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Zachary Taylor: Mississippi’s unclaimed president

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Portrait of Zachary Taylor by James Lambdin (public domain)

He was born in Virginia, grew up in Kentucky, and lived in many parts of the country, but when Zachary Taylor was elected president of the United States in 1848, he was a resident of Mississippi, living in Cypress Grove, his plantation south of Rodney in Jefferson County.

Taylor bought the plantation, just shy of 2,000 acres bordering the Mississippi River, in 1842 for $95,000 (about $3 million in today’s dollars) — $60,000 in cash and the rest in notes. The sale included a home, farm buildings and 81 slaves.

A sketch of the place in 1849 in Graham’s Magazine showed the house was a relatively simple farm dwelling, not at all palatial, for “Old Rough and Ready,” as Taylor was called, and his wife Margaret were not at all pretentious.

Taylor had owned the place a little more than a year when he began to seriously doubt the wisdom of his purchase. The flooding river was a problem, and the plantation was not as financially profitable as he had expected.

The last time Taylor saw Cypress Grove was in the pre-dawn hours of the last day in January 1849, the day he left for his inauguration as president (inaugurations then were held in March). He was aroused from a deep sleep by a blast of a steamboat whistle from the landing a few hundred yards from the house, and the old general, his wife, and the official escorting party sleepily walked down to the river, boarded the boat and went to the staterooms to finish their interrupted sleep.

It was midmorning when a ruckus on deck aroused the Taylors. The president elect eventually emerged from his room to discover he was on the wrong boat. He was to have ridden the elegant Tennessee but instead was a passenger on the less-luxurious Saladin.

It was really no accident. Capt. Tom Coleman of the Saladin, a friend — possibly a relative — of the Taylors had wanted the privilege of transporting Taylor to Washington, but Whig party officials had decided otherwise. That’s when the 24-year-old captain took matters into his own hands and docked at Cypress Grove.

The first member of Taylor’s escorting party to discover the ruse had accused Coleman of kidnapping Gen. Taylor. Coleman insisted he had done no such thing. He said Taylor had boarded the Saladin of his own free will, was uninvited, but Coleman would certainly not be so rude as to put the future president off the boat. If he wanted off, he would have to say so.

Gen. Taylor looked quite solemn when he confronted Coleman. He walked over to him, shaking his finger in his face “Tom, you scamp. What do you mean by getting me into this?” Taylor asked. And then he turned to the escorting committee: “Gentlemen, I reckon about all we can do now is take a drink.”

The Saladin brought Taylor on to Vicksburg where he made his first official stop for a reception on Court Square, where the Old Court House now stands. When he left Vicksburg after midnight, the Tennessee had still not caught up with him.

Not only was Taylor on the wrong boat, but he almost missed the boat entirely as far as the presidency was concerned, all because of a postage-due letter. When Whig Party supporters tendered the nomination, their letter arrived via steamboat, as was the custom of the day, and 10 cents postage was due. Taylor simply refused to accept the letter or pay the dime, so the captain paid it and Taylor eventually gave the OK.

He got the nomination without trying, even after having said “I do not care a fig about the office” and declaring he wouldn’t be interested even if he had no opposition. But, after edging out Winfield “Old Fuss and Feathers” Scott and Henry Clay at the convention (which he did not attend) he went on to defeat the Democrat, Lewis Cass, without campaigning. He was an ideal candidate — a national hero following the war with Mexico. He had no known political opinions, thus no political enemies. He had never voted. The Whigs needed a winner, and that man was Zachary Taylor. He didn’t look presidential, but his vice president, Millard Fillmore, did.

Though Washington, D.C., was far from Cypress Grove, when a young lady from England was making a tour of the country, collecting material for a book, Taylor insisted she visit his Jefferson County plantation. She arrived there Dec. 18, 1850, some six months after the president’s untimely death. She wrote that she was made comfortable before a blazing fire in the “primitive, though comfortable drawing room” until Richard Taylor, the president’s son, arrived from supervising the construction of a new steam sawmill.

