Sunday, April 05, 2020

'Utter desolation': A visit to Lee-Grant 'Surrender House' in 1915

Early 20th-century postcards of the ruins of Wilmer McLean's house, where Lee surrendered to Grant
 on April 9, 1865. (National Park Service) | CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.
(National Park Service)
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Fifty years after the Civil War, the once-impressive, two-story brick house in Appomattox Court House Va., where Lee surrendered to Grant lay in ruins. "No one familiar with Civil War history," the Washington Times wrote in 1915 about the site of Wilmer McLean's home, "can view this scene of abject and utter desolation ... without an involuntary sigh."

Headlines in the Washington Times
on Sept. 26, 1915.
In its glory days, the "Surrender House" featured seven wide steps leading up to a spacious porch supported by five white pillars. McLean's property included a large, well-kept front lawn, a flower garden, ice houses, a weaving house and quarters for slaves. The commodious residence, where Wilmer lived with his wife Virginia, was described as one of the finest in the state at the time -- a "typical country residence of a Virginia gentleman of wealth and culture."

Unable to keep up with mortgage payments, McLean defaulted on a bank loan after the war, and the house was sold at public auction in 1869. After a succession of owners, it was purchased in 1891 for $10,000 by former Union officer Myron Dunlap, who originally planned to hold Grand Army of the Republic gatherings at the site. Later, Dunlap and other investors aimed to dismantle the structure and display it at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. That was followed by another scheme to haul most of it off to Washington, re-build it as a Civil War museum, and charge visitors admission. The "Surrender House" was dismantled in 1893 for a move, but both plans were scotched for lack of money and legal issues.

And so the remains of the historic house just sat there.

In the years afterward, the mishmash of bricks and  rotting wood was victimized by nature and targeted by thieves and souvenir hunters. "The McLean house site," the Times wrote, "is a foreboding looking, dank dark spot in the woods, overgrown with tall, foul-smelling weeds, saplings and underbrush."

To get there, the Times reporter manuevered through a cornfield that once was McLean's spacious front yard. The only mention of the site's historical importance was an iron tablet near the ruins that noted: "Gen. Robert E. Lee, C.S.A., met and agreed upon terms of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia on the afternoon of April 9, 1865." Near the plaque, the reporter discovered a ramshackle ice house and a small weaving house; in a thicket lay three large piles -- all that was left of the historic home.

An image of the iron historical tablet
at the McLean House site appeared
in the Washington Times
on Sept. 26, 1915.
"The wood is water-logged, moss-covered, and so soft and decomposed that a finger will make an impression in it," the Times reported. "The steps are intact and lie upon one of the piles. The lumber from which the porch was constructed lies rotting on another pile, with weeds, vines and underbrush almost obscuring it from view." Piles of crumbling brick were coated with a "greenish accumlation" left by nature. To keep intruders from the ruins, a makeshift, wire gate stood near the original entrance to the house.

The unofficial tour guide and watchman of the rubble was R.H. Browning, who lived across the road. He complained to the Times reporter about thieves swiping McLean house woodwork to use as firewood. Browning, who claimed to have witnessed Lee's surrender as a boy, used "shotgun methods" to chase off those miscreants. It apparently was a losing battle.

April 1865 photo of McLean house by Timothy O'Sullivan. (Library of Congress)
Schoolchildren examine bricks at the McLean house ruins. (National Park Service)
An early 20th-century postcard of visitors at the ruins of the McLean ice house. (National Park Service)

Several historic buildings in the rural village suffered from neglect, the Times reported.. The old Raine tavern was in "dilapidated and tumbled-down condition." The charred ruins of the war-time courthouse, which burned in 1892, were hidden in weeds and underbrush. The city jail nearby was an eyesore, with a "badly dilapidated" roof and "decomposing and disintegrating" bricks. A hotel, used as a headquarters by both armies, was in a "sad state of disrepair."

"The raging winds and waters have done their worst," the Richmond Times-Dispatch editorialized about Appomattox Courthouse in the summer of 1915, "and what they have left is crumbling from human neglect."

Added the newspaper: "Why isn't Appomattox to-day a literal shrine, as well as a historical shrine?"

Plans to restore the McLean house stalled early in the 20th century. As late as the 1920s, Civil War veterans occassionally stopped at the site with their families. Tourists often sought souvenirs, so enterprising local boys sold them bricks for candy money. After roads were improved to remote Appomattox Courthose, even more souvenir-seekers arrived. "The old house," the Richmond Times-Dispatch wrote in 1936, "is scattered from Maine to California."

A front-page photo in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on April 17, 1950,
of the huge crowd at the official dedication ceremony for the
reconstructed Wilmer McLean "Surrender House."
In 1940, after Appomattox Courthouse became a national historical monument, momemtum finally built to reconstruct the McLean house. Archaelogical studies were begun and data collected by the U.S. government, but the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, stopped the effort. Finally, in 1949, a reconstructed McLean house -- using many of the old bricks -- was opened the public.

The next April, a crowd estimated at 10,000 attended the official dedication ceremony. Direct decsendants of Robert E. Lee and Ulysses Grant were honored guests. Bands played Dixie, The Battle Hymn of the Republic and Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy. Lee biographer Douglas Southall Freeman spoke for 45 minutes -- he said he planned to will his tattered, bullet-riddled 61st Virginia flag to the McLean house. Photographers swarmed around U.S. Grant III and Robert E. Lee IV as they stood on the porch for the official ribbon cutting. And a national magazine writer was spotted asking other reporters, "Have you seen any nice old ladies crying?"

1915 was a distant, ugly memory.

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-- National Park Service, Appomattox Court House site, accessed April 4, 2020.
-- Richmond Times-Dispatch, Aug. 29, 1915, March 24, 1936, April 17, 1950.
-- The Washington Times, Sept. 26, 1915.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

'That sends you to hell': The 1927 lynching of Henry Choate

18-year-old Henry Choate was lynched from the second floor of the Maury County Courthouse
 in Columbia, Tenn., on Nov. 11, 1927. (CLICK ON ALL IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)

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The ancient cemeteries on Old Zion Road in Columbia, Tenn., are roughly 300 yards apart, but they’re starkly different. Worlds apart, actually.

