Robert’s latest novel, THE ORPHAN MOTHER, is an epic tale of one remarkable woman’s quest for justice.
In the years following the Civil War, Mariah Reddick, former slave to Carrie McGavock – the “Widow of the South” – has quietly built a new life for herself as a midwife to the women of Franklin, Tennessee. But when her ambitious, politically minded grown son, Theopolis, is murdered, Mariah – no stranger to loss – finds her world once more breaking apart. How could this happen? Who wanted him dead?
Mariah’s journey to uncover the truth leads her to unexpected people – including George Tole, a recent arrival in town, fleeing a difficult past of his own – and forces her to confront the truths of her own past. Brimming with the vivid prose and historical research that has won Robert Hicks recognition as a “master storyteller” (San Francisco Chronicle), THE ORPHAN MOTHER is the unforgettable story of one woman’s heroic struggle in the face of overwhelming adversity and the undeniable strength of a mother’s love.
The Franklin (TN) Civil War preservation community continues to have much to celebrate when it comes to reclaiming hallowed ground, land that played a crucial role during the American Civil War (1861-1865) . In 2007, in partnership with the Civil War Preservation Trust (CWPT), a small portion (i.e., one-half acre) of the original Carter family garden was purchased for future posterity and remembrance of the horrific action that took place just 50 feet south of the present Carter House grounds. The half acre of land cost $210,000.00. The Battle of Franklin Trust, which stewards the Carter House grounds property, is hosting a dedication ceremony this Saturday at the site.
Carter garden section of the Battle of Franklin
Preservationist and author Robert Hicks said, “With the creation of the Battle of Franklin Trust and all of it’s plans for the future and with the ongoing work of Franklin’s Charge, as it moves forward to reclaim the battlefield around the cotton gin, reconstruct the gin and the historic trench line, Franklin may prove itself the national model for battlefield preservation it’s often touted to be.”
The Federal or Union defensive line (in discussion here) lay basically across an East-West diagonal line on the western side of Columbia Pike, just 50-60 feet in front of the present day Carter grounds. That line was an entrenchment that was dug by Union soldiers probably in the early morning hours of November 30th, 1864. The Carter family had a small family vegetable garden that is believed to have originally been a two acre parcel of land, about 50 feet south west of where the slave cabin is presently located.
Location of Carter garden in green box
Many Union soldiers’ letters and diaries record men having spent several hours the morning of the 30th hastily and hurriedly digging trench works along this line. This defensive line, also known as earthworks, or breastworks, was a significant reason why the Union side at Franklin saw modest casualties-killed (about 150), while the Confederates suffered a staggering amount, (around 1,700), according to Fred Prouty. Historian Eric Jacobson says those numbers are probably even too low. He believes there were probably 300 Federal killed at Franklin.
During the excavation on the original Carter family garden site, the team also unearthed partial human remains, probably from a Civil War soldier, and other related military items. Archaeologist Larry McKee has been working on the project and is expected to release his report in a few weeks. Robert Hicks of Franklin’s Charge said, “The fact that human remains were found there simply reminds all of us how hallowed the battlefield — all the battlefield at Franklin — is.”
Carter house grounds, garden was left (west) of the man standing
An army that fought behind defensive earthworks had a distinct advantage against assaulting troops, especially if the defending army also had artillery support. The Union armies at the Battle of Franklin had the advantage of both. Thus, as Jacobson says (p. 374 below), the ” . . . cards were stacked against them [the Rebels] almost from the start”.
I own a letter from a Union soldier who fought at Franklin for the 63rd Indiana (on the far eastern Union flank) named Addison Lee Ewing. His first letter after Franklin states the following:
“There is no quicker way of suffering this war than by having Rebs charge our works when they invariably get whipped.”
Ewing said it well, the Confederates at Franklin “got whipped”, and the biggest reason was because of the defensive earthworks.
Casting the larger significance of the Carter garden section of the battlefield, historian Eric Jacobson captures it best:
“The significance of the western edge of the Carter garden cannot be overstated. Around 4:30 p.m. on November 30, 1864, elements of Gen. John Brown’s Confederate Division ripped through the main Federal line of defense west of Columbia Pike. Among the units forced to withdraw was the 72nd Illinois Infantry, which held the section of the line which cuts through the garden property. The Illinois troops fell back to a reserve line held by the 44th Missouri Infantry. Only a firm stand by the Missourians prevented Brown’s troops from collapsing more of the Federal defensive position. The garden property was enveloped by a hail of relentless fire for hours and three separate charges made by Federal troops to retake the main line were unsuccessful. The Confederates held the outside of the main line until they started to withdraw around 9 p.m.”
