Women to the Rescue

by Carol Kaplan.

At the end of the 19th century City Cemetery was in crisis. Once a burial place for all Nashvillians, it had been supplanted by the newer and more beautiful Mt. Olivet, Mt. Ararat, and Calvary cemeteries. The Union Civil War dead had been transported to National; the Confederates, to Mt. Olivet. Neglected and ignored, City was described by the Banner on June 21, 1868, as a ruin: “robbery, murder and lust have held their horrid orgies in it and even now nightly desecrated by being the rendezvous of lascivious love.” No wonder the cemetery was promptly declared a “public nuisance” and burials were suspended the following month. A plan quickly came together within city government to remove all the graves and make the land a public park.

Sunset at Nashville City Cemetery (photo by Rebecca Sowell)

“Not so fast! Absolutely not!” Nashville’s women spoke out forcefully against such an idea. This was “sacred ground and should never be called a park,” protested Felicia Steger, a granddaughter of Felix Grundy. Women had found a new freedom of expression with the advent of the 20th century. In 1897 their Woman’s Building at the Tennessee Centennial had been a triumph. Now they found that, although not yet allowed to vote, they could nonetheless organize and engage in “civic housekeeping” with positive results. “We shall never have clean cities until the women undertake the job” was the credo of these busy ladies. Their noble efforts notwithstanding, a Banner reporter of 1900 expressed indignation that “women were boldly wearing ankle-length skirts on clear days because they were helpful in getting on and off streetcars.”

·         Woman’s building at Tennessee Centennial Exposition, 1897 (Image #27163; Calvert Brothers Photography Studio; courtesy of Tennessee State Library & Archives)

Saving and caring for City Cemetery became the focus of several groups. In 1903 the Tennessee Women’s Historical Association was organized, its specific purpose to preserve the cemetery. Sumner A. Cunningham, editor of the Confederate Veteran, claimed credit for suggesting its formation. He was the only male member of an industrious group that included Louise Lindsley and Carnegie librarian Mary Hannah Johnson. Other civic and patriotic organizations were asked to join them “to assist in improving and preserving the old city cemetery, to dispel the spirit of vandalism and promote civic pride. The Ladies’ Hermitage Association, DAR, UDC, and Colonial Dames all cooperated under this umbrella. One of their successful projects was the construction of a Memorial Gate at the 5th Avenue entrance. Dedicated in 1909, the gate exists only in pictures now, having been destroyed in an automobile accident during the 1930s. Wishing to do their part, Cumberland Chapter, DAR, erected a sundial to mark the path leading to the James Robertson family plot.

Nashville City Cemetery (photo by Rebecca Sowell)

The South Nashville Federation of Women was another group that worked to care for the City Cemetery grounds. The guidebook All About Nashville reported in 1912 that “with the cooperation of 400 members, they have cleared away the rubbish, pruned trees, graveled the walks, and planted a line of memorial elms and lastly, are in the process of erecting a handsome memorial gateway to the heroes of another day.” These gateposts, on 4th Avenue, still stand. May Winston Caldwell, whose parents and siblings are buried at City, remembered the pre-Civil War days when her mother and Peter, the gardener, came to care for the family plot. Now May, as a member of the South Nashville Women, was proudly carrying on that tradition.

Sign at City Cemetery entrance gate (NHN collection)

These hard-working women began a program of stewardship and restoration that has resumed in recent years after a period of neglect. Today the Nashville City Cemetery Association (composed of both men and women!) is ten* years old, making it the longest-lived and most professional volunteer organization ever to protect and renovate the grounds and markers: an endowment established at the Community Foundation will support the continuing restoration of the City Cemetery in the years to come. Thanks to the $3 million allocated by the Metro Council, and with the cooperation of the Metro Historical Commission and such citizen organizations as Master Gardeners of Davidson County, the cemetery is once again prepared to maintain its status as a historically valuable resting place of our pioneer heritage.        (2008)

A volunteer from the Master Gardeners of Davidson County works in one of the family plots (NHN photo)

Previously published in Monuments and Milestones, the Nashville City Cemetery Newsletter.