Deary Armstrong's tilted marker in 
Salem Church Cemetery.
The grounds of Zion Presbyterian Church Cemetery are tidy; the old trees neatly trimmed. Among the more than 1,500 buried there are Confederate veterans, including the celebrated Sam Watkins of “Company Aytch” fame, and soldiers from the  Revolutionary War and War of 1812. The beautiful, Greek Revival-style brick church on the grounds was built in the mid-19th century with the labor of slaves and others.

Across a two-lane road, broken markers peek through the earth at unkempt Salem Church Cemetery, the final resting place of scores of African-Americans. A large, toppled marker rests behind a decrepit, twisted iron fence. The gravestone for Marsh Mayes, age 99 years, four months, 22 days, leans against a tree. Tilted at an odd angle, Deary Armstrong’s tombstone is almost obscured by weeds and purple wildflowers. Dixie Lou Bates’ gravestone – she was 24 when she died in 1943 – looks forlorn among stumps and trees. On many of the battered and weather-worn gravestones, the inscriptions are unreadable.

“Watch out for the holes,” warned a woman who lives next to Salem Church Cemetery. Some of the graves
 have subsided, giving the grounds the look of a World War I battlefield.
The Salem Church Cemetery gravestone of Marsh Mayes, who almost lived a century.
“Watch out for the holes,” warns a woman who lives next to the cemetery, which is bordered by a ditch filled with water. Some of the graves have subsided, giving the grounds the look of a World War I battlefield in France or Belgium.

Could this be Henry Choate's gravestone?
Somewhere on this sad landscape rest the remains of the Choate family -- Freeman, his wife Mattie and their son and daughter. They lived on Rural Route 1 in Columbia. A former phosphate miner and farm laborer, "Free" was 72 when he died on Jan. 19, 1945. Cause of death: Unknown. Mattie, 56, died of kidney disease at a house on Albion Street in Nashville on July 25, 1941. On June 14, 1939, the Choates’ 26-year-old daughter, Myrtle, died of food poisoning and “insufficient diet.”

And then there’s the Choates’ 18-year-old son, Henry, who died in 1927. Perhaps he’s buried at Salem Church Cemetery beneath the small, block marker inscribed with “H.S.C.” None of the other nearby graves include a readable last name, so there’s no way to tell. We know the cause of Henry’s death, though. In cursive writing, it leaps from his one-page death certificate:


Henry Choate is why I’m here.

Henry Choate's death certificate. Cause of death: "Lynched."  (Courtesy Tina Cahalan Jones)

'Maury County had been disgraced'

The Page 1 headlines in the Nov. 12, 1927, Nashville Tennessean are jarring:

“Negro Lynched in Columbia for Attack on Girl.”

“Unmasked Mob Estimated at 350 Men Storms Jail With Sledge Hammers.”

“Deaf to Pleas.”

Front-page headlines in the Nashville Tennessean on Nov. 12, 1927.
From 1882-1969, according to the Tuskegee Institute,  4,743 people, including 3,446 African-Americans, were lynched in the United States – a horrendous stain on our history. More than 73 percent of the murders occurred in the South.

The circumstances of Henry Choate’s lynching on Armistice Day 1927 are especially revolting.

Earlier that day, Choate was accused of assaulting Sarah Harlan, a 16-year-old white girl, as she waited for a school bus on a remote stretch of road five miles from Columbia. Harlan’s clothing reportedly was nearly torn away by the assailant, who attempted to shoot her. She screamed for help. According to the Tennessean, the attacker struck her on the forehead with the butt of his pistol and apparently attempted to strangle the teenager, one of nine children raised by a widow. Sarah scratched her assailant and bit his finger, drawing blood. The man fled when she told him her brother was approaching, a ruse. “Now I’ll guess you’ll get it,” Harlan said, the Tennessean reported.

The Nashville Tennessean
published Sarah Harlan's
photo on Nov. 13, 1927. She couldn't

positively indentify Henry Choate
as her assailant. 
Using bloodhounds named Queen and George, a law enforcement posse arrived at the house of Choate’s grandfather, where they arrested Henry. According to officers, Choate had changed from his bloody shirt and trousers and hidden a 22-caliber pistol, which they alleged he used to club Sarah. Sheriff Luther Wiley said Choate had a wound on the middle finger of his left hand, a bite mark inflicted by the victim. Whether any of this is true, well, we may never know.

Choate, who denied the attack, was taken by law enforcement to the house of Harlan’s uncle, where Sarah was staying. She couldn’t identify him positively as her assailant.  A mob formed and surged into the house. The girl’s mother and the sheriff “asked them to spare the negro for trial,” the newspaper reported, and Henry was whisked out another door and taken by car to the Maury County Jail, 300 yards from the county courthouse.

Eager to storm the jail, a mob formed at the two-story, late-19th-century building on 6th Street. Attempts to swipe the keys to the jail from Wiley’s wife failed. Deputy sheriff Ed Pugh of Nashville, who owned bloodhounds George and Queen, warned the crowd about attempting to exact its perverted version of justice on the eve of the election for county sheriff. Wouldn’t want to make Sheriff Wiley look bad after all.

At 7 p.m., the scene at the county jail was calm. But about an hour later, the mob formed again on 6th Street, soon growing to about 350. Swinging sledgehammers, some of the men broke into the jail, leaving destruction in their wake. Wiley reportedly pleaded with them to stop. So did his wife, but someone turned over the key to the cell for Choate, who must have been terrified. The sheriff himself may have unlocked the cell.

Two days after the lynching, the Nashville Tennessean
published this image of voters casting ballots at the
Maury County Courthouse in the Democratic primary for
sheriff. The "X" shows where the "hanging rope" was tossed.
Nearby, James Finney, the editor of the Nashville Tennessean, and several ministers were attending an American Legion Armistice Day banquet. Alerted to the disturbance at the jail, they attempted to intervene. Finney and a Presbyterian minister – “a critic of hooded orders,” a reference to the Klu Klux Klan  – tried to contact the governor of Tennessee by “long-distance telephone” for assistance from the state militia, stationed nearby. Apparently, they failed.

“They planned to tell the governor,” the newspaper reported, “that no determined effort was being made to protect the negro against the lynchers …”

Dragged from the jail, Choate supposedly confessed at the door of the courthouse to J.R. Parsons, a Methodist minister, who urged the mob to let the teenager stand trial. Choate’s “confession” was heard by a man nearby holding a rope. “Well, that sends you to hell,” he said, according to a newspaper reporter.

