Liberty Hill bore witness to Trail of Tears, Civil War

Susan Harber, The Daily News Journal, May 22, 2017

Liberty Hill and Sam Davis Home are two invaluable Civil War structures serving as the quintessence of history in the growing city of Smyrna.

Liberty Hill and Sam Davis Home are two invaluable Civil War structures serving as the quintessence of history in our growing town of Smyrna.

With great gratitude for extensive research from Native American historian Pat Cummins, I have assembled a story of a priceless heirloom near my own abode.  From the mid-1790s through the early 1800s, the east and west forks of Stones River were divided into numerous Revolutionary land grants by North Carolina and Tennessee.  In 1807, Col. Robert Weakley received a coveted land grant of 187 acres for the construction of Liberty Hill, a treasure still standing on Old Jefferson Pike in Smyrna.  The house was named by long-term county historian Ernie Johns’ grandmother.  The property, also known as the Johns-King Home, was less than a mile from Jefferson across from the west fork of Stones River. Today, the house is the most beautiful example of colonial architecture in Rutherford County.

Antiquity permeates the two-story home with two spacious rooms and a hall both upstairs and downstairs.  The house faced south toward Old Jefferson Pike, which was the active stagecoach route known at the time as Georgia Road.  Liberty Hill was initially constructed of hand-hewn cedar logs cut from trees on the property.  The floors were wide knotty pine, and the sloped roof was built with split cypress shingles eventually replaced by drawn cedar shingles.  Original to the home was the fireplace mantles and hand-carved door frames.  Beautiful antiques and rare, exquisite gasoliers graced the formal rooms.  Exterior weather boarding was all cut by hand and placed on the home in 1860. There were divided hallways on both stories. The existing Classical Revival porch and four square, colonial columns were added in the early 1900s.

The estate was prosperous with cash crops and was a working farm.  A mule-driven grain mill was in service for many years. T he Johns maintained a buggy house near the main home no longer within the landscape.

Thomas and Unity Johns bought the house in 1840 from the Weakley family and would undertake major restorations.  In 1863, Thomas Johns sold the property to Benjamin Seawell and Mary Neal King, descendants of paramount archivist Ernie Johns.  The Kings purchased the home only after their former residence in LaVergne was destroyed by Union troops.

In October 1838, four detachments of Cherokees were forced to walk within a harsh winter to an ultimate home in Oklahoma under terms of Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830.  This Trail of Tears exodus included 4,000 Indians, who departed Readyville and traveled the east fork of Stones River to Jefferson.  From there, they forded the west fork of the river and proceeded toward Jefferson Pike passing Liberty Hill. The Cherokees then turned northwest toward Nashville at the site of the current entrance to Smyrna Airport.  The historical significance of their presence by Liberty Hill deepens the rich history of this special home.  The King-Johns Home is one of very few 19th century homes still standing that bore witness to the Trail of Tears.

During the Civil War, the Thomas Johns’ House was utilized as a Confederate hospital and headquarters.  Being near the Stones River engagement, soldiers were given medical attention in the house and on the grounds in a desperate manner to save lives.  A .58 caliber bullet entered the exterior of the home through an open door into the foyer and remains intact.  Lead balls and bullets were found in the yard in large numbers.  Blood-stained floor boards were present in an upstairs bedroom that once housed wounded Confederates.

When the Civil War began, Old Jefferson Pike was a primary artery for the transport of troops and equipment in and out of the area by Union and Confederates.  As Gens. Braxton Bragg and William Rosecrans led converging armies near Liberty Hill, Jefferson Pike was alive with passing troops. Residents on this pike were horrified of the terror that lay ahead. On Dec. 27, 1862, Union soldiers advanced on Jefferson Pike and took command of the wooden bridge at Stewarts Creek (located near Smyrna Airfield), a mile west of Liberty Hill.  Historian Pat Cummins’ great-great grandfather John G. Cummins of the Union Army, 33rd Kentucky, was among the troops on the bridge.

As Union soldiers advanced down Jefferson Pike toward Stewarts Creek Bridge, the Confederates were waiting and ready with logs and ammunition. They later set fire to the bridge to assist their escape.  With flames extinguished by the Union, surprisingly few casualties resulted; yet no Confederate victory was at hand. Skirmishes extended along Jefferson Pike for two miles into the town of Jefferson.

On Dec. 30, 1862, Confederate Gen. Joseph Wheeler effectively encircled Jefferson Pike to delay the advance of Union forces headed toward Murfreesboro.  A large enemy supply train was at Jefferson extending to Stewarts Creek by two miles to the west.  Wheeler then conducted a surprise attack on the train of 65 wagons and burned them in an area of a mile in both directions from Liberty Hill.  This conflict was known as the “The Battle of Espey Chapel” with Liberty Hill in the center of the conflict.  In essence, the raid focused from the Stewarts Creek Bridge to the home and on to the public square at Jefferson. Ernie Johns has written a descriptive and detailed account of the event that is excellent. A portion of the trail on the west side of Stones River leading up the hill from the river to Old Jefferson Pike is considered a Civil War battlefield because of the attack on the Union supply train by Gen. Wheeler.

My grandmother Emily Johns and mother, Judy, were in and out of this home in Smyrna and had very endearing memories.  Mom’s wondrous recollections of this home are engraved into an uncomplicated era of time.  My great-grandmother Helen Johns, a master quilter, lived in later years in the modern log cabin still standing beside the home.  Adeline King, Smyrna historian, was the last resident of the house, and she passed away in 1998 at age 92.

The 210-year old King-Johns Home is a Civil War relic and a testament to the Trail of Tears.  This structure is a jewel to the community that we want to preserve in a quest for restoration. The home is a monument to one of the most historical chapters in Smyrna’s history.

Contact Susan Harber at [email protected].

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