HISTORY OF CHRISTIAN COUNTY KENTUCKY
charles m. meacham
THE MEXICAN WAR
The Mexican War; Col. Jefferson Davis, the Hero of Buena Vista; His Last Visits to His Birthplace; The Monument to His Memory.
Following the close of the war of 1812-1815, the country was at peace for thirty-one years and Christian County completed its first half century in a highly prosperous condition. Then came the Mexican War, but short as it was it found Christian County taking a man’s part in the struggle that ended by the addition of a Western empire to Uncle Sam’s domains. A great mistake was made in not finishing the conquest of Mexico while he was at it and putting the whole country under the stars and stripes. A wonderfully rich country was set back a hundred years by leaving it to try to work out its own destiny. If it had been annexed as a whole and formed into states of a strong nation, its development would have kept pace at least with the desert and mountain wastes that were taken over and turned into prosperous units of a powerful republic.
The Mexican War lasted only two years. The Texans alone were anxious to whip their old enemy single-handed, but the country had but little time to interfere with its regular business and fight the Mexicans in their own way. It raised an army strong enough to march unimpeded to the capital and dictate its own terms. Kentucky was asked for only 5,000 volunteers and 13,700 responded. Thousands were rejected because their services were not needed. Among those was a company from Christian County, under Capt. A. S. Young and Lieutenants Chas. A. Mc-Carroll and Walter E. Warfield, whose services were tendered. Greatly disappointed, the company was forced to disband, because the regular army speedily put an end to the trouble below the Rio Grande.
One of the outstanding heroes of the war was born in Christian County. A young army officer named Jefferson Davis, born within nine miles of Hopkinsville, commanded a regiment of troops and fought with such valor that he helped to win a glorious victory and was promoted to the field of battle. Gen. Taylor returned home a victorious hero and was swept into the Presidency of the United States with the plaudits of a grateful country ringing in his ears. Jefferson Davis quickly rose to national prominence and became Minister of War and a few years later was elected President of the Confederate States, when the war of the states came on and temporarily divided the Union. On the spot where this great hero and statesman was born a magnificent shaft of concrete rises to a height of 351 feet, the highest concrete monument in the world. A memorial placed upon his birthplace by the people of his beloved Southland.
COL. JEFFERSON DAVIS.
Jefferson Davis, son of Samuel Davis, was born in Christian County, Ky., June 3, 1808. His father was a Revolutionary soldier from Georgia. While Jefferson was a boy, the family moved to Mississippi. The son’s education was completed at Transylvania University in Kentucky. In 1824 he was appointed to West Point and graduated in the same class with Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston in 1828. He was assigned to the infantry and was promoted for gallantry in the Black Hawk War in 1831. After seven years of army service he resigned in 1835 and married a daughter of Col. Zachary Taylor, afterwards President. Davis became a cotton planter near Vicksburg and in 1844 was chosen a Presidential elector on the Polk and Dallas Democratic ticket. In 1845 he was elected to Congress. In 1846, he heartily approved war with Mexico, spoke in favor of a resolution of thanks to his father-in-law, General Taylor, and in July resigned and was elected Colonel of the First Mississippi Volunteers, and went to the seat of war at once.
In September he led the victorious storming of Monterey, served on the commission to arrange the terms of surrender, and at the battle of Buena Vista, the following February, distinguished himself in that brilliant victory against four-fold odds, but was severely wounded. The defeat of Santa Anna practically ended the war. His regiment did not re-enlist, but “The Hero of Buena Vista” returned home, and in August, 1847, was appointed to a vacancy in the U. S. Senate, and was re-elected in 1851. In 1848 he was so intense an advocate of Southern State rights that he opposed his father-in-law for President because his attitude was not extreme enough. He bitterly opposed Clay’s famous compromise on slavery, and when it was passed, resigned and went to Mississippi and ran for Governor in 1851, but was defeated on the issue raised, by his ,colleague, H. S. Foote. In 1852, President Pierce made him Secretary of War. He received some votes for President in the Democratic Convention of 1860. He supported Breckinridge in the four-cornered contest in which Lincoln won. He remained in the Senate until January 21, 1861, and on February 9, 1861, was elected President of the Confederacy at Montgomery, Ala. His leadership and fighting qualities prolonged a hopeless war for four years, and not until Lee’s army collapsed did he leave Richmond. Following Lee’s surrender, he went by rail to Charlotte, N. C., and was there when Lincoln was assassinated, and he was accused of instigating the crime and a reward of $100,000.00 was offered for his capture. His bodyguard melted away and he finally reached Washington, Ga., with the whole Union Army hunting for him. History records that he was surprised and captured by a force of cavalry under Lieut. Col. Prichard, of the Fourth Michigan. He was taken to Fortress Monroe and confined for two years. The charge of complicity in President’s Lincoln’s death was dropped for lack of evidence. He was finally admitted to bail in $100,000.00, Horace Greeley and others signing his bond. In 1868, he was included in a general amnesty, December 25th. He settled in Memphis as president of a life insurance company, but later moved to an estate presented to him at Beauvoir, Miss. He died at his home December 6, 1889, aged 81 years.
Mr. Davis twice visited Hopkinsville after the war. The first time was in 1875, when he spoke to a vast assemblage at the Fair Grounds, during the fair in October. His last visit was in the summer of 1886, when he came to present the site of his birthplace to Bethel Church at Fairview. This church, organized in 1816, was between Fairview and Pembroke. It was divided when both became important towns and churches were erected at both places. Admiring friends of Mr. Davis bought the Davis home and deeded it to him in order that he might in turn present it to the church. He came, a feeble old man, and went through the ceremony. A tablet in the church commemorates the event.
