Many of the most compelling Civil War accounts were written by Confederate women. One such author of the trials of Southerners was a woman named Mary Ann Harris Gay (1829 – 1918). Not only was Miss Gay a gifted writer of war stories, but she was also an energetic and effective participant. Her first hand reports detail startling events set against the backdrop of the most turbulent years in American history.
In her book, Life in Dixie During the War, Miss Gay stated, "If I could have, I would have joined the army and fought. But I did all that I could."
Mary Ann Harris Gay was born in Milledgeville, Georgia. in 1829. Her family invested heavily in Confederate bonds, which left them in strained circumstances after the war. Her brother, Tommy Stokes, was killed at the Battle of Franklin, and her mother succumbed to death soon afterward. Left to care for her brother’s widow and his child, Miss Gay did anything she could to survive and make ends meet for her small family.
After the siege of Atlanta, Sherman vowed to “make Georgia howl.” He forced the evacuation of all civilians in Atlanta and then proceeded on his march to the sea. He ordered his troops to burn crops, kill livestock and consume supplies so there’d be nothing left for the war-ravaged Georgians.
When Mary learned about a young mother named Maggie with three little children, who were starving, Mary prepared a pot of mush and some corn bread, then went in search of the family.
Finding them proved more difficult than Mary anticipated. She secured a wagon and wrangled a horse out of the cane brake – a dense thicket – where the Federals had stashed worn-out war horses. After Mary found Maggie and her children at the home of Doctor Holmes, she led the nag, with the mother and children nestled away in the wagon on a long and arduous trip. On the third day of their journey, they reached the depot at Social Circle – a point on the Georgia Railroad behind Federal lines. Here the mother and children boarded a train for Madison where they could stay with relatives.
On her return home, Mary came upon a group of starving women and children. Mary had purchased a few provisions in Social Circle for her own family, but she generously shared enough with them to keep them from starving.
Mary continued to make trips with the homemade wagon and Yankee horse, she’d renamed Johnny Reb, to secure supplies and food for the people in Decatur. On one return trip, Mary and Johnny Reb came very near being captured by Yankees. Upon being stopped by a party of Federals, she waved her bonnet as a flag of truce. When the Yankees inquired as to where she got the horse branded 'U.S.' on each side of his hindquarters, she informed them how she found the horse in the cane brake and they let her pass.
Mary walked miles to exchange the lead bullets she gathered from battlefields for food so she could feed the women and children left destitute by Sherman's troops. She concealed winter clothing in her dining room ceiling and later smuggled it to Granbury’s Confederate troops.
She published a book, The Pastor’s Story, and pedaled it door to door. According to her biographer, the book was “a hodge-podge of melancholy, girlish poetry and morally uplifting essays” she had collected over the years. The book didn’t escape the satirical pen of Portions of Mark Twain who parodied it in his book, Tom Sawyer.
In spite of Twain’s lampoon, Miss Gay’s book saw eleven printings and provided for her family through the grueling years of Reconstruction.
Miss Gay’s efforts extended far beyond helping her own family, and those in her hometown, however. She worked to raise funds for several projects. A devout Christian, Miss Gay secured funds to build a Baptist church by soliciting friends in parts of the South less devastated by the war. She also spearheaded efforts to raise money for the Alexander H. Stephens Memorial and Library at Crawfordsville.
After the Civil War, the United States government began a massive effort to remove the Federal dead to National Cemeteries. The Union dead at Franklin were moved to the Stones River National Cemetery in Murfreesboro. No such efforts were made for the Confederate soldiers and often Southern dead were moved to mass graves like the ones in Perryville and Murfreesboro which bore one marker with several names, but offered the dead no individual graves.
The Confederate dead seemed destined to have no single marked burial plots.
Many corpses washed up during spring storms and flooding. After learning that the graves were in danger of being plowed over, and that many of the wooden head markers were being stolen and used as firewood, John McGavock began work on relocating the bodies to his farm known as Carnton.
Though McGavock did not fight during the Civil War, he’d outfitted a Confederate Unit. A farmer, former slave owner and merchant, John McGavock came from a prominent family. His father, Randal McGavock, who’d served one term as mayor of Nashville in 1824, had ties to Andrew Jackson. Jackson presented a rocking chair to the McGavock family that is one of the several original pieces of furniture one can see when touring the home today.