A noose around his neck, Choate was taken to the second floor of the courthouse, which was decorated with red, white and blue for Armistice Day. The men pushed through the double doors that led outside, tied the rope to the stone balustrade, and hurled Choate over. The teenager’s body dangled to about the center of the first-floor doorway for about 10 minutes. Relatives later retrieved Henry’s battered body.

“Success of the lynching” the Tennessean reported, was announced by Finney at the American Legion banquet.

“Maury County,” the newspaper added, “had been disgraced.”

'Courthouse is lynch gallows'

Accounts of Choate’s horrific lynching were published in newspapers throughout the United States. “Courthouse is lynch gallows,” proclaimed the headline in the New York World.

 The day after the lynching, 
Luther Wiley lost in the Democratic
primary for Maury County sheriff.
In Tennessee, newspapers blamed Sheriff Wiley for not protecting Choate. “One shot fired into that crowd,” the Clarksville newspaper wrote, “would have saved that negro’s life. Mobs are always cowardly under such circumstances as that.”

A week after the lynching, editor Finney of the Tennessean weighed in on the pages of his newspaper. “Executions by mob are murder,” he wrote, “nothing more, nothing less.”

Beyond demanding justice, journalists apparently didn't do any digging of their own.

Maury County citizens, a Chattanooga newspaper wrote, “will not be judged alone by the lynching of Henry Choate, but also what they do toward  bringing the lynchers to the bar of justice and seeing that they are properly punished for their crime against the state of Tennessee.”

Ultimately, however, no one stood trial for the lynching. A grand jury was convened, but no charges were filed. It was “unable to find evidence upon which to return a true bill against participants …” Predictably, a judge said Maury County law enforcement was “blameless.”

The only justice in this case came on Election Day,  Nov. 12, 1927. Luther Wiley – who “stood by and meekly submitted to the battering down of the doors of his jail” – was defeated in the Democratic primary, squashing his bid for a third term as county sheriff.

The scene of the crime

Maury County Courthouse in Columbia, Tenn. Henry Choate was lynched from the second-floor porch.
On an overcast Saturday afternoon, I explored the scene of this horrid crime. The three-story Maury County Courthouse, completed in 1904, still stands. A massive American flag fluttered above the second-floor porch – the same porch from which Choate’s body dangled at the end of a rope.

Armed with questions, I circled the building, looking for a marker explaining what happened here on a Monday night nearly 93 years ago. Steps from the front door of the courthouse, dozens of names of U.S. Colored Troops are inscribed on a modern, gray-granite soldiers’ memorial. But there’s no mention of a lynching anywhere on courthouse grounds.

Nearby, Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” blared from a music store. Outside the barber shop next door, I chatted with a stylist named Todd. Told him why I was here: “Black kid … lynched … 1927 … right over there ... from the courthouse porch.”

"No kidding," he told me. He had cut the hair of three customers recently who talked about the same case. "The old locals here know everything."

Perhaps my questions are unanswerable, but I have so many of them. Maybe the locals can help.

Who was Henry Choate?

Who denied him justice?

Where are the records of that long-ago grand jury?

What happened to Sarah Harlan?

And, most importantly, who put the rope around an 18-year-old kid's neck and lynched him in 1927?

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-- Chattanooga Daily Times, Nov. 27, 1927.
-- Find A Grave.
-- Lancaster (Pa.) New Era. Associated Press report.
-- Morristown (Tenn.) Gazette, Nov. 15, 1927.
-- Nashville Tennessean, Nov. 12, 1927, Nov. 13, 1927, Nov. 18, 1927.
-- The Leaf-Chronicle, Clarksville, Tenn., Nov. 14, 1927.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

'Secrets' from Mrs. Caldwell's scrapbook: A Nashville story

"This is one of the happiest days of my life," May Winston Caldwell said in her speech at the dedication 
of the Battle of Nashville Peace monument on Nov. 11, 1927. (CLICK ON ALL IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)
PHOTO: Courtesy of Tennessee State Library and Archives
A view of looking south on Franklin Road.  (PHOTO: Courtesy Tennesee State Library and Archives)
GOOGLE STREET VIEW: Present-day view. Pedestal for the old monument is just
 beyond brush at right. Franklin Road was greatly changed since the monument 
was dedicated in 1927.

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In a large scrapbook, May Winston Caldwell saved mementoes from one of the most impressive accomplishments of her remarkable life. Leaf through the album and you'll find correspondence with a world-famous Italian sculptor, a note from President Coolidge's White House, a poem by Tennessee's poet laureate ... and remarkable photos of a Nashville Civil War monument with a tortuous history.

The monument dedication received prominent coverage
in the Nashville Banner (above) and Nashville Tennessean.
As president of the Ladies Battlefield Association in the 1920s, Caldwell was instrumental in the creation of a monument honoring soldiers on both sides who fought in the 1864 Battle of Nashville. In a decade's-long effort, the wife of a prominent Nashville businessman helped raise money for her project from individuals, local businesses and the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The Ladies Battlefield Association finally even squeezed cash from the state, a grand achievement in an era of small government.

Italian emigre Guiseppe Moretti, a renowned sculptor, was commissioned to build the work. Cost: $30,000. The monument's 40-foot obelisk -- which included a massive bronze sculpture of horses and a glorified figure of youth -- was topped with a statue of an angel. Moretti even helped select its location in Nashville, a knoll along Franklin Road near Thompson Lane. (The area was occupied by Confederate artillery battery during the battle.)  "I love this monument," he said, "more than any other work that I have done ..."

The efforts of Caldwell and Moretti were not universally praised. "Atrocious as a work of art," W.J. Warren wrote about the monument in a letter to the editor published in a local newspaper.  "... it seems to me," he added, "to be a ghastly piece of bad taste for us to go out of our way and spend money to celebrate what was the last despairing gasp of the Confederacy."

Nevertheless, on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1927, nearly 500 people gathered on a knoll four miles from downtown Nashville for the dedication of the Battle of Nashville Peace Monument. Several Confederate veterans were among the crowd -- including at least one who served under Nathan Bedford Forrest. John Trotwood Moore, a local journalist, historian and poet, read his work: "Good night Blue and Gray! God keep watch till the day. When you arrive in the peace of new skies. Good night!" (Calvin Coolidge declined his invitation to attend, but Tennessee Gov. Henry Horton spoke.)

