Carnton Plantation

  • Famous porch

    Famous porch

    Several dead Confederate generals and officers were placed on Carnton’s back porch after the battle.

  • Before garden addition

    Before garden addition

    A view of Carnton in the mid-1990s, before installation of the large garden fence.

  • Outline of old wing

    Outline of old wing

    Marks show where original rooms were removed after 1909.

  • Front porch

    Front porch

    The portico over the front entrance is one of several changes by John McGavock from 1843 to 1847.

  • Blood-stained floors

    Blood-stained floors

    Several rooms are still stained by blood of the wounded and dying.

  • Medical kit

    Medical kit

    Doctors at Carnton used surgeon’s tools like these.

  • Where surgeons worked

    Where surgeons worked

    A makeshift operating table stands amid bloodstains.

  • Doors

    Doors

    Doors on one side of the main hall lead to the dining room and the library.

  • Main hall

    Main hall

    The hall wallpaper is an exact replica of 1846 French paper bought in New Orleans.

  • Reading room

    Reading room

    The library, which is adjacent to the dining room.

  • Inside Carnton

    Inside Carnton

    An upstairs bedroom

  • Mural reproduction

    Mural reproduction

    The dining room wallpaper is a reproduction of the El Dorado pattern, first produced in France in 1848.

  • John McGavock

    John McGavock

    Master of the house

  • Caroline McGavock

    Caroline McGavock

    Carnton mistress who inspired a 2009 best-selling novel.

  • Carnton outbuilding

    Carnton outbuilding

    A slave cabin stands near the mansion.

A restoration showpiece

Carnton is famous in Middle Tennessee Civil War history for its blood-stained floors and for the back porch, where the bodies of Confederate generals killed at Franklin were laid out before they were taken south for burial.

A lot of antebellum homes in Middle Tennessee have the same floor plan as Carnton, but few have been as painstakingly restored.

The meticulous and costly room-by-room project began in the mid-1980s and stretched into the 1990s. The goal was to make the home of Randal and Caroline (“Carrie”) McGavock look as much as possible like it did in November 1864.

Experts studied the walls and chips of paint. They learned that in 1864, Carnton’s walls and trims were salmons with bright Prussian blues and yellows, deep greens and shiny black.

The layers of wallpaper also were analyzed, and the patterns were reproduced.

The hall wallpaper required special attention. An artist had to recreate the pattern, which was silk-screened by a company in San Francisco to give it the look of the original roller-printed paper.

Some of the antebellum woodwork had been painted to make it look like more expensive pieces of wood or marble, so an expert in the art was brought in to recreate the illusion, which was common in antebellum homes.

The carpet, too, had to be recreated. Unlike today’s wall-to-wall carpets, those made in antebellum times were only about two feet wide. Strips had to be sewn together so they would cover the floor, and the assembled carpet was held in place by scores of tacks tapped into the wooden floor.

Carnton has some of its original furnishings; the rest are pieces from the antebellum period that would have been found in similar planter homes in Middle Tennessee.

So, when you walk into Carnton today, it looks much as it probably did on November 30, 1864, when it became the center of a field hospital for hundreds of Confederate soldiers wounded in the Battle of Franklin.

 

Wounded and dying brought to Carnton

That cold winter night, John and Carrie McGavock were in the house with their two surviving children and the children’s governess when hundreds of wounded and dying Confederates began to stream into the shelter of the grove of trees near the houseand soon big fires were built to give the suffering some warmth. Soon, all the farm outbuildings were filled with wounded, and some were taken into the two-story brick McGavock home.

Inside, surgeons worked at improvised tables to cut off mangled arms and legs and bind wounds. Blood stains still mar the floors. The stains are heaviest upstairs, near the south window in the children’s bedroom.

About 150 wounded soldiers died in the house during the night. As their bodies were removed, their places were quickly filled by other wounded men. On the back porch, generals John Adams, Patrick Cleburne, Hiram Granbury and Otho Strahl were laid out before they were taken south for what would be the first of three burials (See St. John’s Episcopal Church in Columbia’s sites).

Though early stories about Carnton had the bodies of four or five Confederate generals brought from the battlefield and placed on the back porch, researchers have determined there were only three: Patrick Cleburne, Hiram Granbury and Otho Strahl. General States Rights Gist was taken to a field hospital, then buried temporarily in a Franklin family cemetery. Gen. John Adams’ body was taken directly from the battlefield south, to his home in Pulaski, Tennessee, and mortally wounded Gen. John C. Carter was taken from the battlefield to the Harrison House, where he died several days later.

One Confederate general, William A. Quarles, and a few other officers were allowed to convalesce at Carnton after Federal forces reoccupied Franklin in mid-December, but in early 1865 they were removed and sent to prisoner of war hospitals.