The slaves were summoned to come to the house to greet the English visitor, and in less than 10 minutes they were there, the women wearing neat white dresses and woolen shawls and the men in flannel.

Taylor gave them some tobacco and then explained the operation of the plantation. Each day the slaves were furnished milk, bread, vegetables and meat, and on Sundays they were given coffee and butter and the ingredients to make pastries. The journalist later visited the quarters and met some of the children. She left the next day.

Though Zachary Taylor was to never return to Cypress Grove, he remained a legend on the plantation for many years. When explorer Willard Glazier canoed the Mississippi in 1881 and visited the place, he wrote that he listened to stories of “Old Zach” related with enthusiasm by former slaves.

Eventually Zachary Taylor’s descendants sold the plantation and little remains as he knew it. The diesel drone of a fleet of tractors has replaced the chant of those who once worked the seemingly endless fields. The house where they lived and Buena Vista Church where they worshiped — gone — yet their cemetery remains in an oasis of trees amid the freshly plowed cotton rows. Bits of broken glass designate the site of the big house, and from a river towhead several miles away comes the sound of a boat whistle, for the river that once flowed a few hundred yards in front of the house has moved.

Maps no longer carry the plantation name (which was changed to Buena Vista). Only Taylor Bayou and Zachary Taylor Light on the river hint at the importance of the place in history. When I visited there several years ago, workers on the plantation were unaware that it was once the home of a president.

“Zachary Taylor — wasn’t he president or something?” I was asked.

“Old Zach” is no longer a legend at Cypress Grove and remains unclaimed in Mississippi history.


Gordon Cotton is the curator emeritus of the Old Court House Museum. He is the author of several books and is a renowned historian.

History

Former Rosa A. Temple coach McClelland is the last coach with an undefeated basketball season in Vicksburg

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Lavern McClelland (photo courtesy Alonzo Stevens)

Former Rosa A. Temple High School basketball coach Levern McClelland remains one of the best high school basketball coaches to ever come through the City of Vicksburg.

Born on March 21, 1932, in Philadelphia, Mississippi, McClelland attended Hopewell Vocational High School and graduated from Alcorn A&M after being drafted in the military.

McClelland came to Vicksburg in 1964 where he became the head coach of the all Black, segregated Rosa A. Temple High School.

By 1967, McClelland had established a great team with the Buccaneers, and he was coaching some standout players such as Carl Jackson and Marshall Sanders.

”We started as an undeveloped team, and then coach installed integrity in us, and he knew exactly how to motivate us,” Jackson said.

The Buccaneers went 36-6 in the 1967 season and won the Big 8 championship that year among Black schools.

Teams all around Mississippi knew about the Buccaneers basketball program and knew the team was only getting better with McClelland’s leadership.

“He was definitely a smart man and way ahead of his time,” Sanders said. “He knew basketball, and he prepared us with tough conditioning so that he was able to teach us the game without us getting tired.”

Because Temple was an all Black school in the Jim Crow era, the Buccaneers never received the exposure many other programs did, but McClelland never let that stop him from coaching his team to win.

Just one year after winning the 1967 championship, McClelland and the Buccaneers went 29-0 in 1968 and won their second consecutive championship.

Student worker Walter Wright was in charge of keeping up with statistics and reporting them to newspapers all around Mississippi and even to Dallas, Texas. He had the chance to witness McClelland’s leadership first hand and how he inspired success in his team.

“Everything he touched, he won,” Wright said. “He is definitely one of the best coaches of all time, and I put him on a higher level than John Wooden.”

McClelland kept Wright busy and made sure he kept a job writing and reporting on athletics which helped teach Wright about organization.

He was able to do something most coaches only dream of when it comes to basketball — having an undefeated season.

Jackson went on to play for St. Bonaventure and was inducted in the school’s hall of fame in 2001, while Sanders went on to become the captain of the Harvard University basketball team.

Although Temple was known for its great athletic program, McClelland always encouraged his players to graduate and go on to college.

