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Civil War

By New Year's Day of 1859, Will Henry Coxe and his young daughter had moved into their Gothic villa on Salem Road.  Christened Eliza Victoria, the girl used the shortened form of her first name, Lida, and was known to intimates as Sissy.  She would celebrate her fifteenth birthday on February 12, 1859, but not in Holly Springs.

Previously she had been a student at Holly Springs Female Institute (which stood on the site of the present high school), but her Georgia kin urged that the motherless girl be sent to Lucy Cobb Institute, a school in Athens, Georgia,  just opening for its first session, where her cousins had enrolled.  Will Henry Coxe compensated for being left alone with frequent lavish entertainments.

Lida was at Lucy Cobb when war was declared in April of 1861 and the first Marshall County troops left Holly Springs for the front.  The gas lights welcoming guests to the Coxe mansion were still ablaze.  By March of 1862, Martha Mildred Thomson Strickland was writing  to her husband in the army,  "The ladies are giving it to the men about enlisting, but it has no effect. Jim House and Will H. Coxe go to dancing school." 

In the fall, Confederate General Sterling Price made Holly Springs his headquarters, and the town gave itself over, in the words of author Sherwood Bonner (1849-1883), to patriotic dissipation.  Picnics, balls, and  reviews  filled  those golden October days. . . . Houses were thrown open, and around every table gathered the gray-coated officers.  Young girls taken from the school-room blossomed into belles and coquettes.   Among them now was Lida Coxe.

Looking back, Sherwood Bonner realized that into a few short months we crowded the gaiety of a lifetime. 

Learning that Grant s army was advancing upon the town, Price retreated south, and on November 29, Grant marched into Holly Springs to the strains of Yankee Doodle. Two days later, Grant had led the main body of his troops on to Waterford, and by December 4, he had established his headquarters in Oxford.

But he made Holly Springs his supply center for the Vicksburg campaign, and his remaining troops were kept busy unloading boxcars of ammunition and other supplies and storing them first in warehouses at the depot, then in the Jones-McElwain Iron foundry, the three-story Masonic Hall on the square, and the unfinished Presbyterian church. The high ranking officers left behind commandeered rooms in the Magnolia Hotel and in private residences.  Colonel Murphy, the commanding officer, was quartered at the Hugh Craft house a block south of the square.

On December 15, 1862, Grant wrote from Oxford telling his sister that their father had arrived in Holly Springs, where Grant's wife Julia Dent Grant and their small son were also living.  Grant himself would soon be advancing farther south, he explained.  Describing Holly Springs as a pleasant place, he remarked that Julia may as well stay there as elsewhere.

In her memoirs, Julia Grant noted that "Col. Theodore S. Bowers of Grant's staff had secured  very nice quarters in a fine house belonging to Mr. Walker" [actually Col. Harvey W. Walter].  The Walter family had joined Col. Walter at his post, and their mansion was being occupied by Mrs. Pugh Govan (the daughter of Dr. Francis Hawks, Episcopal clergyman and author, well known in the North), who received Julia Grant graciously and whom Mrs. Grant described as  "a fine, noble woman."

Julia Grant and her little son Jesse were in Oxford visiting General Grant on the morning of December 20, 1862 the day that Sherwood Bonner called  "The Glorious, GLORIOUS  Twentieth."  At dawn Confederate cavalry under the command of General Earl Van Dorn surprised the sleeping Union garrison, gained a surrender without a fight, and destroyed a million dollars worth of ammunition and supplies.

The Confederates were gone before nightfall, and Holly Springs, explosions echoing through it, was left with 2,500 Yankee soldiers defeated, hungry, and threatening the town with the torch.  On the twenty-second of December, Grant withdrew from Oxford and reestablished his headquarters in Holly Springs, where it remained until January 9, 1863, when Grant moved it to Memphis. 

Historian John M. Mickle commented that Ulysses Grant was better liked than any other  Federal Commander who operated through here.  He was considerate of the people as the exigencies of the war permitted.  He listened to their troubles, helped them when he could, and readily granted guards to protect private homes.  In the aftermath of the Van Dorn Raid, Union troops had stripped the surrounding plantations of food and forage, but with the return of Grant at least general order was restored.

