Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Horsin' around with nags of Frank Cheatham and the 'Wizard'

The grave of Old Isham, Confederate General Frank Cheatham's horse. 
(Cheatham photo: Library of Congress)

Like this blog on Facebook
 | Follow me on Twitter

WARNING! This post includes horse references that may make you wince ... or worse. Some dialogue may be fabricated. Kernels of history, however, are included. 

Confession: I recently became obsessed with the ties between Civil War horses and their riders. 

“So stop horsin’ around then,” my wife told me, evidently reading my mind. “I don’t want to be a nag, but you really need to get out of the house, drive into the middle of nowhere, and visit the grave of Old Isham, the wartime horse of Frank Cheatham, the hard-drinking Confederate general who was no friend of the incompetent Braxton Bragg. Besides, I have a friend coming over.”

Your tour guide at the grave of Old Isham in
rural Coffee County, Tenn.
Stunned by my wife’s Civil War knowledge, I took her up on the suggestion demand. So I trotted to my 2015 Altima — the one with the below-par horsepower — for a ride to rural Coffee County, about an hour from Nashville. "What an idea!" I said with a smile. "Thanks, Mrs. B, you’re no nag at all."

Feeling my oats, I reached speeds as high as 55 mph on Interstate 24 East, zooming past the exit for Stones River battlefield in overdeveloped Murfreesboro and three or four or 25 Cracker Barrel restaurants.  At the Beechgrove/Bell Buckle exit, I debated whether to go left or right.

Go right and I could visit the area where British military observer Sir Arthur Freemantle witnessed the worst of America in 1863: a speech by an Arkansas politician at the Grand Review of the Army of Tennessee.

The mouthy pol had a "vulgar appearance," wrote the Brit, and delivered a "long and uninteresting political oration, and ended by announcing himself as a candidate for re-election. This speech seemed to me (and to others) particularly ill-timed, out of place, and ridiculous, addressed as it was to soldiers in front of the enemy. But this was one of the results of universal suffrage."

Old Isham's grave in a beautiful valley near unincorporated Beechgrove, Tenn.

My other alternative with a right turn was a visit to Bell Buckle, hometown of former Hee Haw star Molly Bee and the Moon Pie Capital of Tennessee. Bleh, moon pies always give me a stomach ache.

A horseshoe on a fence near
Old Isham's grave.
But I lean left, so that's the direction I headed ...and promptly got lost. Then I got angry when a guy tailgated me on a two-lane road. “Get off your high horse!” I screamed, eyes fixed straight ahead, arms firmly gripping the steering wheel, and all my windows rolled up.

Sweating profusely, I zigzagged through unfamiliar territory. (By the way, I didn’t spot one Starbucks in Coffee County. Weird.) Finally, I came to a “T” and correctly made a right on French Brantley Road, slowly driving past a small general store and a pig farm.

By the side of a lonely country road — aren’t they all? — I at last found the grave of Old Isham, who died in 1884, age 23 or 24. Master Frank died two years later, age 65. What a great place for a horse to rest for eternity: a gorgeous valley, swaths of green, a mansion atop a hill in the distance, and a few cows, some eyeing me warily. It was only marred by the name of the place: Starr Trek Farm. Ugh, I hate William Shatner commercials.

Old Isham’s neatly tended grave was bordered by a modest, wood fence adorned with small Confederate flags. Probably placed there by colt followers. (Sorry.) On a fence behind the grave marker, someone placed a horseshoe, a neat touch. I shot a panorama, took the requisite selfies, and silently thanked my wife for the spur-of-the-moment idea.

A bronze statue of Roderick, the favorite horse of Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Suitably inspired, I hoofed it over to Thompson's Station days later to check out the statue honoring Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s favorite mount, Roderick. (True story: At the H Clark Distillery in Thompson's Station, the experience manager told me that cows love their bourbon mash. “They come running for it," she said. "Then they just lay in the field, chilling.” Neigggh, you say? Hey, it's on my blog right here.)

Nathan Bedford Forrest,
the "Wizard of the Saddle."
(Library of Congress)
At the Battle of Thompson’s Station (Tenn.) on March 5, 1863, Roderick was wounded three times before he was guided to safety by the general’s 17-year-old son. Eager to return to the "Wizard of the Saddle," however, the chestnut gelding leaped over several fences, suffering a fatal bullet wound in the process. Forrest -- the notorious slave trader/cavalry genius -- supposedly wept beside the dying animal, who was buried on the battlefield.

If not for the roar of the crazy traffic on Columbia Pike (State Rt. 31), construction equipment, convenience store, and other modern development/schlock, heck, you're back in 1863 in Thompson's Station. I know that might, ahem, stirrup trouble with the pro-development crowd.

The bronze statue of Roderick stands roughly 200 yards from the circa-1820 Spencer Buford Mansion on Columbia Pike. The place has some very weird modern additions that ruined its historic integrity and forced its removal from the National Register of Historic Places. Sort of like sticking McDonald's hamburger wrappers on a work of art. 

