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)

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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.

1 comment:

  1. I was always interested to know what prompted Frank Armstrong to side with the Confederacy. He served in the US Army starting in 1855 and attended college in Massachusetts. He died in Maine and is buried at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, DC.