Site of intrigue, monumental blunder, little known battle that sets stage for fatal blow to South
by Karen Rubin and Neil Leiberman
Our travels along the Civil War Heritage trail takes us from Chattanooga, with its vast preserved open space of Civil War battlefields, which has become a progressive, sustainable city as significant as it was 150 years ago when it was a central hub for the South, to the farmland that looks much like it did generations ago, where mansion homes that were eyewitnesses to the Civil War struggles, seem to preserve the persona of the people who played a part.
Our itinerary this day takes us to a series of homes – grand, yet intimate in that they embody a family. Here, the Civil War, so massive in scale, scope and impact, becomes personal.
We depart Chattanooga in the Eastern time zone, and as we travel west, watch our cell phones for that precise moment when we trip into the Central time zone.
We have gained an hour but lost more than a century, as we make our way to the Lairdland Farm House.
About 65 miles south of Nashville, in an area of gently rolling farmland and an occasional cotton field, is the Lairdland Farm House in Giles County.
The present owners of historic Lairdland Farm House are Bennita and Don Rouleau, historic preservationists who had a historic house in Knoxville for 20 years before purchasing Lairdland in 2002. They are only the third family to own the home since it was built in 1831; it was in shambles when they bought it, have restored it, and open their home, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, to visitors on an appointment basis since 2005.
There is an added treat: Don is also a lifelong collector of Civil War artifacts and he has a marvelous private museum in one of the “travelers” rooms in the house, featuring weaponry and memorabilia. Don maintains that the best collections are still in private hands.
Lairdland offers visitors a look back in time. Throughout the nine rooms you find antique furniture, fine china and artifacts belonging to the Rouleau’s family.
They faithfully tell the story of Capt. James Knox Polk Blackburn, a Confederate officer, and his wife Mary McMillan Laird, who were married on this very front porch in February 1867. It is something to be sitting in the formal entrance way, with a cup of coffee in our lap, and hearing the story.
But the story of the house goes back way before the war, pretty much to the earliest white settlement of Tennessee.
When the house was completed in 1831 , this was a primeval forest inhabited by Choctaw, Cherokee, Creek Indians.
President Andrew Jackson who lived not that far away in Tennessee, was president – he would sign the Indian Relocation Act in 1835, uprooting Indians and forcing them to march along the Trail of Tears to resettlement in Oklahoma.
The first occupants of the house was Thomas Lane, who had 10 children. Lane (like so many of the early Tennessee settlers) got land grant from North Carolina because served in Continental Army (as many we hear about… that’s how came)
Around 1856, he sold the home to his brother-in-law, Robert Henderson Laird, the youngest son of an Irish immigrant. Laird paid $20,000 in gold. Laird got his family and slaves together, Don relates. “Slaves were given the option of staying so not to break up family, and Laird promised to make arrangements (sell them to someone else), or they could come together. He bought three slaves in order to keep families together.”
Lane resettled his family in Texas.
Then the Civil War came. Tennessee was an “occupied state” in 1862, under Union control. An outfit called Terry’s Texas Rangers fought in Chickamauga and Chattanooga (where we had just visited) was fighting near Lairdland.
Here’s where truth becomes stranger than fiction.
John Martin Lane, the second son of Thomas J. Lane, who originally built Lairdland Farm House, and who born in the house in 1841, at age 14, went with his family to live in Burleson County, Texas, but two married sisters remained in Giles County.
When the War broke out John Martin joined Terry’s Texas Rangers, Company A. His unit fought throughout Tennessee under the command of General Joseph Wheeler. On October 6, 1863 he was part of the men led by Wheeler when they were attacked by the Federals at Farmington, Tennessee, where 10 of Terry’s Texas Rangers were killed, including John.
As Wheeler’s men retreated toward (and across) the Tennessee River they passed through Pulaski, Tennessee, where John Martin’s sister, Mary Kennedy Lane lived with her husband, Dr. Rufus Green Pinckney White, a prominent doctor. Some of the men passing her home, told her of her brother’s fate.
She got a wagon and retrieved her brother’s body. She brought him to Brick Church Cemetery, the place the family had attended church when they lived at Lairdland Farm House. He was buried next to his grandfather, Major John Gordon, who fought with Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans. A handsome obelisk was raised over the grave and stands in Brick Church Cemetery today.
Several of the wounded men from that raid ended up at Lairdland, which served as a hospital. One man died, and Laird paid to have him buried.
One of the wounded men was Capt. James Knox Polk Blackburn of Terry Texas Rangers (8th Texas Cavalry). He was nursed back to health by the family, stayed a year with them and, Don says, taught school. “He was technically under house arrest but when the Union provost wasn’t looking, he stole a horse and went back to war, in time for surrender.”
