Moore: Ellen Jarnagin McCallie lived a truly remarkable life

Moore: Ellen Jarnagin McCallie lived a truly remarkable life

June 26th, 2016 by Gay Moore in Opinion Columns

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

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Ellen Jarnagin McCallie led a life of service to others, punctuated with great joy and great sadness.

Born in 1843 in Athens, Tenn., to Spencer and Mary Jarnagin, Ellen's father served one term in the U.S. Senate. When he was not reappointed, the family moved to Memphis.

Following Sen. Jarnagin's death in 1853, mother and daughter returned to Athens. Well-educated at a time when most children left school after only a few years, by 1861 she was teaching in Cleveland, Tenn. There she met the minister of Cleveland's First Presbyterian Church, Thomas McCallie.

Proposing in a letter dated Nov. 21, 1861, he declared his "highest admiration" and "sincerest affection." Replying on Nov. 25, Ellen stated she "esteemed" him "very highly and am willing to trust my future happiness to your keeping." She did express some fear she did not possess the "noble qualities of mind and heart necessary for a minster's wife."

They married on Jan. 28, 1862.

Thomas was by then the minister of First Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga. The newlyweds moved to the 65-acre family farm, located on the current site of First Centenary Methodist Church. Their first child, Mary, was born in December 1862.

During the Civil War, Hamilton County was deeply divided between Union and Confederate loyalists. The McCallies were sympathetic to the Confederacy, but did not favor secession. Reportedly, Ellen taught a number of slaves to read, an act of courage for it was illegal to do so.

By 1863, the couple was nursing wounded soldiers in their home and church. Many nursed the wounded in their homes throughout the war, in part, to survive. Supplies were short, and the army sent food to the wounded, which was shared with the families who cared for them. The couple, like many Chattanoogans, continued to care for soldiers on both sides until the end of the war.

On Aug. 21, 1963, Union Gen. John Wilder shelled Chattanooga from atop Stringer's Ridge, citing his guns on the steeple of the First Presbyterian Church where many had gathered for a Confederate day of prayer. Ellen reportedly comforted the anxious ladies.

Provisions were scarce during Christmas 1863, but Ellen hung her stocking. In the morning, it contained a can of oysters, a can of tomatoes and an orange, gifts her husband obtained during the night.

From 1865 until 1888, Ellen gave birth to 15 children. As was common at the time, six died before their 5th birthday and two, including Mary, died before age 20. The remaining eight children grew into respected and accomplished citizens. All the while, Ellen was active in the work of the church, forming the first Women's Mission Society in Chattanooga. She also became interested in the larger philanthropic work of the community.

In failing health, Thomas left his position at First Presbyterian Church in 1872. In 1873, concerned about the large number of orphans in Chattanooga, Ellen joined with six like-minded women to form the Women's Christian Association. With Ellen serving as president, a series of temporary homes housed the children until 1908 when the Vine Street Orphan's Home opened. The institution operates today as the Chambliss Center for Children.

Ellen was instrumental in bringing a Francis Willard Home to Chattanooga. Last located on Lindsay Street, the home remained in operation until the 1960s, providing a home for single, working women. She was also instrumental in forming a branch of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA). She served as president of both organizations.

She was the first woman in Chattanooga to wear the white ribbon of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Interested in combating the influence of alcohol on families, the WCTU promoted social reforms including labor reform, public health, sanitation, women's suffrage and world peace.

Often described as "frail and in poor health," Ellen's name was linked to virtually every institution formed to benefit women and children in the city, including the Children's Refuge, Florence Crittenden Home, Old Ladies Home and Colored Children's Home.

Thomas died in 1912. In 1913, Ellen traveled with her son, visiting missions in Korea, China and Japan. On their way home, they arrived in Russia the day war with Germany was declared, and "only after hardships and an exciting adventure did she reach home."

Ellen died on Sept. 17, 1915, having led a truly remarkable life.

Gay Moore is the author of several books, including "Chattanooga's St. Elmo" and "Chattanooga's Forest Hills Cemetery." For more visit

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