Saturday, June 05, 2021

Site Visit Saturday: St. John’s Episcopal Church, Ashwood, TN


Patrick Cleburne 

  Churches occupy important places in our society. Many of them, and the grounds that surround them, are packed full of history. (You can check out a previous post on churches in the crossfire of the war here). One of those churches full of history is St. John’s Episcopal Church, just outside of Columbia, Tennessee.

   St. John’s was consecrated in 1842 by the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Tennessee, James Hervey Otey. It was built by Leonidas Polk, the Missionary Bishop of the Southwest. The land was donated by the Polk family, a part of a land grant awarded to William Polk of North Carolina. The church was constructed by the slaves from the various Polk plantations in the area, and served not only as a church, but as a school as well.

 During the war, Federal soldiers under the command of General Buell, on their way to reinforce Grant at Shiloh, forced their way into the church, wrecking the organ and removing some of the pipes. In 1864, as the Confederate army advanced towards Columbia, General Cleburne, on passing the church, reportedly told his staff “So this is the church built by General Leonidas Polk and members of his family? If I am killed in the impending battle, I request that my body be laid to rest in this, the most beautiful spot I ever beheld.” (Yeatman, “St. John’s-A Plantation of the Old South.” Tennessee Historically Quarterly, Vol. 10, No 4 (December 1951): 340) 

   Following the battle of Franklin, in which six Confederate generals were killed, three of them, Patrick Cleburne, Hiram Granbury, and Otho Strahl, along with two staff officers --Col. R. B. Young, Granbury’s chief of staff and Lt. John H. Marsh, who served with Strahl--were buried in the “potter’s field” section of Rose Hill Cemetery in Columbia, Tennessee. Hearing of this, Brig. Gen. Lucius E. Polk, with the help of Confederate chaplain Charles Quintard, had the five exhumed and reburied at St. John’s Episcopal Church. Many decades after the war, the three generals were again exhumed and reburied in other cemeteries. Cleburne was reburied in Helena, Arkansas; Strahl was reburied in Dyersburg, Tennessee; and Granbury was reinterred in Granbury, Texas.  Young and Marsh are still interred at St. Johns.

   There are other Confederate graves here as well, including Col. Robert F. Beckham, chief of artillery for Stephen D. Lee’s Corps. He was mortally wounded at Columbia, Tennessee on November 29, 1864. Brigadier General Lucius E. Polk, who was a nephew of Leonidas Polk, is interred at St. John’s, as is George Campbell Brown, who served on the staff of Richard Ewell in the Army of Northern Virginia, and James H. Thomas, a Tennessee delegate to the Confederate Provisional Congress. Mary Martin Pillow, the wife of General Gideon J. Pillow, is also buried at St. John’s. The form for the Ashwood Rural Historic District, for the National Register of Historic Places, states that there is a Confederate section with the dead from the battle of Ashwood behind the church.

   Carroll Van West, in her book Tennessee’s Historic Landscapes, considers St. John’s a “magnificent achievement in rural Gothic Revival architecture.” (368)  The church is no longer in use, save for one Sunday a year. But the building itself and the surrounding grounds are kept in immaculate condition. St. John’s is the oldest surviving church building in Maury County.

   My first and only visit came in May 2021.

Wednesday, June 02, 2021

Ephraim Clayton and the Asheville Armory

   Chances are, you have probably never heard of Ephraim Clayton. For many in Southern Appalachia, he is an important 19th century carpenter and builder. Clayton was born in present-day Transylvania County, North Carolina, in 1804. His father, Lambert Clayton, was a veteran of the Revolutionary War. His mother was Sarah Davidson, and her parents had been killed by the Cherokee in 1776. We really don’t know much about Ephraim Clayton’s childhood, but by the 1830s, he was receiving commissions to construct buildings. These buildings included Asheville Baptist Church (1859); Asheville Presbyterian Church (ca.1847); Buncombe County Courthouse (1848); Caldwell County Courthouse (1843); Calvary Episcopal Church, Fletcher, NC (1859); John W. McElroy House, Burnsville, NC (ca.1845); Mars Hill College (1856-1857); Newton Academy, Asheville, NC (1857-1858); Polk County Courthouse (ca.1853); Ravenscroft School, Asheville, NC (ca.1840s); St. John-in-the-Wilderness Episcopal Church, Flat Rock, NC (1833-1834); Trinity Episcopal Church, Asheville, NC (1850); Tuttle’s Hotel, Lenoir, NC (ca.1843); War Ford Bridge, Asheville, NC (1856); and the Yancey County Courthouse (1840s), along with other buildings in Georgia and South Carolina.

