"Oh How Beautiful!"

The History of the Garden at
Carnton Plantation

By Justin Stelter, Director of Gardens and Grounds, Carnton Plantation


 Carnton Plantation and The McGavock Family Cemetery. Photo by Liliana Katherine Stelter April 2015.

Carnton Plantation and The McGavock Family Cemetery. Photo by Liliana Katherine Stelter April 2015.

Carnton Plantation, portions of which would be affectionately called McGavock’s Grove and the Confederate Cemetery, rose to world-renown in the nineteenth century. The McGavock’s prominence is directly linked to their wealth and social status, the caring refuge they provided to the wounded and dying during the Battle of Franklin, and their creation of a ‘cairn’ town: one of the largest privately held Confederate cemeteries in the United States.(1)

The following study highlights agricultural and gardening pursuits at Carnton Plantation, in Williamson County, Tennessee. Here three generations of McGavocks maximized the productivity of their landholdings, served their community, and ultimately established a lasting tribute of respect and remembrance by their creation of the Confederate Cemetery.

Around 1784 James McGavock (1728-1812) purchased a military warrant from John Shannon for 640 acres on the Harpeth River, about a mile south of Franklin. Sometime thereafter he acquired an adjoining 640 acres to the east. Additional land swaps and exchanges for Williamson County properties occurred over time. In 1814, an adjoining seventy-five acres was purchased near Nichol’s mill, and for the next several decades, the McGavocks’ holdings encompassed 1,355 contiguous, river-enriched acres. (2)

Aside from knowledge of initial home construction and road layout, little is understood about the activities at the McGavock property between 1787 and 1826. Tennessee statehood was not declared until June 1, 1796 and, consequently, settlement of the area was limited until that time. Once statehood was official, however, settlement was fast-paced. Between 1800 and 1830, the population in Williamson County increased nearly tenfold, from 2,868 to 26,638. (3)

With this westward expansion, and emerging abundant opportunity, two of James McGavock’s sons, David (1763-1838) and Randal (1768-1843), moved in 1796 from the family’s home at Ft. Chiswell, Wythe County, Virginia, into Middle Tennessee. By 1809, Williamson County tax records reveal that Randal was a caretaker, or “agent” of his father’s property. 

On February 11, 1811, Randal married Sarah Dougherty Rodgers (1786-1854), and by the end of the decade they had five children. Both archaeological excavations and circumstantial evidence indicate that a home was built at this time. Upon James McGavock’s death in 1812, official ownership of the property transferred to Randal. (4)

In 1812, ”Williamson County ordered the construction of a road through McGavock’s property extending from Franklin to John Nichols’ mill on the Harpeth River.” (5) Furthermore, in 1815,  Williamson County ordered  … “the clearing out and keeping in repair the road from McGavocks Spring branch to the old fork road…” (6)

By 1816, tax records show that carriages and stud horses were on the property. (7) Development at the McGavock plantation was well underway, while Randal and Sarah were also raising a family. 


Indicative of his prominence Randal McGavock served as mayor of Nashville from 1824 to 1825. Moreover, around 1826, he generously expanded his home at Carnton to the mansion’s current shape and size. 

It is believed that at least by this period the house became more than a summer home and was sentimentally named Carnton, after his father’s ancestral home place “Carntown,” in County Antrim, Ireland. ‘Carn’, in Gaelic, “cairn,” is defined as “a heap of stones set up as a landmark, monument, tombstone, etc.” (8)

In the late 1820s, an agricultural and horticultural reference provides a sense of how the plantation was perceived. The documentation, found in a letter from Felix Grundy, Randal’s brother-in-law, legendary criminal lawyer, and soon-to-be U.S. Senator from Tennessee, is summarized in Democracy’s Lawyer by J. Roderick Heller (great-great grandson of Carrie McGavock): 

On July 28, 1829, at Carnton, Randal McGavock’s home in Franklin, he wrote Tennessee’s secretary of state, Daniel Graham, that for twenty years he had not enjoyed life as much as at the present: “About six days hence I turned my feet out to grass literally. I have not had sock or shoe on since.” (9)

Certainly, the overall sentiment of this statement evokes relaxation, but Grundy was a man known for his choice selection of words. To savor putting your “feet out to grass” arouses idyllic pastoral images of a rich, lush, and abundant property. Carnton was clearly a plentiful place where an obstruction such as shoes should not separate a human sole from the direct connection to the natural world that man has been allowed to settle. But, to put your “feet out to grass” represented more than just peaceful relaxation and a tamed land. From a practical standpoint, if “sock or shoe” was not required to walk in the grass, more than likely the grass was well-kept, certainly cleared of obstructions, and possibly mowed and manured.  