* Note: This article was written in 2008. The NCCA began its work in 1998. By this time (late 2021) the organization is more than 23 years old.

The Battle of Nashville: Shy, Smith, and Hood

by Doris Boyce.

A detail in the death of a Williamson County Civil War hero was clarified after Colonel William Shy’s grave was vandalized in 1977. Before that time, it was believed that Shy had been killed by a mini-ball shot from a muzzle-loading firearm during the Battle of Nashville, December 16, 1864. When anthropologist Dr. William M. Bass (founder of the University of Tennessee’s “Body Farm”) reconstructed the wound in Shy’s skull, he found that the wound was too large to have been caused by a mini-ball. Shy’s wound was more likely the result of the bombardment that Nashville citizens had watched from Capitol Hill.

William Mabry Shy, Colonel of the 20th Tennessee, was left dead on the top of what was then Compton Hill. When his body was recovered, it had been stripped and bayoneted to a tree. His descendants are still in possession of the bayonet. General Benton Smith*, Shy’s superior officer, was taken prisoner at the bottom of the hill, where his captor cracked him over the head three or four times with a saber. He never entirely recovered and ended his life in an insane asylum.

General John Bell Hood, Confederate commander of the battle, appeared to associate valor with casualties. Hood was a none-too-stable combat veteran who had to be tied onto his horse because of a useless arm and an amputated leg. Sixteen days earlier, on November 30th, Hood had attacked the Union Army in the bloody one-day Battle of Franklin, which had resulted in 6,000 Confederate losses.

The Battle of Nashville thrust 21,000 of Hood’s ill-equipped infantry and 4,000 cavalry against General George H. Thomas’s well-equipped Union infantry, about 60,000 strong. The fighting took place in the hills near the present-day intersection of Granny White Pike and Harding Place/Battery Lane, ultimately spreading over five miles, from Franklin Road to Hillsboro Pike. The Union bombardment lasted for two days before their troops attacked with overwhelming force. Confederate survivors limped away as best they could after suffering some 4,000 casualties. After the Battle of Nashville, Hood, a West Point graduate who believed in frontal attacks with flags flying, retreated to Mississippi. In January of 1865, less than one month later, he gave up command, having all but destroyed the Army of Tennessee. Hood died in relative obscurity after ten years as a successful New Orleans businessman.

Confederate kepi

Thankfully, the valor of the Confederate dead will not be forgotten. In 1968 the Metro Historical Commission placed a plaque at the slope of Compton Hill, which has been re-named Shy’s Hill. The area can be accessed via Shy’s Hill Road or Benton Smith Road from Harding Place, two blocks west of Granny White Pike.

* Gen. Thomas Benton Smith, who had been gravely wounded at Stones River (31 Dec 1862-2 Jan 1863) and Chickamauga (18-20 Sep 1863), returned to military duty after his eventual recovery. As Smith surrendered to Union Col. William L. McMillen during the Battle of Nashville, McMillen attacked the disarmed general savagely with his own sword, causing such severe brain injuries that Smith was at first not expected to survive. Although he eventually recovered sufficiently to return to his pre-war job at the Nashville & Decatur Railroad, he was eventually confined in a Nashville insane asylum, where he lived for most of his last 47 years. He is buried in Confederate Circle at Mt. Olivet Cemetery.

Editor’s note: When this essay was published earlier on another site, a reader strenuously objected to its characterization of General John Bell Hood. We understand that other views of Hood’s tactical wisdom and effectiveness are certainly possible. Hood was a complex individual whose actions have engendered both hostility and admiration among those who have studied his military career. The points of view expressed in this essay are those of its author, but other positions may be equally valid. We encourage any reader to submit an essay detailing your own perspectives on Hood, particularly as they relate to the Battle of Nashville.   

Their Dust Dispersed on Many Fields: The Confederate Circle at Mt. Olivet Cemetery

by Terry Baker.

