Preservationist Robert Hicks Uncovers the Significance of the Battle of Franklin to the Nation

Preservationist Robert Hicks – Misty Westebbe Photography

Franklin’s beloved Robert Hicks passed away February 25, 2022. We feel honored to have interviewed Robert for this story and considered him a dear friend.

One of America’s most significant historical events occurred late afternoon on November 30, 1864. It was the Battle of Franklin, a battle that if not forgotten was at the very least, made insignificant in the pages of history. That was until New York Times best-selling author Robert Hicks shared the emotional and fascinating story in his novel “The Widow of the South” – the story of Carrie McGavock and the community of Franklin, Tennessee.

Robert has been an ambassador for the Battle of Franklin having been interviewed by many publications and television shows including three segments on CBS Sunday Morning. A Nashville Lifestyles article which named Robert #2 in “100 Reasons to Love Nashville. To understand why, you need to know the answer to this question…

So why exactly was the Battle of Franklin almost forgotten? Maybe it was the community’s shame of it being such a disaster for the South. Maybe it was easier to forget the pain of the war after decades of indifference. This may explain why local folks, many years later, casually built strip malls on the same land young soldiers and generals lost their lives on.

Robert Hicks Resurrected Franklin’s Historic Past

Now let’s enter Robert Hicks into this story. Robert moved to Franklin in 1974. He has since become known by many as “the driving force behind the restoration of Carnton.” Formerly know as “The Carnton Plantation” off Lewisburg Pike in Franklin, Tennessee. You probably never learned the significance of Carnton and Carrie McGavock in American Civil War history.

Keep reading, because its important to know the whole story. Carnton was used as a field hospital during the Battle of Franklin. The evening of November 30, 1864 ended up being five of the bloodiest battles in our nation’s history. There were over 9,500 casualties with 7,000 being Southern soldiers. Franklin’s population at the time was only 2,500 with only about 750 folks still in town at the time of the battle.

Why Was the Battle of Franklin So Important?

Because of the tremendous Confederate defeat in Franklin, the Union was able to easily go on and win the Battle of Nashville. This basically ended the Civil War within the next four months, which ended the horrors of slavery in America. Robert believes the Battle of Franklin was in many ways Franklin’s gift to the nation because it both ended slavery, and we had a united country again. But why was the Franklin battle not recognized as significant and almost forgotten?

Robert explains, “When I moved to Franklin, there were three main ‘facts’ about the battle. First, that more American generals were killed in the Battle of Franklin (six to be exact) than in any conflict in American history. Second, it was always called the five bloodiest hours of any war. That was not true. There was an afternoon at Antietam that was bloodier. But it all becomes relative after a while. Third, that the Battle of Franklin was inconsequential. That it had no value, but that in reality was NOT true.”

“The Battle of Franklin – Second to Gettysburg in Importance”

“General Douglas MacArthur once said his father Lt. General Arthur MacArthur considered the Battle of Franklin second only to Gettysburg in its importance in the American Civil War. He had received the Congressional Medal after the Battle of Chattanooga, and was severely wounded in Franklin. So because of Franklin, he envisioned the war could actually come to an end.

“It was not so much what happened, but what didn’t happen during the Battle of Franklin. Until then, there had been a clear vision the war was going to go on and on. Once the South had concluded it could not win the war, it was trying to bleed the country into letting go. At the end of the national conflict, one out of every four Mississippian men were dead. But compared to states like Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, where President Lincoln kept sending more boys into battle, it was even more deadly. By the time of Franklin, the South was simply trying to outlast the North, hoping public opinion would finally say, ‘Enough!’

Robert says the war could have continued dragging on; but after Atlanta, Lincoln had been re-elected and was given the ability to see the war to an end for the Union. Once the Battle of Franklin happened, nobody talked about this over three-year war going on indefinitely. It ended less than six months later.

Franklin, Tennessee – Where the Old South Died

Confederate Cemetery at Carnton – Misty Westebbe Photography

“Franklin had no importance after the war. In the 1960’s, other cities throughout the South were touting, ‘Welcome to such and such city where the Old South lives.’ These cities were basically saying, ‘We will not accept civil rights, integration, and pretty much just held onto the past.’

“But do you want to know where the Old South died, I would say, ‘Come to Franklin, Tennessee.’ Obviously, you can’t put that on a sign. It didn’t sell well at the time, but that’s the reality because most Southerners did not want to honor that fact.” Many didn’t want to accept the defeat.