He returned to Tennessee to marry Mary Laird, in February, 1867, on this very porch.
Lairdland remained in the Blackburn family until the Rouleaus purchased it in 2002.
Dan has been collecting Confederate artifacts since he was six years old. He’s been interested in architecture and restoration (he worked in construction after returning from the Vietnam War). In his collection is a first edition of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a mourning dress on a manikin (freaky), a Spencer repeating rifle (valued at $2500). He has the Mississippi Rifle that belonged to the son of Eli Whitney (the inventor of the cotton gin), which was an engagement gift to his wife (if she refused, he would still have the rifle, he reasoned).
We ask what he would most want for his collection? A Confederate uniform, he replies There are very few of them left, since most of the soldiers were in rags and civilian clothes by the end of war. A Confederate uniform would be worth $40,000-$100,000.
Kids are amazed to see “toys” of that time, which are also in his collection; I spot a two-cent coin from 1864 (that’s the first year that the government emblazoned “In God We Trust” on the coin). I also spot a beat-up haversack – a soft pack – and in my mind’s eye comes a fleeting vision of a young, worn soldier carrying.
Historic Lairdland Farm House is hosting a landmark Civil War Sesquicentennial event September 15-17, 2011 when the 19th Alabama Civilian Corp and the 13th U.S. Colored Troops reenactors set up camp and offer demonstrations of daily life during the Civil War.
Lairdland Farm House, 3238 Blackburn Hollow Road, Cornersville, TN 37047; tours by appointment, call 931-363-2205, or email firstname.lastname@example.org; www.lairdlandfarmhouse.com.
Ferguson Hall & The Battle of Spring Hill
We are greeted at the door of the Ferguson Hall by Daniel McLaughlin, who is dressed and speaks to us in the character of the owner of the 1853 house, Martin Cheairs (whose brother, Nathaniel, built a grander mansion home, Rippavilla, just up the road). He bemoans the fact he paid $4170 for the house, “The extra $70 made my heart ache.” Just to outdo him, he says, Brother Nathaniel made Rippavilla four feet wider, and deeper.
But this house has become known for scandal, intrigue, and murder.
In 1850, Spring Hill was thriving, with six families.
During the War of Northern Aggression, he says, the house was occupied alternately by Union and Confederate troops.
In 1863, the Confederates occupied the house. General Earl Van Dorn, who was Andrew Jackson’s nephew, and had made a reputation fighting Indians, was in charge.
Van Dorn already had a sullied reputation. His first assignment after being commissioned as a General was to destroy a Union depot in Corinth, Mississippi; he destroyed over $4 million in supplies. His second campaign did not go well, either. He was court-martialed for insubordination, but exonerated and given command of Middle Tennessee.
He had a “premonition” (or delusion) of doing great things.
As a cavalry commander he was much more effective at guerrilla-style assaults. He was involved in various battles that during our Civil War trails trip, we come to be familiar with: the Battle of Thompson’s Station and the first Battle of Franklin, fought in this area.
His action in a raid at Holly Springs, Mississippi on December 20, 1862, seriously disrupted Ulysses S. Grant’s ‘s first Vicksburg Campaign plans, capturing 1,500 soldiers and destroying at least $1,500,000 worth of Union supplies.
Van Dorn was also successful at the Battle of Thomson’s Station (which we will hear about later in the day), , on March 5, 1863.
On March 16, 1863, Van Dorn was given command on the cavalry corps of the Army of Tennessee and fought his last fight April 10 at the First Battle of Franklin., losing 137 men to the union’s 100. He returned to Spring Hill.
But, it was Van Dorn’s activity off the battlefield that led to his death, and it took place right where we stand, in this house, which he used as his headquarters.
McLaughlin, continuing his stirring story in character, relates that Dr. George Peters was a doctor and a widower with seven children. He became a state legislator, requiring him to be in Nashville and Memphis. He married Jesse McKissack, who became his third wife, to take care of his children while he was away. He was 41 and she was 17 when they married.
While her husband was away, Jesse introduces herself to Gen. Van Dorn, and they carried on an affair. The impropriety made him unwelcome at White Hall, the home of Dr Aaron White that Van Dorn had originally taken over for his headquarters, and he moved into Ferguson Hall.
Van Dorn was at Ferguson Hall just two weeks, when on May 7, 1863, Dr. Peters came to Van Dorn and insisted he put in writing that he had been his wife’s pursuer. As the General sat at the desk to sign, Dr Peters shot him dead.