Eighteen-year-old Private Willis L. McWhirter of Adamsville in McNairy County was mustered into the 27th Tennessee Infantry, CSA, in September 1861. He would not survive the war. A little over three years after his enlistment he was hit by artillery fire at the Battle of Franklin. The missile caused severe damage to his right hip joint, and it is remarkable that McWhirter, by then a corporal, survived as long as he did.

The monument that graces Confederate Circle in Mt. Olivet Cemetery is a granite obelisk topped by a nine-foot statue of a Confederate soldier. Thirteen rows of graves surround the monument: buried in the first six rows are Confederate soldiers from other states; in the seventh row are unknown soldiers; and in the outer rows, the graves of Tennesseans. (photo from NHN collection)

When Hood retreated after the Battle of Nashville, McWhirter remained behind with the rest of those too seriously wounded to be moved. Taken prisoner on December 17, 1864, he was left in the care of Union Army surgeons at the U.S. Army General Hospital #1, on the hill near where Third and Lindsley now meet. McWhirter died of his wounds on January 31, 1865, and was buried the next day at Nashville City Cemetery.

According to his military records, the corporal was assigned two numbers, a hospital patient number and a grave number, the latter also appearing in Nashville mortician W. R. Cornelius‘s burial ledger. The letters “GSW” next to his name there represent the cause of death: “gunshot wound.” Cornelius had contracted with the Union military authorities to bury both the Union dead and their Confederate counterparts. His ledger contains over 15,000 entries, many of them unknown soldiers. 

In 1869 a movement developed to honor fallen Confederates by re-interring them at Mount Olivet Cemetery, in existence then for nearly 15 years. Twenty years later, in 1889, the monument at Confederate Circle was dedicated in a ceremony commemorated by photos in Confederate Veteran Magazine. In the early 1970s, owing largely to the work of the Reverend Florence Redelsheimer of the Mount Olivet staff, markers provided by the United States Veterans Administration (now the Department of Veterans Affairs) were placed around the circle. Flat stones were chosen rather than the more typical vertical stones (which were pointed, allegedly to prevent disrespectful persons from sitting on them). Walking the northern face of the Circle, a visitor can see rows of markers for Alabama soldiers along with Corporal McWhirter’s, one of half a dozen Tennesseans whose markers lie on that side.

Not far from Corporal McWhirter lies the grave of one of only three women buried here. Mary Kate Patterson Davis Hill Kyle was an active member of a Confederate unit known as Coleman’s Scouts.  It was this company to which Sam Davis belonged at the time of his 1863 capture. The story of Davis’s hanging by the Federals is well-known to Middle Tennesseans. Mary Kate, whose first marriage was to Sam’s brother John, died in 1931 at age 97.

In at least one case, a husband and wife were buried together in Confederate Circle: William and Catharine Palmer rest together under upright stones. We see from the inscriptions that William lived to be one hundred years old, and Catharine survived until 1952. Behind an evergreen tree in the outer rows lies J.A. Hankin, a nurse who died in 1863.

It should be noted that Corporal McWhirter is buried under the name William, rather than Willis, as his service records identify him.  Many of the old records are difficult to read, particularly since styles of penmanship have changed; to complicate matters further, some of Mount Olivet’s microfilm records are almost illegible.  Not so the records of Mr. W. R. Cornelius, the mortician, whose hand was quite elegant.

Missing are the pre-1875 records for Mount Olivet, later supplemented by the discovery of some interment books in a building on the cemetery grounds. Also lost was a pre-1952 map, without which it was difficult for the staff to locate the known Confederate graves. Add to that the apparent indifference to standardized name spellings during the Civil War and the high illiteracy rate among rural soldiers, and one can begin to understand why so many names on the markers are oddly spelled.

Close to 1,500 Confederate soldiers are buried in thirteen rows, the overwhelming majority of the soldiers unknown. Those who died in hospitals and prison camps left records of their names, and these can be found on the inner row markers. Unknown soldiers were buried in a trench running completely around the Circle. In the outer rows lie men who died after the war, their names etched in stone for all to read. On the left side of the 45-foot-tall monument is a touching verse, which reads in part, “The muster roll of our dauntless dead is lost and their dust dispersed on many fields.” At least a part of that muster roll has finally been recovered.