Roderick’s remains may rest today somewhere near the statue, perhaps where an upscale development named after the horse will be built. I imagine that could provide fodder for future conversations: "Honey, the workers were digging in our flower garden, and they found this huge skull.”


Ok, enough schtick. Let's keep history alive. 

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


-- Freemantle, Arthur James Lyon, Three Months In The Southern States: April-June, 1863, Published by John Bradburn, New York, 1864.

Friday, April 09, 2021

Battle of Columbia (Tenn.) from Piggly Wiggly parking lot

                           EXPLORE PANORAMA of Columbia (Tenn.) battlefield site.

Like this blog on Facebook
 | Follow me on Twitter

On Nov. 26, 1864, Confederate skirmishers under General Stephen Lee formed a skirmish line here extending a mile to my left and right and feigned a major attack on John Schofield’s boys entrenched roughly a half-mile away at a present-day hospital and near a Taco Bell. Meanwhile, Army of Tennessee commander John Bell Hood’s attempted to sneak past Schofield with the majority of his soldiers, cutting off the Yankees’ retreat route to Nashville. They didn’t have self-checkout back in those days at Piggly Wiggly, so Lee’s boys had to go through the usual line to pay for supplies, angering their general. Judge George Martin’s house, which stood on this site, according to the Civil War Trails marker, was so riddled with solid shot from Federal artillery that it had to be propped up with log braces. This scrap occurred on a Saturday, so Piggly Wiggly allowed beer sales — fabulous news for Confederates. Schofield’s soldiers, well-stocked with cigars, beer and wine from the Piggly Wiggly and boxes of burritos and nachos from Taco Bell, crossed the Duck River to safety. 

Let’s keep history alive. 😁👊 (Sort of.)

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

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Battle at Holly Tree Gap: But did the car alarms go off?

                    EXPLORE THE PANORAMA of Holly Tree Gap (Tenn.) battlefield site.

Like this blog on Facebook
 | Follow me on Twitter

On Dec. 17, 1864, the retreating Army of Tennessee — battered the day before at Nashville — dashed past these apartments, scattered managers in the leasing office, knocked two kids off their scooters, and wrecked several parked cars during a stand against Yankee cavalrymen, who had earlier quenched their thirst with 10 12-packs of Bud purchased across the road at a convenience store. Federal losses: 22 killed and wounded and more than 60 captured. Confederate losses: Roughly 250 captured and unknown number killed and wounded. Thankfully, the Civil War Trails sign was not damaged in this hour-long brawl. John Bell Hood’s boys continued their retreat southward after this fight, also known as the Battle of Hollow Tree Gap or The Duel at the Apartments. 

Let’s keep history alive. (Sort of. ) 😏

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

Thursday, April 01, 2021

Small wonder: Where 'Boy Hero of Confederacy' was hanged

The Sam Davis Memorial Museum on Sam Davis Avenue in a residential area of Pulaski, Tenn.

Like this blog on Facebook
 | Follow me on Twitter

In Pulaski, the “Wild Turkey Capital” of Tennessee and original home of the KKK, they honor Confederate spy Sam Davis in the state’s smallest museum on the very grounds where he was hanged by the U.S. Army in 1863.

A copy of this image, purportedly
of Davis, is displayed in the Sam Davis
Memorial Museum.
Literally, as the kids say, on the very grounds.

“The gallows were right here,” says my guide, 76-year-old Sam Collins, as we stand near the middle of the 15 x 22-foot Sam Davis Memorial Museum, dedicated in 1950. (Eerie? Yup, but this tale gets more twisted. Stick with me.)

Soon after we meet, I know I’m going to enjoy the visit with Collins, a gruff, no-B.S. Pulaski lifer who serves as the local historical society VP. The 76-year-old Vietnam vet wears bib overalls and clenches a toothpick between his teeth. Collins enjoys telling stories and life’s simple pleasures – he still uses a flip phone, doesn’t own a credit card, and drives a yellow 1984 Silverado pickup truck. His father was manager at Milky Way Farm, the local estate once owned by candy magnate Franklin Mars. The place produced the 1940 Kentucky Derby champ and enough stories for Collins to fill a book.

Pulaski’s mini-museum must have peaked in popularity decades ago. Visitation over the past few years has averaged roughly 200 people annually, Collins tells me, even fewer since the COVID pandemic hit in March 2020. “Every one of the locals,” he explains, “has already seen it.”

A close-up of the front of the museum.
In Pulaski, Tenn., they salute the humble wild turkey.

The son of slave-owning parents from Smyrna, Tenn., Sam Davis served with “Coleman’s Scouts,” a cavalry/intel unit attached to the Army of Tennessee. On Nov. 20, 1863, the 21-year-old soldier was captured by Union soldiers at Minor Hill, a few miles from the Alabama border, with intelligence regarding the Union Army in Middle Tennessee. Vigilance may not have been embedded in his DNA -- according to local lore, Davis was discovered by Yankees asleep under a plum tree.

