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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an item in the
Tennessee Historical Magazine

published by the
Tennessee Historical Society

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

Any color photos have been added by me and are © William P. Thayer.

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

Vol. VI
A Yankee School Master's Reminiscences of Tennessee​1

In September, 1866, I was invited to undertake the principal­ship of the high school in the City of Nashville, Tenn. The invitation was at once accepted, and early in that month the duties of that office were assumed. To the young man who had never before been out of New England, nor farther west than the Connecticut River, Tennessee was like a foreign country. Not a person in the City of Nashville had I ever seen, and as a Yankee schoolmaster I felt like a foreigner. The School Board, composed entirely of men of Southern birth and sentiments, had, nevertheless, made up their minds to get for the city schools teachers from any quarter who seemed qualified to make their schools what their judgment told them they should be. So they selected the principals and many of their subordinates without regard to any sectional prejudice. I venture the assertion that no fairer nor more self-sacrificing company of men were ever chosen for like responsibilities.

The state and city were then just beginning to recover from the disasters of a great civil war. All educational affairs were in a state of demoralization. And so the wise men, knowing the needs of the city and welcoming any help that they might be able to get, naturally, with this purpose in mind, turned to the North, from which quarter they could secure those whom they needed. Only a few of the residents of Nashville or, indeed, of any town in Middle or Western Tennessee, had been friendly to the cause of the Union. In the mountainous region of East Tennessee alone could Union men be found in any numbers.

The Brownlow Regime.

The state was in the iron grasp of the Brownlow regime. No one could vote unless he could show at the polls a certificate signed by a commissioner and supported by the sworn testimony of two well-known Union men stating that the intending voter had never in any manner been disloyal to the Union. That barred out about all the citizens of Nashville. This interesting document was illustrated with a portrait of the iron-clad Governor Brownlow. Nashville was controlled by that excrescence of the departed Northern army known familiarly as "carpet-baggers," and with a few honorable exceptions the name was well applied to those who governed the city, and finally, when the time of overthrow approached, looted the treasury and stole away.

Nashville in 1866 had many things to remind the newcomer that only little more than a year had passed since war had ceased. The forts on the hills to the south and west of the city, hills once covered with a luxuriant forest, but now bared by the needs of contending armies, were still there, and one, Fort Negley, wore still its plating of railroad iron and had even some dismounted cannon. The headquarters of the Army of Tennessee were there, with Gen. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Thomas in command, and the temporary barracks still held troops of soldiers.

The stranger, the new principal of the high school, felt more and more the loneliness of his adventure into such new surroundings, as he neared the terminus of the railway from Louisville, but a hearty  p280 welcome at the station from others, also strangers, but with a week's acquaintance with the city, engaged in work like his own, dispelled at once the gloom. Room had already been bespoken for him in a house kept by a big-hearted Southern lady, a house for a time during the war the headquarters of Gen. Rousseau of the Union Army. Passing through the yard in the rear of the house and crossing a narrow alley, one could see the gate opening into the backyard of the big house then occupied by Gen. Thomas as his headquarters, and on his first evening in Tennessee he heard the military band in front of the house playing all the familiar patriotic airs, as was the custom every evening for an hour or so, closing with "Yankee Doodle" and "The Star-Spangled Banner." Then the stranger felt at home, nor was he again troubled with the lonely melancholy of the early morning.

A Visit to General Thomas.

In some way these young Yankees made the acquaintance of one of the aids of the commanding general, and on one of these autumn evenings were invited to enter the headquarters.

This visit was one of many during the year that followed, but that particular evening lingers in my mind as a red-letter evening in those youthful years. Gen. Thomas was in the living room reading when we entered. Seeing strangers, he rose. The lieutenant gave him our names and told him that we were some schoolmasters, college men from New England, who were feeling a bit lonesome, and he had made bold to ask them in. The general came forward and, taking us by the hand, said: "Gentlemen, you are welcome. I know just how you feel. Where are you living?" And when we told him that our house backed up against his, he laughed and said: "Well, now, that is just as it should be. Understand, now, that I want you to make this room your lounging place; you are to feel at home here at any time. My business is in another room and you cannot disturb any of us. Come in by the back gate," this last with a smile. "Here are the New York and Washington papers and comfortable chairs; here are pen, ink, and paper; only don't use the paper with the department heading," and again came the smile.

This was our introduction to one of the noblest of all the noble host that fought the battles of the Union. Such was the genial sincerity of his welcome and the genuineness of his hospitable invincible, that we felt we should not do it justice if we declined to receive it at its full value. Then came to the tired teachers, weary with the day's effort to bring order out of chaos, evenings of quiet and rest, full also of a wonderful interest. The aids of the general were young gentlemen of culture and kind feeling. We all became friends. Gen. Thomas was usually in the room when not busy with official duties. Always courteous and affable, genuinely friendly, he had then, as he always commanded, the regard and affection of his staff and of the rank and file as well, and it was not long before we shared that feeling. He talked little, but when he did talk he had something to say. He was always interested in what we young fellows were saying when he was sitting with us around the fire, but usually he sat in a distant corner of the big living room, reading or chatting with one of his aids, or with a fellow officer whose rooms were nearby, who was a most agreeable companion.