This 45-foot monument stands guard over Confederate Circle in Mt. Olivet Cemetery (photo from NHN collection)

The author would like to thank Tim Burgess, researcher into Confederate deaths and burials, who has been instrumental in having markers placed at Confederate Circle in recent years. This essay was composed using material supplied by Mr. Burgess, along with microfilm records at the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Notes from readers:

1. Mary Kate Patterson Davis Hill Kyle had a brother, Everard Meade Patterson, who was also a Coleman Scout. He, too, is buried in Mt. Olivet Cemetery. Three other Coleman Scouts are also buried there. Everard died in 1932, being the last of the Scouts. My relative Joshua Brown was a Scout, and he, Mary Kate, and Everard are profiled in our new Civil War book, Shadow Soldiers of the Confederacy. (Talley Bailey)

2. I am named for John F. Wheless, First Tennessee Rock City Guard, who is buried in the Circle, He was a friend and business partner of my great-grandfather, Henry Wade, and godfather to my grandfather, Harry Wheless Wade Sr. (Harry Wheless Wade III, Nashville)

Adolphus Heiman’s Cemetery Stone Work

by John S. Lancaster.

At the height of his career in Nashville, 1837 to 1861, Adolphus Heiman designed over 30 structures, ranging from churches and public buildings to residences, forts, and even a bridge. By the mid-1850s his architectural skills and achievements had received so much recognition he was referred to as “Nashville’s Architect.”

Until recently, Heiman’s efforts in designing and creating tombstones and vaults had not been investigated, but three newly identified examples of his work show another side to the talents of this Prussian immigrant.

Located within the Old City Cemetery on Fourth Avenue South are two very different markers. The simpler of the two tombstones was made for Benjamin Sharpe in 1848. It has experienced such severe weathering that the acroteria on the four corners and much of the inscription have eroded away. Chancery Court records of a lawsuit between F. Scott, Adm., vs. Heirs of Benjamin Sharpe provide clear documentation that this stone is a Heiman creation.

Benjamin Sharpe’s tombstone in the City Cemetery. (photo courtesy of the Nashville City Cemetery Association)

As part of the docket evidence now preserved at the Nashville Metropolitan Archives, an entry on an itemized ledger page shows that A. Heiman was paid for a tombstone on September 8, 1848. Also included is a note written in Heiman’s own hand confirming payment from Mrs. Ann Sharpe for the “forty-seven dollars on account of a tomb for Benj. Sharpe deceased.” Heiman seems to have been a friend of the family: his name also appears on the Sharpes’ wedding bond and as an executor of Mrs. Sharpe’s will.

As further documentation is discovered, other tombstones in the Old City Cemetery may also be attributable to Heiman . One such record was recently discovered in the Chancery Court case of J. W. Birdwell & wife vs. William H. Harris: a payment receipt for William Harris’s monument lists the payees as Heiman and Stevenson. (Stevenson was a popular stonecutter in Nashville and signed his name to the Mexican War Memorial in Gallatin, Tennessee.) Although we know Mr. Harris was buried in Old City Cemetery, his stone has yet to be located.

The other Heiman tombstone in City Cemetery marks the grave of Nancy Maynor. The wife of Pleasant Maynor, Nancy passed away on the 28th of May in 1836. Pleasant Maynor remarried on February 21, 1837 to Jane M. Iredale. Of interest is the fact that Heiman is believed not to have arrived in Nashville until 1837. While there is sufficient space to carve another name on the opposite side, only Nancy’s information appears on the monument. This stone also bears the signature “A. Heiman” near the base.

Nancy Maynor’s tombstone in City Cemetery. (photo courtesy of Nashville City Cemetery Association)

Carvers and designers rarely signed tombstones unless the work was unique. The Maynor monument is an above-ground stone box topped with a shaft-like pedestal surmounted by an urn. Two notable details of this piece are the carved butterfly on the pedestal and the anthemion designs on the four corners of the tombstone. In memorial art a butterfly represents the soul and/or resurrection; the anthemion is purely decorative. The use of an above-ground stone vault was common in the Nashville area, but the bodies were buried in the ground beneath rather than inside the vault.

