Not-so-hidden agenda muddies story of Civil War battle

August 28, 2005|By Mike Pride | Mike Pride,Special to the Sun

NOVEL

THE WIDOW OF THE SOUTH

By Robert Hicks. Warner Books. 409 pages.

Shelby Foote was not the greatest Civil War historian of his generation, but he was the best Civil War talker. Just after he died this year, Fresh Air, Terry Gross' public radio show, re-broadcast an interview with him. It was mesmerizing -- the gentle Southern voice, the quiet authority, the personal connection to the war and to the South.

Then there were Foote's instant replies to the big questions. Years of study and contemplation had given him the ability to crystallize the cold logic of the Civil War. When Gross asked why so many battles had led to such horrible slaughter, Foote had the answer. It was, he said, because the weaponry was so superior to the tactics.

This explains the Rebel turkey shoot at Fredericksburg, its counterpart on the third day at Gettysburg and the carnage at Cold Harbor. It is also the key to the battle at Franklin, Tenn., in which Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood led his army to disaster.

The Battle of Franklin holds no lofty place in the annals of the war, but a group in the Nashville suburb where it was fought is trying to preserve part of the battlefield. Robert Hicks, a Nashville music publisher, is a member of the group's board, and his new novel, The Widow of the South, is a tool in the campaign.

Widow is based on the story of Carrie McGavock. On the morning of Nov. 30, 1864, the Confederates commandeered Carnton, the McGavock mansion in Franklin, as a hospital. After Hood charged his army over open ground into a fortified Union position, hundreds of wounded Rebel soldiers filled Carnton. Six Confederate generals died, including the colorfully named States Rights Gist. Four expired on the mansion's porch.

Through the efforts of the McGavocks, 1,481 Confederate soldiers killed at Franklin were buried in a private cemetery at Carnton. In life, as in the novel, the Confederate dead at Franklin became Carrie McGavock's obsession. She kept their names in her book of the dead and tended their graves until she died in 1905.

Preserving a portion of the battlefield as a national historic park may be a worthy goal, but Hicks' novel does little to further it. It is difficult enough to write a first novel without having some cause riding on the result.

The Widow of the South skips clumsily from perspective to perspective. It wallows in the pathos of war and death. Hicks reveres McGavock and many other characters, yet fails to invest them with the complexity of actual human beings. His accounts of the fighting leave no Civil War battle cliche unturned. A brief passage makes the point: "It was said you could walk across the battlefield upon the bodies of the fallen and not once touch the ground. Others have described the dead as being stacked like cordwood, or like sheaves of corn, or like sacks of meal. By different accounts the ground ran with rivers of blood, or it was stained with blood, or it was blood."

Hicks and his preservation group would have served their cause far better by producing a book that laid out the facts. This is no easy task, as facts can be hard to pin down. Widow -- and the slick promotional material that accompanied the review copy -- contained at least four different casualty figures for the Battle of Franklin. The generally accepted figures total 8,587 for both sides, including 1,750 dead and mortally wounded Confederate soldiers, 189 Union.

These numbers illustrate the mismatch of tactics and arms described by Shelby Foote, but they also show Franklin to be a relatively minor clash in America's bloodiest war. Nevertheless, the toil that was poured into the delusional hope of writing the next Cold Mountain could have produced a solid, and even stirring, historical account of the battle, McGavock and the cemetery at Carnton.

Supporters of the Franklin restoration project might also examine the issues that their campaign raises in 21st century America. Because of Hood's bungling and the useless loss of life at Franklin, Southerners after the war viewed the battle as an embarrassment. This is one reason that Carnton became only a minor shrine of the Lost Cause. But in a modern age when the Confederate flag has become a divisive symbol, how does the country honor the Confederate dead without offending the descendants of slaves? Those who cherish Civil War history should by all means support preserving a portion of the Franklin battlefield. They just shouldn't buy The Widow of the South expecting anything more than a clumsy first novel that falls far short of the higher truth to which historical fiction aspires.

Mike Pride has been editor of the Concord Monitor, New Hampshire's capital newspaper, for 22 years. He is the co-author, with Mark Travis, of My Brave Boys, a history of a New Hampshire Civil War regiment.

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