Mike West, Daily News Journal, March 31, 1989
Even the most probing look at the old Palmer residence on East Main Street does little to reveal the character of the battle-scarred general who built it.
Joseph benjamin Palmer, lawyer turned soldier, built the massive Victorian-styled structure following the Civil War as a gift for his bride. Palmer, who rose to the rank of brigadier general in the Confederate Army of Tennessee, was seriously wounded five times during the Civil War, but survived to bask in the admiration of his community and state.
The Civil War
Palmer’s story is an epic of horror built around his role in several of the bloodiest and most hopeless battles that occurred during the bitter conflict between the states.
“There were other Confederate generals from Tennessee who reach higher rank and became more widely known that General Palmer, but there were none who rendered better service, of suffered more, or displayed more courage, fortitude and fidelity,” reads a brief biography written several years after Palmer’s death.
Born in Bedford County, November 1, 1825, Palmer first came to Murfreesboro as a student at Union University (ed. Union University, now located in Jackson, Tennessee, was located on present day Central Magnet School from 1848 to 1875). After studying two years or more, he left the school to study law. Palmer was admitted to the bar in 1848
Ironically, Palmer was a reluctant Rebel.
The young barrister was an active member of the Whig Party with Palmer “standing fast for the Union until Mr. Lincoln’s call for volunteers was made.”
At this juncture, Palmer sided with his home state and began the task of raising a company of men, which was mustered into service on May 24, 1861 at a rendezvous at Camp Trousdale near the Kentucky-Tennessee line.
“Perceiving the skill and organization of Captain palmer in handling his company, his courteous, and knightly bearing, and his general fitness as a commander” nine other Middle Tennessee companies joined Palmer’s and the 18th Tennessee Infantry Regiment was formed.
The 18th Tennessee was to participant in some of the most hellish and fruitless campaigns of the Civil War. The men fought at Stones River, Chickamauga, Atlanta, and in General John Bell Hood’s ill-fated Middle Tennessee operations.
Palmer’s men drilled at Camp Trousdale till September 17, 1861. Their first taste of action came against Federal General U.S. Grant at Fort Donelson. The Confederates were led by General Simon Boliver Buckner.
Buckner and his men arrived at Fort Donelson on February 8, 1862, and were shocked at the unready condition of the earthen fortification. Only a third of the lines were complete. Buckner worked his men around the clock to finish the fort.
Buckner placed Palmer’s men on the extreme right of the Confederate line in reserve of General Roger W. Hanson.
On the morning of February 13, Grant launched his attack against Hanson’s position. The initial charge was repulsed with the aid of Palmer’s Middle Tennesseans. Heavy fighting followed on the 14th.
“The troops had been worn down with watching, with labor, with fighting,” Buckner said. “Many of them were frosted by the intensity of the cold; all of then suffering and exhausted by their incessant labors. There had been no regular issues of rations for a number of days and scarcely any means of cooking. Their ammunition was nearly expended.”
Union forces outnumbers the Confederates four to one. Buckner, faced with what he perceived to be overwhelming odds, surrendered.
Grant demanded – and received – an unconditional surrender. His harsh terms earned Grant the nickname of ‘Unconditional Surrender’ Grant.
Before the surrender, Gens. John B. Floyd and Gideon Pillow, along with Col. Nthan Bedford Forrest and his cavalry, escaped the fort. Pillow and Palmer were destined to meet again.
Palmer was sent to Fort Warren, and Federal prison camp in Boston. He was imprisoned until the summer of 1862 when he was exchanged for a Union officer. After his release, he reported to Richmond, VA, where he was ordered to Vicksburg, MS. His unit was then sent to Jackson, MS for reorganization. During this period, Palmer was re-elected captain.
Shortley after the reorganization, the regiment was transported by rail to Knoxville with the goal of Joining Gen Braxton Bragg and the Army ot Tennessee which had advanced into Kentucky.
After receiving word of Bragg’s retreat following the Battle of Perryville, Palmer’s regiment was diverted to Murfreesboro.
When Bragg’s army arrived in Murfreesboro, Palmer’s regiment was placed in General John C. Breckinridge’s Division. The 4th Florida and an Alabama unit were placed under Palmer’s command which was renamed the 2nd Tennessee Infantry Brigade. Later, the two ‘out-of-state’ units were replaced by the 45th Tennessee Infantry Brigade. Palmer was promoted from Captain to colonel.
Palmer was soon to be involved in serious gun play in the shadows of his adopted hometown.
On December 30, 1862, Bragg’s line was across the Stones River with the main body of troops placed on the west side of the River. Breckenridge’s men were arranged on the east side.
Fighting broke out December 31 with Confederates striking hard on the Union right flank. Breckenridge’s division say no action during the morning, but during the afternoon Palmer’s and Preston’s brigades were ordered to cross the freezing river and attack.
“The two brigades forded the river, and moved in splendid style over a long stretch of open field in the face of a storm of shell, grapeshot and cannister,” wrote regimental historian G.W. Baskette.
“Col. Palmer at last got his brigade in position to attack the enemy’s stronghold; but just at this juncture it was discovered that Preston’s Brigade, having been obstructed in its march by the Cowan House, had become unavoidably confused.”
Palmer was ordered back due to the confusion.
During the following day, both armies remained relatively quiet, however, On January 2, 1863, Breckenridge’s Division participated in one of the bloodiest moments of the War.