The third and most elaborate example of Heiman’s known stonework was the Franklin Vault in Sumner County, Tennessee. Located on the property of Fairview Farm, the vault was built for the wealthy slave trader Isaac Franklin and his family. Only seven years after marrying the much younger Nashvillian, Adelicia Hayes Acklen, Mr. Franklin died suddenly in Louisiana in 1846 at the age of 57. His wishes were to be returned to Tennessee for burial, and his remains were shipped in a lead-lined casket filled with alcohol. His body was placed in a temporary brick structure until a permanent vault could be constructed. Tragedy struck the Franklin household again only seven weeks after Mr. Franklin’s death when his two oldest daughters, Victoria and Adelicia, succumbed to croup and bronchitis only two days apart.

The loss of her husband and children devastated the young widow, who soon moved back to Nashville. Her father, Oliver Bliss Hayes, was appointed to handle her affairs. It is not clear who hired Heiman to create the Franklin Vault, but he designed it along with an octagonal cast iron fence for $2,500.00. By 1850 the mausoleum still had not been finished. The local builder hired to do the job had subcontracted the work. When the builder died in 1849, the subcontractor, who had not been paid, tried unsuccessfully to sue the trustees of the Franklin estate for monies still owed him.

The Sumner County Chancery Court case of Henley vs. Armfield specifies that the material for the vault was to be solid stone masonry except for the brick interior arches for the ceiling. The dimensions were twenty-eight feet square and fourteen feet high, excluding an obelisk. The walls were to be two feet thick with the outside rubbed and with four interior pillars, two feet square, to assist in the support of the superstructure. Four partition walls would create an eight-foot-wide central passage giving access to six apartments on each side, and two sets of stone shelves that were to be no less than six inches thick. The floor was to be made of “chiseled flagging of stone diamonding with stone of different colors” and the arched brick ceiling was to be “plastered with hydraulic cement.” The outward door was to be made of iron and the inner door of cedar. A window with an iron grate would provide ventilation. The roof was to be made of stone slabs five to six inches thick laid in such a way as to prevent leaks. As cost was not a prohibiting factor, the finest materials available were to be used.

It was specifically noted that Heiman himself was expected to erect the monument on top of the vault and to create the design on the two frontispieces. Some of the details appear never to have been finished, but the design of the frontispiece was completed as an Egyptian motif — an orb flanked by winged serpents. Almost certainly the largest vault Heiman ever designed, it had a style more readily found in the St. Louis Cemetery of New Orleans than on a Sumner County farm in Tennessee. A 1911 picture of the Franklin Vault has been published in Margaret Lindsley Warden’s booklet, The Saga of Fairvue, 1832-1977, p. 10.

In 1912 the vault was struck by a tornado and collapsed. Fortunately, the remains of Franklin and his children had been removed to Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Nashville years earlier. For years the Egyptian-styled lintel remained, lying in the tall grass. Today, with the fence long since removed, the ruins of the vault are threatened by development.

Although not common knowledge, many prominent architects of the early 19th century, including Robert Mills, Gideon Shyrock, and William Strickland, accepted commissions to design tombstones or monuments, in addition to their buildings. Even after the completion of his First Baptist Church project, Heiman continued to rely on stonemasonry as a primary form of income until after his return as a hero from the Mexican War in 1847. Thenceforth, his enhanced status thrust him into the spotlight of Nashville society and he began to be offered commissions for all types of building projects.

Confederate Monument, Mt. Olivet Cemetery (photo from NHN collection)

It is ironic that the favorite architect of ante-bellum Nashville would fade into obscurity. Most of Heiman’s work has now been destroyed, including the majority of his public buildings and private residences. Even his final resting place is uncertain. Adolphus Heiman lies in an unmarked grave beneath the forty-five-foot granite monument in Mt. Olivet Cemetery’s Confederate Circle. (2000)