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Monday, August 18, 2008

LaGrange, TN

"Woodlawn" in La Grange, TN

Situated on a high bluff, overlooking the muddy waters of the Wolfe River in Tennessee, is the small town of "La Belle Village." You may have heard of it by its more commonly used name "La Grange."

Once a thriving community of 3,000 inhabitants during the 1850's, La Grange boasted of four churches, two colleges, numerous craftsmen, two drugstores, a dozen or more dry goods stores, a theatre, and a hotel.

Incorporated in 1828, while Memphis was barely seven years old, La Grange was considered a place of culture. wealth, society and education. Yet five years after the Civil War, La Grange's population had dwindled to 760, and in 1880 only 277 persons lived in La Grange. Was this prosperous and thriving southern community a victim of four years of bloody war? If not, it was certainly a perfect example of the antebellum, idyllic life-style that passed with the winds of change.

Though La Grange has less than 200 inhabitants today, the Civil War community remembers it as the starting point for that famous cavalry ride, "Grierson's Raid." The John Wayne movie, Horse Soldier, was loosely based on this raid, though Hollywood took great liberties with historical aspects of the ride. But this was the purpose of my first visit there; to explore the jumping off point of "Grierson's Raid."

Driving east on highway 57, about thirty miles outside of Memphis, my first visit to La Grange was akin to the discovery of a hidden treasure -- a treasure that was seemingly untouched by modern man or the hands of time. But unlike many other historic towns through-out the country, the local residents of this small hamlet appear to be content to be let alone by the throngs of tourists and passer-bys. You won't find quaint little tourist shops to beckon you and your wallet inside. The fact that there are no gas stations, fast food chains, convenience stores or any semblance of modernism is part of the charm that sets LaGrange apart from other historic towns.

As someone who has been involved in the tourism and promotion of historic sites, I was most concerned about intruding on this picturesque scene, as I stood with my camera in hand. I decided it would be a polite gesture to stop by the town hall before taking my photos. Located in an old brick school building, of the 1910 vintage, I found the town mayor, Lucy Cogbill, to be very accommodating and friendly. Now armed with several pieces of literature on the history of La Grange, I returned to my exploration with camera. So, without further adieu, join me on a virtual tour of historic La Grange, Tennessee, but quietly -- lest we drown out the muffled echoes of the past.

Driving east on Highway 57, the first thing about La Grange that may strike you as fascinating, is that every house lining both sides of the highway is painted white. Though there are relatively few houses that were built in this century, in the town proper, they too are white but built with an historic architecture. Each home is adorned with a placard that hangs from a black iron post at the edge of their spacious, and well manicured lawns, that tells the name of the house and the year it was built. The side streets turning off of the main highway are no more than narrow lanes that generally dead-end behind a grand carriage house at the rear of the properties. But to begin this tour, I've traveled through the town and turned around to head west, towards Memphis.

Woodlawn, with its eight massive, ionic columns sits on a slope facing east and a little distance back from the road. Built by Major Charles Michie, a veteran of the War of 1812, Woodlawn was completed in 1828. It was this home that General William T. Sherman chose to use as his headquarters on his stay in La Grange in 1862. Woodlawn also served as an emergency Union hospital for several months.

Hancock Hall, the home of Dr. Pulliam, was completed in 1857. The paint was still fresh when the Civil War arrived at its doorstep. The doctor and his family were allowed the use of three rooms on the first floor, while the hated Yankees made use of the rest of the house. General Grant, in his memoirs, recalled his visit to Hancock Hall on June 23d of 1862:

"I halted at La Grange. General Hurlbut was in command there at the time and his headquarters tents pitched on the lawns of a very commodious country house. The proprietor was at home and learning of my arrival, he invited General Hurlburt and me to dine with him. I accepted the invitation and spent a very pleasant afternoon with my host, who was a thorough Southern gentleman fully convinced of the justice of secession. After dinner, seated on the capacious porch, he entertained me with a recital of the services he was rendering the Cause. He was too old to be in the ranks himself -- he must have been quite seventy then -- but his means enabled him to be useful in other ways. In ordinary times the homestead where he was now living produced the bread and meat to supply the slaves on his main plantation, in the low lands of Mississippi. Now he raised food and forage on both places, and thought he would have that year a surplus sufficient to feed three hundred families of the poor men who had gone into the war and left families dependent upon the "patriotism" of those better off. The crops around me looked fine...I felt...the greatest respect for the candor of my host and for his zeal in a cause he thoroughly believed in, though our views were as wide apart as it is possible to conceive."

Mrs. Grant accompanied her husband to La Grange on one occasion, where they enjoyed horseback rides together.

The Immanuel Episcopal Church was completed in 1842 and is still in use today. The land on which the church is built was donated by a Mrs. Gloster, a widow from North Carolina, who had her slaves build the church as an exact replica of one from her former home. During the Civil War, the church was originally used as a hospital for Union soldiers. The church pews were used to make coffins for those who died. Later it was used as an ordnance storage facility. During the 1920's, while under renovations, workmen removed the paint and revealed where hospital occupants had written their names, addresses and bible verses.

Tiara was built by Frank Cossitt in 1845. A distinctive feature of this home is its cupola, which was blown away in the tornado of 1900. Ironically, the cupola landed intact some ten miles away and was recovered and restored to its original position. The owner of Tiara eventually moved to Illinois where he laid out an exact replica of the town of La Grange, Tennessee and named it La Grange.

