Buck, Bright, and Company

After he showed me through the restored 1830s cabin that my grandmother had donated to the City of Knoxville, Illinois, historical society president Ron Poyner brought me to the second floor of the Old Courthouse.

We viewed the now-restored courtroom where celebrated 19th-century tussles had taken place. I made a photograph of it. Then Ron led me around the corner and pointed out an old wagon from the Abraham Lincoln era. 

On the wall near the wagon hung a photo that stopped me in my tracks.

The photo.

“Whoa!” I said. “I know this picture.”

“You do?” Poyner was goggle-eyed.

“I have a copy at home. Do you know who these people are?”

He shook his head. “A farm couple, for sure.” He squinted at a small plate on the lower corner of the frame. “Says the oxen’s names are Buck and Bright.”

“But you don’t know the people’s names?”

 “No.” He looked at me expectantly.

“The man is my great-great-grandfather, George Witherell. And the woman is his wife, Martha Stolipher Witherell. He was a Civil War veteran. Fought with the 77th Illinois under Sherman. Went all over the South and marched in the victory parade in Washington in May 1865.” 

Ron whipped out a small notebook and started scribbling. “How do you spell that? And what relation did you say they were?” 

I started to spell it for him, then stopped. “Well, the thing you might want to know is, he was the maternal grandfather of my Grandma LaFollette, who donated the cabin to the town. Don’t bother trying to write it down. When I get home, I’ll email you a complete summary.”

So that’s how we left it.

My Copy

When we got home, I dug out my copy of the photograph. 

Buck and Bright, left; George and Martha Witherell, right.

I scanned it and emailed the JPEG to Ron Poyner, just to confirm it was in fact the same photo. Then I started going through the materials my wife had compiled, years ago, about George and Martha Witherell. 

George was the son of Ephraim Witherell and grandson of Asaph Witherell, a veteran of the War of 1812.

Asaph Witherell, son of Ephraim Wetherel Jr. and Tabitha Harvey of Norton, Massachusetts, was born in Keene, New Hampshire, in 1783, the very year that King George III renounced his claim to the American colonies via the Treaty of Paris.

Asaph was 29 in 1812, when the U.S. again fought the British, and he joined the fight. After the war he married Joanna White, ten years his junior, and they lived in her home area of Windham County, Vermont, where their son Ephraim was born in 1816. In 1817 Asaph was awarded a war bounty of 160 acres of land in what would become Stark County, Illinois. But it was impractical at that time to pick up and move west.

Ephraim, Asaph and Joanna’s son, grew up and married a Pennsylvania girl, Rebecca Donaldson. They moved to Washington County, Indiana, in 1840. There, on September 8, 1845, George Witherell was born. 

The Witherells Come to Illinois

The whole family, including George’s grandparents, Asaph and Joanna, moved to Peoria County, Illinois, when George was three. Despite his tender age, George retained a lifelong memory of seeing, while en route to Peoria County, a victory procession for newly-elected president Zachary Taylor. That would have been 1848.

Old Courthouse

In 1851, when George was six, the family moved again, this time to Knox County. He spent the rest of his life there, on the family farm about a mile south of the Old Courthouse in Knoxville where now hangs the photo of himself, his wife Martha, and their two oxen, Buck and Bright.

It is unclear whether George’s grandfather Asaph Witherell ever claimed his 1812 bounty grant, which was in Stark County—not Peoria or Knox County.

Apparently the only time George Witherell left Knoxville was when he joined the 77th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. That was on 11 February 1864. He was eighteen years old. He was vaccinated against smallpox in March and shipped south to join his unit in Louisiana, where it was engaged in the disastrous Red River Campaign under Major General Nathaniel Banks. 

Although George was not wounded in the campaign, his left upper arm got inflamed, swollen, and afflicted with a running sore—all in apparent reacton to the vaccination he had received in Galesburg after enlisting. This reaction lasted until November 1864. After-effects plagued him for the rest of his life, resulting in a disability pension from the U.S. government. 

The 77th Illinois and a sister unit, the 130th Illinois, continued operations in the Gulf region for the rest of the war. When George mustered out of service in 1965, it was as a member of the 130th, to which he had been transferred.

Beware Assumptions

So many of the “facts” I had told Ron Poyner were based on wrong assumptions. George Witherell was indeed a member of the 77th Illinois, which under General Sherman had fought throughout Grant’s Vickburg Campaign of 1863. But by the time George joined the unit in 1864, it had been shuffled out of Sherman’s command and into a dead-end action that kept it in the lower Mississippi basin for the rest of the war. Even during that action, my great-great-grandfather spent months on extended sick call because of his arm problem. 

He did not serve in the 77th when it was under Major General William T. Sherman, as I had said. Neither he nor his unit, the 77th, “went all over the South and marched in the victory parade in Washington in May 1865” as I had promised Ron Poyner. Open mouth, insert foot.

Oh, well. The facts are the facts. George did serve honorably in the Union cause.

He married Martha Stolipher in 1866, shortly after returning from the war, and never left Knoxville after that. As the photo attests, they acquired a team of oxen and grew old farming the prairie soil south of town.

One of their children, Minnie Witherell, married John Dredge and became the mother of Berneice Dredge LaFollette—my grandmother, who in 1963 donated the Sanburn cabin to the City of Knoxville.

George and Martha Witherell, front row center, surrounded by their eight children. George wears the Knoxville constable’s star he earned in later life. Seated to George’s right is daughter Minnie, my grandmother’s mother.

Now you know . . . the rest of the story.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Onward and Upward, with Missionary Zeal

After a recent family reunion in Portsmouth, Virginia, my wife and I drove across North Carolina and stayed a couple of days with old friends in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

“Chattanooga!”

