THE ANECDOTE OF THE OFFICER’S PARTY AT SWEETWATER
The story of East Florence’s Sweetwater Plantation would not be complete without telling the colorful yarn of the Confederate General who stumbled into the water fountain at its front entrance. This embarrassing incident became a part of the lure and lore of thisgreat ante-bellum mansion as told by each generation of the family who lived there. The circumstances surrounding this event became the subject of mischievous banter as the hard-pressed soldiers made their way northward to the ill-fated Battles of Franklin and Nashville.
The agonizing days of the terrible war were converging on an even more painful ending when Brigadier General Gideon Johnson Pillow used the manor house at Sweetwater for his headquarters and camped his men around the big spring at the foot of the hill. No doubt, Pillow’s selection of Sweetwater for his camp site was suggested by his military aide, Sergeant Robert Patton, who was later to die in the Battle of Selma. Young Robert was one of the three Patton boys in the Confederate Army.
Florence was overrun with soldiers in November, l864. Confederate task forces had crossed the river at two places on October 30th to clear the town of its occupying Federal garrison. Major General Nathan Bedford Forest arrived fifteen days later with some 3,000 cavalrymen to await the river crossing of General John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee on November 15th with about 27,000 infantrymen and 2,000 cavalrymen. The historic north end of Court Street became Hood’s general headquarters with some of his staff and general officers quartered in its stately residences. The divisions and brigades were camped in and around the city. The presence of a large military force in this small rural town was not new. Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, with his 15th U. S. Army Corps, had occupied Florence the previous November. Sherman used Wesleyan Hall as his headquarters and a number of his senior officers were quartered at North Court Street.
Sweetwater and the nearby Price and McCorstin Plantations had been used by both Union and Confederate soldiers at various times for most of the war years. Until a few years ago, a long and well-defined earthen fortification could be seen along the slope of the cedar crest hill of the old McCorstin Plantation overlooking Sweetwater Avenue, an early stagecoach route into Florence from the east. Similar fortifications made at Sweetwater were obliterated by the horse and plow within a few years following the war’s end.
Gideon Pillow was one of the “political” generals of the Confederate Army. A graduate of the University of Nashville, he practiced law before and after the Civil War. In l844, Pillow played a key role in getting his law partner, James K. Polk, nominated for President of the United States. As a military officer he rose to the rank of Major General in the Mexican War. However, fate was not on his side during the Civil War. The General’s unfortunate role as second in command of Fort Donelson at the time of its surrender plagued him for the remainder of the war years. Although he fought at Stones River and in other battles he was never given another important command.
General Pillow was no stranger to the charms of Sweetwater. His political connections had brought his elegant carriage from his magnificent plantation near Columbia, Tennessee, to the home of Alabama’s future governor before the gathering of war clouds. In fact, the Pillow family earlier had become a part of the aboriginal history of the Muscle Shoals area. It was the General’s uncle, William Pillow, who was credited with killing the notorious Creek Chief Big Foot near the mouth of Cypress Creek in the summer of 1787.
Hood’s encampment at Florence was not only a time to prepare for the military advance into Tennessee, but off-duty hours became brief interludes for festivities. There were a number of dances and gala events, including a military ball at Sweetwater attended by officers throughout the command. It was on the night of this party when General Pillow fell into the basin of the lovely fountain in the center of the wide front walk, “in which blooms lilies and blue water hyacinths, upon which is poised a smiling boy … where the sound of dripping water is heard.” The extent of the General’s injury was never officially reported. Rumors repeated by the soldiers had it that his arm was broken. In writing about the Battle of Franklin, Private Willie Smith noted that Pillow had fallen into a fountain while at Florence.
The daughters of Robert Patton, Mattie and Marie, were more gracious to their guest than the men who served under him. Mattie said that he was “walking up and down the front walk so intently thinking he stepped into the iron railing around the basin of the fountain and fell into the basin of water, being badly bruised.” Marie wrote: “He stumbled over the low curb … and fell into the water, startling the fish, and badly bruising himself.”
A former slave at Sweetwater remembered this anecdote differently than the Patton girls. As one of the Negroes assigned to help with the party that night, his version was more attuned to the banter of the soldiers. Some fifty years after the war, Uncle Mose, who lived to be more than one hundred years of age, loved to entertain his audiences with his humorous account of the General who fell into the water fountain. And, with a big grin, Mose, without fail, would end his story by saying: “…and that soldier was drunk!”
THE NIGHT SHERMAN’S MEN RAIDED SWEETWATER
This is a story about terrorism that happened near Florence during the Civil War. It involved the family of Robert Miller Patton who later served as Governor of Alabama.