"This is one of the happiest days of my life," Caldwell said in her dedication speech, "to know that our dream lives."

Several Confederate veterans attended the dedication of the Battle of Nashville monument.
(PHOTO: Courtesy Tennessee State Library and Archives)
Caldwell's monument stood defiantly on the site until 1974, when a tornado toppled its obelisk and angel, destroying them. By the early 1980s, construction of an interstate had made what was left of her project a castaway on a tiny island in a sea of development. Behind brush on a thin strip of land above busy Franklin Road, the base of Moretti's masterpiece remains, a forgotten piece of Nashville's past. (A second iteration of the monument was dedicated on a new site nearby in 1999.)

Thankfully, May Winston Caldwell -- who was highly active in Tennessee historical societies -- collected her Ladies Battlefield Association work in an album, found today in the Tennessee State Archives. Three circa-1927 images of the monument in the scrapbook are a unique window into Nashville's past. An enlargement of the background of one of the photographs shows what a small part of the vast battlefield may have looked like in 1864. In another enlargement, we see a historical marker yards from the monument -- what happened to that? -- while in another a car travels south on Franklin Road, which looks much different than its present-day appearance.

Caldwell, who raised 10 children in "Longview" mansion near her monument, died in 1939. She was 84.

"Mrs. Caldwell's life," the Nashville Tennessean wrote in her obituary, "exercised a benevolent influence on all with whom she came in contact."

In this enlargement of the photo above, a car travels south on Franklin Road.
In another enlargement of the photo above, we find a historical marker near the monument.
A view looking west of the monument. (PHOTO: Courtesy Tennessee State Library and Archives)
A photo in May Winston Caldwell's scrapbook of the original Battle of Nashville monument, which was 
topped by a figure of an angel. (PHOT: Courtesy Tennessee State Library and Archives)
An enlargement of the photo above shows the lay of the land, now occupied by an apartment complex.
An enlargement of the photo above shows the base of the monument.
A present-day view of the base of the Battle of Nashville Peace monument. (Read more on my blog.)

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-- Nashville Banner, Nov. 12, 1927.
-- Nashville Tennessean, Oct. 3, 1926, June 9, 1927, Dec. 15, 1939.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Shiloh snapshot: Shot, rescued in hospital, he dies in hometown

On the morning of April 6, 1862, Battery A of  the 1st Illinois Light Artillery (Chicago Light Artillery) went
into action on Sarah Bell's farm. (See panorama below.) Was Private Otto Heimberger wounded here?
                                        Click on icon at right for full-screen experience.

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Days after heavy rain in late April 1862, the Ohio River spilled over its banks in Mound City, Ill., imperiling wounded from the Battle of Shiloh in a brick warehouse used as a military hospital. "Mound City is entirely underwater," reported the Chicago Tribune, which warned of standing pools of floodwater becoming a breeding ground for malaria and thus a danger for patients.

If the wounded were not removed quickly from the hospital, "our men will die like sheep," the newspaper reported.

1912 image of building in Mound City, Ill., used as military hospital.
The warehouse was destroyed by fire in 1976. Below, the site today.
(A History of Southern Illinois)
As floodwaters poured into the hospital's first floor, harried caregivers placed 24-year-old Otto Heimberger and other unfortunates of Battery A of the 1st Illinois Light Artillery (Chicago Light Artillery) on cots, slipping the soldiers through second-floor windows to safety. Private Heimberger, who arrived at the hospital aboard a steamer about April 20, was wounded in the leg on April 6, the first day of the battle. Soon, the firemen and cigar maker from Chicago was joined by his fiancee, who, according to a reporter, "watched him with
incessant solicitude and love."

After their removal from the hospital, Heimberger and his wounded comrades were placed on a north-bound flat boat. The soldiers eventually were transferred to an Illinois Central Railroad train, their stretchers placed over the tops of the backs of seats of the end car. Among them was Private Charles B. Kimball, a 21-year-old farmer, who pleaded with surgeons at the hospital to not amputate his wounded leg. (Upon his arrival in Mound City from Paducah, Ky., Kimball's father persuaded the doctors to cancel the operation, and his son survived.)

The train's final destination was Chicago, about 350 miles away. Upon arrival, the wounded were met by friends and cared for in private homes. But Heimberger -- one of more than 13,000 Union casualties at Shiloh -- lost his seven-week battle for life on May 16, news that shattered his fiancee and a "large circle of friends."

At 2 p.m. the next day, Heimburger's funeral service was held at 222 East Van Buren Street, a short distance from Lake Michigan. Chicago Light Artillery soldiers and members of the Cigar Makers Association attended.

After fighting in Sarah Bell's cotton field at Shiloh on April 6, 1862, Private Otto Heimberger's
1st Illinois Light Artillery unit retreated here, near Bloody Pond. 

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-- Chicago Tribune, May 17, 1862.
-- First Illinois Light Artillery Volunteers, Chicago, Cushing Printing Co., 1899, Page 48.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

At a Tennessee slave cemetery, wilted roses and note of thanks

A wilted rose on the well-worn grave of a slave.
A memorial in the modest slave cemetery in Brentwood, Tenn.
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Aiming to clear our heads, my brother-in-law Nels and I biked the back roads south of Nashville on a frigid Sunday afternoon. We sometimes discover the unexpected on our weekly, mind-soothing rides -- an unruly dog in apparent attack mode, a seat on the porch of an out-of-the way general store, a fellow cyclist with a $6,000 bike.

But on this depressing, overcast day, we found the truly unexpected: a small slave cemetery on a narrow median in a neighborhood of million-dollar homes. How strange. Had we been traveling by car, we may have missed this surprise, announced by a black-and-white historical marker.

On a weekend bike ride, we briefly breathed in history.
Nearby, in the mid-19th century, 38 slaves toiled on the 600-acre plantation of Lysander McGavock, who farmed tobacco and corn. After McGavock's first home was destroyed in a fire in 1847, the enslaved African-Americans built the wealthy landowner a mansion called  "Midway," which today serves as the elegant headquarters of the Brentwood Country Club.

In this countryside roughly 10 miles from Nashville, skirmishes flared during the Civil War. Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slaveholder himself, captured a 785-man Yankee garrison with a loss of one soldier killed and two wounded in Brentwood in early spring 1863. "Midway" served as a hospital for both armies, who also used the plantation house as a headquarters as they marched back and forth from Franklin to Nashville.

