Monday, September 18, 2006

Tennessee Ella Smith Cathey

Plain and Simple over at Echo from the Green Hills expressed a fascination with the pioneer women of U.S. history. I'm also facinated by this topic, but from a different point of view -- I am a descendent of such women.
I'm equally fascinated by the brave Tennessee women of my great-grandmother's day, who kept home while their husbands went off to the Civil war. They raised children and managed farms by themselves and somehow survived when their state became a hotly contested war zone.
I often think about my great-grandmother, Tennesee Ella Smith Cathy, who was such a woman. I never met her, but I know something of her through stories of her life that were passed along to me.
Tennessee Ella's husband ( my great-grandfather) was named Alexander Blair Cathey. He was born in 1826, on the 4,000 acre plantation that his grandfather had carved out of the middle Tennessee wilderness in 1807. In 1859, he married Tennessee Ella Smith, who was born in 1838. My great-grandparents were not among the few wealthiest families in the county, but they were prosperous, middle class farmers. My great-grandfather was well-educated. His family were deeply devoted to their faith, and they were well-respected for their integrity and for their knowledge of the Bible.
At the time of their marriage, perhaps my great-grandparents expected that they would always have the comforts and refinements of their pre-war life. Perhaps, they assumed that they would be able to pass on their educational opporunities to their children, as well.
Isn't it interesting that my great-grandmother was named after the state in which she was born? There are lots of Virginias and Georgias around, and Dakota is becoming a popular name, today. But, you don't hear of many Tennessees! That's quite a mouthful for a first name. I think my great-grandmother was called Tennie, because my aunt, her granddaughter, is simply named "Tennie", in her honor. I believe my great-grandmother may have also been called by her middle name, Ella, as their are tons of Ellas among her descendants. Possibly, she was called "Tennie Ella," as it was an old Southern custom to call people by their first and middle names or by some nickname made of the two.
Upon her marriage to Alexander, Tennie naturally left her father's home and moved into his home, which was in another community from the one in which she grew up. The joyful couple had their frsit child in September 26, 1860. I wonder if she knew that a shadow was about to fall on her happy family.
Perhaps, she had some clue. The people of Tennessee agonized over the decision whether to stay in the Union or to support the Confederacy. I'm sure my great-grandmother heard and may have participated in heated political discussions, particularly whenever she and her husband made the journey into the county seat for "First Mondays". I know of at least one passionate appeal for the Confederacy preached from the steps of that court house. Who knows? Maybe, my great-grandparents were in the crowd who heard it.
I have a feeling that my great-grandmother and I would have been on opposite sides of the state's debate. Tennie was a product of her time and her place. She and her husband had no qualms about owning a few slaves, most of whom lived in cabins behind the original homeplace. Also, her husband eventually joined a Confederate cavalry unit, and family lore that has been handed down from that time has a definitely pro-Confederate slant to it. I can't agree with either of these positions, but I do respect other aspects of how she lived her life.
Tennessee finally seceeded in June 1861, just a few short months after the first shots were fired on Ft. Sumter. It was the last state to leave the Union and the last to join the Confederate States of America. My great-grandfather's cavalry unit was called to the fight. I surmise that by the time he actually left for the war, Tennie might have already been pregnant with her second child, who was born in May of 1862.
Anyhow, at the young age of 23, my great-grandmother was left with two small children and a huge farm/plantation to run. There was an elderly bachelor uncle who lived on the original property, but he was not able to give her much physical protection or to take on the responsibiilty for the farm's daily operations. He had been a horse breeder. His health had further deteriorated from the shock of hearing that all of his horses -- his main livelihood -- had been commandeered to outfit Confederate cavalry units. Many of these horses probably went my great-grandfather's unit, which was composed of several of his relatives and the ancestors of many families who still live in that same area today.
I'm sure that my great-grandmother's load became more challenging upon hearing that her husband's cavalry unit had been captured. They were all sent to an infamous Union prison for Confederate soldiers. Prisoner of war camps on both sides -- Union and Confederate -- were known for their horrific conditions.
From what I can tell, my great-grandfather was captured fairly early in the war, at the same time that Nashville fell. The citizens of that town had believed the city to be impenetratable and were unprepared for this blow. Hundreds of panicing, terrified Nashvillians fled from the advancing Union army and poured through my great-grandmother's county. These desparate people were hoping to get to train depots and be able to evacuate further South. The fall of Nashville was a big blow to the whole Confederacy, for it took out an important supply and arms depot. It also opened the door for the Union soldiers to get and keep a foothold in the South. From there, they were able to press further into the Confederacy.
Because Tennessee was on the border between the deep South and the North, it, like Virginia, was a meeting ground on which both armies came together to fight. This started with the push into Nashville by Union soldiers very early in the war and continued until the remnants of the Tennessee army finally surrendered at the end. Many horrendous battles took place in the state.
One of the worst occurred not too far from my great-grandmother's home, in a town called Franklin. My great-grandmother and her household were far enough away that they were in no danger during that conflict. But, my great-grandfather was related to several families near there, and my great-grandmother may have known people who witnessed the unimaginable slaughter first hand. I'm sure news of the battle came her way.
Many Generals on both sides were killed during this skirmish, as were lesser officers and thousands of soldiers form both sides. Union and Confederate bodies on the field became so thick that soldiers walked over them in order to keep fighting.
Much of the battle took place on one family's front lawn, while they hid in fear in their basement. Three of this family's sons had already died for the Confederacy. The father looked out and saw his last living son, a young man who had survived battles all over the country, take the bullet that would kill him three days later. He later learned that the son had cried, "I'm almost home, boys. Follow me" and had inspired some other friends to follow him in charging toward Union soldiers. Can you imagine what it must have been like for that father to see his last son fall on his very own front lawn?
During the war, it was common for soldiers from both sides to raid farms all over the South. Some soldiers were beaten down and hungry and were looking for any food or supplies they could get their hands on. Some were out to steal treasures for themselves, so that they could pawn them for cash once back home. There was even a band of awol soldiers turned criminals who terrorized the county during the war. With so much stealing and "commandeering" going on, Southernors became very creative in dreaming up hiding places. Most families sought to protect a few valuables or enough food to keep their household alive. One family in my great-grandmother's county found a way to hide silver items in a hollow column on their front porch.
One time, Union soldiers searched my great-grandparents' home. They opened a grandfather clock and peered inside. At this, my great-grandmother's house maid cried out either in fear or definance of the soldiers, "He's not in there. He's at war." She thought they were looking for my great-grandfather in order to execute him, as she had probably heard tales of Union soldiers in the area who were looking for Confederate sympathizers. However, the soldiers were more likely looking for food than for people at that point. I'm sure they had already figured out that my great-grandmother and the women and children in the house were alone and defenseless.
Evidently, my great-grandmother remained calm during the incident. I'm sure her quiet dignity had a calming effect on the whole famiy. But, I wonder what it must have been like for her to have "enemy" soldiers swarming all over her land and house, prowling through her private things, presenting a danger to herself and her two babies, and with the responsiblity resting on her young shoulders to meet this threat bravely.
On another occasion, my great-grandmother felt the need to travel several miles to seek the advice of her brother in connection with something to do with the farm. She decided -- perhaps unwisely -- to ride horseback alone through the countryside to get in touch with him. She was accosted by a band of Union soldiers, who wanted to take her horse. It was already dangerous for her -- a young woman -- to be traveling through this territory alone; it would have been worse if she had to cover those same miles on foot.
Fortunately, a higher ranking Union officer came around the bend of the road and commanded the soldiers to give her back her horse. He tipped his hat gallantly to her as he rode away.
It would take a book to write about my great-grandmother's war adventures. But, in spite of everything, she managed to keep her household together and to somehow feed them, despite the privations caused by the war. Eventually, her husband was able to come home to her. I am sure their re-union was a joyful one. I'm not sure exactly when his unit did come home.
As it had been the last out of the Union, Tennessee was the first to come back. President Lincoln wanted the re-admission of the Confederate States to be a merciful process. There were other politicans who vehemently wanted retribution for the Confederate rebellion and who fought for the former Confederate states to be endure a harsh period of Reconstruction. When Lincoln was assisinated, the presidency fell to Andrew Johnson of Tennessee. Johnson had remained in the Senate rather than secede with the South and had later become Vice-President. So, he was a hero in the North and definitely a traitor in the eyes of Tennesseans and the South. He did not have enough political pull to stop the radicals, who enacted punitive Reconstruction measures on the other Confederate States. But, he was able to protect Tennesee somewhat.