Just then, McLaughlin fires a pistol he had been holding – the 1851 Navy Colt had been found in the house in 1963 during a renovation, by some children who lived there when the house was used as an orphanage (it is still a Children’s Home). The bag it was in immediately disintegrated; the gun was still loaded but the firing spring had deteriorated so it didn’t fire.
McLaughlin shows us the blood stains that remain on the wooden floorboards from the murder.
Dr Peters would have been executed for murder, but files for divorce, using May 7 as the date Jesse abandoned him, and then fled.
Peters was later arrested by Confederate authorities, but was never brought to trial for the killing. In defense of his actions, Peters stated that Van Dorn had “violated the sanctity of his home.”
Van Dorn’s body was shipped back to Alabama, where he had a wife and child (he also had a family in Texas).
Jesse gave birth soon after.
That’s not the end of the story, though, which is as riveting as a soap opera. Jesse and Peters remarry in 1867 – but he orders her to leave her three-year old daughter, Medora, behind in an orphanage (ironic considering Ferguson House becomes an orphanage). When Medora grows up, she moves in to be with her mother, but winds up nursing Peters in his old age.
Jesse’s scandal caused ladies to stop going to church and go to dances.
Meanwhile Earl Van Dorn’s sister wrote “A Soldier’s Honor” in an attempt to restore her brother’s honor, asserting he was assassinated by Union forces.
But one of the soldiers attached to Van Dorn unit writes home to his wife, which is published in “Letters to Anna”, “I got word today that General van Dorn was shot for messing around with another man’s wife. If it be true, he got what he deserved.”
The gun that McLaughlin uses to mimic the murder is an 1851 Navy Colt revolver found in this house in 1963, probably left by a soldier who occupied the house. It was discovered during a remodeling in 1963, when cutting a doorway, boys played hide/seek, and a foot knocked gun down; the bag it was in disintegrated. The gun was still loaded but the firing spring deteriorated.
Still a children’s home, the Ferguson House is open by appointment – people schedule tours, desserts, progressive dinner, come here for dessert.
Ferguson Hall, 5350 Main Street, Spring Hll, TN 37174, 931-486-2274,www.tennesseechildrenshome.org.
Spring Hill Battlefield
Just outside, the Battle of Spring Hill was fought. For years, what happened here was nothing more than a footnote. “People deny there was a battle, but people got killed.”
But here, on November 29, 1864, Confederate troops led by Generals Hood, Forrest, Cleburne and Brown fought the Federals led by General Schofield. On this 110-acre farmland it is estimated that 10,000 soldiers fought and 850 lost their lives.
A skeleton of a soldier was found on the fence row in the late 1890s. They found clothes, belts, but no shoes. Then, a man in Peducah, Kentucky said he knew where the shoes were – He had been a Confederate soldier convalescing in the Peters House, “watched the man get shot and took his shoes.”
In 1995, The Spring Hill Battlefield Preservation Council, with financial aid from the APCWS and CWT, was able to acquire the 110-acre site of the battlefield. It has remained farmland since the Civil War, as pristine as it was when the battle was fought. (Spring Hill Battlefield, Kedron Road, Spring Hill, TN 37174, 931-486-9037)
The Battle of Spring Hill was a minor affair in terms of casualties-about 350 Union and 500 Confederate-but the result of miscommunication and simply bad military management was that during the night all of Schofield’s command passed from Columbia through Spring Hill while the Confederate commanders slept. According to some accounts, the passage of the army did not go entirely unnoticed by some of the soldiers, but no concerted effort was made to block the pike. Reportedly, a private woke up the commanding general at 2 a.m. and reported he saw the Union column moving north, but Hood did nothing beyond sending a dispatch to Cheatham to fire on passing traffic.
By 6 a.m. on November 30, all of Schofield’s army was well north of Spring Hill and its vanguard had reached Franklin, where it began to build breastworks south of town. In the morning Hood discovered Schofield’s escape, and after an angry conference with his subordinate commanders in which he blamed all but himself for the failure, ordered his army to resume its pursuit, setting up the disastrous Battle of Franklin that afternoon.
And that is where we are headed, as well.
The story continues for us just down the road at Rippavilla Plantation. Constructed from 1851-1855 (by the educated McKissack slaves) this mansion was built for Nathaniel Frances Cheairs IV, who became a colonel in the Confederate Army. Occupied during the war, here Confederate General John Bell Hood lashed out at his officers for letting the Union forces sneak out of Spring Hill. That same afternoon, in desperation, Hood ordered the assault on the federal fortification in Franklin -resulting in the bloody Battle in Franklin and the end of the Army of Tennessee.
