Former Parisian journalist, known for the fate of the civil war | Local News


The next time you are in Nashville, visit the city cemetery. Here you’ll find the graves of no less than four Civil War generals, one of whom is Felix Zollicopfer, who was born in Columbia, Tennessee, and trained to be a journalist.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: According to Post-Intelligencer files, after The West Tennessean became the first newspaper started in Paris, in 1827, the second oldest newspaper founded in Paris was the Western District Herald in 1829. Zollicoffer was 17 years old when he and two other young men started the newspaper, which soon proved to be a financial failure and was short-lived.]

At various times in the 1830s and 1840s, Zollicffer also worked for Tennessee newspapers in Columbia, Knoxville, and Nashville, where he served as Republican Banner editor from 1843 to 1845.

Nashville, at that time, still exhibited many of the qualities of the “Wild West”; newspaper editors and politicians have always settled disputes the Andrew Jackson way. In 1852, Zollicoffer was still using the banner to express his opinions. That year he got into a duel with John Marling, editor of rival Union.

I used to think the Zollicoffer-Marling argument had to do with the location of a planned bridge over the Cumberland River. But Allen Forkum, editor of the Nashville Retrospect newspaper, dispelled that myth. “The bridge had been completed two years before they started fighting, so that wasn’t the reason,” Forkum said.

“In the presidential election of 1852, Marling was in favor of Franklin Pierce and Zollicoffer was in favor of Winfield Scott. The editorials that one newspaper wrote against the other were very personal and ugly. Then Marling called Zollicoffer a liar , and that’s all.

On August 20, 1852, the two men exchanged insults and bullets outside the Union office at the corner of Cherry and Cedar (today’s corner of Fourth and MLK Jr. Blvd.). Zollicoffer ended up with a bullet in his hand, while Marling was shot in the face. Both men survived, however, and apparently exchanged civil words years later.

Zollicoffer’s career then shifted to public service and the Whig party; he served one term as Comptroller of Tennessee and three terms in the United States House of Representatives.

Unlike many political leaders of this era, Zollicoffer was not in favor of war in the late 1850s, supporting John Bell as a compromise candidate for president. But after Tennessee seceded, Governor Isham Harris appointed Zollicoffer to the rank of brigadier general.

The former newspaper editor soon found himself leading a Confederate army in East Tennessee, where loyal Unionists abounded (a difficult task for a man who had limited military experience in the Seminole War of 1836).

After a few months, Major General George Crittenden assumed command of the Confederate Army of East Tennessee. Zollicoffer remained in the field, leader of a small army that Crittenden ordered to march west and then north to Somerset, Ky., where they knew a U.S. Army force under General George Thomas was directed.

On January 19, 1862, Zollicoffer’s 4,000 troops encountered this force in present-day Nancy, Ky. The battle was a disaster from the start for the poorly deployed Confederate troops. “It was foggy and raining and there was so much smoke you could barely see 20 paces ahead of you,” Mill Springs battlefield ranger Douglas Queen told me.

In the confusion of the battle, Zollicoffer did something that earned him a permanent place in books about strange Civil War anecdotes. Although accounts of the battle vary, Zollicoffer apparently walked towards a group of Union soldiers, unaware of who they were, who shot and killed the Confederate general at close range.

The Battle of Mill Springs was a skirmish compared to the larger military engagements that took place later in the Civil War. But in January 1862, Zollicoffer’s death was not a funny thing. “Zollicoffer, one of our best and bravest men, was killed in the field,” the Memphis Daily Appeal reported.

Nashville newspapers mourned his passing; the general was universally declared to be a hero, one of the first high-ranking Confederate deaths of the war. After his body was returned home, thousands of people came to view it as it lay on display in the Capitol building. His funeral and procession was one of the most memorable in Nashville history.

BILL CAREY is the founder and executive director of Tennessee History for Kids, a nonprofit organization that helps teachers cover social studies. He is also the author of several history books and a former Capitol Hill reporter. His email address is [email protected]


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