Thursday, April 05, 2007
Col. John B. Palmer
Several of my blogging comrades (Eric Wittenburg and J. David Petruzzi) occasionally put bios of cavalry officers on their blogs. I thought I might join in, occasionally posting bios of North Carolinians. The first concerns Col. John B. Palmer. If you were to look at traditional sources, like Civil War High Commanders by the Eichers, you would not find much on Colonel Palmer. What you will read below has taken me a decade to put together, usually just one little fact at a time.
I hope you enjoy.
Col. John B. Palmer
© 2007, Michael C. Hardy
John B. Palmer was born in Plattsburg, Clinton County, New York, on October 13, 1826. His father, John Palmer, was a lawyer and two-term legislator from Clinton County in the United States Congress. His mother was Charlotte Theresa Sailly, whose parents came from France. Both John B. Palmer’s grandfather and great-grandfather were members of the 14th New York Militia during the American Revolution. His father died in 1840, and John B. went to Detroit, Michigan, where one of his brothers and one of his sisters lived.
In Detroit, Palmer quickly established himself, going into the mercantile business with his brother-in-law, James A. Hicks. Palmer also had an interest in the shipping business, and in 1849, was one of the trustees of the new Detroit Savings Bank. On October 12, 1852, Palmer married Miss Frances Marvin Kirby, the daughter of Colonel Edmund Kirby and Eliza Brown, of New York. Miss Kirby was the first cousin of Edmond Kirby Smith, became a lieutenant general in the Confederate army. Her brother, a Federal artillery captain named Edmond Kirby, was killed at Chancellorsville. Palmer continued to rise through the ranks of society. In 1856 he was one of the directors of the new Detroit Board of Trade, and a year later was elected president of the Detroit Young Men’s Literary Society. About this time, and possibly for health reasons, or because of a relationship with the famous Childs family, he began looking at western North Carolina as a new home.
Palmer settled on a tract of land in what was then Watauga County, and made arrangements to have a house constructed. A historian once wrote that Palmer "had built the finest house in all the area that became Avery County." Palmer called his estate "Grasslands." According to the 1860 census, John B. Palmer’s personal and real estate value was $105,000, making him one of the wealthiest men in western North Carolina, but he simply listed his occupation as "farmer." Palmer quickly became an important member of the region’s society. In June 1861, he wrote to North Carolina Governor Ellis requesting the General Assembly to call a special election to fill the seat of George N. Folk, who had resigned to raise a company for the new Confederacy. A few months later, Palmer was appointed as one of the commissioners to select a county seat for one of the newest counties in the state: Mitchell County.
December 1861 found Palmer raising a company for North Carolina’s contribution to the Southern war effort. Why Palmer joined the South in her quest for independence is a mystery. At the age of 35 in 1861, he was beyond the age for conscription. Both he and his wife also had many relatives who fought for the Union. Whatever his reasons for supporting the Confederate cause, on December 11, 1861, Palmer was elected captain of the "Mitchell Rangers." In early 1862, Palmer was authorized to raise "Palmer’s Legion." A legion during the Civil War was an organization composed of infantry, cavalry, and artillery. Legions were falling out of favor with the Confederate government, but on May 13, 1862, Palmer was promoted to lieutenant colonel of the 5th Battalion, North Carolina Partisan Rangers. Palmer created a training camp, called Camp Martin, on his property, and begin to recruit men. In July 1862, Palmer was promoted to Colonel and assigned to the newly created 58th North Carolina Troops, then forming at Johnson’s Depot (now Johnson City), Tennessee.
Colonel Palmer led the 58th NCT out of camp in August 1862 and headed for Cumberland Gap, Tennessee. At the Gap, Palmer was placed in charge of paroling recently captured prisoners. He was ordered into Kentucky in late 1862, but the 58th did not arrive in time to participate in the battle of Richmond. From Kentucky, Palmer led the 58th to various areas of east Tennessee, guarding railroads and supplies. In September 1863, Palmer and the 58th were ordered to Chickamauga, Georgia, and assigned to the Army of Tennessee. Colonel Palmer was wounded in the desperate fighting the 58th performed while routing the Yankees from their stubborn defenses. Colonel Palmer and the 58th gained great praise from their commanders. Major General Stevenson wrote that Colonel Palmer "performed his duties with such admirable zeal and efficiency that I have thought it due to so worthy an officer to add my humble merits." There was serious talk of promoting Palmer to the rank of brigadier general. Palmer returned to the 58th on November 1, 1863, and on November 19, 1863, was reassigned to command the department of Western North Carolina.
With his headquarters in Asheville, Palmer was given an area to defend and not nearly enough troops to do the job. There were constant raids from east Tennessee into western North Carolina, raids from both Federal soldiers and bushwhackers. It was during one of these raids in June 1864 that Unionists from Tennessee set out to raid the conscription camp near Morganton. On their return, the group burnt Palmer’s house at Grasslands. Palmer continued to do what he could with his limited forces, rounding up deserters in western North Carolina and helping with Confederate campaigns in Union-controlled east Tennessee. In the last days of the war, Palmer was given a field command, and the department was turned over to Brigadier General Joseph G. Martin. Palmer was paroled in Athens, Georgia, on May 8, 1865.
Colonel Palmer moved to South Carolina not long after the war, but continued to hold on to his property in present-day Avery County. He and his wife made several trips to Europe after the war. Colonel Palmer became president of the Charlotte, Columbia, and Augusta Railroad and president of the Southern Security Commission. He also served as president of two different banks in Columbia, South Carolina. In 1879, Palmer purchased 80 acres of orange groves in a new winter resort area in Central Florida: Winter Park. His property was located on Lake Maitland. Both a street in the new town and a canal were named after Colonel Palmer. In 1882 Palmer gave $50 towards the construction of a new depot in Winter Park for the South Florida Railroad. Palmer and his family continued to travel between Florida, South Carolina, and New York. On April 30, 1889, Palmer sold his Avery County property to George R. Watkins, who built the Watkins House. Colonel John B. Palmer died on December 10, 1893, possibly in Florida at his Winter Park estate, and was interred in the Elmwood Cemetery in Columbia, South, Carolina. His wife, known as Fannie, moved to New York City after his death and was known for her philanthropic work. She died in 1921 and is also buried in Columbia, South Carolina.