Gaston: 'Marse Henry' Watterson's journalism fame began in Chattanooga

Gaston: 'Marse Henry' Watterson's journalism fame began in Chattanooga

November 25th, 2018 by Kay Baker Gaston in Opinion Columns
"Marse Henry" Watterson (wikimedia.org)

"Marse Henry" Watterson (wikimedia.org)

Photo by wikimedia.org

"Marse Henry" Watterson's fame began in Chattanooga writing for The Chattanooga Daily Rebel. That is also where he met his future wife, Rebecca Ewing, and his future business partner, Walter N. Haldeman, proprietor of the Louisville Courier.

Henry was born on Feb. 16, 1840, to U.S. Congressman Harvey Magee Watterson and his wife, Talitha Black. The family lived at the Willard Hotel in Washington and their family home, Beech Grove in Bedford County, Tennessee. Henry had vision only in one eye and very poor eyesight. His mother home schooled him until he was 12, when he attended the Protestant Episcopal Academy in Philadelphia. There he ran the school newspaper on a press his father donated. He was a talented pianist and began his professional career as a music critic for The New York Times. Later he wrote for The Daily States in Washington, D.C., where he became a protégé of Jane Cazneau, the first female war correspondent in U.S. history.

When war broke out between the states on April 12, 1861, Watterson went to Tennessee as a Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Press. Although he was a Unionist who thought secession was treason, he was "thrown by circumstance" into Confederate service. He served as an aide to Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and Gen. Leonidas Polk before being assigned to work as an editor for The Chattanooga Daily Rebel.

Franc Paul, formerly clerk of the Tennessee Senate, published the first issue of the Rebel on Aug. 1, 1862. It was widely read by Confederate troops and supporters throughout the South. In November the paper moved into the back rooms of the Bank of Tennessee in the 500 block of Market Street. Henry Watterson, the lead editorialist, began to publish scathing criticisms of Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg. At a tea party, he went so far as to criticize Bragg to his face, although he may not have realized to whom he was speaking. The general was not amused. He notified the publisher that Watterson's criticism must cease, whereupon Watterson resigned for the good of the paper.

Among the Confederate sympathizers and refugees who poured into Chattanooga during the Confederate occupation was Walter N. Haldeman, proprietor of the Louisville Courier. He and Watterson became friends and, after the war, business partners. Another was Rebecca Ewing, the daughter of the Nashville politician Andrew Ewing, who would become Watterson's wife.

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"She had a fine contralto voice and led the church choir," he reminisced in "Marse Henry, An Autobiography." They were seated in the Presbyterian Church on Friday, Aug. 21, 1863, a day Confederate President Jefferson Davis had named for fasting and prayer. Dr. B.M. Palmer of New Orleans was well into his prayer when the sound of artillery shells exploding on the roof signaled a Union attack. Unperturbed, Dr. Palmer continued to deliver what Watterson described as the longest prayer he had ever heard. After the benediction, Watterson wrote, "I was quick to go for my girl. By the time we reached the street the firing had become general. We had to traverse quite half a mile of it before attaining a place of safety."

Union Gen. William S. Rosecrans was advancing on the Confederates occupying Chattanooga. Col. John T. Wilder's brigade of mounted infantry had reached the Tennessee River across from the town and opened artillery fire upon it. Gen. Bragg ordered all non-combatants to leave Chattanooga and began withdrawing his forces to North Georgia. The Rebel evacuated the city by train on the night of Aug. 30, 1863. It printed a daily issue until April 2, 1865, when its presses were destroyed in Selma, Alabama.

Henry Watterson and Rebecca Ewing were separated for nearly two years. Watterson assisted with the burial of her father, who died in Atlanta on June 16, 1864, and served with Gen. Joseph E. Johnston in the Confederate army. After the war ended, Watterson worked for the Cincinnati Evening Times for several months before moving to Nashville to start The Republican Banner with friends. He was reunited with Rebecca Ewing and the two were married on Dec. 20, 1865.

Watterson moved to Louisville to edit the Louisville Journal that merged with his friend Haldeman's Courier in 1868, forming the Louisville Courier-Journal. Using the pen name "Marse Henry," he wrote colorful editorials that were distributed nationally and helped build support for U.S. entry into World War I. The Wattersons had five children and traveled widely while maintaining their home "Mansfield" outside Louisville.

Kay Baker Gaston is a regional historian and a former Chattanoogan. For more, visit chattahistoricalassn.org.

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