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Save history's 'holy places'

September 6, 2011 12:15 am


Carrie McGovack's engagement portrait at Carnton House. tc0906hicksrend2.jpg.jpg

The nonprofit aims to re-create the Carter family's cotton gin on this piece of battlefield, now home to a Domino's Pizza. The new city park (bottom) replaced a Pizza Hut. DSC02353.jpg

Near the Carter House (red roof), townsfolk place 10,000 luminaria, one for each soldier killed or wounded in the battle--a yearly tradition. Carnton with garden 2010.jpg

Carnton hosts lovely gardens and a large, private military cemetery. tc0906hicks8.jpg

This eatery, where Cleburne was killed, was replaced with a park. tc0906hicks3.jpg

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Robert Hicks (top left) spearheaded restoration of Carnton in Franklin, Tenn., and penned 'The Widow of the South' about the plantation's mistress, Carrie McGavock, who oversaw reburial of nearly 1,500 Confederate soldiers there and cared for their graves for decades. tc0906hicksrend1.jpg.jpg

Franklin's Charge proposes a 5-acre Carter Cotton Gin Park on Columbia Avenue in downtown Franklin, ground where 11 Union soldiers earned the Medal of Honor.


Robert Hicks admits he isn't a scholar.

As a young boy growing up in the South, he wasn't a Civil War geek, either, although you'd hardly think that, listening to him today.

Hicks calls himself a storyteller "from a family of storytellers," and his two much-praised, best-selling novels--"The Widow of the South" and "A Separate Country"--attest to that.

Tomorrow, he comes here to share the tale of Franklin, Tenn., the town that's been his home since 1974.

It's one he believes holds promise for the Fredericksburg area's quality of life, economic well-being and community spirit.

Acre by acre, the people of Franklin are reclaiming a Civil War battlefield lost to carelessness and suburban sprawl from Nashville.

Hicks and others think folks here could do the same sort of thing, starting with the old General Motors plant in Spotsylvania County, at the heart of the Fredericksburg battlefield.

"I want you guys up there to be competing with us for recognition as the community that does the most for these holy places," Hicks said during interviews late last week. "A friendly competition. And I won't be unhappy if you cream us."

That would be saying a lot, since Franklin has won national acclaim for its recent strides in saving what most had declared a "lost" battlefield.

The Battle of Franklin, Nov. 30, 1864, was a prelude to the Battle of Nashville. Its furious carnage made casualties of 15 Southern generals as commander John Bell Hood staged a frontal assault on entrenched Union troops. The "Pickett's Charge of the West," when compared to the Confederate attack at Gettysburg, involved more men, who advanced over a far greater distance and took much longer.

Nearly 9,000 men were killed, wounded or captured, with Confederate losses more than double the North's. Some have called it the "five bloodiest hours" of the war.

"The battle was viewed by many as an embarrassment," lawyer Julian Bibb told National Geographic for a cover story in 2005. "People thought of it as a huge Confederate debacle."


Naturally, locals weren't keen on commemorating the loss. They rejected a National Park Service proposal to buy historic land. And Franklin's African- American community, disenfranchised after Reconstruction, had little interest in the battle.

Over decades, in a process rather like what happened to the plain below Fredericksburg's Marye's Heights, the town grew outward, consuming the battlefield.

Today, the Federal front line in Franklin lies beneath parking lots near a tire store.

The spot where Confederate Gen. Patrick Cleburne was killed--and more than 1,700 Southern troops were buried in a mass grave--was paved over, with a pizzeria placed on top.

"Shameful" is how Hicks describes that indignity.

But in the course of two lively telephone conversations, he made plain that he's not an unreconstructed Southerner.

The Civil War belongs to everyone, "North and South, black and white," Hicks said. " It's where all of us became Americans.

"It doesn't matter because my family fought for the South or your family fought for the North or someone else's family was freed from slavery. The Civil War is important if you just came over from Nicaragua. If you're throwing in your lot with this country, it's part of the reason why."


But Hicks came to this passion fairly recently.

Having moved to Franklin during his career as a music publisher, he volunteered on the board of Carnton, a historic home there. Hicks raised money to restore and refurbish it, consulting Monticello and Mount Vernon, and using them as standards.

Along the way, one could say that he fell in love with the former plantation's mistress, Carrie McGavock, the "Widow the South."