   While Clayton often lived in the communities where he was constructing buildings, he considered Asheville his home. His obituary claimed that he was the first man to bring a steam-powered planing machine to western North Carolina. In 1850, he employed twenty-five men and owned seven slaves. By 1860, he owned eleven slaves, plus employing several free workmen. He also operated a saw and planing mill and a sash and blind factory.[1]

   Asheville was quite possibly the most pro-Confederate town in North Carolina in the 1860s (we’ll save that for a future post). Hundreds of Confederate soldiers had poured forth out of Asheville and surrounding Buncombe County. Governor Zebulon Baird Vance and his brother, Brigadier General Robert B. Vance, came from the area, as did Brigadier General Thomas L. Clingman. Asheville also served as the headquarters of the District of Western North Carolina. As early as July 1861, William L. Henry was writing Gov. Henry T. Clark with a proposal for establishing a plant to manufacture rifles for the Confederacy in Asheville. In August 1861, that idea began to come to fruition. That month, Col. Robert W. Pulliam, the Confederate Ordnance Bureau agent in Western North Carolina, began working with Ephraim Clayton and Dr. George Whitson. In January 1862 the company began producing rifles, and by November 1862, they employed 107 men. Due to the lack of a railroad, materials were sourced locally. That November, they had 200 rifles ready for shipment. Josiah Gorgas, chief of ordnance for the Confederate army, sent W.S. Downer to Asheville to inspect the rifles and the plant. Downer wrote back that while Whitson was a man of “general genius,” he had no “practical knowledge of mechanics.” The tools and machines being used were “makeshift,” and the rifles themselves “worthless.” 

Asheville News, April 12, 1862. 

  The Asheville Arsenal faced numerous challenges, from a lack of skilled workers to the threat of attack by Union forces or “disloyal persons.”  It was a combination of these that eventually drove the Confederate arsenal from Asheville. In January 1863, a locally-led raid occurred at Mars Hill, in Madison County, just north of Asheville. In September, Knoxville was captured by Federal forces. In October came a raid by Union force on Warm Springs in Madison County. In late October, the local commander ordered the machinery to be prepared for moving, which began in late November. The machinery was transported to Columbia, South Carolina. In the end, the factory produced some 900 rifles.[2]   Capt. Benjamin Sloan was assigned to command the armory, and Sloan sought to bring in new machinery and tools. He also constructed two new brick buildings to house the machines and tools. Ephraim Clayton was appointed as general manager, in charge of “all Carpenters work and control of teams and teamsters, wood choppers, Coal Burners and saw mill hands.” Undoubtedly, Clayton’s already-established factory, and the fact that the new arsenal buildings were on his land, played a role in his involvement. There were 123 workers by January 1863, although Sloan fired twenty of them that same month. The men working at the Arsenal were well paid and were exempt from conscription.

   It is unclear if Ephraim Clayton moved to Columbia or stayed in Asheville. His obituary states that his planing mill was destroyed by fire. This could have happened at the end of the war when Federal forces burned the two brick buildings constructed to house the Asheville Armory.[3] After the war, he operated an iron foundry in Asheville 1867 to 1878, while living in Transylvania County, helping to build the Spartanburg and Asheville Railroad and the Western North Carolina Railroad.[4] Clayton died on August 14, 1892, esteemed as “one of the best known citizens of Western North Carolina.”[5] Clayton was “a man of the strictest integrity, plain and unassuming, and universally respected by all for his admirable traits of character. He took a deep interest in Asheville’s progress, and was always foremost in any project that tended to the advancement of the city-a true public-spirited citizen.”[6] He is buried in the Clayton Family Cemetery, Buncombe County, North Carolina. 