Even with Johnson's protection, life in post-war Tenneesee was hard. The state had become a wasteland. Many farms were in ruins. The people were impoverished. Some Tennesseans did not want to take the required oath of alliegence to the Union. Those who had been leaders or who had been very wealthy had to seek personal Presidential pardons for "their crimes". Also, pro and anti Confederate sentiments in the state did not disappear with the surrender of Tennessee's army and the other Confederate armies, and tensions from both factions occasionally erupted in violence in the two decades after the war.
My great-grandparents worked hard in their post-war life, but they never quite regained the level of comfort of their antebellum lives. Apparently, my great-grandfather made a few foolish choices in his new status as being "land rich and cash poor." Occasionally, he sold offa piece of his property to buy something like a new boat. I don't know what my great-grandmother thought of this. But, they evidently had a happy marriage.
The family had lived in a lovely mansion on the property, but at some point during or after the war, fire destroyed that house. My great-grandparents moved their family into the original house. Though it had been greatly expanded and refined from it's original "dogtrot" cabin format, it was definitely cramped quarters compared to what they were used to. One of her grandchildren eventually inherited that house. In their den, they had workers tear out the "newer walls", so that you can see the original wooden planks and mortar. Thus, you can get some sense of what the place might have been like when it was a small, pioneer cabin.
My great-grandfather, along with a couple of other men, donated touching corners of their plantations to their freed slaves. The slaves built a community on this land, and some of their descendents lived there until the last moved away in 1930's. I have hiked back to see their old houses, prompting me to wonder what their lives were like.
My great-grandmother went on to bear thirteen children. My grandfather was her youngest He was born when she was fourty-seven years old. My mother told me that my great-grandmother was embarrassed to go to church when it became obvious that she was pregnant at such an "old" age.
My great-grandparent's sixth child -- a daughter -- caught some kind of "brain fever" or meningitis when she was very small. Her brain was damaged in a way that she never matured mentally beyond the age when she got sick. Even so, she was much beloved by her parents and siblings. Her first name was Candace, but everyone called her "Candy".
My great-grandmother must have been an organized and efficient woman. With the exception of Candy, she paired each of six older children with one of six younger children. Each of the older children helped out with the younger one assigned to their care.
My great-grandfather died in 1916. My great-grandmother lived until 1923. She loved horses, and continued to ride them until she was up in her seventies. From what I have hard of her, I cannot imagine that she was one to complain or whine about the difficulties she experienced. However, they must have taken some sort of toll on her.
I have a copy of a photograph taken of my great-granparents when my grandfather was about twelve. Compared to photographs of her children and grandchildren, I would say that her face did look prematurely aged by all of the experiences that she had been through. Of course, that was back when shutters were so slow that photographers asked their subjects not to smile. So, perhaps, the fact that she did not smile adds to my impression.
At any rate, since I do know so many facts about her life and have seen an image of her face, I wish I knew more about what she thought and how she felt.
Alexander and Tennesee's children were unusually long-lived, one living to be 103 or 104. I have an elderly relative who credits their longevity to the fact that they enjoyed fresh air and and fresh farm food, which was free of today's chemical additives. I believe this is so, as well. I think that generation had the best of both worlds: An old-fashioned, healthy, vigorous but not hectic, agrarian life and some beneficial advances of modern medicinem as well. But, I'm hoping that they passed on some good genes, as well!
Some of Tennessee Ella's sons and daughters were still living when I was in my teens and twenties, and I remember them quite well. Many, if not most, of her grandchildren were still alive, as were various neices and nephews.
Her sons and daughters were all gentle mannered and quiet-spoken, but there is a quietly stubborn side that does run through the family. (Perhaps, that stubborness kept my great-grandmother going during the wa). Her children all maintained impeccable posture to the end of their lives. They were hard-working, and I think the majority were farmers or farmers wives. As was true with my great-grandfather and his father, many were on the bookish side and some of them enjoyed writing. Some were very knowledgable about family and local history, and I wish I had recorded many of the stories they passed along. They all still conversed and acted with wonderful Victorian manners, though Victorian Days had long since passed. Most had a dry sense of humor.
I love my cousins dearly, but I can't say that I and my generation have done the best job of passing on those old traditions. There's still time to improve, though!
Anyhow, it's amazing to me to think that my mother's grandparents experienced our U.S. Civil War!



