Saturday, February 27, 2021

A slice of (hog) heaven at General Gideon Pillow’s plantation

Gideon Pillow was a mediocre Civil War general, but he lived large at Clifton Place plantation,
five miles from downtown Columbia, Tenn. (CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)

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On a gloomy, overcast Saturday rambling about rural Maury County (Tenn.) with two excellent local guides, my friend Jack Richards and I learned: 
  • Columbia, the county seat, is the "Mule Capital of the World." (The town is famous for its annual "Mule Day," which began before the Civil War.)
  • The difference between chitlins (yuck) and cracklings (double yuck).
  • Gideon Pillow's spacious back porch.
    Gideon Pillow was a lousy Civil War general — see Exhibit A, Fort Donelson fiasco — but the Confederate commander sure lived the high life on a lavish plantation called “Clifton Place” astride Mount Pleasant Pike, five miles southwest of downtown Columbia. (He also was high on Gideon Pillow — the Mexican War veteran/politician/lawyer/planter/slave owner displayed a full-length painting of himself in his mansion.)

    In his 1864 memoirs, Winfield Scott -- commanding general of the U.S. Army when the Civil War broke out -- described Pillow as "amiable, and possessed of some acuteness, but the only person I have ever known who was wholly indifferent in the choice between truth and falsehood, honesty and dishonesty; ever as ready to attain an end by the one as the other, and habitually boastful of acts of cleverness at the total sacrifice of moral character."

    In other words, "Old Fuss and Feathers" was not a fan.
Original knocker on mansion
front door. (Photo: Jack Richards)
Privately owned but unoccupied for decades, Clifton Place includes a 12-room mansion built in 1838 as well as the original ice house, stable, Pillow office, slave quarters, kitchen, and smokehouse. (More on the greatness of the smokehouse in a bit.) Good for us that the Yankees didn't torch Clifton Place when they had the chance. Well-known for its impressive antebellum plantations (Ashwood Hall, Rattle And Snap, Rippavilla, etc.), Maury County was the wealthiest county per capita in Tennessee at the outbreak of the Civil War.

Thankfully, Richards and I had exceptional Pillow plantation guides — Maury County Archives director Tom Price and 78-year-old Campbell Ridley, a longtime Columbia resident, farmer, quipster, and a Pillow descendant. Ridley’s grandfather, who enjoyed eating hog brains, owned Clifton Place when Campbell was a kid. The plantation remained in his family until the early 1970s. (Ridley and Price also showed us the interior of historic St. John's Church and the site of Ashwood Hall, a spectacular mansion that was destroyed in an 1874 fire.)

Clifton Place sorely needs some TLC, but what multimillionaire wouldn't be tempted to invest in a mansion that features stone steps trod upon 11th U.S. president James K. Polk, a spectacular back porch, and a front door with a swan figurine on the original knocker?

Ridley enjoyed showing us around the plantation, regaling us with stories of hog butchering and crackling creation. (Earlier, he kept at least one of his guests spellbound with tales about Mule Day and his Aunt Sarah Ann, the first Mule Day queen.) But nothing grabbed our attention like the visit behind the mansion to the smokehouse, a 2 1/2-story, brick building with peeling yellow paint on its exterior. 
A 1936 view of the mansion's interior (Historic American Buildings Survey,
Library of Congress | VIEW MORE.)
The back side of the Greek Revival-style mansion features an impressive porch.
Gideon Pillow had a short walk from his mansion to his office.
The smokehouse stands behind the mansion.
Campbell Ridley holds a wooden slat from which hogs are hung.
Salt residue coats the brick floor.

Behind smokehouse Door No. 1 Ridley showed us a wooden slat used to hoist a dead hog onto a metal rail so it could be gutted. After the hoisting, a bucket was placed below the head for the innards to fall into after after the gutting. Warning: Not intended for viewing by faint-hearted city boy.  

Behind Door No. 2 was the pigs-de-resistance (sorry): the room where the hogs were smoked and cured in this country ham “factory.” I'm told there's nothing quite like a great country ham -- it's much better than any ham at Kroger.

A massive, ancient wood block in smokehouse.
To our left in the darkened room stood a massive wooden block -- undoubtedly from the Pillow era, Price said — upon which hams were chopped. Two 19th-century "ham logs" -- logs hollowed out to form a trough for salting of the hams -- rested against the wall. Salt from decades of country ham making coated the brick floor. 

Lawd, mere words can’t do justice to the spectacular, smoky aroma lingering in the place. No wonder Pillow's privies were strategically placed in two small rooms attached to the smokehouse. Who knows how many thousands of country hams have been smoked and cured at Pillow's plantation? 

After a few minutes in the smokehouse, I was half-tempted to roll on the ground like a giddy puppy just to bring home some of that wonderful smell on my bicycle pants (don't ask) and longsleeve sweatshirt. But, seriously, there was no point in hamming it up. :)

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-- National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, Ashwood Historic District.
-- Scott, Winfield, Memoirs of Lieut.-General Scott, New York, Sheldon and Company, 1864, Vol. II

Thursday, February 25, 2021

A tony neighborhood today, battlefield in late fall 1864

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In this video shot for the Center For Civil War Photography, I stopped along Granny White Pike, where severe fighting occurred during Day 2 of the Battle of Nashville on Dec. 16, 1864. Unsurprisingly, this hallowed ground looks nothing like its 19th-century appearance. It was here in 1906 that artist Howard Pyle did his homework for his epic Nashville battle painting that hangs today in the Minnesota State Capitol Building in St. Paul. Please excuse my slothful appearance -- sometimes chasing history can be grueling. 