Hoosier Lee Ewing paints the picture in vivid language that only a first-hand participant could have described that day:
“Colonels and Generals rode right up to our faces bringing their men in fine style but “blue coats” wouldn’t budge back one inch and there fell victims to their own mad actions. A person could walk over acres of dead . . . stepping on one dead body to another. It was a terrible slaughter. ”
– Lee Ewing, 63rd Indiana, December 5th, 1864 letter
The Tennessee Wars Commission provided the grant to Franklin’s Charge for the excavation of the Carter garden area. An archaeological team led by Larry McKee – with TRC Garrow Associates Inc. – found material evidence of that awful day, unearthed just several inches below the surface in the present-day Carter garden. Jacobson says that the team “excavated about 2/3rds of the Federal line that runs diagonally across the property”. They dug down roughly 20 inches and discovered the material evidence including: lots of bullets (Spencers), some fired and some dropped; ram rods, a bayonet, evidence of a fire pot, and human remains.
Among the human remains was “a piece of a skull, a finger, part of an ankle, and portion of femur-leg bone”, according to Fred Prouty. It would be impossible to know for sure if the human remains were Confederate or Union. However, we do know that it would have been Federal soldiers who would have dug the earthworks and originally manned them.
They dug down from the surface about 18-24 inches and then piled the dirt up in front of the trench, on the south side of the trench. Soldiers would have then placed head logs, branches, and anything they else they could have found around them (including portions of Carter outbuildings, barns, etc,) on the top of the piled dirt in front. In all, the earthworks would have been roughly five to six feet high, thus giving the Federals a tremendous advantage of protection against the assaulting Confederate troops.
View probably just 20 feet northeast of the original Carter garden location.
The Federals also had the advantage of artillery placed on the line as well as about 50 yards behind the line. As the approaching Rebels came upon the earthworks they faced a terrible blaze of fire from the Federals in this section, some of whom apparently even had Spencer rifles. A Spencer was a ‘repeating rifle’, capable of firing seven .52 cartridges in less than 10 seconds, compared to the standard Enfield rifle that could yield up to three discharges in one minute.
The discovery of the Spencer bullets is interesting as historian Eric Jacobson pointed out. The Illinois troops in that position did not have Spencer rifles. So where did they likely come from? Jacobson thinks they came from the 28th Kentucky Infantry (U.S.) who was posted a mile out front in Wagner’s brigade (U.S.), before the assault started. Wagner’s entire line made for a hasty retreat immediately upon the start of Hood’s charge and skeedaddled back behind the Union line. As the retreating Union soldiers came flying up and over the entrenchments on the Carter garden they no doubt dropped some Spencer bullets, and many also joined the Illinoisians on the line, discharging their rifles against the coming Rebel onslaught.
Three weeks after the battle of Franklin, Lee Ewing (63rd Indiana Infantry U.S.) came back through Franklin on the 20th of December, chasing after Hood’s defeated Army of Tennessee retreating to Alabama from Nashville. Ewing may have been standing right near the Carter gardens when he wrote this:
“. . . we was at Franklin where there are hundreds of new made graves filled by the Enemy. I went into the old breastworks where we lay and all over the front of our Brigade which is pretty well dotted over with rebble graves . . . There are dead horses laying around. Some of them almost up over our old works.”
– Lee Ewing, 63rd Indiana, December 22nd, 1864 letter
The Battle of Franklin Trust will host a ceremony and dedication this Saturday, April 17th, to formally open the recaptured tract of land that served as the garden for the Carter family. The public is invited to attend this free event which will be held from 1:00 p.m. – 2:00 p.m.
The Franklin community’s preservation efforts are led and championed by many people, many behind the scenes, and from all over the nation. Robert Hicks said:
Truth is, this hallowed ground — the battlefield at Franklin, like the history of the battle, itself, is our nation’s patrimony. The reclamation of the back portion of the Carter Garden Plot could never have been possible without the passionate work of Thomas Cartwright, the CWPT and a host of individual donors, nation-wide. While it was supported by the many individual preservation organizations in Franklin that make up Franklin’s Charge, along with the collective support from Franklin’s Charge, itself, as we dedicate the garden plot, we are remind, once again that this was a national campaign and its success rests firmly on the shoulders of men and women across the nation.
The excavated Federal line is covered with sand.
Eric Jacobson, Battle of Franklin Trust historian and Director of Operations
Phone interview 4/13/10; email correspondence; and personal conversations.