Union General Grenville Dodge interrogated Sam Davis,
the Confederate spy. (Library of Congress)
Jailed by the Federals in nearby Pulaski as a suspected spy, Davis was interrogated by the provost marshal and General Grenville M. Dodge, the local commander. Reveal your sidekicks or else, Dodge demanded of Davis. “He very quietly, but firmly, refused to do it,” the general wrote decades later in The National Tribune, a newspaper for Civil War veterans. “I therefore let him be tried and suffer the consequences.”

Found guilty of espionage by a court-martial appointed to try him, Davis was sentenced to death by hanging. On the morning of Nov. 27, on a “pretty eminence, north east of Pulaski, overlooking the town,” he was led to the gallows. The hanging was witnessed by hundreds of Union soldiers, many of whom admired Davis’ bravery as he faced his demise. Dodge, on the other hand, angrily dismissed protests by local citizens, who were aghast by the public execution.

“I want him hung where all of you can see him,” the general said. “There are more of you guilty of his crime – I know it – and if I ever get my hands upon you, d—d you, I’ll hang you upon the same gallows.”

Offered another chance to reveal his informants and thus gain his freedom, Davis again refused. The trap door of the gallows was sprung, and Davis writhed in agony for several minutes.

A bronze plaque mounted on the front
of the museum.
“I remember that when he reached the platform his head struck the noose and that he stood and looked at it for an instant,” an Iowa veteran who witnessed the grim event recalled decades later. “Then the rope was adjusted, a lever was touched, the drop fell, and we marched back to our quarters conscious that we had seen a hero die.”

“All nature seems to be in mourning,” wrote a Cincinnati newspaper reporter who attended the execution, “and many warm hearts, loyal and true, but more that were not, melted into sympathy.”

"It was a heart-rending, sickening sight to me," a 7th Iowa veteran recalled, "and every heart went out to [Davis] in sympathy and sorrow..."

“[O]ne of the fates of war,” Dodge called the hanging.

Three decades after his death, Davis The Spy became a Lost Cause martyr, propped up mostly by the publisher of the Confederate Veteran, Sumner Cunningham. In 1906, Pulaski dedicated a monument to Davis on its public square. Three years later, nearly 4,000 people attended the dedication of a Davis monument outside the Tennessee State Capitol building in Nashville. (Dodge and other Union soldiers donated money for the monument.)

 “In all the glorious gifts or treasure and honor and courage and life and heroic devotion the South had to give, and did give freely,” the Nashville Tennessean wrote about the dedication, “it gave nothing more sublimely noble and heroic than Sam Davis.”

A monument at the site of Davis' capture in Minor Hill, Tenn., near the Alabama border.

In 1926, at the site of his capture, nearly 2,500 people attended the dedication of another Davis monument. “I would rather die a thousand deaths than betray a friend or be false to a duty,” read words attributed to Davis inscribed on the gray-granite stone.

Even more than a half-century after his execution, the mythologizing remained at full blast.

The monument to Sam Davis in front of
 the county courthouse in Pulaski, Tenn.
"The prettiest county courthouse in the 
state," says my museum guide, Sam Collins.
“Highways are being built all over the state,” the Tennessean wrote in 1926. “What highway could be more sacred than a national highway to Sam Davis, perpetuating the memory of his bravery and teaching the younger generation how to live and how to die?”

Streets and at least one park in Tennessee were named after Davis. His boyhood home in Smyrna, roughly 20 miles from Nashville, became a virtual shrine and a state landmark. Davis was practically deified, and his story tugged at the heartstrings of Tennesseans. 

"Sam Davis' death a great American epic," read a headline over a lengthy story about the spy in The Rutherford (Tenn.) Courier in 1942.

At a pageant at the Davis family plantation in 1951, the woman who played the soldier’s mother wept – for real – during a scene. When Davis’ body was brought home during the play, a woman in the audience “fainted and others had to go the back yard to get a grip on themselves.”

In 1999, 137 years after his death, a bronze statue of Davis was installed at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville. Davis was a student at Western Military Institute, a predecessor of the academy. (The statue was removed in 2020.) The "Boy Hero of the Confederacy” eventually had a Tennessee highway named after him, too.

In 1950, the State of Tennessee appropriated $15,000 to build the Pulaski museum/memorial on the very site where Davis was hanged. “[The museum] provides space for numerous historical articles of the Confederate era,” the Nashville Banner wrote the day of the dedication, “that were formerly housed in the brick building on West Madison street [in Pulaski] where the Ku Klux Klan was organized.”

   GOOGLE STREET VIEW: The Sam Davis Museum at 134 Sam Davis Avenue in Pulaski.

Museum artifacts, including the shackles (left) used to restrain Davis on his execution day.

