Calvin Cole: Reluctant Rebel

For my entire life, I had always heard that my grandmother’s people were with the Union in the Civil War. There was good reason to believe it, as Benton and Carroll counties were settled primarily by people from the hills of East Tennessee and western North Carolina. In fact, Union sympathy ran high in both counties, and ran generally along class lines. Wealthier farmers who owned slaves went for the Confederacy, and smaller farmers went for the Union. There were geographic differences as well, no doubt determined in part by the types of farmland available.

This divide is outlined in great detail in an interesting document by Peggy Holley, “Unionists in Eastern West Tennessee 1861-1865.” In short, though there were a great number of Union loyalists in these counties, and they stuck together, they were in fact behind enemy lines and suffered a great deal of harassment from neighbors and occasional threats to their lives. Some Union families packed up and left for Kentucky or Illinois during the war, never to return to Tennessee.

I knew that other ancestors from the area had fought for the Union. Alexander Butler, the most colorful example, fought for the 7th Tennessee Cavalry, and was lucky to survive Andersonville Prison. So, I was surprised to find that Calvin Cole had fought for the Confederate 48th Tennessee Infantry. In fact, my grandmother thought there must be some mistake. But there it was, clearly stated in his Civil War record online. 

Calvin Cole fit the profile for a Benton county Union sympathizer. His father, Julius Jackson Cole, was born in Wake county, North Carolina. While Julius did reasonably well for himself in Benton county, and even employed a white housekeeper in his old age, there is no record that he ever owned slaves.

Calvin was born in Benton county about 1835, twin to his brother, Caswell Cole. In 1860, he had a net worth of $867, according to the census, and no slaves. The agricultural schedule shows that he owned just 60 acres and was primarily a livestock farmer. This was also typical of Union sympathizers in the area: livestock farming was much less dependent on slave or hired labor than cotton (the chief agricultural product of the area) farming was.

Recently, thanks to a new membership on a military records site, I was able to access a more complete version of the records and discovered Calvin’s true story. Yes, he did serve with the Confederate army, but only because he was conscripted by Nathan Bedford Forrest’s men when they swept through Benton county in April, 1863.

A portion of Calvin’s statement is found in his military file.

Maurice Hill Church
June 6 1864
Calvin Cole
Deserted Tenn 48

I was taken from my home in Benton Co Tenn by Forrest’s men in the latter part of April. Forrest got about 175 men in all as recruits for the army.

I was taken by Forrest at my home between Campbell and Huntington. Was taken from there to Jackson Tenn from there to Tupelo Miss. From there direct to Mobile by RR do not know for that purpose we were taken to Mobile. Was kept there about 2 weeks. 

91 of us left Mobile about May 22d there was no troops left there but about 100 conscripts. They were mostly able bodied men but not accustomed to the use of arms. Before we left all the citizens were called in to Guard the balance of the conscripts left there. Do not know what force of artillerist was left to man the Guns.

Officers and men said that is Mobile was to be Attacked Fort Ming (?) would be attacked first. Three of four days before I left I heard fireing (sic)

Unfortunately, the letter is cut off here. I am hoping to visit the National Archives at some point and perhaps find the rest of the story!

Calvin deserted some time before June 1864, in Tennessee, crossing enemy lines to offer himself to Union troops. They sent him to a prison in Louisville, where he promptly took the Oath of Allegiance to the Union on June 16, 1864, and was released with the provision that he stay north of the Ohio river for the remainder of the war.

After the war, Calvin returned to his wife, Mary Ann Garrett Cole, in Benton county, and rounded out his family of ten children before passing away at a relatively young age some time between 1875 and 1880. At some point between 1870 and 1880, the family moved to Carroll county, and that is why my great-great grandfather, Stephen Alonzo Cole, grew up and settled there.

Calvin’s war record states that he was a tall man, 6’1″, with dark eyes and fair hair. A photo of his wife, Mary Ann, shows that she was no beauty queen, but she appears to be a tall woman with big, capable hands. She died between 1880 and 1900. Both she and Calvin may be buried at the Garrett Cemetery in Benton county, two of several graves with no markers.

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