Not knowing the hostile paths of New York publishing, he resolved to write a book about her, then cold-called a top agent who landed him a deal. The book rose to No. 5 and spent eight weeks on The New York Times best-seller list.

Until the day she died, McGavock devoted decades to tending the graves of most of the Battle of Franklin's Southern dead, who were moved to Carnton from their temporary mass grave. Learning about her, Hicks came to understand why one of America's largest private military cemeteries lies in her backyard.


But it wasn't until a developer proposed to build a subdivision next door to Carnton, on the grounds of a country club, that Hicks became an activist.

When Williamson County opted to build a library on another piece of the battlefield, rather than preserve it, the Civil War Trust moved Franklin from its "10 Most Endangered" list to the "lost" column.

That kicked Hicks into high gear, inviting a half-dozen civic leaders to meet on the back porch of Carnton. With that as its start, the nonprofit Franklin's Charge--a coalition of local and state groups--was born to reclaim the battlefield.

First, a Washington-area couple bought the country club's 112 acres, and held it for a year while Franklin's Charge raised $2.5 million, matched dollar for dollar by the city of Franklin, to acquire the tract.

The biggest public-private reclamation effort in Civil War preservation, their teamwork saved the eastern flank of the battlefield--its largest remaining open space.

Then, in 2005, the city of Franklin spent $300,000 to buy the Pizza Hut on whose land Gen. Cleburne fell, bulldozed it and transformed the site into a park. The event drew nationwide attention.

More recently, Franklin's Charge purchased the site of a condominium development on Franklin's main highway.

This July, Tennessee awarded a $500,000 grant to help finish a loop road in what's now called the Eastern Flank Battlefield Park.

Each success has generated additional support and converted one-time critics, Hicks said.

"We keep moving the finish line," he said. "Now, we're trying to buy the Domino's next door."

Other disparate pieces are fitting together: two house lots and a retail property near the Carter House, another historic dwelling that figured prominently in the battle.

By the battle's 150th anniversary in 2014, Franklin's Charge hopes to restore land that saw the fiercest close-quarters combat and build a replica of the Carter cotton gin that stood nearby.

Williamson County now trumpets the economic benefits of heritage tourism, noting that such travelers stay longer and spend more money in the community than average visitors.

Meanwhile, Nissan chose to move its North American headquarters from Los Angeles to Franklin. Among the reasons it cited were its history, parks and quality of life, Hicks said.


Meanwhile, in Spotsylvania County, the Civil War Trust proposes to buy the abandoned GM factory along Routes 2 and 17, raze it and create a park linked with the trust's nearby Slaughter Pen Farm portion of the Dec. 13, 1862, battlefield.

The park would interpret the ground where Gen. George Gordon Meade led the Union assault that broke through Lt. Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's defenses before being repulsed, dooming the Union troops staging a diversionary attack against Marye's Heights closer to Fredericksburg.

The county Board of Supervisors, some members of which have been skeptical of the plan, is considering the trust's proposal.


In Franklin, it required intense work to achieve what has been accomplished so far, said Hicks, who is quick to credit the many other partners and participants.

"It takes a lot of people," he said. "It takes the whole community."

But battlefield preservation is changing the community for the better, Hicks said, breaking down divisions and helping people connect with their heritage--and with one another.

"The details of how it happened here are not nearly as relevant," he said, "as the fact that some passionate people, who get the bigger picture and understand why this is important for our future, can do just about anything they set their minds on.

" It's not something that people in Fredericksburg couldn't do better. You've just got to believe."

The Central Virginia Battlefields Trust, a small nonprofit based in Fredericksburg, is hosting Hicks' visit.

Dr. Mike Stevens, CVBT's president, said Friday that reclaiming the GM tract would be "a resurrection of sorts" for that part of the Fredericksburg battlefield.

"This land is a national treasure, and it is our privilege and responsibility, both as individuals and through our elected representatives, to decide whether it will be reclaimed or continue as it now is," Stevens said. "We of CVBT enthusiastically and wholeheartedly support its reclamation, and we stand ready to work with the Civil War Trust and community leaders to bring this to fruition."

The public is invited to "An Evening with Robert Hicks" at 7 p.m. tomorrow at the Fredericksburg Country Club on Routes 2 and 17, eight-tenths of a mile east of Shannon Airport.


Author's website:

National Geographic cover story:

Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.