Stones River: Palmer’s life illustrates Tennessee’s plight

As published in the Murfreesboro Post, Mike West, Managing Editor

Wednesday, November 5, 2006

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

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

One of the stateliest houses on East Main Street does little to reveal the character of the battle-scarred general who built it.

Brigadier General Joseph B. Palmer, a prominent state military and political leader, built the Italianate residence at 434 East Main Street in 1869. Highlighted by a filigree cast iron porch and paired arch windows, the house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

And just who was Joseph Benjamin Palmer?

“Tennessee’s Battered Brigadier: The Life Of General Joseph B. Palmer CSA” by Robert O. Neff

He was lawyer, prominent politician and, ironically, a Union man.  The house was built after the Civil War as a gift to his bride.  His career provides an important lesson about Middle Tennessee before and during the war and reconstruction.

His regiment was to participate in some of the most hellish battles of the Civil War, including Stones River, Chickamauga, the defense of Atlanta and General John Bell Hood’s invasion of Middle Tennessee.

Throughout it all, Palmer was to be shadowed by one of the Confederacy’s worst political generals, Gideon Pillow.

Born in Bedford County on November 1, 1825, Palmer first came to live in Murfreesboro as a student at Union University, which was located on East Main at the current site of Central Middle School (ed. Central Magnet School).

The Baptist General Assembly of Tennessee in 1848 established Union here because of the geographical location at the center of the state.  Union University came upon hard times when in 1859 its highly respected president, Dr. J.H. Eaton, died and when during the Civil War its campus was badly damaged.  It reopened in 1868 only to close again in 1873, largely because of its financial condition and an epidemic of cholera.

After studying at Union, Palmer was admitted to the state’s bar and opened a law office in Murfreesboro.

Almost immediately, he became active in politics as a member of the Whig Party, which was formed in 1832 by Henry Clay and others to oppose the policies of President Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party.  Early in his career, Abraham Lincoln was a Whig leader in Illinois.  The party self-destructed after 26 years basically over the issue of expansion of slavery to U.S. territories.

It’s important to remember that during the formative days of the American political party system, Murfreesboro was state capitol with leaders like Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk in town, building alliances and making political enemies like John Bell, a state senator who became one of the founding fathers of the Whig Party.  Bell defeated James K. Polk, who attended Bradley Academy in Murfreesboro, as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

After the death of the Whig Party, Bell was nominated in 1860 for the presidency by the pro-Union Constitutional Union party and did receive Tennessee’s electoral votes instead of Democrat nominee Polk.  Bell and many of his followers condemned secession at the start of the Civil War.

A Bell campaign song from the 1860 election was sung to the tune of “Yankee Doodle:”

“Let the North meet with the South.
Shake hands in friendly union:
Raise our glorious standard up
Put down all disunion.
Place them in the char of state,
Where the country wants them
Honor to the good and the great
Always shall surround them
Then the nation will be safe
From all vile secedes
Mechanic arts revive again under
such good leaders.”

Palmer was among those who found themselves “standing fast for the Union until Mr. Lincoln’s call for volunteers was made.”  The motion to secede from the Union went to public referendum May 6, 1861 by the Tennessee General Assembly and was approved by the voters by a vote of 104,471 to 47,183 on June 8, 1861. Tennessee was the last state to secede and the first to rejoin the Union, which would soon have 21 states and a population or more than 20 million.

The 11 state Confederacy had a population of 9 million, including 4 million slaves.

The Murfreesboro attorney then, like many former Southern Whigs, sided with his home state and raised a company of men, which was later expanded to a regiment – the 18th Tennessee Infantry. Palmer’s original group became Company C of the regiment.

G.H. Baskette of Nashville wrote a short, but glowing, history of the regiment following the war.

“Capt. Palmer was a prominent citizen and a leading lawyer of Murfreesboro,” Baskette wrote.  He was “warmly attached to the Union, though deeply sensible of the wrongs, which had been inflicted upon the South.”  The captain “earnestly hoped that the existing troubles might be settled without resorting to arms, or to the equally radical measure of secession.

“When, however, he saw that the final issue had been made, he unhesitatingly espoused the cause of his native South, and took active steps to render all the aid in his power.  Recognizing in him all the qualities necessary to make an able, a daring, and yet a prudent commander, the brave men who formed the company by general acclaim chose him as their leader,” Baskette said.

Editor’s note: Gen. Joseph Palmer and his regiment will be a recurring topic as The Post recounts The Battle of Stones River and the impact of the Civil War on Murfreesboro.

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