Howard Pyle's epic painting of Minnesota troops fighting at the Battle of Nashville hangs
in the Minnesota State Capitol Building in St. Paul. Photo courtesy of Betsy Haag
of the 5th Minnesota Research Group on Facebook.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

A Tennessee church and 'returning dust of immortal Cleburne'

After Patrick Cleburne's exhumation in 1870 at St. John's Episcopal Church Cemetery,
 the Irish-born general's remains were temporarily placed in St. Peter's Episcopal Church
 in Columbia, Tenn. (CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)

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In April 1870, a delegation from Arkansas traveled to Ashwood, Tenn., to recover the remains of Patrick Cleburne for reburlal in his adopted hometown of Helena.

Historical marker along Mount Pleasant Pike
at St. John's Episcopal Church
in Ashwood, Tenn.
“... one of the bravest soldiers and one of the grandest heroes of our war for Independence,” the local newspaper called the Irish-born Confederate general, who was killed at the Battle of Franklin on Nov. 30, 1864.

Cleburne's disinterment was a major event in the rural area, roughly 40 miles south of Nashville. On the morning of exhumation, area citizens accompanied Arkansas Judge Leonard H. Magnum, the general's  wartime aide, and Dr. L.H. Grant, a Helena druggist, to St. John’s Episcopal Church Cemetery. Every spring since Cleburne’s death his gravesite there had been covered with flowers “by the loyal and beautiful ladies of the neighborhood.”

(Shortly after the Battle of Franklin, Cleburne was buried in Columbia’s Rose Hill Cemetery, but he was removed following his comrades' discovery that Yankees also were buried there.)

In early December 1864, Cleburne was buried behind St. John's Church Cemetery (below)
in rural Ashwood, Tenn. His remains originally were interred in nearby Columbia.

At St. John’s Cemetery, Cleburne’s coffin was found “very much decayed,” and “not a particle of flesh was remaining” on his skeleton. But the uniform the general was buried in was well preserved.

Cleburne’s remains were escorted to Columbia, where they were placed in St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, steps from a home once occupied by 11th U.S. President James K. Polk. (The still-operating church is at 311 W. 7th Street,; the Polk home stands, too.)

Ex-Confederate generals Lucius Polk, Gideon Pillow
and John C. Brown were in the Cleburne hearse procession
 in Columbia, Tenn., in April 1870.
“...some of our most prominent citizens, both young and old, sat up all night with the returning dust of the immortal Cleburne,” the Columbia newspaper reported.

Columbia businesses were closed the evening Cleburne’s body was taken in a hearse to the train depot for the journey to Arkansas. Masons formed on each side of the church entrance — Cleburne was a member of Helena’s Masonic Lodge. Then, as the St. Peter's Episcopal Church bell tolled, Masons led the procession, which included former Confederate generals Lucius Polk, Gideon Pillow and John C. Brown in carriages. Following the dignitaries walked a large group of citizens -- no surprise given the popularity of “The Stonewall of the West.”

“Immense processions,” the Columbia newspaper reported, “are expected to meet the dead hero at Memphis and Helena, the final destination.”

Neither town disappointed.

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-- The Herald and Mail, Columbia, Tenn., April 29, 1870.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

A brief visit to 'lost' Franklin battlefield stone wall

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Ever since my friend Jack Richards showed it to me recently, I haven't been able to get the old stone wall along Columbia Pike in Franklin, Tenn., out of my head. The roughly 150-yard section of wall --  unknown to most battlefield visitors -- sits a few feet below the current pike on the Bloody Plain upon which John Bell Hood's Army of Tennessee advanced to attack Federals on Nov. 30, 1864. About a mile north, at the Fountain Carter farm, the U.S. Army awaited behind crude earthworks. Jump-off point for Hood's soldiers was Winstead Hill, about a mile south. The wall -- part of the old Merrill farm -- undoubtedly was here in 1864, but Richards still seeks rock-solid, official confirmation. I shot this video recently, deftly maneuvering through mud, litter and who knows what else. Oh, the life of a Civil War rambler.  

The stone wall, part of the old Merrill farm, sits along busy Columbia Pike.

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Saturday, February 13, 2021

'I live on a battlefield': My chat about Nashville

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I recently "Zoomed" in for nearly an hour with my Connecticut Civil War roundtable friends for a talk about the Battle of Nashville. Among the topics:

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Great history, good grub: A long walk in Franklin, Tennessee

Imposing earthen walls of Fort Granger in Franklin, Tenn. Union artillery here caused
significant casualties among Confederates during the Battle of Franklin on Nov. 30, 1864.

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My solid Saturday grub.
On Saturday morning, my friend Jack Richards and I examined the imposing earthen walls at Fort Granger on a bluff above the Harpeth River in Franklin, Tenn.; walked to the outskirts of town to check out the probable remains of a war-time wall along Columbia Pike, and ate some fine grub from the Moe Better BBQ and Fish food truck conveniently located in a parking lot along our route. Their motto -- "You don't need teeth to eat this meat" -- made us chuckle. 

More to come soon on Jack's wall find -- it's along the Confederates' route of advance during the Battle of Franklin on Nov. 30, 1864. 

Of course, no visit to Franklin is complete without a visit to the Federals' forward line position. Check out the video above. (Damn, those soldiers there must have been scared out of their minds.)