Carnton’s green grass was complemented by new roads, both stone and plank fences, and outbuildings. These improvements made the plantation a fine place to gather, and the McGavock’s entertained many friends.  

 Entrance to Carnton. Photo by Justin Stelter April 2015. 

Entrance to Carnton. Photo by Justin Stelter April 2015. 

In the early twentieth century Miss Carrie Ewing (1854-1939) wrote to Mary Harding Ragland referencing a flower garden and its similarity in style to the garden at The Hermitage: 

The flower garden at Carnton was like the Hermitage, or rather, the Hermitage was like Carnton—which was built first. We have heard that on a visit General and Mrs. Jackson paid to your great-great grandfather, she said: “Mr. Jackson, I want a flower garden like Sally’s [Sarah Dougherty Rodgers],” and of course she got it. (10)

There is little doubt that the McGavocks and Jacksons had a fond relationship and that their mutual interest in gardening was a common bond. While both sites had an early “flower garden” of sorts, another garden feature shared by both was the use of native red cedar, Juniperus virginiana, as an ornamental.

At The Hermitage, these native cedars were planted en masse to line the main drive in a distinctive guitar shape. At Carnton, in addition to lining the carriage drive, these stately cedars were positioned in the garden to provide a symmetrical framework for the formal space and to offer respite for the ornamental plants and garden vegetables from the hot summer sun and cold winter winds.

When Randal McGavock died in September 1843 the daily management of the plantation transferred to his (youngest) son, John (1815-1893), who officially inherited the property when his mother died in 1854. (11)

 Earliest known image of house c.1880.

Earliest known image of house c.1880.

Randal McGavock’s pride in his property, demonstrated in house, garden, and agricultural improvements, and the socio-economic status that came with such trappings, carried through, if not accelerated, in the next generation. A letter from Dr. A. B. Ewing to Mr. Hugh M. Ewing, postmarked November 3, 1845, announced, “Your cousin Jno. [sic] McGavock is bucking about as usual. By the time you return home he will have up a fine portico to his front door, yard enlarged, garden removed & serpentine walks to the house, etc., etc., etc.” (12)

The late nineteenth-century image of Carnton’s facade shows some of John’s alterations including a “fine portico to his front door…and serpentine walks.” The garden that was “removed” may have been Sarah’s flower garden, in order to enlarge the front yard. A restoration feasibility study conducted by garden historians and landscape preservation planners Doell & Doell, in the mid-1990s suggested that:

A smaller garden, perhaps cultivated by Sarah McGavock, may have stood south of the original dwelling house (the missing east wing). Its proximity to the primary façade of the residence, coupled with the persistence of specimen trees (hollies), suggests that it may have been more ornamental in character; perhaps a door yard flower garden or parlor garden. (13)

Additionally, the archaeological work conducted in February 1994 for the Doell & Doell study, revealed that “Access to the house lot was on the south, by way of an entrance drive lined with rail fences and cedar trees, perhaps resembling extant drives at The Hermitage.” (14)

This assessment is substantiated by the post-Civil War photo, which clearly depicts overgrown, mature red cedars along the front pathway to the house and lining that serpentine walk, which was completed c. 1847.

Whatever the intent in “removing the garden,” we do know that two major events occurred over the course of the next few years that would continue to define and enhance the property. The first, a political gathering, was described in this manner: “HEN Clay and Polk ran for the Presidency in 1846 …the most exciting election ever held in Tennessee…The convention was held on McGavock’s farm, in a grove of walnut-trees.” (15)

The second occasion, occurred on December 8, 1848, when John married nineteen-year-old Caroline (Carrie) Elizabeth Winder (1829-1905), of Louisiana. In the Carrie Ewing letter referenced earlier, the following words signal the gardening changes Carrie would lead, “When Uncle John McGavock married Caroline Winder, his cousin, she proceeded to change it [the garden] and continued to change it.” (16)

The focus, however, was not just on home and garden improvements. By the late 1850s Carnton’s milling operations were thriving, as attested in the Western Weekly Review:

The undersigned gives notice to the citizens of Williamson, that he has converted the Saw Mill of Barrett & McGavock into a Flouring Mill, and is now prepared to  make as good flour as can be made anywhere. The machinery and bolting cloths  are new and of the best quality, and he assures the public that they can have as  good flour and as much of it to the bushel of wheat as can be obtained at the best mills, and he respectfully asks wheat growers to give his mill a trial. C.C. Barrett (17)

That “flouring mill” was put to good use. By 1869 an article published in a paper approximately 150 miles to the west reported:

We do not think there was ever in Middle Tennessee, a finer prospect for a splendid wheat crop than the fields now show. We have been especially struck with admiration by the field of Boughton wheat on the farm of Col. Jno. [sic] McGavock, near Franklin. It is the best field of wheat that we have seen this year. It seems to be a property of this species of wheat to grow out with more vigor and tiller out more profusely than any other variety….--Dixie Farmer (18)

The plantation, however, was well known not only for the home, garden, and grounds, but also for its first-rate agricultural pursuits. The Williamson County Agricultural and Mechanical Society held a county fair at Carnton on October 18, 1857, at which “Such items as reapers, mowers, wagons, cultivators, cider mills, harnesses, saddles, tinware, stoves, barrels, and all manners of livestock and livestock products could be seen at McGavock’s Grove.” (19)

By 1859, Col. John McGavock was president of the annual Williamson County Fair. An 1860 newspaper article glowingly reported that McGavock took premier spot for the “best improved farm over 200 acres”:

We can conceive of no higher compliment to a Planter than that which was paid to Col. John McGavock, of Williamson, by the Annual County Fair, lately held at Franklin. One of the handsome cups or prizes distributed by the commissioners was awarded for the best Farming Estate in the county, and of which Col. McGavock is the deserving recipient. Carnden—the premium place – …handsomely fenced at all points with rock wall and plank…its crops are inferior to none that our State has the year produced—its fruit-orchards are abundant in 
their yield—its meadows are thickly carpeted with rich and valuable grasses— …and the ample groves of lotty wood which embrace so many acres of the tract, throw their shades over fields of perennial blue-grass…” (20)

Little did they know that the 1850s would prove to be the most prosperous period for Carnton. In the US Agricultural Census, Williamson County, Tennessee: 1860, the plantation documented $10,810 in value of slaughtered animals; $1,000 worth of farming implements and machinery; and a total farm value of $150,000. These peak valuations would never be realized again.


On November 30, 1864, the Battle of Franklin changed Carnton forever.

In a Minute Men Attention notice dated July 25, 1861, Williamson men were requested “for the purpose of drilling at Franklin in Col. John McGavock’s Grove.” Two months later, “On September 28, (1861) at Carnton, the home of John McGavock, Company F, Eighth Tennessee Cavalry Battalion (the “Williamson County Cavalry”) was raised with Captain James W. Starnes commanding.” (21)

Battle of Franklin is considered “one of the worst disasters of the war for the Confederate States army.” (22) During this tragic battle “Carnton became a field hospital for Confederate Gen. W. Loring’s division. By the middle of the night 300 suffering men jammed the house while hundreds of others spilled across the lawn and into outbuildings.” (23)

Despite the personal property damage and catastrophic loss, in the spring of 1866 Col. John McGavock extended the family cemetery by two acres to create the largest privately owned Confederate cemetery in the United States. Confederate dead totaling 1,481 soldiers were reinterred, and arranged by state, in this newly constructed cemetery.

In a letter written on May 16, 1866, John McGavock explained that the project was “done in order to have removed from fields exposed to the plow-share, the remains of all those who were buried.” The November 17, 1866, issue of Harper’s Weekly described the cemetery as “an improvement upon some of the National Cemeteries which we have had occasion to illustrate.” (24) John and Carrie McGavock maintained this cemetery for the rest of their lives.

The 1860s were devastating to the economy at Carnton. The physical property loss and negative financial effects of the battle were probably most apparent in the US Agricultural Census, Williamson County, Tennessee:  1870. At that time, the plantation was valued at $75,000, half of its worth only a decade earlier. And, by the 1880s census, the value of Carnton Plantation substantially decreased again to only $20,000.

Those census reports clearly outline the rise and fall of the agricultural pursuits at Carnton. Within fifteen years, both John and Carrie would be buried in the McGavock family cemetery, at the head of the Confederate Cemetery. In John’s will, he stated, “I also will and bequeath to my wife the exclusive possession and control of my residence yard and garden.” (25)

 McGavock Confederate Cemetery. Photo by Annabelle Rose Stelter April 2015.