But, that was not the end of Carnton’s association with Franklin’s casualties, and what happened next fits the mansion’s name. Carnton, the name of the McGavock family home in Ireland, is from the Gaelic word “carn” or “cairn,” meaning stones piled to mark a chieftain’s grave or an important event.

After the war, those Confederate graves that could be found in and around the Franklin battlefield were opened, and the soldiers’ remains removed for reburial in a place adjacent to the McGavocks’ family cemetery, behind Carnton. Carrie McGavock, who inspired the recent best-selling novel Widow of the South, kept a record of the reburials and listed the soldiers’ names, if known. (See the McGavock Confederate Cemetery.)

 

History of the house

Carnton is not the first house to stand on the site. A small two-story brick building was erected there about 1815. Some sources describe it as a four-room dwelling; others describe it as having a family dining room, kitchen and work room on the first floor, with three bedrooms upstairs.

In 1826, that building became a wing to a three-story Federal style house, with walls three bricks thick, built for Randal (1768-1843) and Sarah Dougherty McGavock (1786-1854). The wing was used as the kitchen and domestic area of the mansion.

Randal McGavock had cedars planted along the driveway leading up to the house, and soon the home became known as McGavock’s Grove, and it was the site for many social and political events. McGavock, who served as Nashville’s first elected mayor before moving to his Williamson County estate, was one of the Middle Tennessee’s wealthiest men. McGavock ties with other prominent Middle Tennessee families were strengthened by the marriage in 1840 of a daughter to William G. Harding, master of Nashville’s of Belle Meade Plantation (see).

Randal died in 1843, and he left Carnton to Sarah for her lifetime.

That same year, their son, John, began changes to the house that continued into 1847. The result was addition of a portico over the front entrance, which gave the house more of a Greek Revival look. The shake roof was replaced with sheets of tin. Cedars and boxwood were planted along the brick walkway between the portico and the driveway. Other changes included dormers added to the third floor, installation of double doors at the front entrance, and Greek Revival mantels in the front parlor and library.

About this time the wing between the smokehouse and the newer portion of the mansion was removed.

In December 1848, John married Caroline (Carrie) Elizabeth Winder, 19, of Louisiana.

When Sarah McGavock died in 1854, and the house and property passed to John.

In the 1850s, he and Carrie added the two-story gallery to the back of the house and brightened the interior with new wallpaper and colors of paint.

The McGavocks had five children. The three who died in childhood are buried in the family cemetery behind Carnton.

According to the 1860 census, the McGavocks’ plantation covered a thousand acres and was worth $150,000. Carnton had 44 slaves living in eleven cabins. Livestock included 37 horses, 30 mules, 24 milk cows, 50 cattle, 4 working oxen, 300 sheep and 200 hogs. The plantation produced cotton, hemp, tobacco, wheat, corn, Irish potatoes and sweet potatoes.

In addition to running his plantation, John McGavock was active in politics and was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention of 1860. John McGavock was 46 when the Civil War began. Since he was too old to shoulder a musket, he helped outfit and organize groups of Southern soldiers.

Carrie, accompanied by her sewing woman (a slave named Mariah Reddick, who had given to her by her father as a wedding gift), contributed to the war effort by often joining other women in Franklin’s Masonic Hall to sew uniforms for relatives and friends.

As the war got closer to home, John McGavock sent most of his slaves to Louisiana so they wouldn’t be taken by Federal authorities.

When Federal troops took control of Middle Tennessee, they learned of the McGavocks’ efforts to aid the South. In retaliation, Federal foragers took thousands of dollars of grain, horses, cattle and timber from the plantation. According to family tradition, the silver was saved from looters by burying it under the brick walk in front of the house.

After the war, Carnton was farmed under sharecropping arrangements John McGavock made with some former slaves.

Mariah Reddick, who had been Caroline McGavock’s sewing woman, had married a man from Montgomery, Ala. After the war, she brought her husband to Carnton, and she worked for the McGavock family.

John McGavock died in 1893; Carrie died in 1905.

Their son, Winder, who was 7 during the battle of Franklin, inherited the house, but he died in 1907. His widow and children moved into Franklin.

A tornado in 1909 heavily damaged the east wing of the house, which may have been the original building on the site. The damaged wing was removed. The east side of Carnton still shows the outline of the old wing’s roof, where it abutted the mansion.

The storm also pushed over many large trees around the house. The fallen trees were not replaced.

Winder McGavock’s widow sold Carnton in January 1911. Until 1978 Carnton passed through five different owners. It was sometimes occupied by tenants or left vacant.

In 1977, the Carnton Association was formed to raise money to buy, restore and maintain the mansion. The house and ten acres were given to the association in 1978 by Dr. and Mrs. W.D. Sugg of Bradenton, Florida. They had owned the home since the 1950s but had never lived in it.