Unlike their master's ornate gravestone on the grounds of "Midway," the markers for the slaves are not inscribed. Most are merely battered stubs of stone. We found wilted, red roses adorning some them, and pedals were scattered about the grounds. Inside the modest cemetery, steps from a busy road, a gray-granite memorial's inscription notes "unsung heroes" who "endured the shackles of slavery." A large wreath of white roses lay against the base of the monument. Small tokens of remembrance -- pennies, pebbles and other stones -- rested on its ledge. Someone left a note there, too.

"Thank you," it reads. "I so very hope someone thanked you during your life here. You could not have imagined so many wonderful things we have today because of your labors, and how much farther we have to grow."

We may not know their names, but they are remembered.

Life. Enjoy the journey. Always.

A poignant note on the gray-granite cemetery memorial.
Pennies, pebbles and other stones left on the slave cemetery memorial. And red roses (below) on gravestones, too.

          PANORAMA: Slave cemetery in Brentwood, Tenn., 10 miles south of Nashville.
                                     (Click icon at right for full-screen experience.)

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Thursday, March 12, 2020

'Outrageously treated': Souvenir hunters plunder 'Old Zolly'

In 1894, Frank Leslie's Illustrated published this illustration of Felix Zollicoffer's death
at the Battle of Mill Springs (Ky.) on Jan. 19, 1862. (Courtesy of Library Special Collections, WKU)
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Riddled with enemy lead, Confederate Brigadier General Felix Kirk Zollicoffer's body lay on the cold Kentucky ground surrounded by gawking Federal soldiers.

"What in hell are you doing here?" a Union officer shouted at the men as the Battle of Mill Springs swirled on Jan. 19, 1862. "Why are you not at the stretchers bringing in the wounded?"

Confederate Brigadier General Felix Zollicoffer was derisively
called "Snollegoster" and an "old he-devil" by Yankees.
(Library of Congress)
"This is Zollicoffer," one them replied.

"I know that," the officer said. "He is dead and could not be sent to hell by a better man, for Col. Fry shot him; leave him and go to your work."

Earlier that misty, cold morning, Zollicoffer -- a former Tennessee congressman and newspaper editor from Nashville -- had mistakenly ridden into Union lines. After a volley or two, Zollicoffer fell dead from his horse, shot through the chest. Federal Colonel Speed Smith Fry may have fired the fatal bullet into the 49-year-old commander, derisively called "Snollegoster" and an "old he-devil" by the Yankees.

Sadly, even in death, Zollicoffer was targeted.

Days after the battle, a New York newspaper correspondent spotted the general's body in front of the tent of the 10th Kentucky sutler, wrapped in a blanket. Zollicoffer's skin was "beautifully white and clear," the reporter noted, and his face had a "pleasant expression," which "grim in death was not altogether destroyed." Zollicoffer had shaved off his beard, "probably in order to be less easily recognized," the correspondent speculated.

But "Old Zolly" was stripped by souvenir hunters of his clothes, from the rubber coat over his uniform to his shirt, undershirt and socks. Three buttons were snipped from his coat by an Ohio private. Even Zollicoffer's hair was cut off close to the skull by fiends.

     PANORAMA: The death site of General Felix Zollicover is marked by the monument.
                                     (Click icon at right for full-screen experience.)

The death of General Zollicoffer was front-page news in Northern newspapers. Here's a headline
from the Rutland (Vt.) Daily Herald on Jan. 21, 1862.
"l am sorry to say that his remains were outrageously treated by the thousands of soldiers and citizens that flocked to see them." wrote the New York reporter, probably exaggerating the number of ghouls. (This theft from a fallen officer was not unique: While Union General John Sedgwick's body lay at an embalmer in Washington, "a lady exhibited a singular pertinacity," a newspaper reported, "to procure a memento of the fallen hero by clipping two buttons from his coat.")

Union Colonel Speed S. Fry may have 
fired the bullet that killed Felix Zollicoffer.
 (Library of Congress)
The New York newspaper correspondent's report of the ill-treatment of Zollicoffer remains was denied vehemently by some, but the evidence is irrefutable. "I have a small piece of Zollicoffer's undershirt," a Federal soldier bragged, "and a daguerreotype of a secession lady, taken with a lot of other plunder." An Ohio newspaper reported a Union officer showing off a piece of the general's buckskin shirt: "It was very soft, and must have been exceedingly comfortable if kept dry."

A week after the battle, 31st Ohio Captain John W. Free wrote that Zollicoffer's clothes were divided by soldiers as trophies -- "until orders were imperatively given not to do so any more.

"But his pants and the fine buckskin shirt is no doubt scatered all over the different States of the North," the officer added, "as some 4 or 5 different states were here represented."

Another Ohioan confirmed Free's account. "When the soldiers saw Zollicoffer’s corpse," wrote Private John Boss of the 9th Ohio, "they tore his clothing from his body, and split up his shirt, in order to have a souvenir. A Tennessean wanted his whole scalp, but was prevented from that because a guard was placed there."

Joseph Graeff got a lock
 of Zollicoffer's hair and a
 "piece cut from his pantaloons."
(Courtesy 9th Ohio Infantry site)
In a letter to a friend, 9th Ohio quartermaster sergeant Joseph Graeff wrote of Zollicoffer: "Inclosed you will find a lock of his hair and a piece cut from his pantaloons. Shortly after the battle I hunted for his corpse, and found it lying in the mud."

Union authorities eventually put a stop to the macabre nonsense, and Zollicoffer's mud-spattered body was washed and placed in a tent under guard. "Having no clothing suitable in which to dress him," a witness recalled, "he was wrapped in a nice-new blanket until they could be procured, after which he was dressed and provided for in a handsome manner. ... Particular regard and unusual respect were shown his shown his body by officers and men."

Chaplain Lemuel F. Drake of the 31st Ohio viewed the general's remains on a board in the tent. "I saw the place where he was shot, and laid my hand upon his broad forehead," he wrote. "He was about six feet tall, and compactly and well built, one of the finest heads I ever saw."