The museum today stands in a residential area on – surprise! – Sam Davis Avenue. In a display case there, iron shackles used to restrain Davis at the execution catch my eye. “That’s about as cool as it gets,” says Collins, a retired science teacher/former school superintendent. Almost as cool is a large, inscribed stone against the far wall – it once marked Davis’ execution site.

Other artifacts and memorabila in the museum are more mundane: books about the boy “hero,” a trunk used by Davis while he was a student at Western Military Institute, two pieces of rock from the chimney of a house the spy used as a hideout, a photo of Davis’ elderly sister, a 20th-century painting of the hanging, group images of Confederate veterans, and a few Civil War-era weapons. There simply isn’t room for much more.

A large, inscribed stone that once marked
the Sam Davis execution site.
The State of Tennessee once asked Collins for an emergency preparedness plan for the museum, among the smallest in the U.S. (A museum inside an elevator shaft in New York City is the teeniest. Or is it the one in a converted shed in Arizona?) “If something happens, you go out the door,” Collins says with a smile about his emergency “plan.” Then he eyes the only exit, five steps or so away.

Before we depart, Collins tells a final story. He points to a depression about 15 yards from a bed of irises in front of the museum. The house that once stood there, he says, was destroyed in a fire. Arson, as it turns out, two decades ago. The woman who lived there was killed by her son, who was convicted of her murder and imprisoned for life.

Yes, these grounds are quite eerie.


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


-- Cincinnati Commercial, Dec. 8, 1863.
-- The (Nashville) Tennessean, April 30, 1909, May 2, 1926, Sept. 28, 1952.
-- Nashville Banner, Nov. 27, 1950. 
-- Smith, Henry I., History of the Seventh Iowa Veteran Volunteer Infantry During the Civil War, Mason City, Iowa, E. Hitchcock Printer, 1903.
-- The National Tribune, Sept. 15, 1904, July 4, 1907.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

A visit to grave of Tod Carter, a Franklin battle casualty

Like this blog on Facebook | Follow me on Twitter | Battle of Franklin Trust

On your visits to the Franklin (Tenn.) battlefield, you've probably heard the poignant story of Tod Carter (right), the 20th Tennessee captain who was mortally wounded about 150 yards from his boyhood home on Nov. 30, 1864. The 10th of 12 children of  Fountain Carter died two days after the battle in the house where he was born in 1840. The Carter house and battle-scarred outbuildings still stand and are open to the public. Roughly a mile away, in Rest Haven Cemetery, you'll find Tod Carter's grave, a worthy stop on your next battlefield visit.

The Carter House on Columbia Pike, where Tod Carter died on Dec. 2, 1864.

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

Saturday, March 20, 2021

A visit to Tennessee grave of Sam Watkins of 'Co. Aytch' fame

Like this blog on Facebook | Follow me on Twitter

When I watched The Civil War for the first time 31 years ago -- damn, 31 years! -- I was captivated by Sam Watkins, the Army of Tennessee private who was often quoted and featured in Ken Burns' classic. Watkins covered a lot of ground in the Western Theater, and his folksy post-war memoir, Co. Aytch, remains widely read. It is all true? Well, that's debatable. (I can still hear the distinctive twang of Charles McDowell, the fabulous voice of Watkins in Burns' doc. The former newspaper columnist died in 2010.)  

Sam Watkins in 1861.
Some of my favorite Watkins quotes from Co. Aytch
  • "America has no north, no south, no east, no west. The sun rises over the hills and sets over the mountains, the compass just points up and down, and we can laugh now at the absurd notion of there being a north and a south. We are one and undivided."
  • "I always shoot at privates. It was they who did the shooting and killing, and if I could kill a wound a private, why, my chances were so much the better. I always looked upon officers as harmless personages."
  • "A soldier's life is not a pleasant one. It is always, at best, one of privations and hardships. The emotions of patriotism and pleasure hardly counterbalance the toil and suffering that he has to undergo in order to enjoy his patriotism and pleasure. Dying on the field of battle and glory is about the easiest duty a soldier has to undergo. It is the living, marching, fighting, shooting soldier that has the hardships of war to carry."
Watkins, who served in the 1st Tennessee, lived out his days near Columbia, Tenn., dying in 1901. He was buried in Zion Presbyterian Church Cemetery. roughly 10 miles from Columbia's trendy town square. It's absolutely worth a visit -- the church Watkins attended still stands yards from his gravestone.
   GOOGLE STREET VIEW: Zion Presbyterian Church, 2322 Zion Road, Columbia, Tenn.

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

Monday, March 15, 2021

A visit to cemetery where Patrick Cleburne was initially buried

Like this blog on Facebook | Follow me on Twitter

Columbia, Tenn., doesn't just have a trendy public square -- check out handcrafted soap at Buff City Soap! -- it has rich Civil War history, too. Five miles from town, you'll find the four plantation sites of the Polk brothers. Two of the plantation mansions -- Rattle And Snap and Hamilton Place -- still stand. Gideon Pillow's Clifton Place plantation is roughly 1 1/2 miles from the Polks'. Less than a quarter-mile from the soap store stands Rally Hill, the mansion where Confederate General Frank Armstrong was married in a ceremony attended by Nathan Bedford Forrest and the Confederacy's most notorious womanizer.