Steps registered on my Fitbit: 17,729. A good day.

Jack Richards stands by probable remains of wartime wall (below) along Columbia Pike.
Gotta love the slogan of these "grubmasters."

Friday, February 05, 2021

What happened to Patrick Cleburne's sword and watch?

Patrick Cleburne, killed at the Battle of Franklin on Nov. 30, 1864, and a story
 about the general's sword in the Atlanta Journal Constitution on March 20, 1878.

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At about dawn the day after the Battle of Franklin (Tenn.), Confederate General Patrick Cleburne's body was found among other fallen Rebels -- he was flat on his back, his kepi partially covering his eyes. The division commander's remains were taken by wagon to the McGavock family’s Carnton Plantation mansion, accompanied by the hat as well as the general’s watch and sword. The kepi may be found on display in the excellent Tennessee State Museum in Nashville. The watch and sword? Well, I know a few folks who are interested in their whereabouts.

Can you help?

Oh, and here's a neat story about the circuitous journey of Cleburne's 36-caliber Colt revolver.

Patrick Cleburne's kepi in the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville.

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Friday, January 29, 2021

Meet the artist whose work features vanishing treasure

Professional artist Peggy Snow stands next to her work-in-progress creation at the
 old Primm farm in Brentwood, Tenn. In the right background stands a slave cabin -- one
of two that will be featured in her latest painting.  

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Peggy Snow and I stand by the side of a road in booming Brentwood, Tenn., the roar of traffic on busy Moores Lane obliterating part of our conversation. In the distance to our left, peeking above the trees, stand houses in a tony subdivision; to our right stand an ancient farmhouse and two slave cabins. In front of Snow rests the 62-year-old's magic set: an easel. oil paints, drawing charcoal, and a 36-by-36-inch canvas.

I showed Peggy Snow this long-ago work
by my paternal grandmother, Mary Banks.
A longtime professional artist, Snow is here to create a painting featuring historic treasure that soon may vanish. Unless a group or a wealthy individual step up, the antebellum Primm farmhouse will be demolished. Thankfully, a developer aims to save the small, log slave cabins, remarkable survivors from the 19th century. (Update: House saved!)

In her outdoor studio, Snow is dressed for the January cold: blue scarf, brown vest, heavy coat, and a tan fedora former Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry surely would have appreciated. 

Another writer described Snow, who lives in Brentwood,  as the "architectural angel of death." When she shows up to paint a subject, it's usually doomed. But it's difficult  for me to wrap my head around that description of the 5-foot-2 bundle of giggles and laughs.

Snow and I share a mutual appreciation -- a love, actually -- for the past. And for impressionist painting, too. Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh are among her favorite artists. Mine is my grandmother, so I show her an image on my iPhone of an outdoor scene painted long ago by Mary Banks.

The antebellum Primm farmhouse in Brentwood, Tenn., soon may be demolished.
These two slave cabins -- included in Peggy Snow's painting -- will be saved from the wrecking ball.

Born in Nashville and schooled as an artist in Memphis, Snow is drawn to old structures -- decrepit barns, crumbling brick buildings, anything distinctive and set for a wrecking ball. For decades, she has "chased things that were about to disappear." The Primm farmhouse meets her criteria. 

Abandoned and dilapidated, the Greek Revival-style house was home to a succession of Primms, a family among the earliest to settle in this area of middle Tennessee. In 1845, slaveholder Thomas Perkins Primm is believed to have greatly expanded a log cabin built four decades earlier, probably by physician Jabez Owen. Dairy farmer Charlie Primm, who died in 2011, is the last direct Primm family member to own the property.

A close-up of Peggy Snow's work in progress.
I tell Snow of my November visit to the property. A 19th-century mahogany veneer couch sits in the living room of the farmhouse, near carpets that lay haphazardly on the floor. Paint peels from each of the four Doric columns at the entryway. The slave cabins, which include the original flooring, are packed with 21st-century clutter.

When Snow read about the farmhouse's probable demise, her heart jumped. "I'm not ready." she tells me, "for it to be taken down." And so she scouted out painting positions on public property near the farm, finally settling on a spot near a white fence. 

We glance toward her subject matter -- the red-roofed farm house under a deep-blue sky, the slave cabins and another old outbuilding. Then our attention turns to a leafless oak in the side yard. “I never get tired of conveying that beauty,” she says of the massive tree. 

Typically between 2 and 3 p.m. Snow sets up her easel and creates until dark. Somehow she blots out the whoosh of traffic. "It's easy to focus once I get to this spot," she says. "There's nothing else to do but draw." Snow has weeks to go before her creation -- which she aims to sell -- is finished.

"I want to be as good as Monet and Van Gogh," Snow says. "I think I can be. It's my drive, my challenge."

Before I leave, I mention another Peggy -- my mom, the sweetest lady on our block in Mount Lebanon, Pa. She died in 2018. 

"Oh, I miss my mom, too," Snow says.

And so we part, as the sun hangs low in the winter sky. We each have a foot planted in the present, but another firmly rooted in the past.

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

-- View Peggy Snow's artwork here.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Where General Patrick Cleburne's remains rested until 1870

A comrade of Patrick Cleburne's described St. John's Episcopal Church Cemetery as "beautiful as the Garden of Eden -- seemingly a fit place for pure spirits to dwell, and for the haunts of angels." For nearly six years, the remains of the Confederate general -- who was killed at the Battle of Franklin (Tenn.) -- rested there among the among the oaks and magnolias. Let's explore the cemetery in rural Ashwood, Tenn.