W.D. (Bill) Bostick said...

Cousin Elizabeth,

Enjoyed your blog on Tennie Smith Cathey. I am descended from her youngest child, William Alexander Cathey (the one that she was travelling with when she encountered the Yankees!).

Alexander Blair Cathey (1826-1916) was a "blogger" of sorts, writing a series of historical esssays for the "Maury Democrat."

Bill Bostick

William Alexander CATHEY
Born: 26-Sep-1860, Cathey's Creek, Maury Co., TN.
Married: (1) 28-Dec-1882 to Margaret Caroline SHANNON (24-Aug-1863 to 25- Nov-1898); m. (2) 21-Mar-1900 to Ida Ethel WILLIAMS (3-Dec-1874 to 1943).
Died: 26-Jan-1942. Buried in Rose Hill Cemetery, Columbia, TN.

1. Amanda Ella CATHEY (1-Dec-1887 to Aug-1988); m. 12-Oct-1915 to John C. Finley (25-Dec-1883 to 11-Jan-1971).
2. Bessie Blanch CATHEY (1-Aug-1890 to 20-Sep-1961); m. (1) 9-Jan-1909 to Marvin Amis BOSTICK (1877-1926); m. (2) F. L. NICHOLSON (1871-1949).
3. Daniel Blair CATHEY (2-Oct-1892 to 31-Dec-1961); m. (1) Fanny Minor (1887- 1930); m. (2) Edith M. Nichols (b. 1904; d. 21 Mar 1996).
4. William Callie CATHEY (25-Oct-1898 to 27-Apr-1985); m. 19-Nov-1921 to Charlotte Peery (b.7-Jan-1900; d. 24-Sep-1995).
5. Lillian Dixie CATHEY (18-Jul-1901 to 5-Feb-1906).
6. Annie Mai CATHEY (b. 17-Feb-1903 to 13-May-2003); m. Charles B. Corcoran (1896-1978).

Elizabeth said...

It's always great to meet a cousin!

I have read some of Alexander's articles. Or, was it that I read some by his father, William? Anyhow, they described the mild effects in midddle Tennessee of the earthquake that happened in west Tennessee around 1812.

I do remember that my great-grandmother had one of her babies with her when she went toward Mt. Pleasant. How interesting that you are related to that child!

My grandfather was born well after the war and was at least 25 years younger than the oldest child in the family. Tennessee Ella had lots of grandchildren by the time he was born, and he had nieces and nephews who were as old or older than he was.

My parents went to a big reunion of the whole Alexander Cathey branch of the family back in the 70's. It would be cool to have another one.

Thanks for the info.


W.D. (Bill) Bostick said...

You wrote: "My parents went to a big reunion of the whole Alexander Cathey branch of the family back in the 70's. It would be cool to have another one."

My parents (Bosticks) also attended that reunion (I was away at college then).

I have some "Cathey stuff" posted at:

The Trotter poem, "The Enemy," is in reference to Tennie & the infant W.A. Cathey.


Cindy said...

Hello Elizabeth,
Have recently started tracing our family history and came upon your blog. My great grandparents are also Alexander Blair and Tennesse Ella. My grandfather was Thomas Decatur Cathey, their 11th child (born Feb. 29th, 1880 and Died in Oct. 1966). He was a leap year baby and we celebrated his birthday every four years. He and my grandmother had seven children, with two dying young. My Dad (James Anderson) was the baby and only boy. His sisters were Elizabeth, Willie, Della and Honor.
Anyway I am excited to see your blog and would love to know who your parents, grandparents are/were. I have a large picture of who I think are Alexander Blair and Tennessee, but I am not sure...I can email you the pic if you can get me your email address.
Thanks so much for your great info and hope to hear from you!!

Elizabeth said...

Hi Cindy,

Although he died when I was young, I have vague memories of your grandfather, whom I knew as my great-uncle Tom. I remember being fascinated that he was born on a leap-year.

My grandfather was Mumford Cathey, the youngest of the 12. My mother was Mumford's 2nd child, Sara.

Elizabeth said...

Cindy, so we are second cousins? Did I figure that right?

Mumford and Tom were brothers, so my mother and your father would have been first cousins and we would be second cousins?

Cindy said...

You are correct, we are second cousins.....nice to meet you! Thank you for your great blog and for giving more info about my great grandmother. Your grandfather was named after the Mumford that was the former Maury County sheriff and the Mumford that served as Tn. state representative, correct?
I have been amazed at all the information I have been able to find regarding the Cathey family on the internet. It has been interesting to see how I have experienced some of the same challenges or life experiences that some of my ancestors did (exp: I and my late husband have held numerous political offices, I have written for two newspapers for six years, hosted radio talk show for six years and owned 200 acre cattle farm instead of 4,000 acres.
I am proud of my Cathey ancestors as I see you are and I feel fortunate to have so much information available.
Because of the information available I was able to confirm that the large picture I have is of my great grandparents Alexander Blair and Tennie. I have it hanging in my office in Columbia, Tn. now.
Hope we can continue our family tree by adding our grandfathers' families as history dictates. Let me know if you need any help. My email address is

Thanks so much,
Cindy Cathey Williams Collette