[2] Gordon McKinney, “Premature Industrialization in Appalachia,” The Civil War in Appalachia, 227-241.

[3] Asheville Citizen Times, August 11, 1892.

[5] The Asheville Democrat, August 14, 1892.

[6] Asheville Citizen Times, August 11, 1892.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Site Visit Saturday: Fort Sumter


  For some people, Fort Sumter is the start of the war, the place where the first shots were fired. It is convenient to have a “beginning” place. But this simplified view neglects the firing on of the Star of the West in Charleston harbor on January 9, 1861; it neglects what is going on in Pensacola, Florida; it neglects the war that is already being waged in Kansas and Nebraska. Regardless of where you see the war starting, shots were fired on April 9, 1861, in Charleston, South Carolina.

   Military installations go back decades prior to the 1860s. A palmetto and log fort was constructed on Sullivan’s Island by Patriot forces in 1776. The story of Fort Sumter starts right after the War of 1812. The United States, recognizing the need for better costal defenses, began work on a series of forts to protect important harbors. Work began on Fort Sumter in 1829 by building an island for a fort to sit upon.

   Fort Sumter was mostly empty of Federal troops in December 1860 when South Carolina seceded from the Union. Under the cover of darkness, the garrison pulled out from nearby Fort Moultrie and moved into Fort Sumter. In April 1861, Confederate forces learned that supply ships were on their way to the fort. A demand of surrender was refused on April 11, and Confederate forces opened fire on April 12. The fort surrendered the following day.

   There were several naval attacks against the Fort, including one on April 7, 1863, which resulted in the loss of the USS Keokuk. A second attempt, an amphibious operation to capture the fort, was launched in September 1863, but it also failed. When the Federals captured Morris Island in the summer of 1863, they were able to erect batteries that laid siege to the fort. For 587 days, artillery projectiles rained down on the fort, reducing the three story, five-sided, brick fortification to rubble. But Southerners took the rubble and created an earthwork fort. The Federal forces around Charleston Harbor were never able to capture Fort Sumter. The fort would remain in Confederate hands until February 1865, when the city of Charleston was abandoned. 

   Following the war, the U.S. Army rebuilt the fort. It served as an unmanned lighthouse station from 1876 to 1897, and in 1898, a new concrete gun emplacement was constructed inside. The new installation was named Battery Huger. It never saw action, and the fort was finally deactivated in 1947. In 1948, it became Fort Sumter National Monument, a part of the National Park Service.

   Several of the cannon found in the lower tier casements were found buried in the casements when Battery Huger was constructed.

   I list visited Fort Sumter in August 1995 (it is past time for a visit!).

Friday, May 28, 2021

The First Named Woman on American Paper Currency: Lucy Pickens

Bank of Washington, NC 

     Paper currency dates back centuries in America. The Massachusetts Bay Colony issued notes to fund military expeditions in 1690. The Continental Congress issued notes to finance the Revolutionary War. Of course, these notes quickly lost their value, leading to the phrase “not worth a Continental.” 

   Most states, or banks, issued their own paper currency in the Federal and Antebellum periods.  Many of these notes featured women. A $50 note from the Bank of Washington, North Carolina from 1855 featured five women. A $5 1858 note from the Merchants’ Bank of South Carolina features a woman with the state seal. Likewise, a woman is portrayed on the $100 note from The Union Bank of Augusta, South Carolina. These three examples all have something in common. The woman is not an actual person, but the personification of Liberty. She is portrayed holding a spear with a liberty cap on top. This item is closely linked to the French Revolution, when the “pileus,” a hat worn by freed Roman slaves, was adopted as one of the symbols of the revolutionary forces. Similar to the Scythian cap, with which it is often conflated, the pileus represents freedom, so iconographic figures of Liberty frequently wear it or hold it aloft.