Carrie McGavock – The Widow of the South

Carrie Winder McGavock – (photo courtesy of Rick Warwick)

Because of its strategic location, the Carnton Plantation had been selected as a field hospital for the Battle of Franklin. It was the home of John and Carrie McGavock. John’s father Randal McGavock, former mayor of Nashville, originally built Carnton in 1826. On the morning of December 1, 1864 the bodies of four Confederate generals killed during the battle were laying on the McGavock’s back porch (two others were elsewhere) while the house and land was filled with the injured and the dead.

John and Carrie McGavock designated two acres of land in 1866 extending from their family cemetery to bury nearly 1,500 Confederate soldiers killed during the Battle of Franklin. Carrie would spend the next four decades daily tending to the graves and writing letters to the families of the fallen soldiers. She kept a leather-bound journal with the soldiers’ names to honor their lives. Carrie became the last connection these young men had with their families. Her strength was immeasurable.

Carrie Transcended Race to Help the Suffering

The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks

Robert explains, “The beauty of Carrie McGavock is that she transcended race because she was there helping with the suffering.” Her importance in American and Tennessee history was pretty much forgotten until Robert Hicks New York Times best-selling novel, “The Widow of the South”.

Robert was on the board to help preserve Carnton. They had this beautifully restored historic home, but they didn’t have the number of visitors it would need to sustain the site into the future. Robert felt if Carrie’s story could be told, people would come. So he penned this epic novel to tell the world the forgotten story of Carnton and Carrie. After it’s release, people did come. In droves, over 7,000 the first year.

“The Widow of the South” was published August 2005. Thanks to his book and the generations of families sharing Carrie’s story, the Carnton gets almost 60,000 visitors per year. They tour the home with its blood-stained floors and the same cemetery Carrie mourned. Her story and legacy is now cemented in Civil War history thanks to Robert’s vision.

McGavock Family Cemetery at Carnton –Misty Westebbe Photography

Franklin Charge – Battlefield Preservation

Thanks to Robert’s efforts and many others, five years ago Franklin had 125,000 heritage tourists. Robert says, “That is our unique story and the story we should market in Franklin.”

The Battle of Franklin Trust was Robert’s idea to combine the preservation and promotional efforts of the Carnton and the Carter House which was used as a headquarters for Federal Brig. Gen. Jacob Cox during the Battle of Franklin. BOFT’s CEO Eric Jacobson says, “Robert was the person who truly believed in Carnton – and what it could be. He was right. He was also among the first to not only think the battlefield could be saved, but believed there was the will to make it happen.  Robert is among Franklin’s great preservationists.”

In 2005, Robert founded Franklin’s Charge, an organization with the sole purpose to buy battlefields in Williamson County. It is the umbrella organization for other preservation and environmental groups including the Heritage Foundation, the African American Heritage Society, the Battle of Franklin Trust, the Land Trust for Tennessee, and other state and local organizations. There are no members, only a board.

Preserving the Battlefields One Deal at a Time

Franklin’s Charge founder Robert Hicks – Misty Westebbe Photography

To understand its importance, Robert explains, “We have raised over $27 Million from the community and beyond for battlefield reclamation. That’s a big deal!” No other community has ever done that. The land on the north side of Carnton had been a golf course. With the help of the American Battlefield Trust and this community, we bought it back for preservation of the battlefield for $5 Million.”

They’ve torn down insignificant houses, a Pizza Hut, a Domino’s, a Mexican strip mall, and other buildings and donated that land back to the battlefield between Columbia Pike and Lewisburg Pike. Their biggest challenge – doing this while land prices are at their highest.

Recently, they raised funds for the monument for the enslaved at McGavock family cemetery. It’s dedicated to the enslaved peoples who lived, worked, and died at Carnton. The Confederate soldier’s graves have headstones, but the enslaved’s graves only have rocks for markers. This monument was Franklin’s Charge’s way to honor the enslaved who were forced to leave Africa and labor at Canrton.

TN Gov. Bill Lee at Carnton – Misty Westebbe Photography

Robert stated, “In a very real way, this monument represents more than just the enslaved buried here at Carnton, but all the lost graves of enslaved men and women across Williamson County.”

The goal is to tell the whole story of Franklin and the Battle of Franklin. The monument dedication was attended by Tennessee Governor Bill Lee who laid a magnolia wreath on the monument and other local dignitaries and descendants of the enslaved at Carnton, including Ravenwood High School Assistant Principal, Dr. Reggie Mason, and his daughter, Miss Tennessee Brianna Mason. 

Miss Tennessee Brianna Mason at Carnton – Misty Westebbe Photography

 May We and Future Generations Never Forget

Carrie McGavock is like the city of Franklin. She bravely made it to the other side to come out stronger, more compassionate and wiser. That’s what makes a beautiful story and our beautiful city. We cannot forget Franklin’s past.

The story Robert wants told about the Battle of Franklin is that “it is hallowed ground. This land is holy. It’s significant.”

The Unplanned Battle That Changed American History

The Battle of Franklin was not planned. The Union was on its way from Atlanta to Nashville but the bridge had been burned down. So the Union through General Schofield had to rebuild the bridge over the Harpeth River to get all their arms across for Nashville. It wasn’t planned by any general, but it seems like it was destiny that this battle occurred to change the course of history.

Robert explains, “The reason the battle started so late was because General Hood was trying to decide what to do. He wanted to get his cannons up to Franklin. He fought the battle without them because he didn’t want Schofield to get over the bridge without a fight. So he waited until 4:00PM and went ahead and fought without the cannons.”

Map by Hal Jespersen, www.cwmaps.com.

Franklin is Holy Ground

Confederate Cemetery at Carnton – Misty Westebbe Photography

“This battlefield is hallowed ground. The garden area to the side of the Carter house literally became blood-soaked because so many men and boys died there. So you have to consider this an important place. A holy place.

“What most of these young men were truly fighting for at that moment, like in most wars, were the guys on either side them more than a “cause”. There had been racism on both sides.” 

What’s it Like Going Into Battle?

Monument Dedication to the Enslaved at Carnton – Misty Westebbe Photography

“On page 27 of my book is a description of a boy going into battle. It was was taken from my  friend’s account who had been the youngest company commander at age 19 in the Vietnam War. He later died as a paraplegic from his wounds at 46. I asked him what is it like to go into battle thinking you were going to die?”

His description was a gift to the book that helped Robert describe those emotions so clearly many soldiers have wondered if Robert himself had been in battle. Robert’s war sentiments are accurate, “The Civil War wasn’t just a lost cause, it was the wrong cause.”

Robert Hicks’ Life is a Priceless Gift to All of Us

Preservationist Robert Hicks and Williamson County Historian Rick Warwick

This is why all Tennesseans should thank Robert Hicks. He is a gift to the city of Franklin and to all of America. His vision to tell the painful, yet important, story of our beloved city. Robert’s ability to see what really matters by telling the story of the Battle of Franklin through the eyes of the soldiers and using Carrie McGavock’s compelling tale is genius. His empathy for the slaves who sacrificed their lives working on the plantation will forever be remembered through his memorial.

Robert’s wisdom and selflessness in helping preserve Carnton, the Carter House, and the actual battlefield for the entire world to remember is a priceless gift for all Americans. The course of our nation’s history forever changed that tragic November day. The Old South indeed died. Yes, it would eventually take many generations to heal all the wounds. We are still healing.

May We All Be Preservationists

Robert Hicks with Lovely Franklin founders Buffie Baril & Brandon Baril – Misty Westebbe Photography

May we as the people of Franklin and Tennessee, never forget this story. We must not live a life of affluence mixed with apathy toward our forefathers – their battles and their struggles. Instead, we must remember and preserve history. It is our duty as Americans. It’s the least we can do.

We thank you Robert Hicks for all of this and more, for being a man with as much courage as any brave soldier. May you have many more years to carry on your legacy of preservation and Truth. We know this is why you were sent – to make sure we never forget to respect those who came before us and be grateful, to honor and be kind.

We asked Robert to describe Franklin in one word, his response, “hallowed”. 

Robert Hicks, another reason we call this Lovely Franklin.

We hope everyone in America will visit Carnton and read The Widow of the South to experience history like you’ve never done before. Watch Robert tell the incredible story of Carrie McGavock in this episode of Tennessee Crossroads:

We are Lovely Franklin,

Lovely Franklin Brandon and Buffie

About Lovely Franklin

About Brandon

About Buffie


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