Book Review of The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks
In late 1864, five months before the end of the Civil War, the Confederate Army of Tennessee charged the Union Army positions just south of Nashville in the small town of Franklin, Tennessee. A few hours later, 9,200 men, including six Confederate generals, lay dead or injured on the battlefield. It was one of the bloodiest days in an incredibly bloody war.
Just outside the town was the Carnton Plantation, which was forced into service as a field hospital during and after the battle, and eventually became the burial ground for 1,500 Confederate soldiers. Carrie McGavock, mistress of the plantation, tended to the sick and dying and became caretaker of the burial plots on her plantation.
Her life had been consumed by the dead and dying, and she knew she’d spend the rest of her life tending to the men in these graves and their families that visited or wrote Carrie about the final resting place of their loved ones.
Robert Hicks tells the remarkable story of Carrie McGavock in The Widow of the South. As the novel opens in 1894, she is accompanied by her ex-slave, servant, and friend, Mariah, as she makes her daily pilgrimage among the graves. Hicks describes her acceptance of her role in life:
Since the war she hadn’t spent much time in the company of women other than Mariah. She rarely went into town for social engagements. Why would she want to attend any more commemorative tea parties thrown by ladies fighting over the legless officers who lent luster to their guest lists, ladies who ran when the Yankees came and lived off their poorer relatives while clutching their silver? She’d seen too much of them and of their endless reunions. They bored her.
No, she was inescapably the Widow of the South, the Keeper of the Book of the Dead. She would wear black until she died. This was who she was now. Let the gossips have their little parties and caress the folded sleeves of the armless. Let them blather on about the wisdom of the old ways and of the invincible resilience of the Southern people and of the glories of the war. She had more important things to do.
An old soldier, limping on a wooden leg, comes back to the Carnton Plantation so he could die and be buried there. He is Sergeant Zachariah Cashwell, and the days he spent in Carrie’s house after the battle were ones that changed both of their lives.
At this point, Hicks moves the novel back 30 years, with Cashwell and the rest of the Confederate Army preparing to challenge fortified Union positions. Carrie McGavock is a broken shell of woman, having already buried three of her five children due to illness and consumed by her grief.
Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest arrives at Carnton to scout Union positions and inform Carrie that her house will become a field hospital. Carrie’s husband, John, about to lose his land because of debts he incurred buying uniforms and weapons for the Confederate Army, is out in the fields with Mariah’s son, having sent the rest of the slaves farther south for safety.
The first third of The Widow of the South describes that bloody day, with different chapters narrated by different participants: Cashwell, Carrie, John, General Forrest, and Union Army Lieutenant Nathan Stiles, who has a recurring role throughout the novel. Robert Hicks chronicles the savagery, brutality, heroism, and recklessness of the battle.
At times the details of the battle threaten to overwhelm the characters and the story, but ultimately the human factor brings it back down to earth. The soldiers depicted are common men, mostly fighting because there wasn’t much else to do, and suffering the horrors of war and hoping their deaths come quickly. For thousands of them, it did that day.
The Carnton Plantation is soon overrun with the injured and dying, filling every bed and corner with men waiting for medical care. The two surgeons amputated so many limbs that a pile of arms and legs grew beneath the second-story window where they worked.
Carrie McGavock is shocked from her grief by this stench of death and destruction and she finds her strength and her role tending to the men and running the house as a hospital.
One of the injured men arriving that day was Zachariah Cashwell. Carrie has already dismissed her own behaviors and trappings as a proper Southern lady and taken charge of this motley group of desperate men.
She finds an instant attraction to the defiant Cashwell, and gives him her own bed to recuperate. He doesn’t understand this inscrutable woman and she doesn’t understand why she is driven to spend time with him. All she knows is that this man holds answers to herself that she must come to know.
From this beginning, The Widow of the South describes the lives of Carrie, her husband John, and Zachariah Cashwell for the rest of the war and the years that followed. It’s a setting that could fall into stereotype — proper Southern lady falls for common soldier against the backdrop of the evil of man.
Robert Hicks avoids this trap. The relationship between Carrie and Cashwell is hard to understand at first, partly because Carrie McGavock is hard to fathom for much of the book, even to herself. Their love, born in a world of pain and desperation, becomes a force to understanding themselves and their own roles in the world, and changes them both irrevocably.
There are many facets of this story that Robert Hicks does well. His descriptions of how the war changed the South, both from the privileged plantation aristocracy and the common men trying to scratch out a living any way they can, rings painfully credible.
The loss of so many men and the destruction of large areas left farms untended and towns deserted. Reconstruction brought a new economic model that left the plantations anachronistic leftovers of an earlier age. While it’s obvious that the author cares deeply for his beloved South, he’s also unflinching in his criticisms of it. At the center, though, remains the story of Carrie McGavock and the internment of the dead soldiers at Carnton.
This also becomes the weakness of the story. Even though he’s fictionalized characters around actual people and events, Robert Hicks must stay true to the history. In doing so, the novel is robbed of much of its suspense or a plot to drive it forward.
Different episodes in the characters’ lives are played out, and the ramifications of their actions or the war in general makes for interesting insights and characterizations. Once the battle is over and both Carnton and the town of Franklin are left empty shells of their former selves, the search for identity and rebuilding of lives isn’t enough to keep the pages turning briskly.
It’s not that the novel is boring through this middle section, but it’s not gripping either. The end redeems the novel and its promising start, as all the characters are brought back together in the final resolution of the soldiers buried in the fields in Franklin.
The Widow of the South is an homage to the strength and character of Carrie McGavock, and by the end of the novel, it’s a touching tribute to the sacrifices she made to the men and families she never knew.
The Widow of the South may not be a Civil War classic like Gone With the Wind or Cold Mountain, but it’s a perceptive look at lives undone by the folly of men and one woman who dragged herself from the pits of grief and depression to make a difference in the world.
The editor of The Readers Loft, and pursuer of relatively interesting information, Simon has a Masters Degree in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Wales, and is a photo-journalist and writer whose written and photographic work has been represented by the AFP news agency and appeared in newspapers across Europe and Asia.