   Confederate currency also featured women, often Native American women, and at times Greek or Roman goddesses, such as Victory (Nike), Athena, or Justice, which all appeared on various $100 notes. But the Confederate Treasury Department broke with tradition by placing Lucy Pickens on three different notes.

Lucy Holcombe Pickens 
   Often referred to as the “Queen of the Confederacy,” Lucy Holcome Pickens is an interesting story. She was born in La Grange, Tennessee, in 1832, and when she was 16, moved with her family to Marshall, Texas. In 1858, she married Col. Francis W. Pickens, a very wealthy South Carolina planter. Colonel Pickens and his bride were soon were on their way to Russia, where he served as United States ambassador. Lucky became a favorite at the Russian Court of Czar Alexander II. On returning to the United States, and South Carolina, Colonel Pickens was elected governor of South Carolina in December 1860, three days before the state legislature voted to secede from the Union. Lucy was in Charleston and watched the bombardment of Fort Sumter in April 1861. Colonel Pickens continued to serve as governor of South Carolina through December 1862.

   Lucy Pickens was honored in many different ways. In the spring of 1861, she reviewed and presented a flag to the “Lucky Holcombe Legion.” She had sold her Russian jewels to help finance the Legion. Based on a proposal made by Confederate Treasury Secretary Christopher Memminger, in December 1862, Lucy Pickens’s portrait appeared on the Confederate $100 bill, and the Confederate $1 bill. She would also appear on revamped $100 notes in April 1863 and February 1864.[1]

    Colonel Pickens died in January 1869. Lucy never remained, but managed three different properties, raised her daughter, worked to have a monument erected to the Confederate dead in Edgefield, and worked to have George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, declared a historical monument.

   Lucy was the only named woman on a piece of currency until Pocahontas, who appeared on the US $20 bill from 1865 to 1869, and again in 1875. Martha Washington appeared on the US $1 Silver Certificate in 1886.


[1] Greenberg, ed., The Women’s War in the South, 293-296.

Friday, May 21, 2021

“Northern Aggression?” Further History of the Phrase

       This is a second part of a series on “Northern aggression.” You can read the first part here. These first two parts deal with the term itself. The third part, at some point in the future, will look at some of the ways Southerners perceived aggression on the part by the North prior to the war.

   Some people (many people?) see the term “Northern aggression” and think it is tied to just the actions by the Lincoln administration in early 1861. Most notably, they refer to the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861, after Secretary of State William H. Seward had promised Southerners that there were no plans to resupply or reinforce that garrison. In actuality, the term “Northern aggression” was being used by Southerners at least three decades prior to the events in Charleston, South Carolina, as well as the sending of troops across the Potomac River to capture Alexandria, Virginia, on May 24, 1861.  

   There may be other examples in written correspondence, in the journals from various state legislators, or the U.S. Congress, that use the term, but the phrase “Northern aggression” dates back at least three decades in contemporary newspapers.

      In July 1830, a Philadelphia newspaper reprinted part of an article from Milledgeville, Georgia. The Georgia newspaper editor wrote that “We confess that our language, respecting the conduct of our Northern Brethren towards the South, and the notice we take of their abuse, scurrility & denunciations, would be, under any other circumstances, unbecoming, inasmuch as it should be no plea, because an adversary departs from the deportment of a gentlemen, that you should imitate him. The only apology we can offer, is that our blood boils in our veins when we come across the slanderous and scurrilous remarks of northern writers, upon the south and southerners. We cannot keep our-temper-we do not posses the patience of a Job. We cannot take upon ourselves to give our enemy the left cheek, after he has smitten us on the right one. We are more apt to return the blow with liberality. As long as we can hold a pen, and have a press at our command, Georgia shall be defended from northern aggression, and her citizens vindicated from the foul aspersions of northern fanatics and ultras.”[1]

   This of course comes in the wake of the Nullification crisis and January 1830 debate between Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts regarding the question of states’ rights versus Federal authority.  The term appears again in July 1831, in a toast given at Barnwell Court House, offered by D. Thorton: “The Militia of South Carolina-If ever called upon to defend the State from Northern aggression-may their lamps be trimmed and burning.”[2]