Friday, January 22, 2021

A visit to death site of Patrick Cleburne at Franklin, Tennessee

Confederate Gen. Patrick Cleburne – on foot after two of his mounts were shot out from under him -- was killed by a shot to the chest during the Battle of Franklin (Tenn.) on Nov. 30, 1864. A modern memorial of cannonballs marks the general area of his death on the east side of Columbia Pike, about 40 yards from Federal works, 

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Meet Ruby Davis, the bootlegger of Rippavilla

A retouched photo of Ruby Davis hangs in a second-floor room at Rippavilla.

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In the late 1950s, Ruby Davis lived at the Rippavilla plantation mansion in Spring Hill, Tenn., a place steeped in Civil War history. Among her other nefarious activities there, Davis sold moonshine — she even kept a ledger book of illicit sales to folks in the area. (It’s in the case below her photo above.) 

Ruby, according to a well-placed source, had a heart of gold, and her daughter had a penchant for marriage — she was married 12 times. (Or was it 10 times? Ah, who’s counting? Once you get past three, it’s hard to keep track.) 

Confederate troops were camped at the Rippaville plantation the night John Schofield’s U.S. Army soldiers slipped past them on the nearby Columbia Pike on Nov. 29, 1864. (The Battle of Franklin was fought the next day.) No, Ruby wasn’t there to distract them. 

This retouched photo of the old bootlegger hangs in Rippavilla, which is open to the public.

I'm a former West Virginian who appreciates the power of moonshine, character and characters. So, I'll carve out time someday to write much more about Ruby, who fascinates me. 😃

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Saturday, January 09, 2021

Following 'bread crumbs' in life (and death) of Federal soldier

ABOVE: A document in Valentine Rau's widow's pension file notes his date of death and more. BELOW: A note to Rau's widow on reverse of above document. 
(National Archives via 
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Here's how these two documents in the National Archives can open the door to the story of this Battle of Nashville casualty: 

On Dec. 16, 1864, 72nd Ohio Private Valentine Rau of Company C was wounded on the second (and final) day of the battle. The 26-year-old soldier, a native of Germany, was shot in the right side, according to Document 1 (above top). We can presume Valentine was originally treated at a hospital in Nashville -- war-time records can identify which one -- and then sent to Jefferson General Hospital in Jeffersonville, Ind. 

A brief search online reveals much information (including an illustration) about Jefferson General Hospital. Built to replace another hospital at nearby Camp Joe Holt, it was one of the largest U.S. Army hospitals of the war. Jefferson General Hospital  consisted of 27 buildings, each 175 x 20 feet. Each ward had four large cast-iron stoves. Inside the perimeter was a chapel with reading rooms, a post office, a drug and instrument house, and a "dead house" -- a morgue for temporary keeping of the dead.

Jefferson General Hospital was one of the largest U.S. Army hospitals during the war.

By February 1865, Rau -- whose name apparently was anglicized in these documents to "Rowe" -- had taken a turn for the worse. He died on  Feb. 8, 1865. L.G. Olmstead filled out the front of Document 1, noting Rau died in the morning in Ward 1 and that the soldier's wife, Susan, lived in Sandusky, Ohio. On the reverse of the document, E.S Ballard wrote to Rau's widow:

"I send this to give you information concerning the death of Mr. Valentine Rowe. But as I am informed that the particulars have already been written by his lady nurse I will not multiply the words."

(The identity of Ballard could be revealed with further research.)

A quick search online reveals Olmstead was a Presbyterian minister of some renown in Indiana. Document 2 (shown) -- the reverse of Document 1 -- also included the name "C.W. Fitch," another chaplain. 

According "Baird's History of Clark County, Indiana," published in 1909: Fitch and Olmstead were "men of great heart as well as brain. Chaplain Olmstead being a great lover of flowers was responsible for adding materially to the beauty and attractiveness of the grounds [of Jefferson Hospital] by planting many trees and flower beds to cheer the homesick sufferers."

According to Document 1, Rau's funeral was held at 3 p.m. on Feb. 8, 1865. He was buried nearby, probably at a hospital cemetery -- further research could uncover where. According to Find A Grave -- an excellent online research tool --  Rau's remains rest today in the national cemetery in New Albany, Ind.

Information in these documents -- "bread crumbs," I call them -- could lead to much more about the life and death of Valentine Rau. For example:

  • Because we have his wife's name, more info on the Rau family could easily be found on Perhaps even an image of the couple.
  • A deeper dive of the county history could uncover an image of Olmstead. (Obscure county, town, etc. history are digitized on, a fabulous resource.)
  • Records from the hospital where Rau was treated could lead to the identity of the "lady nurse" who treated him and more.
  • The identity of Rau's regiment could open many doors -- exactly where the regiment fought at Nashville, for example. A speech about the regiment, given in 1875 by a 72nd Ohio officer, is available online here. Perhaps he mentioned Rau. 

Information available on the Internet -- thanks, Al Gore! -- makes the searching/digging infinitely easier than it was decades ago. Enjoy the "digging."

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-- Documents from Rau widow’s pension file, National Archives via, a pay site.