The Patton home, known as Sweetwater, is located in a grove of trees alongside Florence Boulevard and is one of the area’s most priceless relics of the past.
The background for the story began on November 3, l863, when the 15th U. S. Army Corps moved into the small rural town of Florence. Their commander was none other than General William Tecumseh Sherman who later won lasting fame when he burned his way across Georgia. The tall, hardy, and homely general made his headquarters at Wesleyan Hall on the University campus. He established his own living quarters in the spacious General Samuel Weakley home that fronted both North Pine Street and North Court Street near the downtown area of the city. Florence and the surrounding countryside became an armed camp overnight. One of Sherman’s divisions made encampment at Sweetwater, which in that early day was located on one of the main pikes leading into the city from the east.
The soldiers began roaming over the plantation grounds in search of spoils as soon as their tents were erected near the big spring. All the meat that had been stored for the winter was taken. Turkeys, chickens, ducks, and geese were shot and tied to the saddles of the raiders. All of the horses and cows were confiscated to be used in Sherman’s forthcoming march to Chattanooga. The house was raided time and again. Most of the edibles, including pickles, beans, potatoes, and corn, were carried away. As expected, a clean sweep of the wine cellar was made at the very beginning. Slave cabins on the grounds were used as infirmaries for soldiers suffering from small-pox. Two of the newest cabins were burned along with the bodies of two victims as a means of preventing the further spread of the disease.
But the night of fear that forever lived in the memories of the Patton’s was different from the other raids by Sherman’s men. It began about an hour before midnight and did not end until around three in the early morning on that cold November day. The two daughters, Martha and Marie Jane, were with their father and mother in the house that night. So was Marie Jane’s husband, Captain John Jackson McDavid, who was recovering from an illness contacted while serving with the Confederate Army. All had retired for the evening when the soldiers appeared.
The hero of this story was the Negro slave, Edmund Patton. Edmund, who was later to be affectionately called “Uncle Champ” by the other Negroes, must have had a premonition that night. Rather than retiring as was his custom after the family went to bed, Edmund waited and watched from the front steps of the mansion. It wasn’t long before he heard the rattle of sabers and the sound of feet on the front driveway. On the tip of his toes, Edmund reached upward as high as he could and tapped on the window at the master bedroom. Patton quickly opened the front door. Edmund rushed in with the alarm: “soldiers are coming!” He quickly moved toward the stairs in the main hall that led to the second floor where the young ladies were sleeping. It was then that the side door was battered down by the invaders. They rushed toward the stairwell as the servant threw his arms across their path. Edmund’s heroic statement made to the soldiers that night has been carefully recorded and preserved in the old plantation ledgers: “My two young mistresses are upstairs and you can not go there unless over my body.”
The horrified family watched as the house was ransacked room by room. The master of the house offered a meal to the terrorists. The only food in the house were the last two turkeys, which had been baked that day. The soldiers quickly consumed both platters of meat, then drew their guns and demanded the wallets of Patton and Captain McDavid. It was at this moment that Mrs. Patton, scared and completely exhausted, broke away and ran to her room. She was quickly pursued by one of the soldiers. Her screams brought the entire family to her side. They found the soldier on his knees while attempting to search her body. Mr. Patton raged at the intruder: “touch my wife for your life!” Mrs. Patton, sensing the danger, dropped her purse which had been concealed in her sleeve. It contained $40 in gold and greenbacks, several jewels including three diamond studs that had belonged to her son, Captain Billy Patton, who had died at Shiloh.
It was after 3 O’clock in the morning when the siege ended. The soldiers went away with all that they could carry. As they departed they demanded that all the lights be extinguished. Any alarm from the family would result in their burning the house.
Sherman’s stay in Florence was brief. His memoirs say little about the area and its people. In all fairness to the General, he probably never knew about the night of violence at Sweetwater. But the townsfolk knew and would never forget.
The Pattons remembered not only the horror, but the heroism of old Edmund as well. The Governor gave him a farm and built for him a comfortable house where he lived the remaining years of his life. Miss Howard Weeden, the artist and poet, painted Uncle Champ’s portrait which was later published in one of her books. The old hero of Sweetwater was buried in the family cemetery, and a lovely marker placed over his grave by the family. However, modern-day vandals have destroyed Edmund’s gravestone along with the other monuments in the ancient burying ground at Sweetwater.
The Civil War Tales of the Tennessee Valley
Copyright 2003 by Bluewater Publications – Heart of Dixie Publishing