Adjacent to the church lot, which is a few feet inside the Todd County line, was a tract of several acres lying partly in Christian County. After his death a movement was put on foot to erect a monument to his memory and, led by old soldiers, most of whom are now dead, the funds were at last raised to complete the magnificent concrete shaft, 351 feet high, that stands on a knoll within a few yards of the church. In a grove south of the monument, an exact replica of the Davis home serves as a residence and museum. In the spring of 1929, after many delays, an elevator was finally put in operation, and a great crowd assembled to take part in the dedicatory ceremonies. When Confederate Veterans were called for to take seats of honor on the platform only six octogenarians hobbled to the front, amid the cheers of the multitude. They were George T. Herndon, George W. Mitchell, Dr. W. E. Reynolds, V. F. Johnson, of the Confederate Home; Hite Small, Elkton, and J. W. Linton, Russellville, Ky.
Governor Flem D. Sampson sent as his proxy Judge J. L. Hughett, of Madisonville, who made the address of presentation. It was responded to by Lieut. Governor James Breathitt, Jr., of Hopkinsville. Both speakers, one a Republican and the other a Democrat, were sons of Union soldiers, and both paid eloquent and fitting tributes to the greatness of Jefferson Davis as a man, a warrior and a statesman.
On May 26, 1929, the Associated Press gave out the following interview with a Union veteran at Hazel Green, Wis., who claimed to have been one of the squad of five men who actually captured Mr. Davis. It will be noted that he gives the credit to Wisconsin troops. Upon reading the interview, I wrote to Mr. Schuelter and sent him a photograph of the monument, and received a kindly reply from the aged veteran. He claimed to be the sole survivor of the capture. His story disposes of the false report that Mr. Davis was in disguise.
The interview follows:
An old, old man, his face framed by a snowy beard, sits on a sunny porch and remembers a warm, misty morning in the fringe of a Georgia swamp a long time ago. Long enough ago to fade the bitterness.
Five riders in weather-beaten blue are creaking cautiously down a hollow toward a stained army tent where a little man with squared shoulders stands watching them.
The five dismount, circling toward the figure before the tent. The leader speaks, triumph edging his command:
“Surrender, Jeff Davis!”
The little man stands as stone. The swamp drips silent for a moment.
Then a woman spreads the tent flaps, lifts the man’s arms above his head, and says, in a cool, gentle voice:
“Don’t shoot, gentlemen. He is unarmed.”
She was his wife, faithful in his darkest moment.
Thus was Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States of America, captured, May 10, 1864.
The old man who remembers is H. C. Schuelter, of Hazel Green, one of the five Union cavalrymen who rode down the hollow.
They had gone with Sherman “to the sea” and were detailed under Colonel Ham-den, of the Wisconsin cavalry, to search for Davis, fleeing from Richmond to the Army of the West.
Davis’s immobility changed, Schuelter remembers, when they reached the Union camp, and he exhibited his anger and chagrin. This turned to nervousness when soldiers started to chant:
“We’ll hang Jeff Davis to a sour apple tree.”
His capture was marred, according to Schuelter, by tactics of a Michigan detachment. Unauthorized, it had set out to seek Davis for the $100,000 reward Congress offered. The Michigan troops, says Schuelter, fired into the Wisconsin group, wounding 4 or 5, to give the impression they believed them Confederates and to permit Michigan to claim the capture. But Davis didn’t “hang to a sour apple tree,” or any other. He never begged for pardon, but asked only for fair trial. After a year in prison amnesty was granted.
Later he publicly reaffirmed his states’ rights doctrines. For years he headed a Southern insurance company. He died near New Orleans in 1889 and was buried with great ceremony. Later his body was taken to Richmond, Va., for burial.
Besides Jefferson Davis, a distinguished son of Christian County, there were at least a few other citizens of the county who saw service in Mexico.
Capt. George B. Cook, born in 181Z, was a young attorney who had moved to Cadiz in 1846, and enlisted at Smithland, and was commissioned a captain. He was under General “Cerro Gordo” Williams and fought in some of the fiercest battles of the war. After the war he resumed the practice of law and was in the early fifties a circuit judge. He died in 1854 at the early age of 32 years. His daughter, Miss Mary Cook, became the wife of William R. Howell, who was commonwealth’s attorney in the district from 1898 to 1906. Judge Cook’s grandsons, Thomas C. and George C. Howell, are prominent business men of Richmond, Va.
Captain Darwin Bell, who later obtained his title in the Confederate army, was a soldier throughout the war and served in Mexico. He refused to apply for a pension and in his old age, having suffered financial reverses, his friends made out his papers for him and made him sign them, protesting all the time, and a short while before his death he received a back pension that amounted to several thousand dollars.
The one other local man was Col. John D. Morris. He was a citizen of Texas and took part in the Texas revolution in 1836. After serving in the Texas war and later as a soldier in the war with Mexico, he returned to
Kentucky, and in 1870 went into journalism in Hopkinsville as one of the founders of the New Era, and closed his long and eventful life there.
In addition to those already named, some more names of soldiers in the Mexican War have been secured. Hugh Nelson’s grandson, Hugh Nelson, still has the gun his ancestor carried in the war. Thomas Green Henry, father of Col. Jouett Henry, was another. Also Thomas Randolph and William Vaughan. Others, from Christian and Trigg Counties, who enlisted under Capt. George B. Cook, whose company was accepted, at Smithland, were Wiley Futrell, James Thomas, Alfred Boyd, George Boddie, Reuben Nance, Owen McGinness, Gilliam M. Ezell, Alfred Martin, Robert and Frank Husk, Ezekiel Beard, George Orr, Griffin Lackman, Archie Bowie, Lieut. John Snyder, Lieut. Edward Barbour, and Lieut. Ben Egan. Martin, Beard, Orr, Lackman and Robert Husk died in Mexico of disease.
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