Saturday, January 02, 2021

A visit to McFadden's Ford at Stones River (Tenn.) battlefield

At the Battle of Stones River (Tenn.) on Jan. 2, 1863, 58 Union cannons opened up on Confederate attempting to cross McFadden’s Ford. Roughly 1,800 became casualties in about 45 minutes. “The dead rebels lay so thick upon the ground,” a U.S. Army officer recalled, “that we could not draw the [cannon] across the field until the bodies had been removed allowing us a path.” I visited the site on the 157th anniversary of fighting there. READ MORE ... from the extremely knowledgeable Stan Hutson here.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Two minutes at Union cemetery site at Parker's Crossroads

Federal fallen from the battle on Dec. 31, 1862, were buried at this site, now within sight of busy Interstate 40. The remains of nearly all the soldiers here were exhumed two years after the Civil War for re-burial in a national cemetery in Corinth, Miss.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

'Lucky enough': How young officer captured flag at Nashville

A war-time image of 5th Minnesota officer Thomas Parke Gere and the restored
 4th Mississippi flag he captured at the Battle of Nashville. It's in the Mississippi Department
of Archives and History collection.

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Supremely confident but not cocky, 22-year-old U.S. Army officer Thomas Gere bounded past grim-faced paper-pushers at the War Department, the gloomy brick building a two-minute walk from the White House. The date was Feb. 22, 1865, a bright, chilly day a little more than two months after George "Pap" Thomas' Army of the Cumberland bludgeoned John Bell Hood's tattered Army of Tennessee at Nashville. 

War Department in Washington, near the White House
and across from Lafayette Square, during the Civil War.
(The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division
of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection,
The New York Public Library
A lieutenant and adjutant in the 5th Minnesota, Gere was joined by 14 other bronze-faced U.S. Army soldiers -- each was based in Tennessee, at least one had served in the Mexican War, and all but two captured an enemy flag at the Battle of Nashville (Dec. 15-16, 1864). 

Eagerly anticipating the day's event, the soldiers pushed through a massive, green leather door and filed into the War Department's large reception room. Members of Congress, foreign dignitaries, and other guests -- roughly 100 in all -- stood in a horseshoe formation steps from the men. Displays of upright muskets near the walls gave the setting a distinct martial air. 

Conversations abruptly stopped when a short, square-shouldered man entered the room. Standing between the two groups, 50-year-old Edwin Stanton -- Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of War --  read Special Field Orders No. 38, issued two weeks earlier by Thomas. Go to Washington, the "Sledge of Nashville" ordered, for a special ceremony in honor of your capture of Rebel flags.  
War-time image of Edwin Stanton,
Lincoln's Secretary of War.
(Library of Congress)
Then the bearded and bespectacled Stanton read aloud the names of the soldiers:

Corporal J.W. Parks, 11th Missouri.

Private W. May, 32nd Iowa.

Private G. Stokes, 122nd Illinois ... 

Finally, he summoned Gere, the soldier in charge of the detachment from Tennessee. Holding his tattered Battle on Nashville trophy, the young officer eyed his impressive audience.

"Mr. Secretary,” Gere began, “I have the honor and pleasure to present to you the colors of the 4th Mississippi Infantry, C. S. A.” 

How he "captured" the flag was a combination of guts, valor of subordinates ... and a lot of luck.    

An illustration of Fort Ridgley, in Minnesota Territory, as it appeared in 1862.

Thomas Parke Gere's introduction to warfare came as a teenager in Minnesota Territory -- Indian country.

In August 1862, Gere temporarily took over command of Fort Ridgley from John S. Marsh, who apparently drowned after he was wounded in battle against Indians. Marsh had left the small outpost with roughly 50 other soldiers from Company B of the 5th Minnesota to investigate an attack at the Lower Sioux Agency, where eastern Sioux murdered some of the White settlers. Barely a quarter of the soldiers returned from the mission.

A circa-1863 photo of Thomas Gere.
"The Indians are killing the settlers and plundering the country," Gere wrote Minnesota Gov. Alexander Ramsey. "Send reinforcements without delay." The second lieutenant in Company B was four months shy of his 20th birthday. 

Mature well beyond his years, Gere wrote a letter weeks later to Marsh's brother regarding the recovery of John's remains. "[The body] had caught in the roots of an old tree" along the bank of the Yellow Medicine River, he told Captain Josiah F. Marsh. "He was recognized by his uniform. The body was in a remarkable state of preservation. His right arm was lying across his breast; the left was behind his body.

"You are aware that Lieutenant [James G.] McGrew and myself have made every effort to have a proper search made long before this but were unsuccessful until now," continued Gere. "It is a great relief to know that he is at last found."

Later that year, companies B, C and D of the 5th Minnesota joined the rest of the regiment in the South. In May 1863, Gere and his comrades were marching and fighting in Mississippi during the Vickburg Campaign. In Nathaniel Banks' 1864 Red River Campaign in Louisiana, the 5th Minnesota guarded supply trains, served as a rear guard, and fought in such godforsaken places as Yellow Bayou, Campti, and Sabine Cross Roads. Later, this Swiss Army knife of a regiment served in Alabama and Arkansas.

"Composed of hardy frontier citizens, long accustomed to hardship and privation, probably no finer organization has ever been sent into the field," a Minnesota newspaper wrote when most of the regiment was furloughed in July 1864.

Five months later, the 5th Minnesota would face its supreme test of the war. 
Battle map shows advance of three Union brigades on Dec. 16, 1864. The 5th Minnesota
was in Lucius Hubbard's brigade.  (Battle of Nashville Trust via Guide to Civil War Nashville)

In the cavernous room at the War Department, Gere emphasized his capture of the 4th Mississippi colors was a team effort. 