After stabilizing Carnton, the association successfully launched a drive to acquire an additional 38 acres of the plantation.

A meticulous room-by-room restoration began in the mid-1980s and stretched into the 1990s.

Efforts to make Carnton look much as it did in 1864 included recreation of its garden. In Carnton’s early years, there was a vegetable garden on the west side of the mansion, near the original wing, which became the kitchen; and there was an ornamental garden in the southeast corner of the front lawn. When John McGavock changed Carnton’s appearances in 1847, he eliminated the ornamental garden to expand the front yard. The kitchen garden then took some of the ornamental features.

That garden was recreated in 1996-97 at the west side of the house. Its flowers include antique roses, bleeding hearts, sunflowers, moon vines, hollyhocks.Vegetables that would have been common to Middle Tennessee gardens in the 1800s include pole beans, blood-butcher corn, summer squash, tomatoes, beets, okra, melons, Irish potatoes and cucumbers. The high board fence, too, would have been familiar on plantations because it protected plants from animals and severe weather, and the fence gave occupants of the house a degree of privacy from the outbuildings and the many slaves moving about on the grounds.

Carnton Plantation is open to the public. Admission is charged.

 

Sources:

A Heritage of Grandeur, by James A. Crutchfield; 1981
A Visitor Guide to Historic Williamson County, Tennessee, published by the Williamson County Tourism Committee.
“Archaeological Investigations at Carnton Plantation (40WM32) of Williamson County, Tennessee,” prepared by Dan Sumner Allen IV, Middle Tennessee State University, Mid-Cumberland Archaeological Society
Carnton,” by Lorene Lambert, undated Tennessee Traveler article, Tennessee Department of Tourist Development
Carnton, Franklin, Tennessee, undated brochure
Carter House Annual Christmas Candlelight Tour, brochure; 1994
Columns, Winter 1994/95, Historic Carnton Plantation newsletter
Columns, Summer 1996, Historic Carnton Plantation newsletter
Columns, Summer, 1998; Historic Carnton Plantation newsletter
“Fact Sheet,” 3-page Carnton press release received in 1995
Fact sheets, undated and untitled, sent to me in April 1997 by Lauren Batte of Carnton
“Franklin Lives with Its History,” by Carolyn Brackett, undated Tennessee Traveler article, Tennessee Department of Tourist Development
Hattie’s Carnton. Plantation Life in the generation of the Civil War, by Helen Hemphill; 1998
“Historic Carnton Plantation,” undated promotional fact sheet
Historic Carnton Plantation, 1998
Historic Carnton Plantation, Franklin, Tennessee, The Creative Company; 1998
Historic Williamson County; Old Homes and Sites, by Virginia McDaniel Bowman; 1971 (republished in 1989)
McGavock Confederate Cemetery, Franklin, Tennessee, published by Franklin Chapter #14, United Daughters of the Confederacy. 1989.
Self-Guided Walking Tour of the grounds, cemeteries, and outbuildings, published by Historic Carnton Plantation. No date.
Tennessee Antebellum Trail Guidebook, by David R. Logsdon; 1995
Williamson A.M., Feb. 12, 1998

 

A non-traditional view of Carnton

Dead Confederate generals on the back porch, the house crammed with wounded soldiers and floors stained with blood are part of the tradition of Carnton, but former Brentwood author and genealogist Richard C. Fulcher insists they don’t stand up to the research he cites in Errors in the History of Williamson County, Tennessee, Report Number One, Carnton’s Empty Porch (1999).

Carnton’s back porch is notable in Civil War history as the place where the bodies of four Confederate generals were gathered from the Franklin battlefield the night of Nov. 30, 1864.   But Fulcher questions this part of the mansion’s history.

He agrees that six Southern generals were killed or mortally wounded at Franklin.

And there is no disagreement over where Brig. Gen. John C. Carter and Brig. Gen. States Rights Gist were taken from the battlefield.
Carter was taken to the Harrison House, where he died in December. He was buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in Columbia, south of Franklin.

Gist died in a field hospital “on the southwestern part of the battlefield” and was initially buried on the William White property near Hamilton Branch. His body was soon disinterred and taken to South Carolina for reburial.

Where Fulcher and Carnton history conflict is over what happened to the bodies of John Adams, Patrick Cleburne, Hiram Granbury and Otho Strahl.

Fulcher contends there are no unbroken chains of eyewitness accounts that track each of these generals from the battlefield to Carnton’s porch. Fulcher finds the accounts fragmentary, sometimes contradictory and don’t hold up.

