In a state so rich with history as Tennessee, it’s hard to determine where the most interesting pieces of history lie. However, a place such as Carnton Plantation is sure to be at the top of the list. This month, our “Nashville Newcomer” took a tour of the famous estate, which was a key player in the historic Battle of Franklin.
We couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful Saturday morning to serve as the perfect backdrop for such a tour, which starts outside on the property and explains where the start of Carnton all began. Built in the early 1800s by Randal McGavock, Carnton got its name from the Gaelic term “cairn,” which translates to the phrase “a pile of stones” that are often associated with grave sties and used to mark a fallen hero – a haunting foretelling of the harrowing events that would one day occur on the property.
Stepping into the home is like stepping back in time, as the interior design accurately replicates what the house would’ve looked like when the McGavocks lived there, including several pieces original to the home. Colors like bronze, salmon pink and mint green cloak the walls and other interior features, along with a stunning Eldorado wallpaper that acts as an all-encompassing motif, representing four different types of architecture from around the world and patterns that were popular of the era, designed by a French company that still makes the style today. Various books, gold chairs, fine silver, pretty cake plates and even a rocking chair that was a gift from Andrew Jackson still reside inside the home.
But the home really came to life in 1843 when Randal’s son John inherited the property upon his father’s death and married Carrie Winder. Together they had five children, with only two of them surviving, Winder and Hattie. Their presence can almost be felt in the family parlor, which includes a Bible featuring the birth and death dates of the family, along with an original music box and clock that still ticks to this day. “Getting to hear what John and Carrie heard brings history to life a little bit,” our tour guide so accurately said.
It was in this room with the long-standing clock that ticks away the time from so many years ago that we learned about the story of Carnton’s crucial role in one of the most brutal battles of the Civil War. On the fateful day of Nov. 30, 1864, it’s been recorded that Carrie was sitting on the front lawn when all of a sudden she heard the thumping sound of footsteps marching in time – only to be met with overwhelming sight of a wall of soldiers moving toward the Carnton property. Shortly after, the McGavocks were informed that their home was to be turned into a war hospital, whether willingly or by force. Within 10 to 15 minutes, several wounded men came pouring into the home as the bloody battle began, forcing the family into action, going so far as to use torn shirts, napkins and even undergarments as bandages for the injured who were so rapidly entering the home. Though the battle lasted only five hours, it resulted in roughly 10,000 causalities, many of them Confederate soldiers. Carrie’s graciousness was noted by the men who came in contact with her, describing her as a “ministering angel” that reminded them of their wives and mothers.
After hearing such a captivating and powerful story, we made our way up the lavish staircase (with each visitor pointing out the section of the wall featuring the original wallpaper to the person behind them) leading us to the McGavocks bedrooms that held particularly fascinating pieces of history. On the floorboards in the room of young Winder, who was a mere seven years old at the time of the battle, are actual blood stains from that gristly day, some in the form of bucket rings and others resulting from the stacks of amputated limbs that were housed there after surgery. In an interview 67 years after the Battle of Franklin, Hattie had said the most potent memory in her life was the smell of blood that filled the house to the point where even the cattle were rustled by the stench. This statement, paired with the physical evidence of the bloody battle, truly made for a powerful experience and sheds light on such a heavy, horrific event in a way that a history book couldn’t.
The extended tour takes visitors out the slave quarters, with the property boasting 11 slaves quarters at one time and 39 slaves at its peak, along with the family’s beautiful gardens. The McGavock Confederate Cemetery serves as the last sop on the tour, making for a somber yet fitting ending to the site where roughly 1,500 soldiers lie, each marked with a small headstone carved with their initials and unit number, many of whom were identified in the days after the battle by those lucky enough to survive.
A tour of Carnton is nothing short of a thrill for historians, standing as a noble figure in the heart of one of the bloodiest battles to ever occur. Vivid visions of American history exist within the walls of the home and stillness of the expansive grounds. All who take the tour are sure to be fascinated by the story and heroism of the noble McGavock family and selfless men who bravely gave their lives during a crucial time in our country’s history.
For more information on the property and tours, visit Carnton Plantation’s official website.