"[It] was due, and should be credited, to the valor of the soldiers of [Lucius] Hubbard's Brigade, [John] McArthur's Division of A. J. Smith's detachment," the slender, earnest-looking officer told the dignitaries. "It was the result of the final charge upon the enemy's works by that invincible command in the second day's battle. Every soldier who participated in that assault shares the credit of the captured colors."

8th Wisconsin Lieutenant William Sargent
was killed at Nashville on Dec. 16, 1864.
"Words cannot express our sorrow!" Thomas Gere
wrote about his death. This is Sargent's marker
in Janesville, Wis. (Find A Grave)

At about 3:30 p.m. on Dec. 16, 1864 -- Day 2 of the battle -- three brigades from Smith's division were among Federal forces that attacked Confederate works at Compton Hill (Shy's Hill), the extreme left flank of Hood's army. (See map above.) Under relentless fire, the 5th Minnesota and the rest of Hubbard's brigade advanced through a muddy cornfield toward a line of Confederates behind a stone wall protected by abatis and a ditch.

Still reeling from their Day 1 whipping and overwhelmed by a numerically superior U.S. Army, the exhausted and hungry Rebels fled; hundreds became prisoners. ".. the most complete rout of the enemy that I have ever witnessed," Gere told his War Department audience.

When he reached the Rebel works on the east side of Granny White Pike, Gere's horse wouldn't cross the abatis and stone wall. While Federals advanced to his right, he spotted the 4th Mississippi flag-bearer fleeing to the Union rear without his colors. Gere couldn't reach the flag, so he ordered the soldier to leap back over the wall and hand him the prized war trophy. Perhaps the officer's waving of a loaded revolver compelled him to deliver it ASAP.

In a short entry in his war-time diary, Gere offered further glimpses of the hellish experience:

"... Fearful charge, hundreds fell, but we captured the works with prisoners by thousands 'Twas a fiery ordeal -- I can not attempt to describe it here. The enemy fled and we pursued; a glorious victory."

The 5th Minnesota suffered dozens of casualties in its deadliest battle of the war. Among those killed were Private Lysias Raymond, the married father of girls 1 and 4 years old; Irish-born Patrick Byrnes, whose mother was a widow; and one of Gere's favorites, William Sargent, a 24-year-old lieutenant in the 8th Wisconsin. "Words can not express our sorrow!" he wrote about the death of the English-born officer, who was shot through the heart.

"The fighting was the heaviest in our front," Gere continued in his diary. "It was indeed a desperate thing to go through that storm of grape, canister and musket balls -- we who got through wonder how we escaped! Our feelings can not be described! But we won the victory!"

"I was lucky enough," added Gere, who was wounded slightly in the right wrist on Day 1, "to get the battle flag of the Fourth Mississippi regiment in the charge."

ABOVE AND BELOW: Present-day view of terrain where 5th Minnesota advanced
on Dec. 16, 1864. It's in a residential area off Granny White Pike in Nashville.

The spotlight didn't just shine on Gere that winter day in Washington. After he told his Battle of Nashville story, the other soldiers present recounted the capture of their flags. Not all the stories were teeming with extraordinary heroism.

On Dec. 16, Corporal Frank Carr of the 114th Ohio recaptured a Federal cavalry guidon. He got stuck in abatis when his regiment was forced to retreat. "A fellow came up and asked me to surrender," Carr told Stanton. "I wouldn't do it, but put on my bayonet and was going to stand a fight when the fellow ran and dropped his flag."

A circa-1894 image of Thomas Gere,
who died in 1912. He was buried in
Arlington National Cemetery.
Also on Day 2, Private Wilbur F. Moore captured the colors from a Confederate battery. "The color-bearer was in a small line of rebels," he recalled, "and was trying to climb the hills. I shed my knapsack to go out for him, and captured him and a captain of the same regiment, too."

Each soldier at the ceremony handed his trophy to a Mexican War veteran, who placed the flag atop the display of muskets. "... when the last silken standard had been placed there," according to a post-war account, "the effect was brilliant and thrilling. The varied hues of the rainbow lighted up the sombre apartment in a blaze of color."

Clearly impressed with the soldiers, Stanton shook each man's hand. Then he briefly expressed appreciation.

“In behalf of the Government of the United States I return to you its thanks," he told the soldiers, "and the thanks of the people, for your noble gallantry. Accept also the gratitude of the department for yourselves and companions in arms."

The honorees were granted a 30-day furlough and advanced a month's pay. They later received another award from a grateful government: a Medal of Honor. 

Before they departed the War Department, Gere and his Tennessee detachment saluted Stanton. The man who managed the Union war machine waved back ... and wept.  

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


-- Chatfield (Minn.) Democrat, Oct. 4, 1862.
-- Chicago Tribune, Aug. 25, 1862.
-- Janesville (Wis.) Weekly Gazette, Dec. 22, 1864.
-- New York Daily Herald, Feb. 23, 1865
-- The Bravest 500 of '61, Their Noble Deeds Described by Themselves, compiled by Theo F. Rodenbough, New York: G.W. Dillingham Publishers, 1891.
-- The Goodhue Volunteer, Red Wing, Minn., July 6, 1864.
--Thomas Parke Gere's war-time diary (typewritten copy), Minnesota Historical Society, (Battle of Nashville text courtesy Tim Bode, 5th Minnesota Research Group on Facebook.)