The house that Gen. Thomas had taken for his headquarters was on High Street, then the residence street of the fashionable and wealthy citizens of Nashville. The rooms were spacious and well suited to the commander's needs. After the war the house was, I believe, returned to the owner, and later became the home of the Hermitage  p281 Club. On certain evenings of the week, when the band played martial and patriotic tunes from 8 to 9 o'clock, most of the houses on the street, still occupied by the owners, who were strong sympathizers with the "Lost Cause," were closed darkened to show disapproval of the kind of music the band played, but we noticed that on those warm fall evenings the darkened yards and porches were not without many listeners, for the band was a good one.​a

A Medal Presented to Gen. Thomas.

In November, 1865, the State Legislature voted a gold medal to Gen. Thomas in commemoration of the battle of Nashville in 1864, the result of which was a great victory for the Union, one which had much to do with hastening the end of the war. For his conduct of this battle Gen. Thomas received the appointment of major-general in the United States Army, accompanied by the assurance of the secretary of war that "no commander had more justly earned promotion by devotion, distinction and valuable services to his country." On the 15th of December the second anniversary of the battle in 1866, the medal was presented to the general by Governor Brownlow, in the presence of the assembled legislature and as many friends as the hall of the House of Representatives would hold. Gen. Thomas was expected to reply to the governor's address. He was a very modest man, and disliking above all things the duty of making a speech.

The night before the presentation he said, "I really believe I would rather fight over again the battle of Nashville than to make that speech. Any one of you fellows can do it better than I can." The eventful day came. We were fortunate enough by the kindness of the general and his staff to have excellent seats close to the speakers' stand. Governor Brownlow, his head and hand shaking with the palsy which had for many months afflicted him, in a characteristic address such as no one else could have made, presented to Gen. Thomas, who rose and stood by his side, a handsome gold medal. A suitable inscription and the capitol at Nashville was on one side and on the other, in bas-relief, a portrait of Thomas. The general seemed greatly affected and much embarrassed, but after a long pause he began his response in a voice low and trembling at first, but in a moment firm and strong, and told in a quiet and modest way the story of the battle of Nashville. No trained orator could have produced such an impression upon that large audience as was made by this simple narrative by the leader to victory in this great struggle. The scene was one never to be forgotten by anyone who was present.

[image ALT: A large room, two stories tall, the side walls of which are partly open and supported by large composite-order columns. Rows of identical wooden desks with two seats each, and each half of the desk decorated with two small flags, lead to a wooden rostrum behind which a blind stone archway about one story tall. That same wall has five windows, two to each side, and one above the archway, with monumental curtains gathered to the sides. It is a view of the chamber of the Tennessee State House of Representatives at the Capitol in Nasville.]

The House chamber in 2006.

President Johnson in Nashville.

In the spring of the year 1869 Andrew Johnson, who had just finished his term as President of the United States, came home to Tennessee, and for some months resided in Nashville. Soon after his return, the very day, indeed, he delivered from a platform erected in the Courthouse square, his defense of his administration, in the presence of thousands of men. No seats were provided; everyone had to stand. We young fellows from New England were full of curiosity to see and hear this remarkable man, of whom we had heard so much. None of us had ever seen him, but we had read of his humble birth, his ignorance of letters, in the literal sense of the word, until he was taught them when he was of age, of his bitter political fights with the Whig leader, Parson Brownlow, and much, of course, of his presidential career. So we were eager to look upon and hear the man  p282 who had achieved so much, and had been charged by his enemies with pretty much all the crimes in the calendar.

It was a simple, plain, well-constructed apologia, as the philosophers might call it, for his public career, and especially for his administration at Washington. There was a sort of sincerity about it, which, for the time at least, won everybody. Perhaps the impression made upon us young men was the greater because of our preconceived idea of the man. I have never read this speech; perhaps it would now seem to me dull and tiresome; but then, in the hearing it was, as has been said. I know that Johnson, the man, was to us a very different person from the Johnson about whom we had read and whom we expected to see. This impression to some of us has been a lasting one, and I was glad to see the other day that Dr. James Schouler, the well-known historian, is about to add a seventh, probably a final, volume to his "History of the United States," in which he is to discuss the administration of Andrew Johnson, and hopes to throw new light upon many things from certain materials now in his hands.

Death of Hon. John Bell.