Brig. Gen. Adams was mortally wounded in a charge and taken behind the Federal breastworks, where he died. His body was recovered early in the morning of December 1 and placed in an ambulance, which contained the body of Maj. Gen. Cleburne.

Though the generally accepted story is that both were taken to Carnton, Fulcher doubts Adams made the trip.

Fulcher reasons that a decision was made to send Adams’ body south to Pulaski for burial that day in the family plot. Pulaski is more than 50 miles from Franklin. To Fulcher, the only way Adams’ body could have been there for burial on December 1 was for it to have been sent by rail. So, Fulcher concludes that the ambulance must have detoured to leave Adams at the railroad.
Brig. Gen. Granbury was killed near the cotton gin. Fulcher doubts his body could have been recovered during the night because it was so close to the Federal breastworks; therefore, Granbury wasn’t taken to Carnton. His body was taken straight to Columbia for burial.

Fulcher quotes several eyewitness accounts about Cleburne and argues their contradictions and omissions make it doubtful that Cleburne was taken to Carnton; Fulcher argues he was taken south to Columbia for burial.

Brig. Gen. Strahl’s body, Fulcher writes, was taken to or near Brown’s Division’s field hospital, which was “south of the west side of the battle line behind the Merrill’s hill.” The morning of Dec. 1, Strahl’s body and that of Lt. John Marsh and Capt. James Johnston were put in an ambulance and sent south to Columbia, escorted by Capt. T.B. Stepelton. Fulcher quotes Sam Watkins, of Company Aytch fame, as reporting he helped put Strahl in the ambulance and Chaplain Quintard stating he met the ambulance that evening between Columbia and Franklin and identified the bodies.

No one mentioned taking the body of Strahl to Carnton, Fulcher notes.

So, Fulcher concludes the best evidence is that Adams, Granbury, Strahl and probably Cleburne weren’t taken to Carnton. A few lesser officers who were placed on the porch were mistaken for or misrepresented as the generals, the researcher writes.

Fulcher raises other challenges to the traditional story of Carnton.

He disputes the portrayal of the McGavocks as enthusiastically opening their home to the wounded and dying soldiers the night of November 30, 1864. He quotes Thomas R. Markham, chaplain of Featherston’s brigade, as saying that Randal McGavock was reluctant to let any of the wounded in his house, out of fear of retaliation (i.e., torching the house) by Federals for aiding the rebels.

And Col. W.D. Gale’s description of Carnton the night of Nov. 30 is “highly dramatized,” Fulcher writes.

The researcher doubts that scores of wounded and dying were taken into Carnton. He reports that only the most seriously wounded were allowed in the house, and that was the day after the battle.

“According to Loring’s Division hospital records, there were only 133 wounded treated, and of this number, only 24 died. … Most all of these were treated on the grounds and in outbuildings, as verified by Rev. Markham. … Less than a dozen wounded officers were taken inside the house,” Fulcher writes.

Fulcher quotes from Notebook of Private R.M. Wynne, “a wounded Mississippi soldier” who wrote about Dec. 1: “Late in the morning the surgeon came around and examined us all … about a dozen of the worst wounded among our officers was taken inside the Macgavock house.”

Another tradition that Fulcher attacks is that the stains on the floor an upstairs bedroom are from the blood of wounded men. The stains are probably from a chemical or other liquid, Fulcher suggests.

The researcher contends it doesn’t seem logical to have carried wounded men up the stairs for surgery, and then to have carried them down the stairs again. It would have made better sense to have set up the operating table in a first floor room near a door to the house, so the wounded could be brought straight to the table, treated and then taken straight out. *

Fulcher also takes on Carnton’s image. It was not a grand and elegant cotton plantation, like Tara in Gone with the Wind, according to the researcher.The inventory of Randal McGavock’s home and farm at his death shows “that McGavock ran a farming operation, raising hogs, sheep, and cattle.”

And, Fulcher continues, stories about how Carrie McGavock, touched by the plight of young orphans after the war, took them in and gave them a home and an education, are hokum. Fulcher cites court records that show the orphan children living with the McGavocks were actually domestic servants and farm laborers who replaced the freed slaves; and the census records show Carrie’s children attended school, but the orphans did not.

Editor’s notes:

Richard Fulcher moved to Petersburg, Tenn., and became the mayor. He died of injuries suffered when his house burned early one morning in May 2004. In an Internet posting, his daughter, Carla May, wrote that the fire destroyed much of his research, notes and records.

* In the 1990s, I was given a personal tour of the house by James Redford of Carnton’s staff, and James told about a Carnton visitor who had lived in house years before as a tenant farmer. James said the man’s family complained about stains on the floor near the windows of the front parlor (the room on the left as you face the front of Carnton). The man said he tried a variety of ways, including using a sander, to remove the stains but couldn’t get them to completely disappear.