In November of 1864 the Civil War is close to its end. But a fierce battle is about to take place in Franklin, Tennessee, pitting loyal Confederate soldiers against a staunch Union Army that greatly outnumbers them. An outlying plantation named Carnton belongs to John and Carrie McGavock. General Nathan Bedford Forrest orders the house and grounds to become a hospital for the anticipated wounded and dying. Mrs. McGavock is reclusive because she grieves for her three children, dead in the recent past. She is unwilling to turn her home into a respite for any army, but the General is firm in his demand.
More than 9,000 men die on the battlefield at Franklin in the following days. The Confederacy is near its demise; its loss at Franklin is a step closer to eventual surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. Carrie's close friend and former slave, Mariah, stands beside her for support when hundreds of broken bodies are brought to Carnton.
In historical memory, perhaps Franklin is not a formidable one. But Robert Hicks writes its story and brings to life the men who fought, healed or died there. The romantic interest in THE WIDOW OF THE SOUTH is between two unlikely personalities --- Carrie McGavock and a Confederate Sergeant named Zachariah Cashwell. He's severely wounded and transported to Carnton; Carrie finds him a compelling patient and yearns to know him better. She's instrumental in saving his life but cannot keep him under Carnton's protective wing when soldiers in gray are herded like cattle to Union prison camps.
Franklin's rural residents, some in abject poverty and others in comfortable homesteads, provide a colorful panorama of lives affected by civil war. Side plots involve townspeople whose lives will change forever. The grieving widow takes strength from the men who have resided within her house, however short their time. Carnton's halls are filled with activity, then abruptly emptied. But she cannot forget those who died at Carnton. She begins a correspondence with families of the dead to provide relatives with knowledge about boys they've lost, eventually leading to their reburial on her land. She wears black in memory of them all.
Hicks's chapters are laid out much the same as those written by Jeff Shaara in his compelling Civil War books. Sections are titled by characters whose points of view are explored within, or by dates that story actual wartime timelines. Some are written in first person, others in third person, but the book flows forward in an easy read that catches readers' attention throughout.
Will Baylor, Franklin's elitist businessman, is a stubborn anti-war zealot who sacrifices his only son rather than accept the boy's passion for the cause. In addition, the son has dared to fall in love with a girl whose family lives in poverty. Baylor's whims affect the fates of the entire populace, ultimately changing the stance that Carrie takes against him.
THE WIDOW OF THE SOUTH is the product of Hicks's research about Franklin, in particular the restoration of the Carnton plantation as a historical site, home to the cemetery Carrie McGavock built to honor the thousands of dead who lost their lives at Franklin, Tennessee. Relationships between Carrie, husband John, Mariah and her son Eli, and Zachariah Cashwell are fictional, but the reality of the battle and the losses sustained by the Confederacy are fact. Promotional material compares THE WIDOW OF THE SOUTH to the likes of GONE WITH THE WIND and DR. ZHIVAGO. I would not classify Hicks's book with such lofty classics, but I do recommend it as a historical novel with enthralling personalities.
Reviewed by Judy Gigstad on January 24, 2011