Maury County’s Worst Christmas

Maury County has seen many joyous Christmas seasons since its founding in 1807. With so many cheerful tales of Christmases past, it would be hard to single one year out as the best Christmas in local history.

But, one year is agreed upon as the worst Christmas Maury County has ever seen—Christmas 1864.

Frank H. Smith, in a special December 1904 edition of the Columbia Herald, wrote, “At this, the most prosperous Christmas tide that Maury County has ever known, it may be interesting to recall some incidents of this season forty years ago, the gloomiest and most depressing holidays our country ever had.”

SmithPhoto2

Frank H. Smith (third from the left) sits on the front porch of the Athenaeum Rectory with his siblings.

Why was this the “gloomiest and most depressing” Christmas? Simply, the Civil War was the cause of this county-wide depression.

After the fall of Atlanta, Confederate General John Bell Hood had a radical idea. He would invade Tennessee and take the fight to the enemy. If things went according to his plan, he would take Nashville and march further north, linking his army with Lee in Virginia where they could prolong or possibly win this war that had been raging since 1861.

In late November, Hood and his men swept the Union forces north from Pulaski and across Maury County. Cornering the Yankees in Spring Hill on November 29th, Hood was poised to win the first major battle of his plan. But, it didn’t happen. During the night of the 29th and morning of the 30th, the Union Army slipped through the hands of the opposing Southern army, marching north towards Franklin.

The Confederates awoke to find the fields opposite of them empty. Hood, “wrathy as a rattlesnake” as one subordinate called him, ordered his men north in pursuit of the Federals. They would catch up to the Union Army at Franklin and find them heavily fortified. Hood, still upset about the blunder the night before, ordered his men to attack. Just before dusk, the Confederate Army descended Winstead Hill, marching north toward the Union lines, the evening sun gleaming off of their bayonets.

The men would fight well into the night. In the end, the fighting would be hand-to-hand.

As the sun rose over the grisly scene, witnesses would say that a person could walk across the battlefield and never touch the ground as bodies covered every surface. The citizenry of Franklin emerged from their hiding places and began the overwhelming task of tending to the wounded. With so many wounded in Franklin, wagons were soon loaded with injured soldiers and driven south to Maury County.

Several dead officers were also brought to Columbia. Frank H. Smith wrote, “Generals Cleburne, Gist, Strahl, Adams, and Granberry gave up their lives for the cause they believed right. I think that all of these bodies had been brought to Columbia the second day after the battle.” Funerals were held for the generals and, in a haste, these men were buried in the pauper section of Rose Hill Cemetery. Some of the generals were even placed in pauper’s caskets, as “proper” coffins could not be found in Columbia. Later, the generals would be reinterred in the graveyard at St. John’s Church.

As Columbia dealt with the dead and wounded, General Hood was busy moving what was left of his army north. The Union forces at Franklin dealt Hood a crippling blow, but he was intent on seeing his plan through to the end. On December 15th and 16th, the forces of Generals Hood and Thomas fought on the hills surrounding Nashville. Hood’s forces were routed on the 16th and his army was never an effective fighting unit again.

Hood’s army retreated south, the same route it marched north, and soon this defeated force was in Maury County. The men, demoralized, hungry, and threadbare, took what they could to feed and warm themselves. There wasn’t much for them, though. Both the Union and Confederate armies had stripped the farms and homes of resources when they were in the area not even a month earlier.

In Columbia on December 20th, Hood placed cavalier Nathan Bedford Forrest in charge of the army’s rear guard with orders to hold Columbia as long as possible. With the bridges burned, Union forces rested in the rain and sleet of present-day Riverside while they waited on the pontoons to arrive. Forrest and his rear guard did what they could to check the Union advance. By Christmas Eve the Yankees would be in town.

A member of Forrest’s rear guard, I. N. Rainey would later write a diary of his wartime experiences. Being a Columbia native, he was given a three-day furlough to spend Christmas with his family. He wrote, “By Mother’s request, I invited several of my messmates to spend the night of Christmas Eve ’64 with us… The Yankees were in town, the skirmish lines between us and the courthouse.” Rainey’s home, Woodland, is now Woodland Park.

Rainey and his messmates spent Christmas Eve at Woodland and woke up early for Raineybreakfast on Christmas Day. While he and his friends ate, his younger brother stood watch in case a Yankee patrol happened by. Sure enough, his brother ran into the dining room shouting that the Yankees were coming through the front gate, roughly 300 yards from the house. Rainey and his friends rushed out the back door of the family home and to the barn, followed by his parents and siblings. As they mounted their horses, he kissed his mother goodbye and rode away, waiting for the report of the Yankee guns.

It never came. As soon as Rainey and his fellow soldiers crested a hill, they swung around to find the Yankee soldiers waving their hats at the fleeing Confederates. Rainey and the other Confederates returned their wave and galloped off, thankful his parents would not have to witness a gunfight on Christmas Day.

From Woodland, the small band of cavalrymen road to Pulaski Pike. Rainey wrote, “My brother Joe stood in the middle of the pike shooting as fast as he could load at the opposing line between him and the public square.” The opposing line was a blue tide that could not be stopped, however, and the rear guard would be pushed further and further south until it was out of Tennessee.

