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."
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.