Two Courageous Widows of the South: Martha Grundy Winder of Ducros and Carrie McGavock of Carnton

Caroline “Carrie” Winder McGavock, 18 years old Portrait by Washington Bogart Cooper is displayed at Carnton in Franklin, Tennessee

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the portrait (above) of Carrie McGavock. Standing with others touring her home, I found myself surrounded by antiques, books, china and silver that once belonged to the McGavock family. It was our first time touring Carnton, and our docent that day described the headstrong and opinionated spirit of the young woman in the portrait, Caroline “Carrie” Elizabeth Winder McGavock. Carrie would leave a legacy like none other during her time serving as the Mistress of Carnton. Our tour began with our guide telling a story about artist Washington Bogart Cooper, and how, upon receiving his commission to paint Carrie’s portrait, he had become frustrated with the young woman.  Not knowing what else to do, he’d penned a complaint to her Mother, Martha Grundy Winder.

Martha Grundy Winder was Carrie McGavock’s Mother

The complaint described how Carrie refused to wear anything except a black dress when sitting for her portrait, and Cooper was requesting assistance in convincing Carrie to choose a dress with more color. Mrs. Winder simply stated that she had sent a dozen dresses with Carrie to wear for her sitting, ending the letter to Cooper with the two words, “Good luck.”

Washington Cooper | Lovely Franklin
Portrait artist Washington Cooper

It’s easy to see who won that battle, as Carrie is indeed wearing black in the portrait, which was painted just prior to her wedding to John McGavock in December of 1848. At only eighteen years old, Carrie obviously thought nothing at all of standing up to Cooper, the famous portrait artist, as well as her mother. Looking up at her portrait, I was happy that Carrie McGavock used her voice, and that her decision to wear all black for her wedding portrait was, more than one hundred and fifty years later, still speaking volumes about her indomitable spirit.

Carnton by Rob Clutsam Photography | Lovely Franklin
Carnton was the home of John and Carrie McGavock | Photo Rob Clutsam Photography

Why was Carrie McGavock so determined to wear black? Why didn’t her Mother Martha make any attempt to even speak to Carrie over Cooper’s concerns? From what I know of the 1840’s, most women were not given much choice in matters. But, when I happened upon Carrie’s Mother, Martha Grundy McGavock’s portrait, I saw that she was also wearing black for the only portrait painted of her during her lifetime. Did Martha Winder overlook Carrie’s defiance because she had also chosen to be painted wearing black? 

After examining a few other works by Cooper, it’s clear the reasoning behind why he preferred his young female subjects to wear lighter colors. Below are two portraits Cooper painted from the same period, also of middle Tennessee young women.

The subjects of the two paintings above look happier and more vibrant because of the brighter colors in their clothing. Were Martha Grundy Winder and her daughter Carrie making a statement about their lives?

Martha Grundy Winder

Carrie’s Mother, Martha Grundy Winder, had an idyllic childhood, with two loving and devoted parents. She grew up on property that today would be right in the middle of the busiest part of Nashville. Martha’s home was called Grundy Place, and when her family lived there, starting around 1812, it was much more rural than it is today. Martha Winder’s childhood home was right at the bottom of what would eventually be the state capital building in Nashville, Tennessee. When Martha’s family occupied Grundy Place, the hill the capital sat on was just that, a hill. Martha lived in Nashville at its very beginning, as it experienced tremendous growth and a transformation into the “Athens of the South” because of the number of colleges in the region. Martha might possibly even have played within what remained of the old Fort Nashborough.

Grundy Place, Martha’s childhood home | Lovely Franklin
Grundy Place, Martha’s childhood home

Martha Grundy Winder was born in Nashville in 1812, the daughter of the distinguished Judge Felix Grundy. The Grundy family were a beloved and well-respected family among their neighbors. Martha’s Father, Judge Grundy, mentored future President James K. Polk, with the two eventually opening up a law firm in Nashville. Grundy served as Attorney General under Martin Van Buren and political advisor to Andrew Jackson. Judge Grundy’s accomplishments are too numerous to list here, but among them would be the time he spent serving as a Congressman as well as a United States Senator. Judge Grundy constructed a grand home called Grundy Place around the time of Martha’s birth, and she spent her entire childhood there. The eighth of ten children, nine of whom lived to adulthood, Martha grew up in a bustling, happy home at Grundy Place. While her Father was immersed in political matters, Martha’s Mother Ann “Nancy” Grundy was equally devoted to her community and helping those in need.