A large lithograph of the Grant family in the White House (a signal mark of respect for the general) was left hanging at Walter Place when the property was sold to M. A. Greene.  In the 1970s, it was still in the hands of the Greene family.

Julia Dent Grant recorded in the memoirs that, upon their return to Holly Springs, General Grant and his family, at the request of Colonel Coxe, lived in his  beautiful villa.  Will Henry and his brother Matthew had visited Grant earlier, in Oxford on December fifth, to protest the army's confiscation of their cotton, both representing themselves as Union men.   But no matter what their political stance,  some local citizens realized that their best wartime insurance was the occupation of  property by high-ranking Federal officers.

  Mildred Strickland wrote her husband on January 5, 1863: "General Hamilton had a room at my house and headquarters at Mr. McCarroll's, and I never was treated more kindly and more civilly than I was by General Hamilton." 

One incident at the Coxe mansion also confirms the high level of conduct among these enemies. When Julia Grant was preparing to leave Holly Springs for Memphis and found that Jesse's cup had been misplaced, Will Henry Coxe stepped forward and with great courtliness insisted that she take one of his pink wine glasses as a replacement, even though she realized that the gift would break the set.  Other situations did test Confederate mettle, as when Mrs. Grant invited Lida Coxe to take Christmas dinner with the Grants and the officers of the general s staff.

Though feeling deeply the irony of being invited to dinner in her own house, Lida accepted graciously and found that  "a fine turkey and other poultry"  had been sent over by the Govan ladies for the grand meal.

Still another first-hand account of Grant at the Gothic villa has recently surfaced. On December twenty-eighth of 1862, Second Lieutenant William White, of Company F,  90th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, and two other officers walked into Holly Springs from their camp four miles north, probably the  Coldwater Camp, used at various times by both armies.  That night he wrote a long letter home telling of his experiences. 

The three men walked along the railroad and entered the town by the depot. They then apparently retraced their steps to Salem Road, where they noted several large buildings which floated a red flag indicating that they were used as hospitals.  These were apparently St. Thomas Hall to the east of the railroad and the Pointer and Bonner mansions to the west.  White continues:

"We saw many nice yards adorned with beautiful green trees, but here we stopped to view one more attractive than the rest.  A splendid iron fence lined the front.  On the iron culvert in front of the gate we read the name W. H. Cox [e].  The house, a beautiful cottage built in the latest style, stood back about fifty paces [yards/} and was approached by a walk of many windings, lined with various kinds of evergreens. A sentinel stood at the gate, and of him we inquired what was doing here.  We were informed that this was Gen. Grant's Headquarters.  Is there any admittance?  we asked.  He was instructed to pass officers, so we determined to see the General.  On the porch we [met] the Adgt. Gen. of his staff a Lieut. Col. Rollins, with whom my friends were acquainted.  I was introduced and [he] showed us to the presence of Maj. Gen. Grant.  My companions are from his town [Galena, Illinois].  He did not recognize them at first but soon brought them to mind and reached out his hand.  I was formally introduced and had a shake hand with the General. He is a man below the medium height, slightly stoop shouldered, light complexion, and has a piercing eye.  His office was the double parlor connected by sliding doors. The mirrors were hanging on the wall, and many other articles of furniture about the house. There were several colonels there and many other officers, besides a number of red tape gentlemen."

On January 9, 1863, Grant moved his army back to Memphis, and the most dramatic Federal occupation of Holly Springs was over.

But there would be others. According to a record kept on one of the columns of the Hugh Craft house, Holly Springs changed hands over fifty times, and the Coxe mansion was doubtless occupied by other Federal troops, some without a commander as scrupulous as General Grant.  It was apparently during these times that troops took target practice on the finials of iron fence and pried the tiles from the porches of the mansion, as Belle Strickland noted in an entry in her 1864 diary.

By the end of 1864, the now-married Lida Coxe had borne a child, and after one visit, a neighboring planter noted in his diary that Will Henry Coxe had gone mad. According to old African American workers on the Dean plantation near Galena, he was grieving because he had lost his riches. With Appomattox, his condition worsened.  On September 30, 1865, he died at his Gothic mansion.  Either in a drunken state, or acting on a dare (versions differ), he forced his horse up the front steps of the mansion.  The horse reared and fell on him.




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