“He taught PE, and he always told us to get our education because that was the type of guy he was,” Wright said. “I wouldn’t be Dr. Wright today if it wasn’t for him.”

In the early 1970s, Temple High School finally integrated and McClelland became the head coach of South Vicksburg High where he continued his successful coaching career. He eventually won three Coach of the Year Awards as the Buccaneers head coach.

Although McClelland is credited for much of his team’s success, he also had a great assistant coach by the name of a Belton Dent who put in as much time as McClelland did to make their team successful.

McClelland passed away in 2013 just one day before his 81st birthday but his legacy lives on through the many lives he touched as a coach. He remains the last boys basketball coach in Vicksburg to have a undefeated season on the varsity level.

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Gen. Grant’s ‘Truce’ of Vicksburg

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The statue of Gen. Grant in the Vicksburg National Military Park. (photo by Calstanhope - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0)

There’s a small white stone in the Dockery family graveyard at Lamartine in Columbia County, Arkansas, with the simple inscription “Truce” on it, and therein lies a story.

Thomas Pleasant Dockery was a Confederate general in the Siege of Vicksburg, commanding the second brigade under Gen. John S. Bowen.

Dockery was born in North Carolina but grew up near Magnolia, Arkansas, on the Louisiana-Arkansas border, not far from Shreveport. He entered the Confederate States Army as a colonel.

During the siege, Mrs. Dockery, like many officers’ wives, tried to stay close to the army to be near her husband. She found lodging at a home in the county outside Federal lines. She could hear the roar of the cannons, and she spent many anxious moments concerned about her husband’s safety. Like many others, she prayed that relief might come for the entrapped Confederates, but it never came.

After the surrender on July 4, 1863, Mrs. Dockery persuaded her host to take her to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters so that she might learn something about her husband. The planter found a rickety old buggy, one in such poor con­dition the Yankees wouldn’t want it. He caught an old mule so frail he had also been spared, tied some leather and rope into a harness, hitched the mule to the buggy and he and Mrs. Dockery started for Vicksburg.

It was hot and dusty but eventually they made it to the vicinity of Grant’s headquarters. A guard refused to allow them to pass. That, however, was before Mrs. Dockery burst into tears — and he couldn’t bear to see a lady cry. She begged the guard to go to Grant and tell him that a lady in great distress needed to see him. The soldier soon returned with an invitation for Mrs. Dockery and her friend to come to headquarters right away.

Terrible stories had been circulated about Grant, but he received Mrs. Dockery courteously, gave her cool water and seated her in a comfortable chair. She told him of her concern about her husband, asking for permission to visit him. Grant couldn’t give her a pass without breaking his own rules; however, he would get news of Gen. Dockery by sending an orderly to find out about him.

Grant insisted that his guests join him for dinner, and when the meal was finished, the soldier returned with a message that Gen. Dockery was in good health and would visit his wife as soon as he was permitted.

Grant wrote a pass on a scrap of paper for the Confederate officer and his wife to return to their home in Arkansas upon their honor and pending further orders. The Northern commander slipped it into her hand as they parted.

It was several days before arrangements could be made for the Dockerys to leave, and the story was told that on the day of the departure of the Confederate soldiers, followed by their officers and wives, Grant was watching. At his feet was a white Spitz dog that had attached itself to headquarters. He had become a favorite of the men and of Gen. Grant.

As the Dockery’s carriage drew near, Grant picked up the little white dog and handed it to Mrs. Dockery, saying, “Let this be a flag of truce between us, madam, and may my men possess the courage you have shown during the siege.”

The dog was from then on called Truce and became as greatly loved by the men in gray as it had been by those who wore blue.

Eventually Gen. Dockery was exchanged and returned to his duties in Confederate service, taking Truce with him. One story of the dog’s service was that one night after a long march, with the men stretched out on the ground asleep, one soldier was aroused by Truce tugging at his sleeve. Annoyed, he tried to make the whining dog leave him alone. Undaunted, Truce went to wake the next soldier.

