Harber’s History Lessons: Bettie Blackmore’s journal shares horrors of Civil War

Susan Harber, Daily News Journal, February 21, 2016

Bettie Ridley Blackmore originated Blackmore School as a private center of learning in Jefferson from 1863-1864. When the doors opened, 35 students enrolled, and she was the teacher.

Bettie Ridley Blackmore originated Blackmore School as a private center of learning in Jefferson from 1863-1864. When the doors opened, 35 students enrolled, and she was the teacher.

Mary Elizabeth “Bettie” Ridley Blackmore is an intriguing historical figure.  She is both a courageous and tragic character, who met an untimely death in 1864 at age 32.

Bettie was born in 1832 in Rutherford County and was one of seven living children of Chancellor Bromfield Lewis Ridley and Rebeccah Crosthwaite Ridley of North Carolina.  She lived within a prominent pro-Confederate family in the Jefferson area in 1830.

Her father built Fairmont Home and was one of the wealthiest men in the region.  The ruins of the old foundation of Fairmont still exist in Jefferson.

Judge Bromfield was a personal friend of General A.P. Stewart, who taught math and philosophy at Cumberland University in Lebanon.  Bromfield also was an early law professor at the same school.

Bettie wed William Blackmore, son of Dr. James Blackmore of Sumner County, in 1855.  She was a highly intelligent young woman on a quest to open her own school.

In 1850, public school was just forming in the county.  Children in affluent homes had tutors, yet neighborhood schools were increasingly well-received.

Bettie originated Blackmore School as a private center of learning in a rented house in Jefferson from 1863-1864.  When doors opened in 1863, 35 students enrolled, and she was the teacher.

Several of the larger boys departed after winter months to assist on the family farms with spring plowing. Algebra and alphabet class were the core curriculum, as well as music lessons given at night.

Lamentably, the school permanently closed in the throes of the Civil War in November 1864, when Bettie passed away.  Her great intent was to continue the mission of the school beyond her own life; yet the school never reopened.

During the Civil War, Bettie recorded meticulous entries into a journal of a first-hand account of engagements near her home embodied by descriptive emotions of turmoil.  She details her mother’s grave concerns for her sons and husband.

Bettie had moved from Murfreesboro to Fairmont for safety during the war.  She began writing her journal in December 1863 while recovering from a serious bout of tuberculosis, of which she never recovered.

Her entries began in January 1863, as her husband travailed in the Confederate Army.  She also had one brother in Morgan’s Cavalry and a brother in Bragg’s unit of Stones River.

In all, her brothers George, Lucas, Bromfield Jr. and Jerome enlisted.  Her 17-year old brother Charles was arrested on false charges as a bushwhacker, while visiting a friend on Jefferson Pike.  He was carried to Murfreesboro to be hanged but was liberated by Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Three of her first cousins were killed in the war: Shelton Jr., Frank (Stones River) and Bromfield Crosthwaite.

Her narrative of Stones River entails “the flash, the smoke, the click of small arms, deploying troops in an open field, the shouts and curses of infuriated soldiers created a memorable scent.  At last, the bloody struggle ended.  Bragg withdrew, and we were surrounded by a desperate but victorious foe.  My father left home for safety, taking my youngest sister, 13 years of age.  My brothers and husband were with their respective commands, leaving my mother, grandmother and me with no protection.”

She continues to write, “In four weeks, 17 cotton gins have been destroyed by fire, as well as dwellinghouses.  Our nights, you may imagine, were full of terror.”

Bettie also recalls how Federal soldiers often harassed her mother.  They were constantly stealing livestock and crops, and Yankees were insolent in their manner.  On Feb. 11, 1863, Bettie’s spectacular home was burned by the Union Army in the middle of the night.

Carlo, the family dog, saved their lives with his barking.  Otherwise, they would have perished.  Bettie describes the most prized possession of an old cradle that had held every child now gone.  The family Bible, portraits and her father’s large library went up in flames.  In the end, three chimneys remained in the ruins.

Bettie persevered with her diary until her death in November 1864.  Her mother, Rebeccah, maintained new entries until Feb. 12, 1865.  Bettie’s sister Sarah edited these writings into a book, “Behind the Lines in Middle Tennessee: A Journal of Bettie Ridley Blackmore.”

Bettie Blackmore was a courageous woman, who was unwillingly thrust amidst a tragic Civil War.

One poignant journal entry is a summary of her suffering: “Such as the state of destitution in which we were left.  And then comes the saddest thought of all — the strong arms and brave hearts that would have sheltered us from harm, were all absent in the service of our oppressed country, and our gray-haired sire a lonely exile.  These, dear friend, are some of the facts. Your heart can better imagine our grief than I can describe it. Indeed, that I could not do, for language fails me.”

Bettie was afflicted with both disease and the horrors of war; yet her family was her one solace to the end.

Contact Susan Harber at susanharber@ hotmail.com

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