Dedicated to the First Presbyterian Church of Nashville, Nancy Grundy started several groups to help children in need, even teaching them to read. After her death in 1847, Nancy Grundy was recalled fondly in the Nashville Banner newspaper as “a lady universally respected and loved.” 

Martha Grundy didn’t stay long within her parents home. Around 1827, she met Van Perkins Winder, who was starting college at the nearby University of Nashville. Winder was a wealthy young man, an orphan from Natchez, Mississippi. He’d inherited four sugar plantations after his parents’ deaths, along with many acres of land and more homes than he could ever use. Despite their youth—Van was 18 and Martha 15 when they met—the couple fell in love.

Grundy Place later became Polk Place | Lovely Franklin
Grundy Place later became Polk Place after the purchase of the home by the former U.S. President

In 1828, nineteen-year-old Van Perkins Winder approached Judge Grundy and asked for his permission to marry young Martha. Judge Grundy adamantly protested because of his daughter’s young age, as Martha was only 16. Grundy also demanded that Winder that finish his education before marrying his daughter.

A silhouette of Judge Felix Grundy, today owned by the Smithsonian

Despite Judge Grundy’s refusal, young Van Perkins Winder and Martha eloped only days later, marrying in Winchester County, Tennessee while Judge Grundy was away doing business in Washington, D.C.  Nina Winder, Grundy’s granddaughter, recalled Van Winder’s reaction to Grundy’s upset over the couple marrying so young: 

“Grandpa Van Winder was a very genial, social, friendly person and had lots of friends and namesakes. Aunt Sallie said her mother (Martha Grundy Winder) told her he threw a lot of style and spent a lot of money when he went with his family to Tennessee because he said he wanted to show the Grundys that Martha had not done so badly in marrying a young college boy.”

Van Perkins Winder was Carrie Winder McGavock’s Father and owner of Ducros

Years of Mourning

Martha had grown up in the happy and chaotic Grundy home, which was full of healthy children and lots of activity. Having five siblings older than her and two younger, it isn’t unreasonable to assume she desired to replicate the wonderful family and idyllic life she experienced as a child.

Martha and Van Winder would have fifteen children during their marriage. Sadly, only eight of those children would survive to adulthood. Upon examination of the Winder family and a timeline of events, one fact is glaringly obvious. The Winder family suffered many deaths, and lived in a constant state of mourning. Most likely, dealing with so much death was somewhat new to Martha, as her Grundy family had only experienced the loss of one of her ten siblings, with her remaining sisters and brothers surviving to adulthood. Living in a constant state of loss, grief and mourning, having many infants and children who lived very short lives, had to have been difficult for the Winder family.

Not only was the home under a constant state of mourning, but Martha was almost always pregnant. At the time of Carrie Winder McGavock’s 1848 marriage, Martha was pregnant with her twelfth child. Out of those twelve children, only seven remained alive. The impact each loss had on the family is unimaginable, and Carrie’s life was undoubtedly affected by these ongoing losses. At thirteen years old, Carrie suffered the loss of two sisters, ages eight and ten.  Margaret and Elizabeth Winder would die only a year apart, leaving the family brokenhearted. Only three years later, the family would deal with death once again, the loss of another Winder child, John, aged three. In addition to these deaths, the Winders had several infants that passed before the age of one.

It’s possible both Carrie and her mother Martha were accustomed to death and mourning so they preferred wearing black.

Although the Winders were plagued by the loss of so many of their children, they brought up their family in grand homes, living a wealthy and indulgent existence. The Winders were of the elite Natchez Sugar planters who benefitted so greatly off the rich black soil on the banks  of the Mississippi River, which also provided transport for their empire. The institution of slavery and forced labor of many individuals, without a doubt, helped the Winders accumulate and hold on to such great wealth. No matter how much wealth the Winders were able to accumulate, dealing with the constant assault that death causes was undoubtedly devastating. 

Ducros Plantation in Terrebone Parish, Louisiana was the home of the Winder family

Until her teenage years, Carrie Winder McGavock lived with her family in the Natchez area of Mississippi. But in 1845, when Carrie was fifteen years old, the Winders purchased Ducros, a 1200 acre property with a home located on it in Schriever, Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana. Early on in their marriage, Van Winder promised Martha that he would build her a grand home, similar to the Hermitage, home of President Andrew Jackson. Improvements were made to the home at Ducros to achieve that goal, with Carrie Winder celebrating her marriage to John McGavock there in 1848.

Martha Winder gave birth to her eleventh child four days after her daughter Carrie’s wedding. In the five years following Carrie’s wedding, Martha Winder would give birth to four more children, but would also suffer the death of three.  

Osage Orange tree at Carnton in Franklin, Tennessee | Lovely Franklin
John McGavock planted this Osage Orange tree at Carnton in Franklin, Tennessee in 1848 on the occasion of his marriage to Carrie Winder. This same tree would stand during the Battle of Franklin when the McGavock home was transformed into a field hospital.

The McGavocks Settle at Carnton

Carrie and John McGavock would move into Carnton Plantation in Tennessee following their 1848 wedding. The couple would have two daughters and a son within their first few years together. Martha was born in 1849, and Mary Elizabeth in 1851. The couple’s infant son, John Randall McGavock, would pass away in September of 1854 at only three months old. Only weeks later, Van Perkins Winder, Carrie’s Father, would fall ill, dying of yellow fever at Ducros in November of 1854. Six weeks after the death of Van Winder, Martha Winder would give birth to the couple’s fifteenth child. 

Following Van Winder’s death, Martha would inherit 202 slaves and over 4,500 acres of land. She built an entirely new, grander home at Ducros. When it was finished, it did look very similar to Jackson’s Hermitage.

DUCROS was built  just prior to the War between the States and is
said to have been modeled on the ‘Hermitage,’ Andrew Jackson’s old home at Nashville. Set in a well-kept garden and surrounded by old oaks, it is a white two-story wooden house with eight tall square columns supporting wide galleries. The low hipped roof is bordered by a heavy cornice. A wing, with roofs sloping toward the main roof, was added on each side of the house at a later date, and the gallery extended across. Entrance doorways on both first and second floors have side lights and deep transoms, and are flanked by long, green-shuttered windows, six on each floor. The plantation occupies a site originally granted by the Spanish Government to M. Ducros. It was sold in 1846 to Colonel Van P. Winder, who continued to add to his property until it comprised 3,300 acres, and was the first large sugar cane plantation in Terrebonne Parish. Shortly after his death Colonel Winder’s widow built the present home. During the War between the States both Federals and Confederates occupied the house and encamped on the expansive grounds.

—WPA Guide to Louisiana, 2013

War

Sometime after Van Winder’s death and prior to 1860, Martha Winder built another home somewhere on the acreage of her daughter Carrie McGavock’s plantation near Franklin, Tennessee. Census records show Martha living close to Carrie in 1860, along with five of her children and one servant. 

Martha most likely saw the need to be close to her daughter Carrie, who was struggling with the loss of first John Randall McGavock, her infant son, in 1854, followed by her seven year old daughter Mary Elizabeth McGavock passing in 1858. Mary Elizabeth would pass while visiting her grandmother, Martha Winder at Ducros. This death was especially heartbreaking in that it was so sudden and Mary Elizabeth had to be buried far away from her family at Ducros. Only four years later, the McGavocks would suffer the loss of another daughter, eleven-year-old Martha Winder McGavock in 1862.

The McGavock children lost at Carnton | Lovely Franklin
The McGavock children lost to the family at Carnton: John Randall, Mary Elizabeth and Martha Winder are immortalized in this oil portrait, which hangs in John and Carrie McGavock’s bedroom at Carnton.

Only two years later, events that unfolded on the McGavock property, Carnton plantation, on November 30, 1864, will go down in history as some of the bloodiest battle scenes that have ever occurred on American soil. Almost ten thousand casualties, seven thousand of those confederate and twenty five hundred federal, occurred in only a few hours. What the town and the townspeople suffered through was unimaginable, as most were hunkered down in their basements, finding themselves at the very center of cannonading, gunfire, heavy smoke and brutal hand to hand combat.

