In December of 1862, Grant was making the first of three attempts to capture the Gibraltar of the South, Vicksburg. His plan was to follow the railroad from Grand Junction, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi and then west to Vicksburg. He had won battles at Fort Donelson in northern Tennessee and Shiloh on the Tennessee-Mississippi line. He had setup Holly Springs as his supply depot. After leaving Holly Springs, he crossed the Tallahatchie River near Abbeville and went on to Oxford. Grant’s second in command was General William T. Sherman. He had crossed the Tallahatchie at Wyatt’s Crossing just to the west of Abbeville and had moved his 30,000 troops into the area around College Hill.
As I reported last week, College Hill and been settled around 1835 by a group of Presbyterians from Greene County, Alabama and Maury County, Tennessee. They had formed a church and college in their new community in Lafayette County. All of the land they purchased was sold only to members of their church. When Dr. Greenberry Bowles, a man of wealth and culture, wanted to buy land in the settlement his request was refused because he was a Roman Catholic and his wife an Episcopalian. Dr. Bowles would purchase land between College Hill and Abbeville on which to build his mansion and farm. It would be later used by Sherman as his headquarters since in was near the middle of his line of troops.
This was the time before Sherman’s famous “March to the Sea” in Georgia where he burned everything in sight. When his soldiers took over the Bowles’ home his men set the home on fire, but Sherman had the fire put out. Dr. Bowles was with the Confederate troops in the area at the time and he had sent his body servant, Frank, to get his daughter and young niece away from the plantation. They were able to do so and were sent to family in Aberdeen. The only way they had to travel was by an old lame horse that the Yankees had not confiscated. This left his wife and smaller children in the hands of Sherman and his men.
Sherman allowed Mrs. Bowles to take bedding and clothing from an upstairs room to a large room on the first floor. She was also able to take with her and the children a small amount corn meal and bacon that had not been taken by the troops. Sherman told her to barricade herself and the children in the large room, because he would not be responsible for what would happen is they left the room. She was in great fear not only of personal danger but also of hunger for her children if she must stay shut in more than one or two days. Late that night she heard a scratching noise under the floor near the hearth and then the creaking of one of the wide oaken floor planks as someone pushed it up from below. It was a short end of plank put in when a coal of fire had burned a hole in the floor a few years before. She wondered if any soldier had noticed it. At last it gave way and in the flickering firelight a hand reached through—a black hand. Then the whispered voice of old Pappy Dan reached her ears. He had managed to hide a milk cow over in a swamp, he said, and here was some milk for the children. He would come back every night and bring them what food he could find.
In College Hill the Union soldiers burned several homes. One of the homes was burned because a wounded Confederate soldier had been staying there. The Yankees completely devastated the community. They burned the cotton gin and grist mill, but the College Hill Church survived the destruction. Sherman’s Chaplain led services in the church, but he hid the song books for fear the soldiers would destroy them.
Two other stories are also interesting. They concern a rooster and the family silver. A Yankee officer ordered Mrs. Em Frierson to sit at her parlor piano and play all the southern songs she knew. When she started to play some soldiers rushed in to stop her but the officer insisted she keep playing. She was terrified while playing the piano because she had hidden the family silver in the piano. Mrs. Frierson had also been able to hide two chickens and a rooster under a tub in the tall grass at the end of her garden. She had done this to keep them from the Yankees, but every morning the rooster would still crow at daybreak. The Yankee soldiers would look for the rooster each morning, but they were unable to find his hiding place.
The Yankees would leave Lafayette County when General Van Dorn and his troops raided Holly Springs and destroyed the Union supplies. Later the young and old men that remained in College Hill formed a group of partisans called the Webb’s Rangers. They would later fight with Forrest and various locations including Atlanta. When the men had left College Hill, the young women began to drill with broomsticks and hoes for guns. They wanted to be prepared if the Yankees returned to their community, which they never happened.
Jack Lamar Mayfield is a fifth generation Oxonian, whose family came to Oxford shortly after the Chickasaw Cession of 1832, and he is the third generation of his family to graduate from the University of Mississippi. He is a former insurance company executive and history instructor at Marshall Academy in Holly Springs, South Panola High School in Batesvile and the Oxford campus of Northwest Community College.
In addition to his weekly blog in HottyToddy.com Oxford’s Olden Days, Mayfield is also the author of an Images of America series book titled Oxford and Ole Miss published in 2008 for the Oxford-Lafayette County Heritage Foundation. The Foundation is responsible for restoring the post-Civil War home of famed Mississippi statesman, L.Q.C. Lamar and is now restoring the Burns Belfry, the first African American Church in Oxford.