By Willis Treadwell with Ronald S. Coddington
Following the crushing Confederate defeat at the Battle of Franklin, word of the long casualty lists trickled into communities across the South. Grief-stricken wives learned that they were widows, and girls and boys that their fathers were not coming home.
Such was the case for Mary Louisa Seay Whitecotton, 38, and her four children. According to family tradition, a soldier showed up at the Whitecotton’s North Georgia farm one day. He had served alongside her husband, 2nd Lt. George Washington Whitecotton of the 37th Georgia Infantry. The soldier broke the news that Whitecotton had fallen in battle, and gave her the pocket watch her husband had carried with him.
Exactly when she was told is not known, but considering that the battle occurred on Nov. 30, 1864, it is reasonable to assume she found out around the Christmas holiday. We may never know the details of what the soldier told her. But a statement she made in a pension application filed years later suggests that his death was instantaneous. “He was killed dead on the battlefield.”
Whitecotton’s military journey had started four years earlier, as the steady drumbeat of secession rolled across Georgia. On Dec. 28, 1860, he was one of 52 men who enlisted in a local militia company, the Spring Place Volunteers, named for their hometown, which was a short ride by horseback from Dalton. A letter that accompanied the original muster record underscored the circumstances that prompted the company’s formation. “The want of all military organization in this section of country renders it difficult to get up and carry through such enterprises. The troubles and danger of the times require everything practicable done to put us in a state of defence and protection. We have lost our Country in the late Election. She went largely for the glorious Union.”
A few days after this statement was written, Georgia citizens voted for delegates to a state convention called to respond to the election of Abraham Lincoln as president. On Jan. 19, 1861, the delegates cast their votes in favor of secession, and Georgia became the fifth state to dissolve the bonds of Union.
Whitecotton had much to protect and defend. He and Mary, born and raised in South Carolina, had married in 1846 when they were in their early 20s. They relocated to Georgia in the spring of 1847, and settled in the vicinity of Spring Place, in Murray County. The area had been governed by the Cherokee nation until the Indian Removal Act forcibly removed the tribe in 1838-1839. The forced emigration is remembered today as the Trail of Tears.
The Whitecottons arrived less than a decade after the infamous event, and started a family that grew to include seven children, three of whom died in childhood. Whitecotton owned three slaves in 1850, and they likely labored in the cultivated fields of his 260-acre farm. By 1860, the number of Whitecotton slaves increased to 11.
In the summer of 1861, Whitecotton and his fellow militiamen in the Spring Place Volunteers mustered into Confederate service as Company B of the 3rd Battalion Georgia Infantry. He posed for this portrait, dressed in a uniform wearing the chevrons of a first sergeant and a rainproof hat worn at a jaunty angle. Fastened to the last buttonhole visible on his coat is a chain, the end of which probably attached his pocket watch.
On Christmas Day 1861, the rank and file elected him junior second lieutenant of his company to replace an officer who had resigned. Whitecotton served in this capacity during the Cumberland Gap and Kentucky campaigns of 1862.
Though both campaigns were Union successes, the qualities of the Georgians impressed a chaplain in the brigade, Sterling M. Cherry of the 4th Tennessee Infantry. “The Third Georgia Battalion,” declared the reverend, “was one of the noblest bodies of men with whom I came in personal contact during the war.” He also observed that they did not have a minister. In August 1862, about midway through the Kentucky Campaign, Cherry asked for and received a transfer to the 3rd Battalion and became its chaplain.
Six months later, on Dec. 31, 1862, the Georgians fought hard and suffered heavy losses at the Battle of Stones River. Part of Col. James E. Rains’s Brigade in the Army of Tennessee, Chaplain Cherry rode out at some point and observed the carnage of the battle firsthand. The dead included Rains, shot through the heart while cheering his command. Among the wounded he found Whitecotton, who had suffered a minor head injury.