Inscription on Brigadier General Felix Zollicoffer's marker 
in Old Nashville (Tenn.) City Cemetery.
Days after the battle, Zollicoffer's body was embalmed by a Union Army surgeon in Somerset, Ky., placed in a metallic coffin, and handed over by the Federals to the Confederates under a flag of truce. Back in his native Tennessee, the remains of one of Nashville's leading citizens were treated reverently.

On Feb. 1, the general's body arrived in Nashville, where, despite rainy, "exceedingly disagreeable weather," thousands filed past the remains at the State Capitol Building. The next day, the procession to Zollicoffer's grave site at Nashville City Cemetery, a little more than a mile away, was "one of the largest ever seen" in the city.

Among the mourners were his five daughters: Virginia, 24; Ann Maria, 17; Octavia Louise, 15; Mary Dorothy, 12; Felicia, 7; and Loulie, 5. (Zollicoffer's wife, Louisa Pocahontas, died in 1857.)

"First in the fight," reads the inscription on a marker next to Zollicoffer's gravestone. "and first in the arms of the white winged angel of glory, with his hero heart at the feet of God and his wounds to tell the story."

Felix Zollicoffer's gravestone and marker (below) in Old Nashville City Cemetery.

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


-- 9th Ohio Private John Boss letter from Camp Hamilton, Jan. 22, 1862, 9th Ohio Infantry web site, accessed March 13, 2020
-- Cincinnati Daily Press, Feb. 8, 11, 1862.
-- Detroit Free Press, Jan. 25, 1862.
-- Perry County Weekly, New Lexington, Ohio, Feb. 5, 1862 (transcribed by Jo An Sheely via excellent Death of Felix K. Zollicoffer section by Geoffrey R. Walden on the Experience Mill Springs website. Walden's page also includes a passage from Jan. 24, 1862, letter by Private Thomas Porter of the 1st Ohio Light Artillery, who wrote of cutting off buttons from Zollicoffer's coat. Accessed March 10, 2020.)
-- Philadelphia Press, Jan. 21, 1862.
-- The Bucyrus (Ohio) Journal, Jan. 31, 1862.
-- The Cincinnati Commercial, February 1862.
-- The Cincinnati Enquirer, Jan. 25, 1862.
-- The Daily Register, Knoxville, Tenn., Feb. 4, 1862.
-- The Washington Star, May 12, 1864.

Saturday, March 07, 2020

Whipping 'old he-devil': A Federal's vivid Mill Springs account

War-time illustration in Harper's Weekly of the Battle of Mill Springs. 

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For a Northern public eager for good news from the front, a Federal soldier's vivid account of an impressive Union victory in the hills of southern Kentucky was especially welcome.

"The route [sic]" was "complete and total," wrote "Felix" about the Battle of Mill Springs on Jan. 19, 1862 -- the first significant Union victory of the war. It was the "most overwhelming, total overthrow the Secession army has yet met with in this rebellion," the Union soldier boasted in the account, published in The New York Times and other Northern newspapers.

Felix Zollicover, a former Tennessee congressman
and newspaper editor from Nashville, was killed
at the Battle of Mill Springs (or Fishing Creek)
on Jan. 19, 1862. The Confederate general was

 buried in Nashville. (The J. Paul Getty Museum)
Commanded by Virginia-born Brigadier General George Thomas, roughly 4,400 mostly inexperienced Federals overwhelmed 5,900 soldiers under George Crittenden and his subordinates, generals Felix Zollicoffer and William Carroll. The 49-year-old Zollicoffer, derisively called "Snollegoster" and a "he-devil" by the Yankees, was killed early in the fighting on the cold, rainy winter day.

After the battered Confederates escaped across the rain-swollen Cumberland River, Union soldiers discovered 1,000 mules and horses running loose in their abandoned fortifications at Beech Grove. "Zollie's Den," a Northern newspaper reporter called the camp near the river.

"It seems as though there was a perfect panic among them, " wrote "Felix," whose full name was not included in his published account, "their tents having been left standing; and their blankets, clothes, cooking utensils, letters, papers, etc, all left behind." The Confederates retreated in such haste that some of them left documents behind, eagerly read by "Felix," perhaps an Ohioan.

Below is the complete account by "Felix," first published in the Cincinnati Commercial. "I considered it my duty to do my best in an attempt to describe it," he wrote of the battle, which resulted in the deaths of 552 Confederate and 252 Union soldiers, "but it was hurriedly written, with a willing but weary hand ..."

Zollicoffer's (late) Encampment

January 20, 1862

Here I sit, in a cedar log cabin, inside the entrenchments of the wonderful position of old "Zolly," to write you a letter on contraband paper, with a contraband pen, and contraband ink. Where shall I begin -- what shall I write first? There are incidents enough, if all recounted, to fill a volume; things that took place in this, the most complete victory, and most overwhelming, total overthrow the Secession army has yet met with in this rebellion. To begin at the beginning, and tell the story straight:

Just at daybreak on Sunday morning, the 19th of January, sharp firing commenced with the pickets in the same spot where the firing was last Friday night; the long roll beat in the Indiana Tenth, and they formed instantly and marched to the support of their pickets. The Tenth and Kinney's battery were close together, and half a mile in advance of everything. The battery got ready for action on the instant, and awaited order. By the way, Stannard's [Captain William Standart's] battery and [Captain Henry] Wetmore's four-gun battery were both in park, one on each side of Kinney's battery. [actually Captain Dennis Kenny, 1st Ohio Artillery]  The First Tennessee was about a quarter of a mile in the rear of these batteries, in the woods. The Fourth Kentucky, Col. [Speed S.]Fry, was the next on the road, half a mile in the rear of the batteries: it was forming as I ran past, getting to my own regiment, (for I slept in Kinney's battery;) the Second Tennessee another quarter of a mile in the rear of the Fourth Kentucky. (See Union order of battle here.)

          PANORAMA: Union pickets fought stubbornly here at Timmy's Creek, delaying
                a Confederate advance. (Click icon at right for full-screen experience.)

By this time the cavalry were running their horses all over the country in every direction -- except towards the firing, which still continued at intervals. The Second was "just getting breakfast, and supposing it to be only a picket fight, kept on cooking and eating, though very few had eaten anything when the column of our force appeared coming on in our rear. Lieut. Colonel [Daniel] Trewhit promptly got us into line and double-quickened us into the road ahead of the advancing column; the. Fourth Kentucky had gone when we reached their encampment. The firing still continued and very briskly; we kept on at double quick, all hoping and believing that we would have a chance to smell burnt powder, But when opposite the encampment of the Tenth Indiana, up rode the Colonel, and halted us for further orders; we all thought if we didn't say it -- d - -n further orders.