Henry Clay before the U. S. Senate 

   The saying “Northern aggression” begins to appear with some regularity in the 1840s, particularly 1847. James Polk was president, and the United States was wrapped up in the Mexican-American War. There was much discussion regarding the Wilmont Proviso. A Mississippi newspaper came out in praise of Henry Clay and the Missouri Compromise of 1820, saying that it was Clay who “more than a quarter century ago, erected that impenetrable shield between the rights of the South and Northern aggression…”[3] An Alabama newspaper editor asked the next year, that if the Wilmont Proviso was passed, would “the progress of northern aggression and demand stop at this point, if conceded”?[4] There were many other occasions when the terms were used in the years around the Mexican-American War in newspapers from Richmond, Charleston, Washington, D.C., Huntsville, and Vicksburg.

   By using one of the popular newspaper databases, a search using the term “Northern aggression” between the years 1850 and 1859 produced 1,954 hits. Granted, some of these articles, in the time-honored tradition of “sharing” between newspapers, are copies. Regardless, the idea that the Northern states were the aggressors flowed freely from the pens of editors. “Those who have hitherto put their trust in the Southern President as their forlorn hope against Northern aggression must now confess that they have leant on a broken reed,” wrote one Louisiana editor.[5] A newspaper in Natchez called for meeting of friends “who are opposed to Northern aggression, or Southern submission to the unconstitutional acts of Congress” in 1851.[6] The phrase was even used at times in jest. In January 1852 a Richmond editor complained of “Northern Encroachment… Whatever difference of opinion may have been heretofore existed among some of our citizens as to the fact of Northern aggression on the South, the question was set at rest beyond cavil or dispute, on Tuesday last. On the morning of that day, at early dawn, we were invaded by a Northern snow storm…”[7]

   Once again, this post is not a discourse on how the South perceived the North as being aggressors when it came to trampling on Constitutional rights. This is simply an examination on the use of the term “Northern aggression” from nineteenth-century primary sources. The idea that the North was the aggressor was not a new idea in the 1860s. The term had been used for decades prior to the 1860s.  

[1] The United States Gazette, July 30, 1830.

[2] The Charleston Mercury, July 8, 1831.

[3] Natchez Daily Courier, September 14, 1847.

[4] The Independent Monitor, September 28, 1848.

[5] The New Orleans Crescent, January 8, 1850.

[6] Mississippi Free Trader and Natchez Gazette, January 11, 1851.

[7] Richmond Dispatch, January 26, 1852.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

War of Northern Aggression?

   What do you call the war? What did they call the war? Recently, the folks over at Carnton House in Franklin, Tennessee, posted an interesting facebook question. They had a visitor stop by and ask them about the origins of the term “War of Northern Aggression.” Their response was that this term did not originate until the 1960s. Well… that’s not exactly true. While it might have become popular in the 1960s, a phrase similar to that one appeared often in period newspapers, and, many Southerners viewed the aggressors as those from the Northern states.  For example, in February 1861, US Senator William H. Seward introduced a petition from Northern merchants in favor of conciliation. Senator James M. Mason, Virginia, responded, exposing Seward’s speech as “a latent declaration of war, in behalf of Northern aggression, against Southern rights.”[1]

   A similar phrase used by a Richmond editor appeared a few weeks later. The article was discussing a Federal naval captain, J. P. Levy, who had joined the Confederate navy. Capt. Levy “with the heart of a true Southern man, prefers to aid the Southern Confederacy in the war against Northern aggression and despotism.”[2] A newspaper editor in Raleigh, writing in April 1862, thought that “North Carolina and the South entered upon this war to resist the usurpations of Northern aggression and tyranny; to preserve intact the right of the people of these States to govern themselves, and to perpetuate constitutional liberty to generations yet unborn.”[3]