The Pickens Home was the girlhood home of Lucy Holcombe Pickens, who was born in 1832 in the La Grange. Lucy married Francis W. Pickens, a young Congressman from South Carolina, in 1858. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Pickens became the minister to Russia and the young couple became close friends with the Czar Alexander II --so close that the Czar and Czarina became Godparents of the Picken's daughter. During the Civil War, while Pickens was serving as governor of South Carolina, Lucy's portrait was put on the Confederate $1 note of June 2, 1861, as well as three different $100 Confederate notes. She was the only woman so honored by the Confederacy, which earned her the sobriquet "Queen of the Confederacy."

The Allen Cogbill Home, also known as the Wilburn Franklin home, was built by Robert Cotton around 1847. Officers occupied the house during the Civil War, allowing the family several rooms for their personal use. In 1883, Dr. William Franklin and his wife purchased the property, living there with their two children. But tragedy struck the family twice while occupying it--in that their son died after being bitten by a rabid dog, and their daughter was killed after falling from the south front window.
The list of historic homes in La Grange is a long one indeed and include Tyrone Place ca. 1834; Hatton Cottage ca. 1827; Gable Villa ca. 1850; Twin Gables ca. 1834; Chantilly ca. 1850; Serenity ca. 1859; Reverie ca. 1825; Hillcrest ca. 1840; just to name a few.

Each home had its own Civil War story to tell; such as that of Dr. Waddells', who was forced to give up his home to Gen. John "Blackjack" A. Logan for his headquarters. The home of Mrs. Houston became temporary lodging for William Beverly Randolph Hackley, U. S. Treasury Agent 1863-1866, who writes of his stay:

"The yard where I am and the next one are in pretty good order with wide walk about 100 yards from the gate to the house with a row of red cedar about 15 feet high on either side and the walked edged with sweet violets the whole distance so that bushels may be gathered at once. There was before the war a very fine society in this place but most of them have gone South...There were plank walks over the town but most of them have disappeared as have the fences and many of the smaller houses in the campfires...This place is intended to be the principal depot of Merchandize and will be so strongly garrisoned that the rebs cannot take it...There are five regiments stationed at this place under the command of Brig. Genl. Tuttle so that there is no danger to be apprehended and there is a party of soldiers every few miles along the railroad to preserve it from destruction. There are a number of guerillas in the neighborhood but they do no damage except by taking provisions. The country has not been cultivated this past season and the people are suffering for food...My duty will be to grant them permits to purchase from the stores in this place, Small [sic] quantities of clothing, groceries, and provisions, Inc.--such as will last them two months and only on the application of the head of the family."

Captain Henry Forbes, commander of Company B, Seventh Illinois Volunteer Cavalry, wrote to his wife from La Grange:

"It was a neat little place of about a thousand people. The yards were beautifully improved, filled with evergreens and rare shrubberies. A fine college building crowned a gentle eminence to the east of the town and a Seminary for Ladies looked across it from the North. All is vulgar desolation now. The college and its twin buildings are used now for hospitals, and the churches are all appropriated to the same uses, with many of the private dwellings. The fences are all burned, the gardens trampled, the most elegant evergreens turned into hitching posts for Yankee horses, and all this in a town where there had been no strife of contending forces. It is a natural consequence of war."

The "fine college building" the Captain referred to in his letter was the "Synodical College," opened in 1857. The college had 119 students at the onset of the Civil War. Its first and only graduating class of 1861 ended the school year one month ahead of schedule, whereupon the entire class volunteered for the Confederate Army. The college building was used as a Union hospital, then later as a prison. In the harsh winter of 1863-64, the college building was torn down so that Union soldiers could use the bricks to build huts and chimneys for their tents. In the 1890's, the federal government paid $50,000 in recompense for the destroyed building.

But the college wasn't the only building that fell victim to the war years in La Grange, as the citizens claimed that no less than forty fine homes were destroyed during the "great conflict."

While La Grange remains well known as the starting point for Gen. Benjamin Grierson, and his seventeen hundred troopers, who began his famous raid at dawn on April 17, 1863, there were many such raids which began their expeditions from this west Tennessee town. Located about twenty-five miles north of Holly Springs, Mississippi, it became the perfect military jump-off point for operations against this Confederate state.

At the same time Grierson's raid was starting out from La Grange, General Sooy Smith's fifteen hundred cavalrymen also left La Grange for their expedition. Their purpose was to provide a smokescreen for Grierson's real objective. In July of 1864, Brig. Gen. Andrew J. Smith was to command a third expedition into northeastern Mississippi, under orders from Sherman to take care of that "devil Forrest" regardless of the cost. Smith's two veteran infantry divisions, Grierson's division of Cavalry and a brigade of black troops, under Colonel Bouton (a total of 14,200), left La Grange on July 5th. Smith's expedition resulted in a wide swath of destruction and the defeat of Forrest at Tupelo on July 14.

Though many of its former citizens returned to their homes after the war, attempting to rebuild the town to its former glory, La Grange never fully recovered from the damage it suffered at the hands of the Federal soldiers. But today, on a sultry summer evening, seated on the wide verandah of one of its elegant mansions, you can still imagine yourself transported back in time --a time before the sound of pounding hooves on a dusty roadbed, the footsteps of marching soldiers and the beat of distant war drums came to call on the genteel Southern town of La Grange, Tennessee.

** Note: When visiting La Grange, please respect the privacy of the occupants of these homes, as they are all privately owned (with the exception of the church, which still holds Sunday services). But do stop by the Town Hall and say hello to the Mayor. The town of La Grange is planning a big event this year, which will incorporate their Civil War history and the fine historic homes. Civil War Web will keep you posted on the event date and particulars when it is known.

Notable natives
Source: wikipedia