Also see Jacobson’s For Cause and For Country, 2006 (Hb): pp. 373-74.
Fred Prouty, Director of Programs for the TN Wars Commission.
4/12/10 FCWRT, and phone interview 4/13/10
Robert Hicks, Franklin’s Charge, email interview 4/13/10
Kraig McNutt Civil War Collection, letter(s) from A. Lee Ewing, 63rd Indiana.
“Robert Hicks’s riveting new novel takes up Hood’s life after the war. Anyone who has ever lived in New Orleans must be prepared to be made homesick, and the bizarre cast of characters, including a dwarf, a burly priest and a boy of mixed and mysterious par entage, wouldn’t seem right in any city but this one. I read “A Separate Country” with breakneck speed for that most old-fashioned of reasons: I wanted to see what happened next. And then I eagerly read it a second time to make sure I got the complicated twists and turns. Is there a better recommendation?”
“After the War, Hood scampered down to New Orleans in order to try to live as fully as possible. That’s where Robert Hicks enters in his marvelous new book, which looks back on the legendary and monstrous general of the Civil War with a brand new set of eyes. Hicks doesn’t ever let us forget that this was once a man who “cared very little for the men [he] ruined.” Yet at the same time, this is a work which seems designed to remember Hood neither as a legend nor a monster but as a man.”
DAYTON DAILY NEWS
The 10/9 edition of the Dayton Daily News said that A SEPARATE COUNTRY “builds momentum from the instant Hood dies. The author rolls out a cast of fascinating characters who slide in and out of the story as it is related by our three narrators. Hicks immerses us in a steaming gumbo of racism, gambling, class struggle, pride, forgotten massacres and poignant memories.”
New York Times best-selling author Hicks. Hicks, author of the historical novels Widow of the South and A Separate Country, will talk about his work, which integrates well with everything preservation is about — cultural landscapes, historic sites, battlefield preservation.
The title of his talk is Before Their Shadows Fade.
5:30-6:30 p.m. at the Downtown Presbyterian Church, 154 Fifth Ave. N.
As I have been involved in the past couple of weeks communicating with and learning about the two living sons of Civil War soldiers coming to visit Franklin for our reburial event this weekend I have been struck by the graciousness of the two sons and especially their fathers (who actually fought ‘against’ one another).
James Brown, Sr’s father – James H.H. Brown – did not hold ill-will against his Northern neighbors after the war:
“He was not bitter. He did not have the least bit of bitterness toward the Yankees,” Brown said about his father, who was wounded twice in fighting. (Tennessean, Oct 4th, 2009)
And Charles Conrad Becker’s magnanimous spirit equaled Brown’s:
“He saw those Confederates coming at him and in his estimation they were brave souls,” Becker said. (Tennessean, Oct 4th, 2009)
We can learn a lot from these fathers-sons today.
These primary participants, men who spilled one another’s blood, and watched it spilled on American soil, found the generosity of spirit to look past sectarian interests, geographic-myopia, and just plain hate as they looked one another in the eyes in the reunions for many years after the Civil War ended and saw a real human being who was caught up in an absurd nightmare of unconscionable proportions between 1861-1865.
In short, many if not most of the actual participants in the Civil War buried the hatchet in the immediate years after the war ended.
Where is that same spirit of reconciliation and generosity today?
I’m haunted frequently by the words of Franklin’s resident-novelist Robert Hicks who seems to never miss an opportunity to ask this question, “What is the relevance of the Civil War today?”
Though some today might believe the American Civil War is NOT over, the real relevance today regarding the Civil War is how have we healed as a nation since that great divide almost 150 years ago, and perhaps there still is some reconciliation that needs to take place?
Some would still prefer to cling to symbols (on either side) that inflame, divide, and express our differences. People do this today through the flags they still wave or fly outside their walls, the stodgy arguments they still make, the uniforms they still wear, and the hidden-agendas they bring to another board meeting.
Discussions have been taking place all over the community in Franklin regarding the identity of the unknown soldier we are reburying this Saturday. “He was Union!” “He was Confederate!” And the arguments take off. There are solid cases for each side.
I suggest we all find the magnanimous spirit imbued in the very hearts of Charles Conrad Becker and James H.H. Brown – men who spilled their own blood during the Civil War – and as we welcome their sons to our community this weekend we do so with open arms from a community that continues to seek reconciliation and healing because when we rebury that unknown soldier on Saturday we first and foremost acknowledge him as an American soldier who died for a vision that he thought would make America better 150 later.
Are we a better America today?
Courtesy, The Williamson County Historical Society