   “Northern aggression” was a popular term for many writers in the 1860s. In Louisville, Tennessee, January 1, 1861, a group of citizens gathered and passed several resolutions. They regretted the breakup of the Union, but believed “that cause exists, solely from Northern aggression upon Southern constitutional rights“ and that there had been many cases of “Northern aggression for many years upon their rights…”[4] In a “Southern Rights” meeting in Christian County, Kentucky, in April 1861, some of the local citizens promised to hold themselves “in readiness to resist Northern aggression.”[5] “I am willing to make any sacrifice, sooner than the South shall be subjugated by Northern aggression,” North Carolina’s Thomas I. Faison wrote in October 1861.[6]

   “Northern aggression” was a term used throughout the remaining war years by Southern newspaper editors. In July 1862, the Greensboro Patriot, in describing Col. Zebulon B. Vance, wrote that Vance had “bared his breast to resist the tide of Northern aggression and subjugation…”[7] The editor of the Weekly Standard lamented in May 1862 that the “great men, who fought and won the battle of secession against Northern aggression and Southern submission, were thus, in the hour of triumph, crushed and humiliated as martyrs to the liberties of their own countrymen.”[8] In writing about the death of Brig. Gen. Allison Nelson, an Atlanta editor opinioned that Nelson “was one of the most vigilant and active of that patriot band, early and long determined to resist Northern aggression at all hazards.”[9] In talking about the French invasion of Mexico, the editor of the Abingdon Virginian confessed that France would need the help of the Southern Confederacy to “protect her from Northern aggression.”[10]

   The phrase “Northern aggression” continued after the war on the pages of various Southern history publications. The history committee of the Grand Camp of Confederate Veterans wrote in 1900 that “There was no need for war. The action of the Southern States was legal and constitutional, and history will attest that it was reluctantly taken in the last extremity, in the hope of thereby saving their whole constitutional rights and liberties from destruction by Northern aggression…” (There are many other examples in the pages of the Southern Historical Society Papers) The phrase “Northern aggression” also appears throughout the pages of Confederate Veteran.[11]

   The term “war against Northern aggression” or “war of Northern aggression” gained popularity in the 1960s, with publications like Burke Davis’s Our Incredible Civil War (1960) and Newman’s and Long’s The Civil War Digest (1960). The most likely rise in popularity of the term stemmed from Hollywood. Granny Clampett from the Beverly Hillbillies often said it was not a “Civil War,” but a “War of Northern Aggression.”  Of course, the Clampetts are one of the major sources of stereotypes of Southerners, although they actually hailed from Missouri.

The Beverly Hillbillies - S)6E13: "The South Rises Again." 

   The term “Northern aggression” of course signifies decades of sectional and political conflict in the United States. We’ll save that for a future post(s).

[1] New York Herald, February 7, 1861.

[2] Richmond Enquirer, May 24, 1861.

[3] Weekly Standard, April 9, 1862.

[4] Nashville Union and American, January 4, 1861.

[5] Clarksville Chronicle, April 26, 1861.

[6] Weekly Standard, October 23, 1861.

[7] Greensboro Patriot, July 31, 1862.

[8] Weekly Standard, May 28, 1862.

[9] Southern Confederacy, November 29, 1862.

[10]  The Abington Virginian, March 4, 1864.

[11] Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 28, 185.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Women as Clerics in the Southern Confederacy

   It is an often-repeated phrase: women left behind in various Southern states had to adapt, often performing a wide range of tasks beyond the normal status quo of taking care of the home and children. But the idea of 1860s women adopting the role of the clergy may seem farfetched to today’s readers.