Hamilton Place, plantation mansion 
of Lucius Junius Polk. Confederate artillery 
officer Robert Beckham, wounded at
the Battle of Columbia, died here.
Roughly a mile or so from the public square, check out Rose Hill Cemetery (see video of my visit above), the final resting place of John C. Carter, one of six Confederate generals who died of wounds suffered at the Battle of Franklin on Nov. 30, 1864. (Quick: Name the others. Don't look below, cheater! One of them has "pandemic hair.") 

Patrick Cleburne, also killed at Franklin, was briefly interred at Rose Hill. So were generals Otho Strahl and Hiram Granbury. But when their comrades discovered Yankees were also buried at Rose Hill, they were removed and re-buried elsewhere -- the "Stonewall of the West" was moved to St. John's Church Episcopal Cemetery, across the road from the plantation of Leonidas/Andrew Polk. The Irishman was removed from St. John's and re-buried in his adopted state of Arkansas in 1870. 

Confederate generals who died of wounds suffered at the Battle of Franklin (clockwise from upper left): Patrick Cleburne, John C. Carter, States Rights Gist, Otho Strahl,
Hiram Granbury and John Adams.

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

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Wedding crasher? These 1863 nuptials went off without a hitch

Confederate Brigadier General Frank Crawford Armstrong, shown in a wartime image before
he lost most of his hair, married a 19-year-old at Rally Hill in Columbia, Tenn.,
on April 27, 1863. (Armstrong photo: Alabama State Archives)

Like this blog on Facebook
 | Follow me on Twitter

At a Tennessee mansion on the evening of  April 27, 1863, a Yankee-turned-Rebel officer married the great-niece of a U.S. president in a ceremony attended by the Confederacy's most notorious womanizer. Thankfully, the nuptials turned out to be more Gone With The Wind than Wedding Crashers.

Rally Hill, a circa-1830s house in Columbia, was site for the union of 27-year-old ladies man Frank Crawford Armstrong, a brigadier general in the Confederate cavalry, to 19-year-old Maria Polk Walker. The impressive, brick manor was the home of James Walker, the teenager's grandfather and brother-in-law of 11th president James Polk, who briefly lived nearby decades earlier. (The prez -- Maria's great-uncle -- died in Nashville in 1849.) Maria, also known as Mary, was the daughter of a Confederate officer.

Historical marker in front of the privately owned mansion
 on West 8th Street in Columbia, Tenn.
Armstrong, who was born in the Choctaw Agency in Indian Territory in 1835, began the war leading a company of Union cavalry at the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861. He resigned his commission less than three weeks later to join the Confederacy. Because his resignation did not go into effect until Aug. 13, 1861, he technically was on both sides simultaneously. Crazy.

On Saturday morning, I admired Rally Hill from afar -- damn, I wish Vince Vaughn had joined me. My oh-so-brief search of the grounds turned up no beer cans or kegs, champagne glasses, stale cake, fancy napkins that most guys despise or other refuse from the long-ago wedding reception. An intimidating iron gate prevented an up-close inspection of the privately owned, 6,000-square-foot-plus residence on West 8th Street. (It sold for $740K in May 2020.) The mansion stands about 150 yards from St. Peter's Episcopal Church, where Patrick Cleburne's remains briefly rested in 1870. (A long story.)

Armstrong not only had a way with women; he received an A+ rating as a military man from at least one Confederate sympathizer: "... the finest cavalry officer in our service," "J.P.P" wrote to a Memphis newspaper following the Confederates' raid in late August 1862 at Middleburg, Tenn. 

"[Armstrong] handles cavalry on the field as well as [Pierre] Beauregard handles infantry," continued "J.P.P," perhaps a Confederate soldier or an extremely close Armstrong relative. "His men are devoted to him beyond anything I ever heard of. On the field he is cool and collected, and moves his men about as Morphy moves his chessmen. Take my word for it, Frank Armstrong, brigadier general of cavalry, is one of the greatest captains of this war, and with opportunity, will place himself with Stonewall Jackson, or in front of him."

Now that's an endorsement! 😏

The back side of the mansion. No refuse from the long-ago wedding was discovered.

Maria -- whom I suspect may have been camera shy -- was enamored with Armstrong, too. She met him in the fall of 1862 while on a trip in the Deep South with her uncle, Colonel Sam Walker. Maria's father, Joseph, was a colonel in the 2nd Tennessee. After the couple were engaged, Maria returned to Tennessee. But she "became greatly impaired from the shock" of reports of Armstrong's supposed wounding or demise while he was off killin' and fightin' in Mississippi and elsewhere. (He was fine.) So, Maria begged to be allowed to travel south to marry the former Yankee.

