The Memorialization of Slavery in Nashville

Kathryn Fuselier, Laura Grove, Janna Adelstein –

The editors of the Vanderbilt Historical Review have been on several field trips to places where the stories of slavery have been memorialized. Both the Hermitage and the Carnton Plantation/Carter House are fascinating, yet also distinct, in how they retell the past. Our trips to these locations were not only fun, but also allowed us to understand how history is portrayed and remembered through these sites. In doing so, we hope to become better historians.

The Hermitage

The Hermitage House

Much of the focus at the Hermitage centered around President Andrew Jackson’s time at the plantation, as opposed to the economic production that went on there. There were few obvious references to the cotton production made possible by slavery on the premises, besides the quarters of these forced workers. But perhaps most strangely, a lone cotton field stood in one of the far corners of the property. Essentially unmarked, it certainly represented the main economic product of this land without making it as clear is it could have been.

The visit instead focused on the life and accomplishments of Andrew Jackson before, during, and after his presidency.

In addition to the remaining slave quarters and cotton field, a memory of the enslaved people of the Hermitage lies next to Jackson’s grave. Several slaves were buried in the Hermitage garden, including Alfred, a slave who managed Jackson’s horses and lived at the property longer than anyone else. Thus, the legacy of these slaves rests alongside that of their owner.

The Carnton Plantation and Carter House

Located about 20 miles south of Nashville in the city of Franklin, the Carter House is a historic landmark that helps to tell the story of the Battle of Franklin. In 1864, the house and surrounding land acted as headquarters for Jacob D. Cox, Union Army general, and his troops. The House itself is a reminder of the brutality and violence in the Civil War. Over a thousand bullet holes are visible on the sides of several buildings. More importantly, the House also attempts to retell the story of the slaves who lived with the Carter family.

The Slave Quarters at the Carter House

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the house was the slave quarters. There, historians have attempted to reconstruct the squalid and destitute conditions of those who lived there. Also, historians at the Carter House have engaged in efforts to find the names of the slaves and learn more about their personal lives. Some had fled to Nashville during the Battle, while others stayed behind with the family. Although few records were maintained of each individual slave, perhaps more time spend in the archives will assist future historians in retelling their stories. Overall, the Carter House historical site attempts to give guests both an understanding of the Civil War and of the memorialization of slavery. Bridging the gap between these two roles allows the House to be an engaging and thought-provoking memorial.[1]

Additionally, the Carnton Plantation, located just down the road, is remembered today for its role as a field hospital during the battle. As Confederate General John Bell Hood launched a major attack on Union forces, his army encountered Union defenses near Carnton Plantation. Soon the plantation erupted in heavy gunfire, and as night fell some desperate soldiers engaged in fierce hand-to-hand combat on the property. In the aftermath of the fighting the plantation owners, the McGavock family, opened their doors to wounded Confederates and quickly became one of the largest field hospitals in the area.[2]

The house itself stands in testimony to the carnage that took place there over 150 years ago. Despite the McGovocks’ efforts to remove it, the blood of the hundreds of the Confederate soldiers that died at Carnton Plantation continues to stain the walls and floors of the house. One upstairs bedroom, converted into an operating room after the fighting, vividly displays the marks of Carnton’s time as a field hospital. Just below where the operating table would have been the floor is deeply stained with blood save for the outline of a single pair of shoes. The surgeon did not move for what must have been endless hours as he operated continuously. In the end, over 9,500 troops were killed, wounded, or captured during the Battle of Franklin, nearly 7,000 of those Confederate. Many spent their last hours at Carnton Plantation and are now buried there in the Confederate cemetery. Today Carnton Plantation helps to preserve the brutal history of the Battle of Franklin.

Conclusion

The city of Nashville has a plethora of museums and historic plantations that help us better understand history. The Hermitage, the Carter House, and the Carnton Plantation are just three of the deeply engaging and significant locations in the Greater Nashville Area. These historic locations serve a purpose of preserving, displaying, and interpreting artifacts that are of deep historic significance. In doing so, the opportunity to reflect and reconsider how slavery is portrayed in Nashville can provide both historians and non-historians with the tools to better understand the past.


Works Cited:

[1] Jordan Buie, “Historic Franklin Carter House to open upstairs,” The Tennessean, http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/local/williamson/franklin/2016/09/29/historic-franklin-carter-house-open-upstairs/91241164/.

[2] “History,” Battle of Franklin Trust, http://boft.org/carnton.

The Memorialization of Slavery in Nashville
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