The Tenth Indiana went into the woods about a quarter of a mile in advance of their tents, to the "support of their pickets; and bravely did they support them, too, for over half an hour, against the whole rebel force led against them; and never retreated a step nor gave an inch of ground, until nearly surrounded by overwhelming numbers; then, to save themselves from being entirely surrounded, they unwillingly gave way, Here was a crisis; and yell on yell went up from the lantern-jawed Secessionists; they thought the day was all their own. But, happily, any disastrous consequence was prevented by the arrival of the Fourth Kentucky and Ninth Ohio to the support of the gallant Tenth.

A war-time illustration in Harper's Weekly depicts a picket
of 10th Indiana soldiers spying approaching Confederates 
on the morning of Jan. 18, 1862.
Again our men made a stand; now there was fighting in good earnest, and the Second Minnesota joined in with the Tenth and the Fourth and the Ninth Ohio to the support of the gallant Tenth. Volley after volley rattled in quick succession, and sometimes it seemed as though there was only one continuous volley, interrupted now and then by the growling of the "yellow pups," which had been brought to bear on the enemy; and when they once commenced, they distributed their favors freely in all directions, in the shape of shot and shell, and, gentlemen, excuse me from being the recipient of any such favors.

There were only two or three shots from cannon fired by the enemy, and they were either badly aimed or the pieces were out of range, for the shot did not disturb anybody. Once they threw a shell into the air, which burst when some four or five hundred feet high. No damage was done by it, and their artillery seemed to be of no use to them whatever, while, on the contrary, ours seemed to be of immense use to us; and it was most ably and effectually handled.

               PANORAMA: Fierce, close-quarters fighting occurred at the fence line.
                                    (Click icon at right for full-screen experience.)

After a little more than two hours of hard fighting, a most tremendous volley of musketry, followed by a ringing shout from our side, seemed to have decided the battle in our favor, for from that time although firing was kept up at intervals, the Secessionists, whipped and cowed, began their retreat, which, in about twenty minutes more, became a total rout and from the indications along the road, which we afterwards passed over, the flight appeared to have been a regular race from that point back to their entrenchments, to see who could get their first, and the devil take the hindmost.

All the credit and honor of this battle is due to the 10th Indiana, the 9th Ohio, the 4th Kentucky, and 2d Minnesota, for they did all the fighting, as it were, single-handed, with the exception of what support they received from the artillery. They all ought nobly, and judging from the sound of the musketry, they never wavered from a fixed determination to gain the victory. The combatants were so near to each other at one time, that the powder burned their faces in the discharge of their pieces; but the underbrush was so thick that the bayonets were of but little use, and a charge could hardly have been made.

          PANORAMA: View from "Last Stand Hill," where Confederates were routed. 
         In the field at left (across road), Confederates fled in disarray during a bayonet 
                    charge by the 9th Ohio. (Click icon at right for full-screen experience.)

The most important event of the day was the death of [Felix] Zollicoffer. Col. Fry, of the 4th Kentucky, charged up a hill by himself upon a group of mounted officers, and fired at the one he conceived to be the chief among them; he fired two shots; both of them took effect, and Zollicoffer, one of the master spirits of the rebellion, fell  off his horse dead. Col. Fry was, luckily, unhurt, but his horse was shot through the body, the bullet entering only a few inches behind the Colonel's leg. This must have been a deadener to all the hopes the Secessionists had for victory, as from this moment began the retreat; and so closely did our forces push upon them that they were obliged to leave their illustrious leader where he fell, by the side of the road.

Our course was now steadily forward to the main road that led to Zollicoffer's encampment on the Cumberland. I shall not attempt to describe the battle field, the dead or the dying. Of course, in all battles, somebody must be killed, and somebody must be wounded; this was no exception to the general rule. I shall mention only one of the dead -- that one Zollicoffer.

          PANORAMA: Marked by monument, the death site of General Felix Zollicover.
                                     (Click icon at right for full-screen experience.)

The march was now steadily but cautiously forward. Two pieces of artillery were taken; one was crippled in the woods near the battle ground, and the other was found stuck in the mud about a mile in the rear; also two wagons with ammunition. No incident worth mentioning occurred on the march, which was deliberately but steadily forward, with the artillery well up, until final halt was made, about half-past four, within a mile of the breastworks of the famous fortifications on the Cumberland which have been reported impregnable, Here the artillery was again planted, and set to work shelling the wonderful fortifications; and a continuous fire is kept on for nearly an hour. Every shell that was thrown we could hear burst distinctly. There was only one cannon that answered us from the breastworks, and that one sounded more like a potato pop-gun than anything else can liken it to, and did us no damage, as the shot never reached us. This one piece was only fired four times.

   PANORAMA: Union artillery positioned on hill at left shelled Zollicoffer's fortifications.
                                     (Click icon at right for full-screen experience.)

Night closed in and the firing ceased. We all laid down on the wet ground, in perfect security, to rest our weary limbs, the distance we had come being over ten miles on the direct road, let alone the underbrush we went through, to say nothing about two or three dress parades of the 2d for somebody's amusement, but not our own, I can assure you. And then the roads and fields were awfully cut up, and mud was plenty, as it had rained a good part of the forenoon. Our men laid down to rest without a mouthful to eat, many of whom had eaten no breakfast; but as Captain Cross said, "the man who could not fast two days over Zollicoffer's scalp, was no man at all;" and there was no grumbling as there was necessity for it. However, the teams came up in the night with crackers and bacon.

Now here is the summary, so far as know, up to Sunday night: We are within a mile of Zollicoffer's encampment; Zollicoffer is killed and his forces have been whipped -- some two hundred of them being killed and a great many wounded; one of Crittenden's aids, a lieutenant colonel, and three surgeons are taken prisoners, but how many more I know not; two pieces of artillery and three wagons were left, and the road was strewed with guns, blankets, coats, haversacks, and everything else that impeded flight; on our side from 20 to 30 are killed, and from 80 to 100 wounded, having no prisoners that we know of.