Afterwards, men lay suffering and dead so thick, more than one citizen of Franklin reported one couldn’t walk without stepping on a body. The townspeople were overwhelmed with casualties that numbered more than four times the population of the town. Every building and home was utilized as a field hospital, so that soldiers could receive the best treatment possible. The home on McGavock farm not only saw fighting all over the property, but it served as one of the largest field hospitals in the area. Over three hundred men were taken to McGavock Farm, which was also called “Lorings Hospital,” for care, with as many as one hundred and fifty dying there the night the battle occurred. The scene was desperate and required selflessness most are unable to give, but the McGavock family are famous for their generosity and care of the soldiers. Carrie McGavock in particular left her mark with the stories soldiers told of her actions that night. One incredibly poignant memory was recalled by daughter Hattie: 

I overheard a man at Carnton that night say he estimated over 300 wounded were crammed into our home. There we were in this ocean of suffering, mother, father, Winder and me going from man to man, doing what we could. Mother ordered the bed sheets and linens torn into bandages. Those ran out so, she told the medical attendants to use her tablecloths, towels, and father’s shirts. At one point, she used her own undergarments, put to use mending the myriad of wounds. Those who saw her were awestruck by her selfless actions. Mother never ceased in her work that long and dreadful night. She handed out tea and coffee and went from room to room making sure there was nothing else she could do. Capt. William Gale of Gen. Stewart’s staff said mother was so involved in affairs that her skirt was stained in blood. I remember it vividly.

Hattie McGavock, Memphis Commercial Appeal, 1925

The McGavocks would have soldiers convalescing at their home for almost a year following the Battle of Franklin. Afterwards they donated two acres of their land and created a Confederate Cemetery for the soldiers, who had to be retrieved from their first burial spots and reinterred at the new cemetery, which eventually held over fifteen hundred burials. This cemetery was located mere steps from Carrie McGavock’s back door. 

Carrie became widely known as “the widow of the south,” as she cared for the soldiers’ graves buried in her yard, and their maintenance, for the remainder of her life. She kept a record of all of the dead buried at Carnton within a book, and often helped widows and mothers find their loved ones with the records she kept in that journal. 

Not as much is known about what occurred at Ducros. But, one story is incredibly moving and shows how accustomed to dealing with death Martha Winder had become. 

At the close of the war, a picnic was held in the extensive grove surrounding the house to welcome the returning soldiers. It is said that immediately before the festivities began, Mrs. Winder was informed of the death of her youngest son, Captain Felix Winder, but courageously refused to let her grief mar the occasion.

—WPA Guide to Louisiana, 2013

Both Carrie McGavock’s home and Ducros suffered extensive damage following the civil war. The home at Ducros was in need of much repair, as it was occupied by both sides of the conflict and utilized as a field hospital. However, Martha must have made many repairs, as she and her family are listed in the 1870 census as living on the property at Ducros with children George (28), John (24), Thomas (22), Van (17) and Sally (16). She lists her wealth as valued at $50,000. In today’s world, Martha’s $50,000 would be equivalent to $1.2 million dollars. 

Martha lived at Ducros, or at least owned the property, for seven years following the war. She sold the property in 1872. It is unknown where Martha lived following her 1872 sale of the Ducros property. 

However, in 1880, Martha was living in the household of her son, Attorney John Bass Winder, in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, along with his wife, their daughter, Martha’s daughter Sarah Winder, and three servants. 

In 1891, Martha Winder passed away at almost eighty years old while living in the home of her daughter and son-in-law, Dr. and Mrs. John Berrien Lindsley, and their family in Nashville. Below is Martha’s obituary from the Nashville Banner and Whig, December 20, 1828:

Martha Grundy Winder’s obituary | Lovely Franklin
Martha Grundy Winder’s obituary

Carrie McGavock would live until 1905 at Carnton, tending to the graves of the soldiers and helping all who needed assistance in finding the graves of their brave loved ones. She will forever be immortalized in Robert Hicks’ best-selling novel, “The Widow of the South.” Read the story of Robert Hicks and his account of the Battle of Franklin.

McGavock Confederate Cemetery

Both Martha and Carrie were very strong women. The griefs they endured were preparation for futures they could never have imagined. They both exemplified qualities that are beyond admirable. They each took the losses they were continually assaulted by and used what they had experienced to cause positive changes, showing strength others were amazed by. I’m certain I’m not alone when I say, if they had wanted to wear black, they had earned it!

Carrie McGavock Carnton | Lovely Franklin

We highly recommend a tour of Carnton to learn more about the McGavock family and how the Battle of Franklin shaped not only a Tennessee city, but also changed the course of the Civil War. Carnton visitor’s information here.

Sharing the forgotten stories of the women of historic Franklin,

Kimberly Clutsam

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