A post-war image of Medal of Honor 
recipient Otis W. Smith and an 
unidentfied woman. He captured a 6th Florida flag
at Nashville.  (Find A Grave)

(Click on links for Find A Grave info)

Lieutenant Thomas Parke Gere, 5th Minnesota
Lieutenant Charles McCleary, 72nd Ohio
Lieutenant Oliver Colwell, 95th Ohio
Lieutenant William T. Simmons, 11th Missouri
Sergeant William Garrett, 41st Ohio
Corporal James W. Parks, 11th Missouri
Corporal Luther P. Kaltenbach, 12th Iowa
Corporal George W. Welch, 11th Missouri 
Corporal Franklin Carr, 124th Ohio
Corporal George Stokes, 122nd Illinois 
Private Otis W. Smith, 95th Ohio
Private William C. May, 32nd Iowa *
Private Andrew Jackson Sloan, 12th Iowa
Private Wilbur F. Moore, 117th Illinois
Private Irving Holcomb, 41st Ohio
Corporal Harrison Collins, 1st Tenn.Cavalry **

* A 7th Minnesota captain disputed the capture of the flag by May. See post on Dan Masters' Civil War Chronicles blog.
** Collins, who was present at the ceremony in Washington on Feb. 22, 1864, received the Medal of Honor for capturing a flag on Christmas Eve 1864 at Richland Creek, Tenn., during Hood's retreat. 

-- Sergeant Alfred Ransbottom of the 97th Ohio attended the Washington ceremony. Ransbottom was honored for "extraordinary heroism" on Nov. 30, 1864, at the Battle of Franklin, where he captured an enemy flag.

Close-up of Medal of Honor awarded to Wilbur F. Moore of the 117th Illinois.
(Library of Congress)

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

'Family tradition': Relic hunting with Hank Williams Jr. in '64

In this photo published in the Tennessean in 1964, Gordon Stoker (left), a singer with the
Jordanaires, holds a spoon he found on a battle line while Hank Williams Jr. examines
an unexploded artillery shell Stoker found in his back yard near Shy's Hill in Nashville.
Hank Williams Jr. and Gordon Stoker, a singer in the Jordanaires, "prospect for
mini balls," according to the caption in the Tennessean on Dec. 6, 1964.

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Long before he became a mega-country music star, with hits such as "A Country Boy Can Survive," "All My Rowdy Friends," and "Family Tradition," Hank Williams Jr. pursued another passion: Civil War relic hunting.

As a teen, Williams Jr. lived in Nashville, not far from battle sites Shy's Hill, Peach Orchard Hill, Oak Hill and Granny White Pike.

Hank Williams Jr. at a 2006 concert. (Andrea Klein via
Wikimedia Commons
On Dec. 6, 1964, the Tennessean ran a short feature by Hugh Walker on Civil War “treasure hunters” in the Music City. Among those featured in the story was Williams Jr., then 15. One of the three photos that accompanied the story showed him holding an unexploded, fused shell (yikes!) found by Jordanaires tenor singer Gordon Stoker in the back yard of his home near Shy’s Hill, where John Bell Hood's Army of Tennessee was routed on Dec. 16, 1864. Hank Jr. attended John Overton High School, built on Peach Orchard Hill, defended by Hood's army.

Williams Jr.'s passion for relic collecting -- and the Civil War -- has lasted well into adulthood.

"We have so much information now on the Internet that you can almost trace a musket or revolver right to the soldier that it was issued to," he said in a video posted to YouTube in 2008. "Boy, that makes it sweet when you can put it all together." Williams used to hunt for Civil War relics with his close friend, Johnny Cash -- the greatest country singer of all time. (June Carter Cash was Hank Jr.'s godmother.)

In a four-minute clip, Williams, now 71, mentioned two of his ancestors in the 6th Alabama -- one was killed at Gettysburg, another lost an arm at Little Round Top. He also showed off a musket in his collection with "Co. G, 6th Alabama" carved into the stock.

In 1992, when Hank Jr. scrapped his full beard for a goatee look, his agent even gave it a Civil War spin. "He was looking through some Civil War books and saw some generals," Merle Kilgore said, "and decided that's how he wanted to look."

Below is the story from the Tennessean and the 2008 Williams Jr. YouTube clip:

From Shy’s Hill to Peach Orchard, collectors of Civil War relics are still looking for minie balls, cannon halls, bayonets, buttons and belt buckles. And they're finding them! One of the more successful and more knowledgeable of the relic hunters is Hank Williams Jr., son of the late great country singer, and a recording star in his own right. 

Hank, 15, lives at 4916 Franklin Road, but has done most of his collecting of shells and bullets at High Note, the home of Gordon Stoker of the Jordonaires Quartet. Stoker lives on the high hill about 400 yards south of Shy's Hill, on Benton Smith Road. The brow of this hill was the scene of a sharp battle on the second day of the Battle of Nashville on Dec. 16, 1864. 

Hank operates with the aid of an electronic metal detector, and while we were there he came up with a perfect minie ball, found two inches under the grass in Stoker's back yard. "This it a .577 caliber Confederate mini ball," Hank said, "fired from an English Enfield rifle."  

It developed that he usually is able to identify shells and bullets, and tell from what arm and by which army they were fired. Stoker, too, has a considerable treasure from his back yard, and one of these is a heart stopper. It is a round, explosive type shell containing a five-second fuse. The fuse stopped at three and a half seconds, for some reason, and the shell never exploded. Now, after a century, the shell looks as though It might explode at any time if that last second and a half ever ticks off. 

