederate army met the Union army and fought a bloody war in Franklin, one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. In one day 9200 men died including six Confederate Generals. Thousands who did not lose their lives were gravely wounded. (Note: this review contains a fair level of detail, so please stop now if you do not want spoilers)
Just outside Franklin was Carnton Plantation belonging to John and Carrie McGavock. Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest commandeered Carnton Plantation as a field hospital for the wounded Confederate soldiers. Eventually Carnton Plantation became the burial ground for 1500 Confederate soldiers and today it is a historical site visited by many.
At the time that her home was forced into this service, Carrie McGavock was already consumed with death and dying. She was in deep mourning having lost three children. The arrival of the wounded and dying soldiers pulls Carrie out of her deep depression. She opens her home to them using her curtains, tablecloths and clothes as bandages; the dead are buried in her yard. After the war is over, Franklin and its citizens struggle to get back to a normal life. Carrie comes to know that in one of her neighbour’s fields, lie buried in shallow graves, 1500 soldiers. Mr. Baylor intends to plough his land to restart his farm. He refuses to consider the buried soldiers, not having supported the war in the first place. Carrie and her husband transport the 1500 bodies to their land and rebury the soldiers, giving them a permanent place to rest. Carrie makes it her life’s mission to tend the dead and honour their lives and sacrifice. She receives hundreds of letters from families trying to locate their sons and husbands. The main theme of the novel is the bloody battle that was fought at Franklin Tennessee and Carrie’s dedication and commitment to the soldiers who fought in that battle. This part of the story is based on historical fact and makes the book worth reading.
However, the author introduces a love interest into the novel. Carrie falls in love with one of the soldiers, Zachariah Cashwell and the middle of the novel is taken up by this plot. This whole love story seems contrived and unnecessary. Carrie expresses that Zachariah helped her understand herself and I could not fathom how he did that. It is an odd relationship, not properly developed or explained in the novel. In one scene when Zachariah mentions he is considering leaving the plantation, Carrie beats him with his cane. This outburst is not in keeping with the character of a woman who gave so much of herself to the welfare of the soldiers.
One of the more interesting characters in the novel is Mariah, a slave and friend of Carrie’s, someone she has known from childhood. There is a hint that at one time Carrie’s husband John fathered a son (who also appears in the novel) with Mariah. That plot is left vague and unexplained and Mariah’s character is not fully developed.
What I did enjoy about the novel is of course the historical background of the war at Franklin and the part the McGavocks played in it. Robert Hicks chronicles very successfully the brutality of war, its futility and the havoc it wreaks on lives. There are very moving descriptions in the novel of what goes through a soldier’s mind as he faces almost certain death.” In those moments before the fight, if you were a smart man, you’d figure out a way to convince yourself that it didn’t matter to you if you lived or died…………….of course it mattered if you lived or died. But if you went into battle caring what happened to you, you wouldn’t be able to fight, even though you knew you were as likely to die as the next man whether you cared or not”.
There are descriptions of how some soldiers, almost as a defence, get desensitized to death. As their enemies fall, soldiers who have become desensitized to killing and dying, pick out their trophies “That boy right there, see him?…..the one that had his jaw shot clear off? How can you miss him, he’s got his tongue lolling out right there on the ground…… I am going to take his pack. He has a good looking knife too. I’ll be taking that also”. The war scenes in this novel are heartbreaking. And yet there are those who have enough perspective left to see how brutal war is as does Lieutenant Nathan Stiles. He realizes that “the only glory to be had (in war) was the glory of surviving…What man could take pride in the killing of another man? Not pride. Relief, yes, and damn them who would put a man in the position of even being relieved at the death of another”.
At the end of the novel there is a very poignant scene in which years later a poor farmer finally locates his son at the Carnton cemetery. He and his family arrive to take him back home but seeing his grave among those he fought with and seeing how well Carrie cared for “her boys” they decide to leave him there. The next year they come back with a cart full of soil from their home and rebury him in the same spot using that soil so that their son would lie among his fellow soldiers but in the soil that he grew up in.
Overall, I am glad I read the book since I knew nothing about this brutal battle. The novel makes you want to visit Franklin Tennessee and the Carnton Plantation. The core theme of the book, the brutality of war and the story of Carrie McGavock’s dedication to the soldiers is well worth the read. The love story took away a great deal from the novel and that fact cannot be ignored in a review.