Carnton was built in 1826 by former Nashville mayor Randal McGavock (1768-1843). Throughout the nineteenth century it was frequently visited by those shaping Tennessee and American history, including President Andrew Jackson. Carnton grew to become one of the premier farms in Williamson County, Tennessee. Randal McGavock’s son John (1815-1893) inherited the farm upon his father’s death. John McGavock married Carrie Elizabeth Winder (1829-1905) in December 1848 and they had five children, three of whom died at young ages - Martha (1849-1862); Mary Elizabeth (1851-1858); and John Randal (1854). The surviving children were Winder (1857-1907) and Hattie (1855-1932).
Beginning at 4 p.m. on November 30, 1864, everything the McGavock family ever knew was forever changed. The Confederate Army of Tennessee furiously assaulted the Federal army entrenched along the southern edge of Franklin. The resulting battle, believed to be the bloodiest hours of the Civil War, involved a massive frontal assault larger than Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg. The majority of the combat occurred in the dark and at close quarters. The Battle of Franklin lasted barely five hours and led to some 9,500 soldiers being killed, wounded, captured, or counted as missing. Nearly 7,000 of that number were Confederate troops. Carnton served as the largest field hospital in the area for hundreds of wounded and dying Confederate soldiers.
A staff officer wrote that "the wounded, in hundreds, were brought to [the house] during the battle, and all the night after. And when the noble old house could hold no more, the yard was appropriated until the wounded and dead filled that...."
On the morning of December 1, 1864 the bodies of four Confederate generals killed during the fighting, Patrick R. Cleburne, Hiram B. Granbury, John Adams, and Otho F. Strahl, lay on Carnton’s back porch. The floors of the restored house are still stained with the blood of the men who were treated here.
In early 1866, John and Carrie McGavock designated two acres of land adjacent to their family cemetery as a final burial place for nearly 1,500 Confederate soldiers killed during the Battle of Franklin. The McGavocks maintained the cemetery until their respective deaths.
Today, the McGavock Confederate Cemetery is a lasting memorial honoring those fallen soldiers and the Battle of Franklin. It is the largest privately owned military cemetery in the nation.
The McGavock family owned Carnton until 1911 when Susie Lee McGavock, widow of Winder McGavock, sold it. In 1973 Carnton was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and in 1977 the house and ten acres were donated to the Carnton Association, Inc. by Dr. and Mrs. W. D. Sugg. By that time the house had suffered from years of neglect and disrepair and since then the Association has been vital in restoring and maintaining the site through tours, gift shop sales, membership, special events, and generous donations.