   Historically, in most cultures, women were intrinsically involved with the processes of birth, life, and death. This concept is clear from the mythical triptych depiction of the female: maiden, mother and crone. In a practical sense, nearly every activity connected to being born, nurturing life, and caring for the dead was conducted and supervised by women. Only in more “modern” times have men become the primary figures in these practices, with the advent of medical and funeral practices conducted by professionals, men trained in facilities that often did not even permit the training of women. However, in the past, particularly in rural areas, women delivered babies, cared for children, treated the sick, and, when a person died, it was women who often cleaned and dressed the body, while also making a shroud. Men typically built the coffin and dug the grave. After the family sat up with the body overnight (embalming was not really in practice, except for the rich), the deceased was transported to the cemetery and a few words were spoken. Then the grave was filled. High churches, like Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, etc., had a proscribed liturgy that was to be read over the deceased. Exclusively male clergymen conducted these funeral rites and services

   There are many stories of women burying dead soldiers, both North and South. The pregnant Elizabeth Thorn at Gettysburg is one of the best known. But some women went further, and due to the absence of men, assumed the role of a cleric, performing the service for the dead, and challenging traditional gender roles as they took on one more aspect of caring for human beings departing this life.

   Francis Kirby Palmer was the wife of Col. John B. Palmer (58th North Carolina Troops). In 1858, they moved from Detroit, Michigan, to western North Carolina, building a home on the banks of the Linville River. (Francis’s brother was Capt. Edmond Kirby, US Army, promoted to brigadier general on his deathbed.) With Colonel Palmer away in the army, Episcopal missionary and teacher William West Skiles came and stayed with Mrs. Palmer, her young son, and niece. Skiles was already ill at the time, and his health continued to deteriorate. After being confined to his room at the Palmer house for three months, Skiles died on December 8, 1862. A rough box was constructed, and Skiles was buried in Mrs. Palmer’s rose garden. According to a biography of Skiles, “Mrs. Palmer herself put on his surplice, unwilling that a hireling should perform that service for him.” A surplice is a type of liturgical vestment, usually a white tunic maybe reaching to the knees. It is to be worn at all times while the minister is performing his ministration. Mrs. Palmer put on the surplice and read the burial service over his body.[1]

   The ritual itself largely contains Scripture readings, many from the book of Psalms, and several from the New Testament as well.

   There is a second reference to a woman performing the Funeral Liturgy. This one occurred a few months earlier. In May 1862, the Texas brigade had its first taste of battle at Eltham’s Landing in Virginia. Among the mortally wounded was Lt. Col. Harvey H. Black, 1st Texas Infantry, dying on May 7. According to a couple of different accounts, Lieutenant Colonel Black, and another soldier, Private Bush, were buried at Cedar Hill, New Kent County, Virginia, on the property of Dr. John Mayo. One Texas soldier wrote that Black was buried “in a private graveyard on the hill, and the burial service of the Episcopal church was read at the grave by a lady to whom the premises belonged.”[2]

The 1864 painting of The Burial of Latané depicts a similar scene of a burial being conducted by women, but the painting is an artistic interpretation, since the service was actually conducted by a Methodist minister who arrived shortly before the service and burial were conducted.

   These two stories, and there are undoubtedly more waiting to be discovered, provide illustrations for several different important points. Women were willing to ensure that men were to have proper burials in a time of increasing hardship. These women were willing to provide the last stages of that “Good Death” so often discussed in historical literature of the past twenty plus years. Women were willing to assume roles not typically perceived by society as being roles for women. While women were often involved in the burial process, these women were willing to go beyond tradition. For Mrs. Palmer, William West Skiles was a family friend who had lived with them for a short amount of time. For those in New Kent County, Lieutenant Colonel Black was a stranger from Texas. Yet the norms of the era dictated that he also deserved a proper burial. With no ordained minister at hand, these women were willing to see that the prescribed customs of the time were followed. Were there repercussions for their actions? Were they criticized or praised? It is hard to say.

   While there was discussion of starting an Episcopal church close to the Palmer home, the closest church was more than twenty miles away over poor mountain roads, so Mrs. Palmer’s decision seems to have been influenced by both geography and by circumstances. There was a church, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, in New Kent County, but it is unknown if the woman who buried Colonel Black and Private Bush was a member. In any case, what we do know is that these women understood the importance of proper rituals and burial practices, and they were willing to take on unexpected roles to ensure those practices were completed for friends and strangers.

[1] Cooper, William West Skiles: A Sketch of Missionary Life at Valle Crucis in Western North Carolina, 136.

[2] Todd, First Texas Regiment, 4-5.