We saw Johnson again in September, 1869. On the tenth of that month died John Bell, a man for more than forty years prominent in Tennessee political affairs, a member of Congress from 1827 to 1841, speaker of the House from 1835 to 1837, secretary of war under William Henry Harrison, and a senator from 1847 to 1850. He was better known nationally as the head of the presidential ticket in 1860 of the party called the "Union party," with Edward Everett, of Massachusetts as his running mate. He had always been an ardent Whig and was a bitter enemy of his Democratic rival, Johnson. In those days oftener than now political hatred became intensely personal, and in a man of Johnson's temper this feeling was always intense. The body of Mr. Bell lay in state in the chamber of the House of Representatives in the State House in Nashville. Sunday afternoon we young fellows made a part of a throng that slowly passed in line by the casket and looked for a moment upon the face of the dead statesman, of whom we had heard much a few years before.

It chanced that Andrew Johnson immediately preceded me in the slowly moving line. I watched him with keen interest as he stood before the body of one of his bitterest enemies, and a certain tenseness of feeling seemed to pervade the quiet, halting crowd. Mr. Johnson stood still for a whole minute with his eyes fastened on the face of Mr. Bell, but he made no sign, and his face was during that moment as expressionless as the face of the dead. Then with a sigh he passed on. We went away as if we had a glimpse of a solemn tragedy.

Candidacy of Andrew Johnson for Senator.

In October, 1869, Johnson made his first fight for election as a senator from Tennessee. For two or three weeks before the election he kept open house at the Maxwell House, then the leading hotel of Nashville, and used all his personal influence to secure the prize. He was most bitterly assailed by his opponents, attacked, as I find in some notes made at the time, "for oppressing the 'Rebs,' for grinding the Union men, for deserting the Democrats, for leaving the Radicals, for hanging Mrs. Surratt, for not hanging a few thousand rebels, for being an aristocrat, for being a tailor, and hence the ninth part of a man, for favoring the negroes, for not doing more for them, for vetoing bills, for not vetoing more, for being drunk, for  p283 not being willing to drink on certain occasions, for appointing this man to office and for not pressing the claims of that man, for occupying the 'bridal chamber' at the new hotel, for not hobnobbing with the slums among the people while in the city, for being alive physically, and not wanting to die politically, and for doing, not doing and undoing a thousand and one things which have turned up during his mortal life." He was defeated this time after four days of excited balloting.

An Incident.

An interesting incident occurred on the day when Johnson delivered his apologia in September, 1869, worth noting as an illustration of the freaks of fortune in war times. Mr. Edward Earle, of Worcester, Mass., a member of the Society of Friends, and warm friend of Lincoln and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Grant, had had much to do with the care of the sick and wounded soldiers on both sides during the war. He happened to be in Nashville on the day of Mr. Johnson's speech. He was an old friend and I called on him at the City Hotel soon after his arrival. I knew the proprietor of the hotel and called him by name. Mr. Earle at once said to him, "Is this Col. Blood, formerly a resident of the State of Georgia?" "Yes, sir," was the reply. "Did you have a son in the Confederate Army?" "Yes, sir," said the old gray-haired man in a voice choking with emotion, "but he was reported wounded and missing, and I doubt not that he is dead. He was a fine boy." Mr. Earle went on to tell that, years before, in one of the Federal hospitals he found a young wounded lieutenant from Georgia whose death was near. He gave to Mr. Earle the address of his father and his gold watch, a father's gift, and asked that it might some day, if possible, be given to Col. Blood with his dying message of love. The good Quaker had carried the watch in all his journeyings in the South on many an errand of mercy. He had gone to the former residence of this Southern family in Georgia, but no one knew anything of the father or any member of his family. The report was that all were dead. The watch and the message of love were at once given to the old father and mother, who received them with abundant thanks and copious tears of joy and sorrow. One can fancy, too, the satisfaction of the good and faithful man who now saw the fulfillment of the promise he had made to the dying boy.

Marshall S. Snow.

The Editor's Notes:

1 The Oklahoma Historical Society has kindly furnished this clipping from the St. Louis Republic, February 28, 1913. —Ed.

Thayer's Note:

a When I was a teenager in Tangier, Morocco in the early 1960's, a very similar story was told of the town's leading pastry shop a few years before. During World War II, Tangier, being governed by an international commission of French, Spanish, British, Italian, German and American diplomats, was inevitably neutral and at peace — but inevitably also a hotbed of intrigue and diverse allegiances. Mme Porte's pastry shop was famous for her excellent confections, but alas, so the story ran, she was pro-German: what were loyal Allied sympathizers to do? well, forgoing one's pastries for political principle seemed excessive to many: every day a single customer would show up, and receive their order of the most astounding quantities of tarts and cakes . . . deputized to bring them home to dozens of people who wouldn't be caught dead at Mme Porte's, natürlich.

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Page updated: 5 May 16