By Mel Maurer
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2004, All Rights Reserved
As I’m sure you’ll realize if you stay with these articles, I came to be very fond of Franklin as one of its residents after moving there late in 1991. In fact, although born in East Cleveland and having spent most of my life in the greater Cleveland area, I never felt more at home living anywhere else. If I believed in reincarnation, and I don’t, I might have thought I either once lived there in a former life or maybe fought there wearing blue. While I never doubted what side I would have been on in the Civil War, I did come to have a much better understanding of those who fought the war defending their land.
Shortly after moving into our home in the shadow of Roper’s Knob, Elaine and I enrolled in a class at the Franklin Recreation Center entitled, “The Civil War In Williamson County.” A local historian –a professional genealogist who grew up in the area – taught this class. He prided himself on being a contrarian – hence “Civil War” and not “War Between the States” in the title for his class. He deemed his role, in terms of history, to debunk what is called in the South “Moonlight and Magnolias” – the romantic view of its history to the point of mythology. At the time of the class he was working on a book to be called “The Counterfeit Confederacy” which was to provide truth where there was myth. (He had already written a book tracing the genealogy of Elvis Presley.)
We were pleased to learn the enrollment for the class included locals as well as newcomers like us, making it more of a discussion group than a class. Some of the locals had taken the class several times and functioned as assistant instructors, adding stories of their own about their families’ experiences living in the area.
One particularly interesting man was a doctor in his early sixties who told the story of Franklin’s headless corpse. On Christmas Eve 1977, the body of a headless young man was found near an open grave dressed in a tuxedo with a ruffled shirt. The police initially thought the open grave near the victim was dug to bury and hide the body. The medical examiner estimated the deceased, measured at five feet, eleven inches, weighing 175 pounds, and in his mid-twenties, to have recently died. The head found nearby the grave told them the victim had died from severe trauma to the head. Enough evidence was found to lead the Chief Deputy to declare, “It looks like we have a homicide on our hands.” (The doctor in our class was one of those who examined the body.)
However, some weeks later after extensive laboratory tests, the body was identified and the mystery was solved – it was Lt. Colonel William M. Shy of the Confederate army. He was embalmed so well that 113 years after his death some of his skin was still pinkish. (Our class’ doctor told us the chemical content of the body was almost all arsenic, which was used for embalming in those days. The arsenic content even had the examiners considering poisoning at one point. The skin was as pliable as if Shy had just died, the doctor said.) Apparently pranksters or grave robbers looking for relics had dug up Shy’s cast iron casket, breaking it open and pulling him out before abandoning their work that Christmas Eve. The good colonel was reburied in a new casket in January 1978. His original casket, which looks like some of those barrels people used to use to go over Niagara Falls, was on display in the museum at the Carter House where we were able to see it. However, it was no longer on display the last time I was there.
Colonel Shy, commanding six Tennessee regiments, died defending a tree-covered hill south of Nashville the second day of that battle, December 16, 1864. Refusing to surrender as the hill was being overrun with bluecoats, the 26-year-old colonel was shot at point blank range with the slug entering the front of his head just above his right eye and exiting with a large piece of his skull and other matter at the rear. (The medical examiner did get the severe head trauma part right.) The colonel was a hero. That hill became known as Shy’s Hill – still somewhat wooded, but also filled with houses today. (This story was also briefly included in Wiley Sword’s book, The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah, originally published sometime in 1992 as Embrace an Angry Wind. Mr. Sword spoke at the Carter House that year. Sword quotes the “Shy” medical examiner, who had to be embarrassed at his initial assessments, as saying when the facts were finally known, “I got the age, sex, weight, and height right, but I was off on the time of death by 113 years.” At least it didn’t hurt his sense of humor. I wonder too if Colonel Shy believed in reincarnation. (The Blue & Gray magazine in its December 1993 article on the Battle of Nashville features the Shy story including pictures on page 49.)
Colonel Shy, buried in the backyard of his parents’ home in Franklin, was of course not the casualty of the war to be buried in Williamson County. Almost all of the rebels killed in the battle of Franklin were originally buried on the battlefield immediately after the battle. In April 1866, John and Caroline (called Carrie) McGavock donated two acres of their Carnton Plantation land just outside town for a cemetery. Carrie (the notion of fragile southern belles is one of those myths) led the work that would see the disinterment and reburial of 1,481 bodies within sight of her home, where they still rest with honor today. She documented the work in a small book identifying wherever possible each body and its grave. This book is on display at Carnton, which is open to the public.
The Carnton mansion was built in 1826 by Randal McGavock, father of John, the year after he ended his term as mayor of Nashville. In its day it was one of the finest estates in the area, noted for fine horses and political gatherings. Andrew Jackson, James Polk, and Sam Houston are said to have enjoyed the hospitality of Carnton. In 1864, Hood’s forces crossed its land to engage the Federals to the east of Columbia Road. After the battle, it became a hospital with John and Carrie turning over all but one room of the house to the wounded. Surgery was performed by candlelight and then daylight near upstairs windows. Stories are told of amputated limbs stacked near the home. Reddish spots near these windows today are said to be blood from these operations. And it’s at Carnton where many believe the bodies of the five Confederate generals killed in the battle were said to have been laid on its rear porch. Our contrarian instructor claims that story is a myth, claiming through his research to have traced what happened to the body of each dead general and proving their remains never visited the home.
The house and land were not treated well in the last century, even to the point of being used to house animals into the 1970s until a corporation was formed to save and then restore the home and its surroundings. That work was well along when we first visited the home, but it has advanced at a much more rapid rate since that time. It was interesting to see the house while many rooms were in a somewhat raw or unfinished state, but even more so now that most of the home has been restored so well. This was always one of the first places we would take visitors, passing the cemetery as we drove onto the property and then along its dirt road leading to the mansion – “up the road a piece.” Unlike some other fine homes in the area, Carnton, with open land around it, gives one the best feel for what it was like to visit a fine estate in those antebellum days.
I’ll tell you the story of Franklin’s Hanging Tree in the next installment.
The Strange Case of Colonel Willam Shy
We Shall Make the Fight: General John Bell Hood, CSA and the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee, November 30, 1864
The Battles of Nashville
Franklin in the Civil War
The Battle of Franklin
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