THE WIDOW OF THE SOUTH

By Robert Hicks

Warner. 426 pp. $24.95

The battle of Franklin, Tenn., on Nov. 30, 1864, was one of the South's greatest disasters: 6,000 casualties; 1,400 dead, including four Confederate generals. Seventy-seven years later, the progress of this battle, more than any other, convinced Winston Churchill that America would eventually help the Allies win World War II. "They even fought each other to the very end," he said.

But what to do with the wounded and the dead in such numbers? The Widow of the South is a novel based on the life of Carrie McGavock, who took on the task of tending the wounded and burying the dead after the battle of Franklin. The McGavock Plantation, called Carnton, was used as a hospital during and after the battle, and Carrie McGavock was expected, like all women at the time, to nurse them. "Now hundreds of men lay about me, maybe thousands. Millions. I saw them clearly, the twisting limbs and the trembling chests, the rolling eyes in every head in every direction . . . and every one of them seemed to beg me for water. Please, ma'am. Please. This was the price of my redemption." Carrie requires redemption from something like perpetual mourning for several dead children, but it's never really clear what's driving her.

Each chapter shifts from one point of view to another: from Carrie to a wounded soldier named Zachariah Cashwell (a marvelous creation) to a Union lieutenant and others. The narrative begins at the moment that Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest arrives at the McGavock plantation to appropriate her home for a hospital. It ends several years after the war, when Carrie disinters and reburies the Confederate dead from the old battlefield. She names and numbers each of them as best she can, in a grim reversal of Adam naming the animals.

Her obsession with the casualties of war seems to reflect a concern not so much with death as with dead bodies. One might expect her interest to evolve into something more: honoring the soldiers' sacrifice, or a commitment to pacifism, or considerations of life after death, or at least Ouija boards and table tappings. But Carrie's concern remains with, well, remains.

I had some quibbles, too: farm boys talking about "lunch" when nobody had "lunch" until about 1910, and Hereford cows didn't arrive in the United States until 1890. But the wounded soldier named Cashwell carries the narrative. He is a worthy descendant of Huckleberry Finn. Cashwell takes to the road again after the war, riding throughout the country despite his wooden leg. He gets into shooting scrapes in railroad camps, takes up preaching (in all novels about the South, there is never a Bible but what it is thumped) and ends up back near the McGavock plantation excavating an Indian mound. Cashwell's language is engaging and believable: "It was something to watch what happened to the country when the railroad came through. I don't mean the country, like the kind of thing you had to swear your allegiance to and vote about and all the rest of it. I mean the country, the place where we all from, at least those of us who didn't have much before the war and didn't have much to show for it after. I don't mind saying that it was a great relief, maybe on all of us to one measure or another, to come through the country to build something for once, and not burning or digging or chopping or shooting."

All the male characters, in fact, are well done. In scene after scene, they grab our attention: when John McGavock, Carrie's husband, visits a conjure-woman; when Gen. Forrest, dark and unstoppable, walks in and takes over Carrie's house; when Cashwell takes up the fallen regimental colors and carries them to the top of the Union breastworks, saying, "I didn't need my pistols anymore, so I flung them to the ground. I didn't say anything; I'm not one for speeches. I just turned and walked toward the bulwarks expecting at any moment to be cut down. I wasn't happy. I was euphoric."

But Carrie McGavock's convoluted internal monologues about why she feels impelled to rescue the wounded and bury the dead halt the narrative in its tracks. Better to stick with Cashwell; he alone is worth the read. I'd follow him anywhere, wooden leg and all. *

Paulette Jiles is the author of "Enemy Women."