During this horrifying moment, Palmer once again ran across the path of one of the generals responsible for this surrender at Fort Donelson.
“Just before the forward movement was made, General Gideon Pillow, was was without a command and anxious to have one, was assigned to General Bragg to the brigade which Col. Palmer commanded, “Baskette said.
Breckenridge was upset by Bragg’s action and offered to let Palmer honorably retire from the field.
“But the gallant officer had too high a sense of duty to avail himself to his privilege. He immediately took command of his faithful regiment, and pressing to the front was a conspicuous figure in the frightful conflict which followed,” Baskette said.
The conflict in question was Breckenridge’s disastrous charge at McFadden’s Ford on the Stones River.
About 4,500 Confederates were tossed into the breech. The losses totaled 1,700 to 2,000 men. The Stones River literally ran red with their blood.
Bragg had failed to take into account the Union’s massive artillery power. Major General Thomas Crittenden had stopped Breckenridge preparing for a 4PM attack. Crittenden’s chief of artillery, John Mendenhall, had gathered 58 cannons on the hill overlooking McFadden Ford.
Union fire was hellish. Cannons were loaded with grapeshot and canister and fired like huge shotguns.
The batteries fired at least 100 shots a minute slaughtering the stunned Confederates.
With Pillow failing behind, Palmer led the entire brigade across the river. His men were among the first to reach the opposite bank.
“Indeed, a terrible crisis of that hour of carnage and disaster, he practically led the brigade,” Baskette wrote.
Pushing forward, he was just upon the point of securing an advantage which would have turned the tide of the battle in favor of the Southern troops, when the supporting commands on his left were forced to give way.”
Breckenridge’s left struck the river bank obliquely, causing the troops to double up upon one another. The artillery and small arms fire added to the confusion.
Palmer’s Brigade suffered staggering losses.
Palmer received three wounds. A minie ball passed through his calf, another plowed through his right shoulder and a shell fragment hit his knee. His horse was also hit three times by fire.
Yet though severely wounded, he did not leave the field, but remained with his command and conducted it on the perilous backward march,” Baskette said.
Palmer was incapacitated four month. He rejoined his command at Tullahoma, but the unhealed wounds caused him a high fever and skin inflammation. He was forced to leave the army again at Chattanooga.
He rejoined the Army of Tennessee just in time for Chickamauga. His regiment was assigned to Gen. John C. Brown’s brigade. He was wounded again early in the battle.
“Early in the action, Col. Palmer while leading a brilliant and successful charge and waving his sword for the encouragement of his men, fell dangerously wounded.
“A ball again tore through his right shoulder, this time severing a large artery. He lost a great quantity of blood, but death was happily prevented by the application of an improvised tourniquet,” Baskette said.
His life was saved, but he lost use of his right arm permanently.
Following a lengthy recover period, Palmer returned to his brigade and was gien a promotion to brigadier general.
His return to action coincided with President Jefferson David naming General John Bell Hood to the command of the Army of Tennessee which fell back to Atlanta.
During the siege of Atlanta, Palmer’s Brigade was placed in a strategic point in the defensive lines. With his right flank on Peachtree Street, Palmer and his men remained under fire for 26 days. Much of his regiment was captured.
Hood’s handing of the siege was incompetent. He angered men and generals alike.
“The most terrible and disastrous blow that the South ever received was when Hon. Jefferson Davis placed General Hood in command of the Army of Tennessee. I saw thousands of men cry like babies,” wrote Samuel R. Watkins in his history of the 1st Tennessee Regiment.
During the action around Atlanta, Palmer’s Brigade fought at Jonesboro during Hood’s ineffective attempt to stall General William T. Sherman’s march to the sea.
When Jefferson Davis reviewed the Army of Tennessee near Palmetto, GA, the troops booed Hood and greeted the president of the Confederacy with cheers of “We want old Joe (General Joseph Johnston).”
From Palmetto, Hood mounted his ‘invasion’ of Middle Tennessee. Palmer’s Brigade was in the vanguard when the Army of Tennessee crossed the Tennessee River near Florence, AL.
Fortunately, Palmer and his men saw no action at the bloody Battle of Franklin, where six Confederate generals died.
The brigade was assigned to General William Bate’s Division to conduct armed reconnaissance near Murfreesboro and missed the Battle of Nashville. The division, working in conjunction with General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry, attacked block houses and supply lines between Murfreesboro and Nashville.
After Hood nearly managed to destroy the Army of Tennessee, command was returned to General Joseph Johnston. Under his command, the army was to win the last Confederate victory of the Civil War – the Battle of Bentonville in North Carolina.
Palmer’s Brigade broke the Union line and defeated Sherman.
The Army of Tennessee was encamped in Raleigh when the war ended. Johnston surrendered on April 16, 1865.
Palmer was placed in charge of all the Tennessee troops with orders to conduct then home.
“The prospect of returning home, so long deferred, was now clouded with a nation’s disappointment and the shadows of of sorrow which enshrined the Lost Cause,” Baskette said.
The Tennesseans marched from Raleigh to Ashville then to Greenville, Tennessee. A train carried the soldiers from Chattanooga to Middle Tennessee.
Once the war was over, Palmer returned to his legal practice and continued to play an active role in politics. At one point, his friends encouraged him to run for governor. He declined.
Palmer died November 4, 1890 – three days after his 65th birthday.
For more information regarding Joseph Palmer, please click the following links: