Robert Hicks, Blockbuster Author and Battlefield Savior, Dies at 71

Robert Hicks, an ebullient, entrancing raconteur who rebuilt an 18th-century log cabin, amassed a renowned collection of 19th-century antiques and saved a Civil War battlefield from being overrun by strip malls, but who is perhaps best remembered for writing a blockbuster novel that drew on all those experiences, died on Friday at his home near Franklin, Tenn. He was 71.

His half brother, Marcus E. Sanders, said the cause was complications of bladder cancer.

Millions of readers knew Mr. Hicks as the author of “The Widow of the South” (2005), his first novel, which told the story of a lovelorn caretaker of a Civil War cemetery. Charting on best seller lists as far away as China, it was one of the buzziest books of the year, with his publisher, Warner Books, ordering 250,000 copies for its first print run.

Mr. Hicks’s turn as a world-famous writer was a surprise only to those who didn’t know him. He had already made a name for himself in a wide array of fields, including as a music publisher, an expert in 19th-century Southern furniture — Art & Antiques magazine named him one of the country’s top 100 collectors for seven years in a row — and as a leading force in historic preservation around Nashville.

He had arrived in Franklin, a Nashville suburb, from Florida in 1974, buying a rundown cabin on the town’s outskirts and moving it even further away, to a picturesque hillside plot. There, nestled among maples and cedars, he spent the rest of his life renovating and expanding it, filling it with his ever-growing collection of antiques and Southern outsider art. He called the house Labor in Vain.

In the mid-1980s, Mr. Hicks became captivated by the story of Carnton, an 11-room mansion near downtown Franklin that had served as a Confederate field hospital during the Battle of Franklin, a disastrous engagement that blunted the last major Southern offensive of the war, in November 1864.

During the fighting, thousands of wounded Confederates were brought to Carnton; even today, visitors can see where their blood stained its hardwood floors. In a field next door, 1,481 of those soldiers lie buried.

Carnton, the 11-room mansion a Civil War field hospital that that Mr. Hicks helped restore to its 1864 state. For him, the project was about not just honoring the past, but holding it up for critical examination.Credit…Josh Anderson for The New York Times

Eventually the mansion was taken over by a private trust, and in 1987 Mr. Hicks joined its board. He led a thorough renovation of the interior, using paint chips and carpet fragments to recreate its look on the eve of the battle. He hired gardeners to bring the grounds back to life with grape honeysuckle, heirloom roses and kieffer pears.

A self-described liberal Democrat, he was a world away from the Neo-Confederates and Lost Cause ideologues who once flocked to Southern historical preservation. For him, it was about not just honoring the past, but holding it up for critical examination.

“Robert was someone who grew up with a Southerner’s sense of history, and a Southerner’s sense of the loss of history,” Adam Goodheart, a historian and close friend, said in a phone interview.

By day Mr. Hicks worked as an agent and publisher in Nashville’s country music industry. The connections he built, and his exacting sense of style, put him in touch with B.B. King, who hired him to be the “curator of vibe” for his chain of blues clubs, designing each venue.

But eventually his passion for the past consumed too much of his time, and in 2003 his last two clients fired him. From then on, Mr. Hicks made Franklin and its bloody history his life’s work. Carnton, it turned out, was just the beginning.

One night he hosted a small dinner at the mansion. After regaling his guests with stories from his music business days, he took them out to the balcony, overlooking a swath of the former battlefield — which, by then, was occupied by a Pizza Hut, strip malls and a golf course.

The course was up for sale, and the leading bid was to turn it into a housing development. “I want to buy it,” he told them.

He reached out to civic groups, politicians, developers, country music stars, Black activists and other preservationists, selling them on the idea that reclaiming the site’s history was an opportunity to put Franklin at the center of a new, difficult conversation about America’s past.

“He just had this unusual ability to get people to work together to accomplish something that was important, and something that was good for the community,” said Julian L. Bibb III, a lawyer who worked closely with Mr. Hicks.

The pitch worked. Under a new umbrella organization called Franklin’s Charge, Mr. Hicks raised nearly $20 million to systematically buy up about 110 acres around Carnton, demolish whatever was there and turn it into a park.

The National Park Service called the effort “the largest battlefield reclamation in North American history.”

Mr. Hicks was on a constant hunt for ways to promote the project — he once commissioned a charity whiskey, Battlefield Bourbon, with a fitting 1,864 bottles released.

Millions of readers knew Mr. Hicks as the author of “The Widow of the South” (2005), his first novel, which told the story of a lovelorn caretaker of a Civil War cemetery and charted on best seller lists as far away as China. Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

That same impulse birthed “The Widow of the South.” At first, Mr. Hicks wanted to make a movie; then, he thought, he could hire someone else to write a book. Finally, confident that he had the bones for a novel that no editor could resist, he decided to write it himself, using his knowledge of antebellum design to add realistic details.

The “Widow of the South,” which tells the story of Carrie McGavock, who owned Carnton with her husband, but imagines a love story involving her and a Confederate soldier, did more than make Mr. Hicks a hit novelist. Visits to Carnton quadrupled, and over the next decade Franklin transformed from a sleepy Nashville suburb to a luxury enclave, a change due at least partly to the book’s success.

“He was a poet for people whose voices were stilled years ago,” Eric Jacobson, the head of the Battle of Franklin Trust, which manages Carnton and other sites, said in a phone interview. “He gave voice to people who died decades ago who sadly had been forgotten.”

Robert Benjamin Hicks III was born on Jan. 30, 1951, in West Palm Beach, Fla., where his parents, Robert Hicks Jr. and Pauline Electa (Tallman) Hicks, ran a water-treatment company. He was descended on both sides from West Tennessee farmers — the town of Hicksville, Tenn., is named for one of his ancestors, and he spent summers there, touring sites where Ulysses S. Grant led his troops through the region in 1862.

His half brother, Mr. Sanders, is his only immediate survivor.

Mr. Hicks graduated in 1973 from David Lipscomb University, in Nashville, where he studied history. He returned to Tennessee a year later with his recently widowed mother, settling in Franklin.

He had moved without a career plan, and one night, while he lamented that fact at a bar, a woman suggested that he hang a shingle as an agent and publisher for some of the hordes of young songwriters and musicians then pouring into Nashville.

Soon he was working with artists like Vince Gill and John Hiatt, many of whom he invited to weekend potluck dinners at Labor in Vain, in front of which he had built an enormous bonfire pit. After dinner, famous and unknown musicians alike would pass around a guitar, playing old standards and new compositions.

Inside they might peruse his ever-growing collection of antiques, both impressive and inconsequential, from stately dining chairs to old nails and used pencils. Among his prized possessions was a tube of PoliGrip that he had taken from the bathroom of Roy Acuff, the country singer, after he died.

Mr. Hicks followed up on the success of “The Widow of the South” with two more novels, “A Separate Country” (2009) and “The Orphan Mother” (2016).

He developed bladder cancer in 2018 but continued to work on preservation issues, including the opposition to a mixed-use development project adjacent to a Civil War fort in Nashville.

He worked on one final project at Carnton, in 2019. While most of the mansion’s white occupants had been buried in an ornate family plot, the enslaved Black people who worked there had been interred in graves marked only by blank stones. Mr. Hicks helped arrange for a 10,000-pound marble block to be placed at the site to commemorate not just them but all of the 12,000 enslaved people who once lived around Franklin.

“Without the stone you go past rocks, and it’s sad,” he told the newspaper The Tennessean. “But now with this commemorative rock, people can say, ‘Oh, this is important.’ These men and women are important. Something important happened here.”

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