Elliott: Jefferson Davis confronts 'erratic' William Crutchfield

Elliott: Jefferson Davis confronts 'erratic' William Crutchfield

June 1st, 2014 by By Sam D. Elliott in Opinion Columns

One of the architectural landmarks in Chattanooga in 1861 was the Crutchfield House, located on the site of today's Read House. The hotel was built by Thomas Crutchfield, a brick contractor from Greeneville, Tenn. In the 1850s, Crutchfield moved to Chattanooga with his family, including his sons Thomas and William, who were the operators of the business in 1861.

William was described by a sympathetic contemporary as "eccentric and peculiar beyond description. He was vehement in manner and impetuous in action." But he was brave and firm in his convictions. When the issue of secession was debated in the early weeks of 1861, William became "fearless and outspoken" in his opposition to disunion.

The circumstance of William's quirky personality and his strong Unionist position intersected with that of a prominent visitor to Chattanooga in January 1861.

Earlier that month, Mississippi became the second state to secede from the Union. Sen. Jefferson Davis accordingly resigned from the U.S. Senate and was traveling back to his home in the Magnolia State when he stopped at the Crutchfield House the night of Jan. 21. He was asked to speak by some of the leading citizens of Chattanooga. Standing on a chair, Davis spoke on the issues of the day for about 20-25 minutes. Witnesses indicated that the speech was moderate in tone and not offensive in nature.

Just two days before, the Tennessee legislature passed a measure calling for a referendum to be held Feb. 9, 1861, on whether the state should call a convention to consider the issue of secession. Tensions were high on the sectional issue, that only weeks later would result in the Civil War.

After his speech, Davis withdrew to an adjoining room. The fiery William replied by accusing Davis of giving up the South's political position in withdrawing from the Senate and seeking to interfere with the upcoming vote in Tennessee. He denounced Davis in "vigorous and bitter terms" as a traitor.

Perception of the event depended on one's viewpoint. Varina Davis, the former senator's wife, reported the incident simply as a drunken outburst, which was hushed up by Thomas with his apologies.

Other accounts indicated that it was more serious, as Davis contemplated issuing a challenge to a duel, and William later claimed that he was ready to respond to that challenge. Feelings ran high, and Davis's sympathizers, who were in the majority among the crowd, began audibly cocking their pistols. While one account indicated that a few shots were fired, the incident seems to have been defused by Thomas without any sort of bloodshed or melee.

Although the convention referendum in February was defeated, Tennessee effectively joined the Confederacy in May 1861, and William left town.

Also a Unionist, Thomas sold the hotel early in the war and moved out to his farm along the Tennessee River, Amnicola, Latin for "dwelling by the river." When Union troops entered the area in 1863, William returned as a guide to Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman's troops actually landed on the Amnicola farm Nov. 24, 1863, and Thomas guided one of the Federal brigades toward Billy Goat Hill.

As Thomas later related in a letter of complaint, Federal troops showed little respect for the Amnicola farm as they advanced, and his family home was used as a hospital for the casualties suffered during the Battle of Missionary Ridge, requiring 22 members of his family to cram into two rooms of the house.

In the years after the Union victory in 1865, Thomas served a term as mayor of Chattanooga. William resumed his agricultural pursuits but was respected to the point that he defeated prominent ex-Confederate Judge David M. Key for a seat in Congress in 1873, serving for the one term for which he was elected. He declined a second term.

While in Congress, he rather bizarrely responded to a speech by a political opponent with a mock rooster's crow.

Thomas died in 1886, and William died in 1890, at a farm he owned in North Georgia not far from Chattanooga. To the end, he was an "eccentric, erratic man, beyond nearly all men of his day."

Sam D. Elliott is a local attorney with Gearhiser, Peters, Elliott and Cannon, chairman of the Tennessee Historical Commission and the author or editor of several books and essays on the Civil War. For more information, visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org, or call LaVonne Jolley at 423-886-2090.