In 1863, Whitecotton and his comrades consolidated with the 9th Georgia Battalion to become the 37th Georgia Infantry. The new regiment went onto fight at Chattanooga, Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge. Whitecotton would survive it all, and earn a promotion to a full second lieutenant in June 1864.
His luck ran out at Franklin.
Late in the afternoon of November 30, Whitecotton and his comrades in the 37th went into action with their brigade, commanded by Brig. Gen. Thomas Benton Smith. The brigade belonged to the division led by Maj. Gen. William B. Bate. They were part of a massive assault with about 20,000 of its brothers in the Army of Tennessee.
Smith’s Brigade, located on the left flank, advanced towards the Union line at dusk. As they approached a stately home, the Everbright Mansion, the brigade split into two sections. One group veered to the right, and marched directly into the main Union line, briefly penetrating it. The 183rd Ohio Infantry, a rookie regiment in its first fight, successfully plugged the gap. The other group moved to the far left, crossed Carter’s Creek Pike and attempted a flanking maneuver. There, they faced enfilade fire from Battery B of the Pennsylvania Light Artillery, commanded by Capt. Jacob Zeigler. The gunners pumped nearly 600 rounds of canister or double canister into the advancing Confederates with horrific effect.
The exact whereabouts of the 37th on the battlefield are not known.The decimated ranks of Smith’s Brigade, Bate’s Division and the remnants of the shattered Army of Tennessee pulled back, its effectiveness as a fighting force destroyed. Ghastly heaps of dead and wounded were scattered along the ground. The army’s overall commander, Lt. Gen. John B. Hood, recalled that his men “had been gloriously led by their officers, many of whom had either fallen upon or near the Federal breastworks, dying as the brave should prefer to die, in the intense and exalted excitement of battle.” Hood continued to praise his men after the battle, and defend his decision to attack at Franklin until his own death in 1879.
Somewhere in the wreckage and ruin lay the body of Whitecotton. At some point, a comrade removed the watch and perhaps other personal items that were delivered to Mary. Though the exact details of the recovery of his remains are unknown, they were likely buried with others on the battlefield, and marked with a makeshift headboard. Two years later, Franklin’s citizens began the tedious process of exhuming and reinterring 1,480 soldiers in a Confederate cemetery on land donated by the McGavock family. The names were transcribed from the makeshift markers into a logbook and new wood headboards were made. When the markers began to decay, stone markers replaced them. At some point along the way, Whitecotton became Cotton—an error introduced while deciphering the headboards.
Back in Georgia, Mary Whitecotton never remarried, and remained in Murray County. In 1891, she filed for a Confederate widow’s pension. When she died at age 92 in 1918, the watch that belonged to her husband passed to the oldest surviving member of the family, a legacy that continues to this day.
But Whitecotton left behind something far less tangible at Franklin.
According to Lee White, a National Park Service Ranger at the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, “His story ends there on that battlefield. That’s how it all plays out. So much of this is the story of the common soldier. Whitecotton and all those others go down at this point, leaving kind of a legacy of their bravery on that battlefield.”
Special Thanks to Kraig McNutt of Franklin Civil War Tours (franklincivilwartours.com).
References: Post on Civil War Forums by Jamie Gillum, Sept. 22, 2006; Mary L. Whitecotton pension file, Confederate Pension Applications, Georgia Confederate Pension Office, Georgia Archives; Muster Rolls—Men Subject to Military Duty from 1860–1864, Georgia State Archives; New Georgia Encyclopedia; 1850, 1860 Slave Schedule, U.S. Census; George W. Whitecotton military service record, National Archives; J. William Jones, Christ in Camp, or Religion in the Confederate Army; McGavock Family Cemetery website; Lee White, “Army of Tennessee’s Assault on Franklin,” C-Span’s American History TV.
Willis Treadwell is a retired professional photographer living in Dalton, Ga. He has been a Civil War student and collector since childhood. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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