In my role as a personal historian, I’ve interviewed many people who survived The Great Depression. I’ve documented their experiences as they struggled with drought, disease, heartbreak, poverty and chinch bugs.
But none of them lived through the horror of the 2,500 people of Franklin, Tennessee, who woke the morning of Dec. 1, 1864, to find over 9,000 dead Union and Confederate soldiers in their backyard, the result of an hours-long battle the night before that ended with doomed soldiers trampling over corpses of the fallen, the sharp sound of crackling bones intermingled with moans of the dying in the waning hours of the slaughter.
The Battle of Franklin is the pivot point of “The Widow of the South,” the best-selling novel by Robert Hicks, our keynote speaker Saturday at the 2007 Conference of the Association of Personal Historians.
Hicks is a first-rank storyteller in that fine Southern style. His presentation was centered around that battle, which some Civil War historians have called “the last hurrah of the Confederacy.” He also told the tale of his brash introduction to noted Civil War historian Shelby Foote in Memphis and how he recruited an unlikely ally to persuade Foote to temporarily suspend his policy of “not inscribing books for strangers.”
But it was Hicks’ telling of the legacy of Carrie McGavock that reveals how historical fiction “is about how ordinary people can become extraordinary people because of circumstances.” It was McGavock, the heroine of Hicks’ novel, and her husband John who cared for hundreds of wounded soldiers following the Battle of Franklin and provided two acres of their Carnton Plantation for the final resting place for 1,500 of the dead.
One of the points Hicks made was that formal historians don’t preserve history, storytellers do. Keep that in mind as you collect your own family stories
Another blogger. My friend Stefani Twyford of Legacy Multimedia in Houston, Texas, is also blogging from the conference. Stefani specializes in video and does a great job. She’s also one of the few people I know who’s brave enough to karaoke “Keep On Chooglin’.”Check out her blog.
Larry Lehmer is a personal historian who helps people preserve their family histories. If you’d like to know more, check out his web site or send him an e-mail.
Photo: Author Robert Hicks signs a copy of "The Widow of the South" for past APH president Lettice Stuart.