After weeks of tending and burying wounded men—many of them possibly family or friends—and witnessing fighting in the streets of Columbia on Christmas Day, it is easy to see why the Holiday Season of 1864 was one of the worst on record. To make matters worse, many citizens were like the southern soldiers—cold and without food.

Smith wrote: “The suffering for fuel was very great in town; there were no teams in the country to haul wood (coal was almost unknown here then) and if there had been teams, the roads were nearly impassable, and if the teams had come to town they would have been ‘impressed’ at once. Dead shade trees were at a premium, and many a green tree was used for fuel, with fences, outhouses and old furniture used to help many them burn… But the greatest suffering was for food. The country seemed to have been stripped of everything eatable…”

Frank H. Smith, a resident of the Athenaeum Rectory, was a teenager in 1864, still too young to fight in the War like his two older brothers. He was able to feed his family this Christmas by sneaking into the stables of the Columbia Institute where the Union officer’s horses were stabled. There, he stole some of the dried corn being used as fodder and his mother was able to grind it into meal for cornbread.

In 1904, Smith ventured there may have been one happy man in Maury County in 1864—Union General George Thomas. While pursuing the Confederate rear guard, Thomas stopped at McCains Presbyterian Church. While there, he received the telegram appointing him to the rank of Major General. Smith may have been wrong, though. Some report General Thomas said the appointment to Major General was too late to be appreciated. (He felt he deserved the appointment after the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863.)

Despite any problems we think we may have, compared to 1864 the size of our problems should seem to diminish a bit. Count your blessings this Christmas. We have so much to be thankful for.

Merry Christmas!

The Columbia Female Institute

When the Columbia Female Institute burned in 1959, it immediately became unforgettable. As a matter of fact, the time of the Institute’s demise is “one of those moments” in Maury County’s history. Everyone remembers where they were when they heard about JFK’s assassination. Just the same, people in Maury County remember the night the Columbia Institute burned. Many travelled to West Seventh Street to watch the blaze, while many others recall the amber glow in the sky that night—a glow that could be seen as far away as Santa Fe.

Built as an Episcopal all-girl school, the Columbia Female Institute, had a run of nearly 100 years before the Great Depression put the nail in its coffin in 1932. Left without a function, the building would serve several purposes over its remaining years, including housing WPA workers, providing classrooms and offices for a local business college, and as a nursery school. The old Institute was even the location of the Maury County Library for a short period.

In 1944, the City of Columbia purchased the property from the Episcopal Diocese for $35,000. At the time of the fire, the main building of the old campus was being used as storage by the county school system. During the March night of Friday the 13th, 1959 about 7pm, the fire was reported. According to reports, the blaze quickly consumed the main building and the attached chapel.

Construction of the Columbia Female Institute began in 1835 and the first class was admitted under the administration of Rev. Franklin Gillette Smith in 1837. An advertising pamphlet released in 1837 reads:

The building was designed and constructed by Messrs. Drummond & Lutterloh, Architects. [Maury County’s “Master Builder” Nathan Vaught actually had to be called in to finish construction of the building.]

The general effect of the exterior is imposing, from its magnitude and its just proportions.

The selection and execution of the decorative parts of the façade exhibit the classical taste of the architects and their judicious adherence to the established principles of Gothic architecture. The front of the building—the exposure of which is towards the north—is one hundred and twenty feet long, including the Octagonal Towers at the corners, eleven feet in diameter, which rise one story above the building and terminate in turrets. The corners on the back side are finished with Martello towers, five feet in diameter, which rise above the parapet walls and are also turreted. The whole effect of the building is improved by its fine basement story (not shown at all in our engraving) which is separated from the first story by an elegant band of hewn stone, the material employed also in the flights of steps leading up into the porticos. The width of the porticos is twenty-one feet, and their projection from the front wall, fifteen feet—the front and side openings being pointed arches, and the massive piers with buttresses in front and on one side, terminating in elegant lanterns. The walls of the porticos and the whole of the façade are turreted…

The interior was also described in the pamphlet. In the basement were the dining hall and offices for the domestics (more than likely, slaves). On the first floor were the accommodations for the teachers and tutoresses and the “Boarder’s Parlour.” Also on this floor were the rooms of the Music and Pestalozzian Departments.

On the second floor, with its fourteen-foot ceilings, was the large “Hall of Study.” The library and the Rector’s desk were also on the second story. Again, from the advertising pamphlet, “One of the chambers on the second floor, separated by a passage and entirely secluded from those resorted to by the school, is set apart as the sick-room. This apartment is airy, with a delightful prospect of the country, and is of easy access to the Matron and other ladies of the Institute.”

The third floor was set aside exclusively for dormitories. Boarders were guaranteed a bed to themselves, unless their sister attended the school. In that case, the siblings had to double-up. A tutoress shared each chamber with the students to provide supervision and to “attend to any case of indisposition.”

The campus of the Institute comprised of just over four acres. After the 1959 fire, this land was sold by the City of Columbia for $100,000 despite the efforts of local groups wishing to convert the old Institute grounds to a city park.

Today, Columbia Plaza shopping center and the U.S. Post Office stand on the grounds of the Columbia Female Institute.