Many of the wounded who had died in John McGavock’s home when it was used as a Civil War hospital, were already buried on the property. But when McGavock began mass relocation of the fallen, newspapers of the time covered the historic event.
“Graves of the Confederate dead, who fell at Franklin are about to be disturbed by the preparation for the cultivation of the farm on which those graves are situated. The brave men who fought their last fight on that bloody field were from Tennessee and other Southern states. They freely gave their lives in defense of a cause which they regarded as sacred. The remains of the soldiers of the US Army, who fell during the war, are properly being gathered up and placed in National cemeteries. It devolves upon the friends of the Confederate dead by private contributions to remove their bodies to suitable localities and that they may be properly protected from the neglect and exposure which awaits them if permitted to remain on private property. To accomplish so commendable purpose, a central board has been organized, the object of which is to receive all contributions that may be sent them and see that they are properly appropriated to the removal of the remains of the fallen Confederates to the place donated by Colonel John McGavock for a Confederate cemetery.” The article went on to state, “Resolved that the friends of the soldiers who fell at the Battle of Franklin, be requested to organize Local Boards to solicit contributions to aid in the removal of the remains, and report and transmit the same to this Board of Managers.” March 22, 1866, the Daily Union and American in Nashville
“The Franklin Review of the 16th (June, 1866) says: The Confederate dead from the battlefield, and for five miles about Franklin, have been removed and reinterred in the McGavock Cemetery. Number interred is 1486. Head and foot boards are placed to each grave, and very few are unknown. This is very good. If the friends of the Cause will but bestir themselves a durable fence can be secured to enclose the cemetery, and head and foot stones obtained to mark their last resting places.” June 22, 1866, Clarksville Weekly Chronicle
July 7, 1866, the Bolliver Bulletin listed all the dead Tennesseans.
Upon learning about the relocation, which included the body of Mary Gay’s fallen brother, Tommy, Mary traveled to Franklin to find his grave. Though the bodies had been moved, she was appalled to see free range cows trampling the graves in the field near McGavock’s farm.
She resolved to raise money for a fence to protect the graves.
“The Houston Texas Telegraph states that Miss Mary A.H. Gay has obtained $1000 in that city (Houston) to aid in building the iron rail fence around the McGavock Cemetery at Franklin, Tennessee.” February 9, 1867, the Bolliver Bulletin
She also raised funds for numerous Confederate memorials and helped to organize a local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
But it was the book she wrote for Tommy’s son so he might appreciate the father he never knew that garnered her the most success. Life in Dixie During the War recounts her refusal to leave her home when the Yankees camped outside for three months and commandeered her home for Union headquarters. One of the federal officers told her, "I glory in your spunk and am proud of you as my countrywoman."
Forty years after the publication of life in Dixie During the War, author, Margaret Mitchell drew from Miss Gay’s detailed and vivid firsthand accounts as inspiration for the character of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. And though Carrie McGavock has recently gained fame as the Widow of the South, it was through the tireless efforts of John McGavock and Mary Ann Gay that the largest Confederate cemetery was saved.
Mary Ann Harris Gay died, November 6, 1918, shortly before her ninetieth birthday, and was laid to rest in the old section of the Decatur Cemetery next to her mother and her sister.
A tribute to Mary Ann Gay in The DeKalb New Era, December 5, 1918, written by her sister, Missouri Stokes, closes with the sentence, “A suitable epitaph for each would be, ‘She hath done what she could.’”
About the author ~
DEBRA GLASS is the author of over thirty-five books of historical and paranormal romance, non-fiction, and folklore. The recipient of the National Society of Arts and Letters Alabama Screenwriter Award, she went on to win the NSAL Empire State Award for excellence in screenwriting. Debra is a member of Romance Writers of America and the Professional Authors’ Network. She is also a member of RWA's Heart of Dixie Chapter and RWA's Southern Magic Chapter. She lives in Alabama with her real life hero, a couple of smart-aleck ghosts, and a diabolical black cat.
She has penned paranormal and historical romance, including several romances set during the Civil War. Bought and Paid For, Scarlet Widow, Eternal, Rebel Rose, and Gatekeeper feature Civil War settings and characters.