It sings. 

In fact, it has been mentioned in songs like “Chattanooga Choo-choo” and “Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy.” With two doubled letters, it echoes the magic of  “Mississippi” and “Walla Walla.” With four syllables, Chat-ta-noo-ga, it is redolent of “Chattahoochee,” a river that has a song of its own.

The city has its own dedicated typeface, Chatype, released in 2012. It boasts the fastest Internet service in the Western Hemisphere. But I’m getting carried away with present-day embellishments. Whereas this blog, you know, kinda focuses on the past.

Lookout Mountain, 2007. Photo by Teke, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

“Chattanooga” may derive from a Creek word that means “rock rising to a point.” That would be Lookout Mountain, where they fought “the Battle Above the Clouds.”

Major General U.S. Grant. Public Domain.

You can’t imagine Chattanooga without remembering the Civil War. Tennessee was desperately contested from early in the conflict. President Lincoln wanted badly to protect the pro-Union folks in East Tennessee from being swallowed by the Confederacy. But first things had to come first: General Grant invaded West Tennessee. His hard-won victories at Fort Donelson and Shiloh meant the North would stay in the South. 

The next order of business was Vicksburg. The guns on its heights controlled traffic on the Mississippi. Grant wrested the city from the Southern grasp on July 4, 1863. The Confederacy was effectively broken into two parts.

Next Stop: Chattanooga

Chattanooga stood on the Tennessee River, in a place where great ridges of the Cumberland Plateau came together. A key point for river and rail transport, Chattanooga would be the ideal staging point from which to invade Georgia. On September 9, 1863, Union general Rosecrans occupied Chattanooga. That was the easy part. 

General Braxton Bragg. Public Domain.

Rebel general Braxton Bragg, failing to oust Union forces in the Battle of Chickamauga September 19-20, laid siege to the river city and tried to starve the bluecoats out. In mid-October, Grant—now commanding all Union forces in the region—wrote, “Hold Chattanooga at all hazards, I will be there as soon as possible.” He arrived four days later and immediately began planning a campaign to break Bragg’s siege. 

After a month spent building a logistical advantage, Grant’s troops assaulted the rebel-held high points on Lookout Mountain, Orchard Knob, and Missionary Ridge. 

Seeing the Sites

Our friends and hosts, Andy and Janet Johnson, longtime Chattanooga residents, graciously showed us the battle sites.

Lookout Mountain, its top preserved as part of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, is as impressive now as it was then. It’s hard to imagine General Hooker’s men fighting their way up it to dislodge Bragg’s troops—but they did. 

The other two high points, Orchard Knob and Missionary Ridge, have been developed as residential real estate, but you can see the layout clearly from the top of Lookout Mountain. The final battle for Chattanooga was at Missionary Ridge. Union troops under Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and George H. Thomas stormed the steep heights. 

Sherman’s troops stalled on their way up the north end of the north-south ridge. In the center, George Thomas’s division stalled after capturing Confederate rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge. As they milled around, having gained what many appaently thought was their final objective, rebels poured fire down on their heads from the top of the ridge.

On, Wisconsin

Officers and men of the 24th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry knew what the real objective was. They started up the hill, but their color bearer was wounded and dropped the flag. Civil War units used their flags as rallying points. It was crucial the men of the 24th be able to see the colors  mounting the hill ahead of them. 

“On, Wisconsin!” Lieutenant Arthur MacArthur leads the 24th Wisconsin at Missionary Ridge. Painting by Michael Thorson. Used by permission.

Lieutenant Arthur MacArthur, an 18-year-old, snatched the flag from the fallen soldier’s hands and dashed up the hill, shouting, “On, Wisconsin!” The regiment responded with a ferocious charge. Other units left and right did the same. The seasoned Confederate soldiers manning the guns at the top of the ridge experienced what can only be described as a moment of simultaneous panic. They ran. General Bragg chased them, implored them to turn and make a stand, but he did not get the stampede under control until his Army was safely in Georgia. Chattanooga was secure.

Major General William T. Sherman. Photo by Mathew Brady. Public Domain.

Chattanooga capped a long string of victories in the West for Grant. He became general-in-chief of all Union Armies, and moved on to Virginia for the final confrontation with Robert E. Lee. Grant’s right-hand man, Sherman, was turned loose to range from Chattanooga through the State of Georgia. His march to the sea, still remembered with more than chagrin by Southerners, once again subdivided the Confederacy. 

It would be more than a year before the final battles in Virginia and North Carolina, but Chattanooga played a decisive role in the outcome.

What’s the Big Deal?

If you’re not interested in the Civil War, this may all seem frightfully dull and remote. But everything runs into everything else. 

For his actions at Missionary Ridge November 25, 1863, Arthur MacArthur was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1890. Later, he would serve as military governor of the Philippine Islands, when the U.S. won them in the Spanish-American War.

Just as important for history, Arthur MacArthur fathered a son, named Douglas, who became an American military legend in his own right, was himself awarded the Medal of Honor for his defense of the Philippines in World War II, dictated the reconstruction of Japan along constitutional democratic lines after the war, and rescued South Korea from North Korea’s invasion in 1950.

“Plunge Right Through That Line”

And, by the way, Arthur MacArthur’s battle cry, “On, Wisconsin!” came to be  immortalized in a pretty catchy football tune.

And I, Dear Reader, will be eternally grateful to our Chattanooga friends, Andy and Janet Johnson, who helped me with my Civil War itinerary. As an unabashed Grantophile—any man who can’t hold his liquor is okay by me!—I had visited the sites of all Grant’s major victories, except this one. Now that box is checked.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author