Jimmy McMinn shows 52 minie balls and two cannon balls
 to his friends. He found them at Nashville's Peach Orchard Hill,
where he lived. The photo accompanied the 
1964 story that featured Hank Williams Jr.
On Shy's Hill itself Vernon W. Gerth and his boys, David and John, have been busy collecting minie balls. Not long ago they found a fine bayonet and a partly exploded shell located with shrapnel. Williams also had found a shell of this type. 

The stone wall that runs along Stonewall Drive continued the Confederate line eastward most of the way to Franklin Road, and around the brow of Peach Orchard Hill. On the northern face of this hill young Jim McMinn, a student at Overton High School, has picked up 52 minie balls and two cannon balls, plus some miscellaneous scrap iron. 

Jimmy's family has been forced to move from the hill top. temporarily, because of the new highways that will cross Peach Orchard. One of these, the southbound 1-65, will pass just east of the hill, which is really a long ridge, somewhat broken in the middle. The other, which may be a part of the projected Briley Parkway, will he an extension of Battery Lane running east and west. It passes a little south of the Confederate defense line and cuts across the line where it was refused to the south.

Besides the collections of shells and bullets mentioned, many Nashvillians have Civil War guns, uniforms, swords and articles of various types and scores of these will be furbished up and put on display for the commemoration of the battle centennial, Dec. 11-13.

POSTSCRIPT: Soon after the 1964 Tennessean story was posted to the Battle of Nashville Trust Facebook page, one of Stoker's sons weighed in. "The group of youngsters in the first picture (see below) is myself, my brother Brent Stoker, and our neighbor, Johnny Daniel," Alan Stoker wrote. "Thanks for posting this. We still have most of these relics too."  (Gordon Stoker died in 2013.)

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 -- Lincoln (Neb.) Journal via Associated Press, Jan. 10, 1992.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Where are Howard Pyle's 'lost' Nashville battlefield photos?

A cropped enlargement of Howard Pyle's painting shows the fury of battle.
Pyle's 1906 painting, "The Battle of Nashville," shows Minnesota troops fighting near
A comparable view of Pyle's vantage point, now in an upscale residential area. Shy's Hill
 looms in the background. Perhaps this is where Pyle shot his "large photographs."

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Before Howard Pyle created “The Battle of Nashville,” the famous painting showing the attack of Minnesota troops near Shy’s Hill, the renowned artist/illustrator did his homework. He studied historical accounts of the battle, interviewed veterans, examined a battle map, and even took several “large photographs” of the scene near Granny White Pike, where the Midwesterners fought. 

A Minnesota veteran said Pyle's depiction made Federal
soldiers look "bloodthirsty and fierce." This is
a cropped enlargement of Pyle's painting.
Note the Yankee wearing his kepi backward 
 at bottom right.
Oh, my, how we’d love to see those 100-plus-year-old photographs today.

What was open ground early in the 20th century, when Pyle painted the scene, is now an upscale residential area. The cornfield where Minnesota troops charged on Dec. 16, 1864, during the Federals' rout of the Army of Tennessee is now occupied in part by a recently constructed private school. 

At least two veterans weren't pleased with Pyle’s painting, which was  displayed at the State Capitol building in St. Paul, Minn., in the fall of 1906 and remains there today. It has no historic value, Thomas G. Carter, an officer in the 7th Minnesota, complained to the Minneapolis Journal


Carter was offended that the painting only showed the attack by two regiments of Minnesota troops – the 5th and 9th infantry, II Brigade troops commanded by future Minnesota governor Lucius Hubbard. The 7th Minnesota, III Brigade troops under William R. Marshall, and the 10th regiment in the I Brigade, commanded by William L. McMillen, were not depicted. (See battle map below.)

Howard Pyle
“Captain Carter, after inspecting the painting, says it makes the men look bloodthirsty and fierce,” the Minnesota Journal reported on Nov. 6, 1906, “but it is nothing more than a picture of the advance of … Hubbard’s brigade.” 

“Battle Picture Bad Historically,” read the headline in the newspaper. “Seventh Regiment Out in the Cold,” read a headline on a follow-up story in the Journal two weeks later.

Pyle, who died in 1911, said he couldn’t show all the Minnesota regiments advancing because their battle line was too long for a 6-by-8-foot painting. Hubbard reportedly was also disappointed the painting didn’t show all four Minnesota regiments. 

"It is possible that the Tenth is represented in the painting,” Carter groused about the unit that attacked closer to Shy’s Hill, “but if so the smoke hides it. In reality, the smoke hides it, mostly. In reality, there is too much smoke.” Carter also said Pyle got the topography wrong. 

Perhaps another look at those photos Pyle took in 1906 – if they still exist -- might bring some clarity to this footnote in history.  

Battle map shows advance of three Union brigades on Dec. 16, 1864.
(Battle of Nashville Trust via Guide to Civil War Nashville)
The Union II Brigade, which included the 5th and 9th Minnesota, advanced across
 present-day Harding Place Road. Historic Granny White Pike is at left.
A view of Shy's Hill looking roughly west from the parking lot of a modern church near
Granny White Pike.
A historical marker along Granny White Pike. The II Brigade advanced on ground
 to the right of the pike. It's a residential neighborhood today.
A historical marker and a view of the antebellum, dry-stack wall on Granny White Pike.

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 --The Minneapolis Journal, Oct. 9, Nov 6, Nov. 19, 1906.