McGavock Confederate Cemetery. Photo by Annabelle Rose Stelter April 2015.

Under the guidance of leading historians of mid-nineteenth-century American gardening, the McGavock’s garden was reconstructed in the 1990s using plants available in Middle Tennessee prior to 1869. Evidence of the kitchen and ornamental garden, the one Carrie “proceeded to change,” included archaeological remnants, a native eastern red cedar, and an Osage orange tree (Maclura pomifera). The following was concluded in a garden study conducted in 1994:

No photographs exist to show the arrangement of this mid-19th century garden, but despite years of neglect and change, some physical evidence remained into the 1990s indicating its extent and layout. The presence of a large Osage-orange tree in the center of the southeast quadrant suggests that vegetable growing was eventually discontinued in garden plots nearest the house. Although this thorny tree or hedge was often used as a "living" fence before the invention of barbed wire, several 19th century garden writers, including Andrew Jackson Downing, advocated using them as specimen trees because of their attractive glossy foliage and unique grapefruit-sized fruit. They could also be grown as a fine shade tree or as a luxuriant, round-headed shrub. (26)

Robert Hicks, New York Times best-selling author of The Widow of the South, a book centered on the life of Carrie McGavock and the Battle of Franklin, tells the story of Carrie’s last moments. On her deathbed it is said she proclaimed, “Oh, how beautiful!” (27)

We would like to believe that she was not just looking into her heavenly future, but into all the future generations to come, and was able to see how they would come from all around the world to remember and respect those lives that she lovingly cared for in life and death.


  1. McGavock Confederate Cemetery, http://en.wikipedia.org.
  2. Williamson County Tax Records, research by Rick Warwick. 
  3. Williamson County Tennessee, http://en.wikipedia.org.
  4. McKee, Larry, Ted Karpynec, Marc Wampler, “Archaeological Investigations of the Mansion Yard and Kitchen Wing at Carnton Plantation, in Franklin, Williamson County, Tennessee.” Submitted to Historic Carnton Plantation, Franklin, Tennessee. Submitted by TRC, Inc., Nashville, TN. 2003.
  5. Phase I Archaeological Survey, Eastern Flank Battlefield Park, City of Franklin, Tennessee by Larry McKee and Ted Karpynec p. 27 April 2008
  6. Williamson County Court Minutes Volume 2, p 238, April 3, 1815
  7. Williamson County Trustee Tax Books, 1816, pgs. 126-127
  8. “Cairn,” http://dictionary.reference.com.
  9. J. Roderick Heller, Democracy’s Lawyer: Felix Grundy of the Old Southwest (Louisiana State University Press, 2010), 178.
  10. Family letter (Miss Carrie Ewing to Mary Harding Ragland) transcribed by Ridley Wills II, October 9, 1989 (Carnton Archives).
  11. Copy of Randal McGavock’s Will (Carnton Archives).
  12. Williamson County Historical Society Journal #32 2001:  The Letters of Dr. A. B. Ewing (1845-1862),. Rick Warwick, ed., 6
  13. Doell & Doell Restoration Feasibility Study, 4.
  14. Doell & Doell Restoration Feasibility Study, 6.
  15. Miss Jane H. Thomas, Old Days in Nashville, Tenn. (Publishing House Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1897), 65-66.
  16. Family letter (Miss Carrie Ewing to Mary Harding Ragland) transcribed by Ridley Wills II, October 9, 1989 (Carnton Archives).
  17. Western Weekly Review August 20, 1857.
  18. The Bolivar Bulletin, 10 Apr 1869, Sat.
  19. James A. Crutchfield, Robert Holladay, Franklin: Tennessee’s Handsomest Town (Hillsboro Press, 1999)  123-124, partially referenced from Western Weekly Review, September 20, 1857.
  20. Nashville Union and American, October 19, 1860.
  21. Crutchfield, and Holladay, 133.
  22. Battle of Franklin, http://en.wikipedia.org.
  23. Rick Warwick, Historical Markers of Williamson County Tennessee Revised: A Pictorial Guide, (Williamson County Historical Society, 1999), 245.
  24. Author’s personal collection.
  25. Williamson County Will Book, 509 (Carnton Archives). 
  26. “Carnton Garden,” http://www.carnton.org.
  27. Oral story as told to Robert Hicks by Mrs. Ewing Roberts Green.