Today the home has been restored to its 1860’s appearance with many original period family antique pieces and Civil War artifacts on display which allow us to step across the threshold to that time.
It is significant to me that this is a plantation – so we get to see the truly grand home, the luxurious bedrooms, and then go out to where one of the 15 slave cabins that had been here still remains. Notably – and ironically – Susan Cheairs was forced to live in this one-room log cabin with her family while the house was occupied by the soldiers (her husband Nathaniel spent most of the war in prisoner-of-war camps).
Docent Andrew Sherriff tells us that about eight people would have lived in such a cabin, no bigger than a single room; some slaves could have small gardens. The work in southern plantations was 24 hours – Life for slaves in the Upper South was somewhat easier than those in the Deep South, the plantations in Mississippi and Louisiana, where the life-span might have been seven years (that’s why the threat to be sent south, to plantations in Mississippi and Louisiana, was terrorizing enough to force obedience).
The property has a family cemetery as well as a slave cemetery – most slaves were buried at night because so much work to be done during the day.
Tennessee Museum of Early Farm Life occupies a portion of the property, as does the Plantation and Mule Museum.
Rippavilla Plantation, 5700 Main Street (Highway 31), Post Office Box 1160k Spring Hill, TN 37174, 931-486-9037, www.rippavilla.org.
Homestead Manor & Battle of Thompson’s Station
We take Highway 31, which is what the soldiers would have done from Spring Hill, and stop at Homestead Manor Plantation, a historic mansion home that has been restored, preserved and converted to the most charming teahouse, another example of people who are committed to historic preservation.
The house, one of the first buildings completely built by slaves, was built beginning 1809 and finished in 1819 for Francis Giddens, a Revolutionary War gunsmith from Virginia, on a land grant bestowed after the Revolutionary War (a common occurrence we realize) Everything was made on site- including bricks, doors. When it was finished, was only house in area and was used as an inn on main road. Around it was a 3,000-acre plantation.
On March 5, 1863, the Civil War Battle of Thompson’s Station took place on this very site as Confederate troops led by General Nathan Bedford Forrest clashed with Federalist forces.
During the battle, 17-year-old Alice Thompson and other women from the community watched from the Homestead Manor cellar window as the Confederate flag bearer from the 3rd Arkansas Regiment was shot down. Young Alice Thompson bolted from the cellar, took up the flag and rallied the Rebel troops.
There were 1,400 causalities on the Federalist side and 400 on the Confederate side. The house was used as a hospital and there are still bloodstains on some of the floors.
We are able to visit the basement, and see the house’s “souvenir” cannonball that came through its roof during the siege.
Homestead Manor Plantation was acquired in 2004 by Marcia Franks, a breast cancer survivor, and her husband Jay, who owns a real estate development company, who restored the 7500 square foot, three-story mansion, lived there for four years, and more recently turned it into the most charming teahouse.
The Franks have preserved 50 acres of the property where the Battle of Thompson’s Station was fought, and are working to have designated a Battlefield Park. Homestead Manor served as a hospital following the battle and large bloodstains remain on the hardwood steps leading up to the third floor.
The tea house accommodates 65 guests in various rooms and outside, on the patio and balcony. Servers dressed in Civil War Era attire serve the most delectable scones, quiche, soups, sandwiches, salads and desserts made onsite by a pastry chef.
Also in this area is Oaklawn. Built in 1835, this estate was where General Hood slept the night away as the Union Army retreated from the Spring Hill Battlefield to Franklin. It is rumored that since Hood was badly injured during battle he was highly sedated this evening and therefore none the wiser to the Union’s retreat.
The blunder is compounded, and so Franklin, a peaceful hamlet of 750 people, becomes the fateful meeting place.
We continue to follow along much the same route as the soldiers did, for their fateful encounter at Franklin, a peaceful hamlet of 750, where the fate of the Confederacy is sealed.
“They were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” says historian Eric Jacobson.
Maury County Convention & Visitors Bureau, 8 Public Square, Columbia, TN 38401, 888-852-1860, www.maurycounty-tn.gov,www.civilwartraveler.com For Tennessee Civil War trip planning, go towww.tnvacation.com. For the Tennessee Civil War Heritage Trails, go towww.tnvacation.com. You can see maps and have planning tools; there is even a mobile app.
A brochure, “A Path Divided,” is downloadable here.
Another source is the Civil War Traveler: Tennessee
Next: The Battle of Franklin, bloodiest 5 hours in the Civil War
Tuesday, 21 July, 2011
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