Just then, a bullet grazed where the soldier’s head had been resting. By then, everyone was awake, ready for a fight. Truce’s keen perception of danger had saved their lives.

Truce survived the war in which the dog had become a mascot for the Confederate soldiers. It is said that at the dog’s death he was buried in a small satin-lined casket, and some Confederate veterans conducted the burial.

Only the name Truce is on the gravestone, but there is quite a story that goes with it.


Gordon Cotton is the curator emeritus of the Old Court House Museum. He is the author of several books and is a renowned historian.

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In defense of a bedbug

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The portrait of Seargent Smith Prentiss, who died in 1850, was painted posthumously by an unknown artist and has been hanging in the courtroom of the Old Court House Museum since 1860. (Image courtesy Gordon Cotton)

Verse by great poets has been written in honor of a louse — and possibly other critters — but it was a Vicksburg attorney who delivered perhaps the most eloquent speech of his illustrious career when he spoke in defense of a bedbug.

The attorney was Seargent Smith Prentiss, considered one of the greatest orators in U.S. history. Speeches and pleas by the attorney and congressman captivated audiences and brought lavish praise from such men as Daniel Webster.

Prentiss came to Mississippi from Maine at the age of 19 in 1827. For a while he lived in Natchez and taught school for the Shields family at the Maryland Settlement in Jefferson County. He was admitted to the bar and soon moved to Vicksburg where he was active in Whig politics and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

The small-in-stature Prentiss was 5-feet 6-inches tall and walked with the aid of a cane because of a badly crippled foot. His forehead, like Webster’s, was high and broad, and his eyes were as penetrating as his voice was commanding. No other attorney wanted to face him in court for Prentiss seldom lost a case.

Two things Prentiss enjoyed were liquor and practical jokes.

When inspired with enough spirits, Prentiss was a master at entertaining. He was in just such a condition in the mid-1830s when he made his famous bedbug speech.

One evening Prentiss and fellow attorney Sam Gholson were traveling and stopped at a hotel in Raymond, Mississippi. After several hours at the bar the two secured a room for the night. For an hour or more, they slept soundly in the double bed, but Prentiss awakened suddenly to discovered that they had many small “bedmates.” He shook Gholson until he was awake as well, and they then debated whether to leave the hotel or meet the enemy head on.

Intoxicated to the point of being ridiculous, Prentiss and Gholson decided to attack. So, arising in their night shirts, they lit the lamp, drew their pistols and preceded to exterminate the tiny enemies. As a bedbug came forth, they would smite it with a bullet.

An interpretation of the massacre of the bedbugs at a Raymond, Mississippi, hotel was done in pen and ink by David Kleinman, an artist who grew up in Vicksburg but now lives in Ocean Springs. (Image courtesy Gordon Cotton)

It didn’t take long before the owner of the hotel came running. Prentiss told him they were simply exercising the right of self-defense, “granted by law of man and God.” Amid the frantic pleas of the landlord, the shooting continued until mattress and bed were demolished in the smoke-filled room.

And then a tiny, last culprit appeared and Prentiss caught the critter. Gholson immediately urged execution of the sole survivor of the massacre, but Prentiss pled for mercy. Both decided the bug deserved a trial by his fellow countrymen. Quickly, they got another attorney who was staying at the hotel to act as judge, and the landlord’s sons and others were brought in to serve as the jury.

For two hours Gholson, speaking for the state, prosecuted the case against the bedbug. Then the eloquent Prentiss spoke in the insignificant creature’s defense.

Prentiss talked for more than three hours, until dawn arrived, and the guests at the hotel who crowded the room to hear the great orator termed it the best address of his career. Unfortunately, no court stenographer was present, so Prentiss’ words were not recorded for posterity.

The fate of the bedbug? He was acquitted. He deserved it after over five hours of speechmaking past the midnight hour. He had enjoyed the services of Seargent Smith Prentiss, something many humans couldn’t financially afford.

The bedbug? He was set free to probably bite again.


Gordon Cotton is the curator emeritus of the Old Court House Museum. He is the author of several books and is a renowned historian.

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