Earl Van Dorn, womanizer.
(Photographic History of
the Civil War in Ten Volumes,
Volumn 2
"This her father would not consent to," according to a Walker family genealogy, "but later when word came that General Armstrong's Brigade would be camped near Columbia, where Colonel [Joseph] Walker's parents lived, he gave his consent for Maria to go through the lines and be married at his mother's home. It was a long and hard trip made overland in any and all kind of conveyances, through Federal and Confederate lines."

Roughly 200 guests attended the Walker-Armstrong military wedding, including at least two Confederate generals: notorious slave trader/cavalry genius Nathan Bedford Forrest and Earl Van Dorn, the rascal who had only 10 days to live. On May 7, 1863, the 42-year-old general was shot and killed by a 51-year-old Spring Hill, Tenn., physician/politician/farmer whose 25-year-old wife apparently was having an affair with the married father of five children. He cheated on Caroline Van Dorn with other women, too. (I wonder if the Armstrong-Walker wedding invitations came with a warning to female guests: Expect unwanted attention from Van Dorn. Known as "terror of ugly husbands and nervous papas.")

Follicly challenged
Frank Armstrong
later in life. He died in Maine
 in 1909.
(Find A Grave)
Cavalry officers at the Gone With The Wind-like affair wore their full, gray military duds, complete with yellow trimmings. "Almost every gentlemen present was in uniform," according to an account. Maria was given away by her grandfather, who weeks earlier had celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary. Wedding attendants were staff officers of Armstrong and Van Dorn, who pushed for Frank's promotion from colonel to brigadier general in 1863. (Sadly, Rhett Butler apparently skipped this event.) One guest described the contrast between the bride, a brunette, and "the blonde appearance of her handsome husband." (Later in life, Armstrong, was, ah, follicly challenged.)

News of the nuptials didn't exactly travel at warp speed to the Confederate capital. On June 26, 1863, the Richmond (Va.) Enquirer reported: "The dashing and gallant Brigadier General Frank C. Armstrong, who ever since the opening of the war, has been playing the deuces with ladies' hearts, was married in Columbia, Tenn...."

Immediately after the wedding, officiated by the St. Peter's Episcopal Church reverend, a brigade band played a "familiar air." You-know-who probably tuned them out if that was Home, Sweet Home.

"It was by far the largest body of cavalry ever seen together at that time," the guest recalled of the wedding,"and was a very impressive and imposing function."

No word if Earl Van Dorn got handsy with any of the female attendees.

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


-- Memphis Daily Appeal, Sept. 5, 1862.
-- Polk, Mary Branch, Memoirs of a Southern Woman "Within the Lines," and a Genealogical Record. Chicago: The Joseph G. Branch Publishing Co., 1912.
-- White, Emma Siggins, Genealogy of the descendants of John Walker of Wigton, Scotland, with records of a few allied families. Kansas City, Mo.: Tiernan-Dart Printing Co., 1902.

Friday, March 12, 2021

'My precious Lyman': Returned to sender, a letter to a soldier

A letter addressed to Lyman Smith of the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery in May 1864.
(Blogger's collection)

Like this blog on Facebook | Follow me on Twitter

The soul-crushing anxiety of a family with a loved one at the front seeps from a four-page letter.

“Pray to God for your safe keeping,” appears in neat, cursive writing on Page 1; on page 2, “the ear of Jesus is always open to our faintest cry.”

On pages 3 and 4, in another writer’s less-legible hand, appear the words “anxiety for your safety is doubled now,” “these dreadful battles cast gloom on us all,” and “May God bless.”

"My precious Lyman," his mother Julia started the letter to her son.

A tattered, three-cent cancelled stamp with a bust of George Washington remains affixed in the upper right corner of the letter's envelope. Near the left corner, a postal clerk stamped “Litchfield, Conn.” – the letter’s place of origin – and the date, “May 25, 1864.” In late spring in Virginia, Grant’s Army of the Potomac traded vicious blows with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse and North Anna River – obscure places the letter writers surely had never heard of before the war. 

The letter was addressed to a 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery soldier in Washington, where the Heavies were based for months. But in spring 1864, Grant yanked the Connecticut boys from defenses of the nation’s capital for deployment in his bloody Overland Campaign battles. 

Lyman Smith of the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery
was from Litchfield, Conn. (Photo courtesy of
Smith descendant)
On the envelope, the original address was crossed out, replaced with “Litchfield, Conn.” in yet another person’s hand. It was cleanly sliced open, perhaps with scissors or a razor. But by whom, who knows?

Nearly all the soldiers in the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery were from small towns in Litchfield County, in western Connecticut. Many were from the county seat of Litchfield, where citizens often gathered around the telegraph office in 1864, awaiting news of the fate of loved ones at the front. "You have no idea," one of them recalled, "of the intense anxiety in Litchfield in the days following [the Battle of] Cold Harbor."

I know Litchfield well – visited the antebellum Congregational Church there where at least one soldier's funeral was held in 1864, examined the town's impressive Civil War memorial, and stared at these markers in West Cemetery:

George Booth, killed at Antietam.

Edward Wadhams, killed Fort Darling.

Henry Wadhams, killed North Anna River.

Luman Wadhams, mortally wounded at Cold Harbor.

The letter, which sits on my office shelf, was written by Lyman Smith's mother, Julia, and sister, Mary. Lyman never read their loving words. The letter was returned to sender. 

Only 22, Private Smith was killed at Cold Harbor, Va., on June 1, 1864. He, too, has a marker in West Cemetery. 


"We shall wait with great anxiety," wrote Lyman Smith's sister, Mary.

My precious Lyman, 

Your letter from Fredericksburg containing twenty dollars came last evening. We had received one from you a day or two before from Ft. Craig with ten dollars in it—all of which we will keep for you safely.

Dear child, you are now in reality in the midst of war and you don’t know what anxious hearts gather around our table three times a day now [and] how fervently your sisters and myself pray to God for your safe keeping. Let your aspirations also go forth and mingle with ours before the mercy seat of Christ.

We ere not heard for our much speaking and you can lift up your heart even amidst the din and carnage of battle, and the ear of Jesus is always open to our faintest cry, and we never call upon Him in vain. He is able to keep you if you ask Him for He has said that He has “all power in Heaven and on Earth.” 

At Cold Harbor, Va., a marker explains action in which
2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery was engaged on June 1, 1864.
In the background, a monument to the regiment. 

We shall wait with great anxiety to hear from you. Write just as often as you can, if it not more than a line or two. Don’t let a week pass if it is possible for you to write. We are all well. I will make this letter short that I may get it into the Office this morning. I pray for you without ceasing, my dear Lyman. Pray for yourself and your loving Mother.

Wednesday morning.

My dear Lyman, I have only time for a few words this morning. Our anxiety for your safety is doubled now that you are at the front and we can only wait from day to day and hope for the best. May God guard you safely through it all and bring you to trust in Him instead of your own strength. These dreadful battles cast their gloom on us all—there is hardly a family but is sobered and saddened.

Edward Wadhams was shot through the heart a week from last Monday and left behind the rebel entrenchments at Fort Darling. It is feared that his body will never be found. Mrs. Luman Wadhams is with Mrs. Wadhams for the present. I shall call on her as soon as possible. 

Pa and [your brother] Ed are very busy with their farming. Pa is bushing peas today and Ed planting corn. I wish you were safely home. Write if only a word every time you can have a chance to mail a letter. 

We shall write to you often, although you may not get the letter. May God bless and keep you in safety, my dear brother. 

Your loving sister, — Mary

[Your sister] Nealie send love and will write in a day or two.

The complete letter from Lyman Smith's mother and sister, dated May 25, 1864.

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

-- Letter transcription hat tip to William "Griff" Griffing of Spared & Shared. (Read about Griff, subject of my Civil War Times magazine column.)

Friday, March 05, 2021

At Antietam, officer earns 'glorious title' of 'American citizen'

46th Pennsylvania Captain George A. Brooks. (Brooks images: Ben Myers collection.)

Like this blog on Facebook | Follow me on Twitter

Ben Myers, who wrote this guest post about 46th Pennsylvania Captain George A. Brooks, developed an interest in the regiment as a teen. A descendant of 46th Pennsylvania soldiers, he is a web developer and designer who works near Washington. The post is adapted from Myers' book, American Citizen: The Civil War Writings of Captain George A. Brooks, 46th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.

After just three hours' sleep, Captain George A. Brooks awoke to darkness on the morning of Sept. 17, 1862, still wearing his equipment. The 28-year-old officer ached from wounds suffered a month earlier at Cedar Mountain, and his uniform was damp from a combination of sweat and rain the previous day. 

But Brooks didn’t have time to dwell on those concerns. 

Joseph F. Knipe commanded
the 46th Pennsylvania
during  the  early years of the war.
(Library of Congress)
The Pennsylvanian found his way to the other officers of the 46th Pennsylvania who had already awakened. Among them was Colonel Joseph F. Knipe  -- a little more than five feet tall, the 38-year-old officer was known for spewing profanities, and this morning was no exception. At Cedar Mountain, an artilery shell had sliced into Knipe's scalp, leaving a flap of it loose and the colonel in such pain that he was delirious for several hours. The regiment suffered 50 percent casualties that day; afterward, Brooks and Knipe went home to Harrisburg, Pa., together to convalesce and to recruit for the decimated regiment. 

But when Robert E. Lee invaded Maryland, both men returned to their unit knowing the Pennsylvanians would need officers to lead them. With instructions to prepare to advance, Brooks -- the only captain with the 46th at Antietam -- moved off into the pre-dawn hours to rouse what few men he had left. The regiment numbered little more than a full company, but it was a veteran group, and the soldiers quickly fell in with little instruction. Coffee would have to wait. 

Brooks paused to watch the men and thought back to just a year earlier, when most of them had been mere boys, full of patriotism. He was proud to have helped mold them into soldiers. He prayed they would prevail and for the restoration of the Union. 

For the next hour, the XII Corps, the 46th Pennsylvania among them, crept forward at a frustratingly slow rate. They stopped and started, deployed, and countermarched, sometimes pausing just long enough for the men to think they could get some coffee after all. But as soon as small fires were kindled, the order would come to continue. 

No one in the ranks knew exactly what was happening, but the occasional popping of skirmishers the night before had turned into rifle volleys and cannon shots. A battle was still a ways off, but they knew they were slowly marching toward a big one. 

A modern view looking north on the Smoketown Road; the 46th Pennsylvania
 advanced on this road (toward camera) on the morning of Sept. 17, 1862. (Ben Myers)

When they made their longest halt, artillery shells flew overhead and wounded from General Joseph Hooker’s Corps streamed past, making their way to the rear. Over half of Brooks’ brigade were new Pennsylvania troops, the 124th, 125th, and 128th regiments, who had spent just a month in the service. The green soldiers watched wide-eyed, one of them remembering that as the shells screamed by “most men ducked and then would straighten up with a sickly kind of grin.”

The 46th Pennsylvania deployed with its brigade into
the East Woods. American Citizen: The Civil War Writings
 of Captain George A. Brooks (Sunbury Press, 2019)
Soon the men noticed the direction of the artillery fire changed, and the din of the battle rose higher. Wounded streamed from the woods before them at a faster pace. Even the new troops could tell things weren’t going well to their front. It was then that Captain Brooks was summoned to meet under a large, old tree for further instructions with the remaining officers of the other veteran regiments of the brigade, the 10th Maine and 28th New York.

The plan was fairly simple: The 46th Pennsylvania, along with the rest of their brigade, would deploy to the left of Hooker’s men in David R. Miller cornfield with the aim of outflanking the Confederates. When the order came, the 10th Maine moved off to the left, and the new 125th Pennsylvania moved right, toward Miller's Cornfield, to form the anchor with Hooker’s line. The 700-man-strong 128th Pennsylvania, along with the much smaller 46th Pennsylvania and 28th New York, would form a line in between the 10th and 125th. 

But the plan fell apart within minutes. 

Brooks and his fellow line officers ordered the men forward, but it was tough going. The regiments weren’t properly spaced to deploy into line -- an oversight by the new corps commander, Major General Joseph K. F. Mansfield, who was worried the new Pennsylvania troops would break and run. Brooks’ 46th and the 28th New York managed to line up as they started into the East Woods, barely flinching as bullets and artillery rained in. They started to fire back, leveling one steady volley after another.

This image of Knap’s Pennsylvania Battery by Alexander Gardner, taken two days after
the battle, shows the famous East Woods in the background. (Library of Congress)

The 128th Pennsylvania, however, didn’t come up onto line. It panicked as it tried to deploy, and within moments its colonel was killed and lieutenant colonel wounded. Officers from the 46th Pennsylvania and 28th New York rushed to assist the stricken regiment, hoping to line it up and relieve the pressure against the dwindling veteran regiments. But they did so amidst Confederate snipers in the trees raining bullets into them.

George A. Brooks, killed at Antietam, was buried
at Harrisburg (Pa.) Cemetery.
Enemy fire found their marks at a sickening rate, taking out both senior officers in the 10th Maine and Mansfield himself. Bullets smashed through foliage and flesh, splintering bark off trees and ricocheting off rocks as men fell mangled or dead. It was somewhere in this dreadful confusion that George Brooks fell, killed instantly by a bullet through his temple

The summer prior, Captain Brooks had written home to his local newspaper. The war was going poorly as the regiment languished, inactive, in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. On top of that, Brooks was mired in a long familial dispute. Despite those issues, he was homesick and bored, longing to see his wife and young son. But he pushed his concerns aside to encourage others to join the war effort -- a cause for which he was devoted:  

"Move with us 'on to Richmond,' and aid our noble leader in reducing the stronghold of rebellion, till, like the ancient temple of Jerusalem, 'not one stone shall be left standing upon another.' 

"True, it will cost immense amounts of treasure and blood; many noble lives will be sacrificed, but the great principles of liberty must be perpetuated; our government, in all its original purity, must be preserved. Let Pennsylvanians then rally around the old standard... and before the festive days of Christmas make the annual round you will have returned to your homes with the consciousness of having performed a sacred duty, and earned the glorious title of an 'American citizen.' ” 

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

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.)

Like this blog on Facebook | Follow me on Twitter

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 folks.  

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. :)

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


-- 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