Joseph Palmer a compelling general in Civil War

Susan Harber, The Daily News Journal, October 22, 2018

Gen. Joseph Benjamin Palmer

The namesake Palmer originated with the Norman Conquest of 1066.  This signature name was brought to England by the Normans and has a meaning of “pilgrim who carries palm branches back from the Holy Land.” The sobriquet of Palmer represented a missionary.

Brigadier Gen. Joseph Benjamin Palmer was a dynamic Confederate general, who was wounded six times yet remained with the Civil War to the end.  He was born in Old Jefferson on Nov. 1, 1825, in Bedford County and raised as an infant by maternal grandparents Joseph Barksdale Johns (his namesake) and Elizabeth Vaughn Johns of Rutherford County.  Joseph lived within a blended family and mourned the loss of his mother.

Joseph’s father William Howard Palmer (born 1801) and mother Mildred Ann Johns (1805-1833) were divorced, and his father moved to Illinois and married Mary Coen.  Mildred wed Samuel Smith but died at age 28 in childbirth with daughter Caroline Mildred Smith Crittendon on April 7, 1833.

Mildred’s son Joseph was 8 years old at her demise.  Caroline lived to the age of 50 and died in Texas. Samuel married Dicy Bilbro White from Wilson County in 1834, who was Caroline’s stepmother.

Joseph’s grandparents Moses Palmer (1775-1841) and Frances Vaughn (born 1784) were from Halifax, Virginia.  Moses is buried in Rutherford County.  Joseph’s original ancestors were Thomas Palmer (1590-1633) of Rowley, East Riding of Yorkshire in Northern England, and Joanna Palmer, also born in England.

Thomas died at age 43 in Northumberland County, Virginia. His son Martin Palmer was a major general in New Kent County, Virginia, where he resided at the Palmer Plantation and owned 1,500 acres.  Joseph was an original descendant of Giles Palmer (1528-1581) of Bourton-on-the-Hill, Gloucestershire, England.  The Palmers emigrated to Virginia and later to Tennessee.

Joseph’s maternal grandfather Joseph B. Johns (1776-1839) served in the War of 1812 in Capt. William Hall’s Regiment of the West Tennessee Militia and in Capt. Newton’s Company.  He also served with Capt. Nathan Davis’ Regiment (Dec. 18, 1813) under Gen. Andrew Jackson.

At his death, Joseph B. Johns owned 1,000 acres on the East Fork of Stones River.  His father Thomas Johns (1752-1794) of Virginia fought in the Revolutionary War.  Joseph Palmer attended Union University in Murfreesboro and taught school one year after graduation.  Ironically, the university (located at Central Magnet site) sustained heavy damage as a result of the Civil War.

Joseph was a focused man and high achiever from the first day.  He practiced in a prominent law office in 1848 and was elected to the Tennessee General Assembly in 1849 and 1851.  Joseph was distinguished in the Whig party and speaker for the U.S. House.  He was then elected as mayor of Murfreesboro in 1855, serving until 1859 on the cusp of the Civil War.

In 1854, Joseph married Ophelia Maria Burrus, and they had one child, Horace (1855-1912). Tragically, Ophelia died two years later at age 21.

Son Horace, also a leader, served as Murfreesboro attorney with his father in the firm Palmer and Palmer. Moreover, Horace was Murfreesboro mayor (1885-1887), Murfreesboro judge, as well as judge with the Tennessee State Court of Appeals in Nashville.

Joseph opposed secession from the Union and insisted the South should fight the Federals on this issue. His primary allegiance was to a united state of Tennessee and the preservation of the country as a whole.

In 1861, Joseph was 36 years old and organizing soldiers as a captain in the 18th Tennessee Infantry, Company C.  In all, the 18th regiment of infantry had nine companies.  He commanded the 11th regiment and was elected as colonel under command of Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston.

Joseph’s garrison surrendered at Fort Donelson near Dover in February 1862.  After imprisonment for eight months at Fort Warren and an exchange, Joseph commanded the Army of Mississippi and was re-elected as colonel.

He was soon fighting in the Battle of Stones River in the 2nd Brigade/First Division of Hardee’s Corp. Consequently, he was wounded in both right shoulder and right leg on Jan. 2, 1863.  His wounds were so severe, he was granted a brief leave of four months for recovery.  On Sept. 19, 1863, he returned to active duty and was wounded again in the shoulder at the Battle of Chickamauga and nearly bled to death from a second wound to the shoulder.

Joseph was commissioned brigadier general of the Army of Tennessee on Nov. 15, 1864, and was now commanding all troops in Tennessee.  He had heavy losses in the defense of Atlanta and John Bell Hood’s invasion of Tennessee.  His regiment fought in the Battle of Jonesborough, Battle of Franklin, and the Battle of Nashville in 1864, as well as the Carolinas Campaign and Battle of Bentonville (wounded again) in 1865.

He was under Maj. Gen. Carter Stevenson’s division in the retreat from Nashville and served a major role in this effort.  On the momentous date of May 1, 1865, Joseph surrendered the war, along with Gen. Joseph E Johnston, to the Union Army.

Palmer was recognized by fellow officers and soldiers as both a courteous and sympathetic man and very devoted to their welfare.  He also maintained discipline in the ranks and was a brave leader on the field.

Joseph resumed his Murfreesboro law practice after the war.  Several comrades sought a plea for him to consider a run for governor; yet, the retired general aspired a quieter life and refused.

The historic Palmer Mansion, 434 East Main Street, Murfreesboro, built by Confederate General Joseph Palmer, 1869.

In 1869, he married second wife, a beautiful widow, Margaret Ballentine Mason, in Pulaski.  For her wedding gift, he built a stunning Italianate home at 434 East Main Street, from 1867-1869.  This sparkling gem in Murfreesboro was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and stands today as one of the most striking historical homes in Murfreesboro.

Joseph Palmer took his last breath at age 65 on Nov. 4, 1890, and was buried at Evergreen Cemetery.  He was a prominent man, who gave his all to both his community and his country.

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