On the morning of the 20th, soon after daylight, several of the regiments were moved forward toward the breastworks, and a cannon ball or two fired over into them but no answer was made, all was quiet The regiments moved steadily on and into their fortifications, it being ascertained that there was no one to oppose them. The enemy having crossed the river during the night, or early in the morning; the rout was complete. It seems as though there was a perfect panic among them, their tents having been left standing; and their blankets, clothes, cooking utensils, letters, papers, etc, all left behind.

    PANORAMA: Zollicoffer's fortifications at Beech Grove, near the Cumberland River. 
                                       (Click icon at right for full-screen experience.)

Site of Confederates' escape across the rain-swollen Cumberland River.
The position is a pretty strong one, but not near so much so as we had been led to suppose. Huts were built, nicely chinked with mud, many of them having windows in them for comfortable winter quarters. How much work the devils have done here, and how little it has profited them! I have been wandering around all day, and seeing and hearing what I could. The Cumberland makes one side of the encampment safe, by an abrupt bank 250 feet high. I went down to the river bottom, to which there is road on our side. Here were all or nearly all their wagons, some twelve or fifteen hundred horses and mules, harness, saddles, sabres, guns; in fact, everything. It was a complete stampede, and by far the most disastrous defeat the Southern Confederacy has yet met with. Ten pieces of cannon are also here. To all appearances, they seem to have completely lost their senses, having only one object in view, and that was to run somewhere and hide themselves.

Now, to account for the battle taking place as it did. There were eleven rebel regiments here, two being unarmed; and Zollicoffer, who was the presiding devil, although Crittenden had taken the command, thought the Tenth Indiana and Kinney's battery were just two regiments by themselves, and did not know that they were supported by the balance of the division, which was out of sight behind on account of the timber, and he conceived the happy idea of rushing upon and capturing the two regiments to get their arms to supply his own unarmed men. So he took all the available force he had -- some 8,000 or 9,000 men -- and made an attack with what result has already been shown.

This monument, dedicated in 1910, marks where Felix Zollicoffer 
was killed at Battle of Mill Springs.
Now this only goes to prove that, in order to put this rebellion down, we must do something. In this fight four of our regiments whipped and completely routed the great army that was under Zollicoffer, killed the old devil himself, and may be Crittenden too, for he has not been heard of since the battle. The prisoners we have taken estimate our force at 20,000. bah! we can take them at any time, and at any place, and giving them the odds three to one, and whip them every time. Their cause is a bad one; they know it; and the only way their men can be induced to fight at all is by their leaders getting in the very front of them.

The Second Minnesota captured a banner from the Mississippi regiment, which had on it "the Mississippi Butchers.'' They may be good butchers, at home, but they made a mighty awkward fist at butchering Yankees. They had better go home and attend to their business. Nearly every man has a trophy of this victory; there are plenty to get, certain; and I sit writing this, now, with a Louisiana Zouave head-dress and tassel on my head, I give you a copy of two or three of the documents found in the camp. The following was found on a table, in one of the cabins:

"Colonel Spears: We fought you bravely and desperately, but misguidedly, We leave here under pressing circumstances, but do not feel that we are whipped. We will yet succeed, and --

Here the circumstances became so pressing that the writer did not wait to finish his epistle. Col. [James G.] Spears supposes the writer to be Major John W. Bridman, of the Tennessee cavalry.

The following was written on a piece of brown paper, with a pencil:

A post-war image of Abram Fulkerson,
 a Confederate officer who, in his army's
hasty retreat, left a document behind.

"Jan. 19, 1862. FISHING CREEK 

"The great battle at Fishing Creek took place. Our loss was great. Supposed to be eight hundred killed and wounded, and great many taken prisoners. We will try them again at our breast-works if they come to us."

At the bottom of the paper, up-side down, is a name I cannot make out, and then "Polasky."

Here is another paper, which is evidently the result "of a council of war, held before their force came across the north side of the Cumberland:

"The result of your crossing the river now will be that you will be repulsed and lose all the artillery taken over. "Dec. 4, '61. -- Estill."

"Another 'Wild Cat' disaster is all we can look forward to.


"We will cross over and find that the enemy has retired to a place that we will not deem advisable to attack, and then we will return to this encampment.


Estill is a Colonel from Middle Tennessee, [Abram] Fulkerson is a Major, and one of the big heads of the Secession party of Tennessee. It seems that there was opposition in the camp to the movement on this side of the river, but old Zollicoffer, the head devil of the army, ruled the roast and did come over. Some of these predictions proved to be strictly true; it did turn out to he a "Wild Cat" disaster, only worse, and they did lose all their artillery; and, more than all, the old he-devil Zollicoffer lost his life.

          PANORAMA: At left, memorial markers for Confederates killed at Mill Springs. 
                    The mass grave for Confederates is steps away on the battlefield. 
                                    (Click icon at right for full-screen experience.)

The route {sic] has been complete and total; His whole force is entirely scattered, and if the victory is followed up across the river, they will never rally together again. It is now nearly 3 o'clock in the morning while I write, and, with a few reflections. this already long letter -- perhaps too long -- shall be closed.

What a lucky thing that Zollicoffer was bold enough to attack our forces; had he not done so, no battle would have been fought here for a long time. And this victory can not be credited to the skill of a brigadier-general. The battle was entirely accidental; the position was entirely a chance position, and the men themselves, led by their Colonels, fought the battle and won it. The Tenth Indiana got into the fight supporting their pickets, the Fourth Kentucky and Ninth Ohio rushed in, without orders, to support the Tenth. Whether the Second Minnesota had orders to go in or not I do not know. And these four regiments did all the fighting that was done, and that was enough to whip, the eight regiments Zollicoffer had in the engagement. If these Brigadier-Generals must be paid big wages by the Government, why just pay it to them and let them stay at home, for they are no earthly use among us. Let the men go ahead and wind up this war, it can be done in two months. Secret -- do something.

Would that some abler pen could give you a full and complete account of the rout. I considered it my duty to do my best in an attempt to describe it, but it was hurriedly written, with a willing but weary hand, so excuse the confused parts of the letter.


The Ninth Ohio, which some way I came very near omitting, deserves especial praise. Col. [Robert] McCook rushed his men up just about the time the Tenth Indiana was giving ground. And the Indiana boys say the Ninth fought like tigers, and are just such backers as they would always like to have.

A memorial at a mass grave for Confederates on the Mill Springs battlefield. Below, a close-up.

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