Saturday, September 3, 2011
Getting to Know My Great-Grandfather
In recent years, I have managed to learn quite a bit about my paternal great-grandfather, William Terry Mitchell. I certainly never met him, because he died in 1921, thirty years before I showed up. I had known that he’d served as a Confederate officer, and the family tradition had it that he had fought at Shiloh, but it wasn’t until I really started digging through archives that I came up with some interesting facts.
William was born in 1835, and according to the census of 1860, he was not a slaveholder. He was, apparently, a slave overseer in one of the largest plantations in Giles County, TN, a fact that I’m sure would appall one of my politically correct sisters-in-law. He joined the 3rd Tennessee Infantry in April 1861, almost exactly the same time as Fort Sumter. There were 112 men in his company. He was one of four officers. Each company had a captain, first lieutenant, second lieutenant, and believe it or note, a junior second lieutenant. My great-grandfather was the junior second lieutenant. In the OSU main Library, I read a description of what that unit went through. Of 112 men, 9 died in battle and twelve of disease. That’s a twenty-two percent mortality rate.
His unit was at Fort Donaldson in February of 1862 when General Ulysses S Grant commanded that post’s unconditional surrender. Great Grandfather Mitchell was in no condition to fight that day: records indicate he was sick in quarters. As a Union POW, he spent some time in a federal army hospital in St Louis, then got shipped across the country to join his fellow officers at Jonson’s Island in Lake Eerie, where he spent the next seven months. They were all exchanged in September 1862. Incidentally, he lucked out in where he served his time: Johnson’s Island had the lowest death rate of any Union POW camp. I’m almost certain that either on his way to or returning from Johnson’s Island, great grandfather Mitchell passed through Columbus. He lived long enough to hear of my father’s birth in 1919. I can only wonder what he would have thought had someone told him that his grandson would settle in a Yankee city in 1958 and live there for more than half a century.
Over the next 2 years, 3rd Tennessee Infantry fought in the Vicksburg campaign as well as at Chickmagwa. I know that Great-granddad Mitchell had a stay at a Confederate Army hospital in Atlanta. In the Nashville archives, I saw he had a receipt for having drawn pay from the Confederate Army’s paymaster general. I certainly hope he spent that money in a big hurry. The 3rd Tennessee Infantry started the war with about 900 men. Over 700 were exchanged, and by the time of the Battle of Missionary Ridge, they were down to 270. Most, after seven months, said “OK, let’s pick up where we left off.”
I fervently wish great-grandfather Mitchell had kept a diary, or that someone had collected his letters. They would make fascinating reading a century and a half later. Lt Mitchell resigned his commission on Sep 7 1864, five days after Sherman took Atlanta. He did not leave a letter of resignation so I don’t know whether it was due to illness or recognition of the Confederacy’s dim prospects. Be that as it may, I would call that a very wise career move: Over the next three months, John Bell Hood, commander of the Confederate Army of Tennessee, established that as an army commander he was a great charge leader but a horrible strategist. He ordered his troops to carry out attacks that led his troops to a terribly bloody defeat at Franklin in November of 1864, and about 2 weeks later his command effectively disintegrated after a crushing defeat at the Battle of Nashville. There’s a book called From the Heat of Battle to the Fiery Cross that describes how by the Battle of Nashville, the Tennessee Infantry was down to 21 men ready for duty, and 3 “colored volunteers.”(I wish again that there were records for these three men, to find out their motivations for staying on when they probably could have run away by that time). Great-grandfather got out just in time.
Sometime in 1866, my great-grandfather took an oath of allegiance to the Union. I was mildly surprised to see the card identifying him lists his height at 6 feet and a half. Shows I’m not the only member of the family to reach that height. While I’m no admirer if the Confederate cause, I respect my great-grandfather’s tenacity.
There’s one more PS about my grandfather would appall my PC S-I-L big time. As a one-time confederate veteran, and an officer no less, there’s a strong possibility that great grandfather Mitchell might have joined an organization founded in Giles County either in late 65 or the summer of 66, which achieved notoriety not just throughout the state and country but internationally. Although they don’t keep membership rolls, there’s a distinct possibility my great-grandfather may have been a Klansmen.