Who doesn’t love a good love story? This is the story of Colonel John McEwen and his love for his family, hometown and his legacy.
Real life love stories are oftentimes more brutal and tragic than any fiction. When studying the life of Colonel John Brown McEwen, a scene that is played out only moments into both Margaret Mitchell’s blockbuster book and the movie Gone with the Wind comes to mind. Only moments into the movie, viewers are met with a scene that is so breathtakingly beautiful, the important dialogue becomes secondary. During this touching moment, Scarlet and her father, Gerald O’Hara, arms clasped, stroll together under a lush canopy of trees beside a creek on their property. They walk and talk and finally end up silhouetted underneath an ancient oak tree overlooking their beloved home Tara, which is backdropped by a brilliant copper sunset. During this scene, the dialogue of Gerald O’Hara’s character shares similar views to the real life Colonel John Brown McEwen, Franklin, Tennessee’s Mayor during the Civil War years. Gerald sternly, but lovingly states to his daughter Scarlet:
“Do you mean to tell me, Katie Scarlett O’Hara, that Tara, that land, doesn’t mean anything to you? Why, land is the only thing in the world worth workin’ for, worth fightin’ for, worth dyin’ for, because it’s the only thing that lasts. It’s proud I am that I’m Irish, and don’t you be forgetting, Missy, that you’re half-Irish, too. And, to anyone with a drop of Irish blood in them – why, the land they live on is like their mother. Oh, but there, there. Now, you’re just a child. It will come to you, this love of the land. There’s no gettin’ away from it if you’re Irish.”
—Gerald O’Hara to Scarlett in Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind”
Gerald O’Hara was an Irishman, who came to Georgia destitute and dressed in rags, winning his property and home in a card game. Southern aristocracy was all around him, and although he’d gained the respect of his neighbors and friends, he realized they would never completely forget that before he dressed in clothing made from the finest brocades and silks or made his fortune, he was nothing more than a poor immigrant dressed in rags. Gerald’s memories of being back on a boat to Ireland, starving and penniless was a notion from which he was not too far removed. Gerald O’Hara saw the value in land, and building something substantial, and a legacy he could pass down to his children, much like our Colonel McEwen.
Colonel John Brown McEwen held the title of Colonel, but not from some military affiliation. He was among the first in a few generations who remained absent from the battlefield. His father Christopher fought in the War of 1812, his grandfather David before him fought in the American Revolution. Colonel McEwen’s title was earned from the admiration and affection of the people of his town. The title just stuck.
Mayor John B. McEwen
Born in 1820 in his grandfather’s pioneer era log cabin in Franklin, Tennessee, McEwen was the third child of early settlers of Williamson County, Christopher and Rebecca Brown McEwen. Upon the time of his birth, his family had already been in Tennessee almost twenty-five years, with two generations already having struggled much. The McEwen men proved to be rugged and persevered through every imaginable struggle. Death was familiar, as many did not survive due to low infant mortality, disease, attacks from neighboring Native Americans, and the lack of medical care.
Stories of this difficult life passed down to McEwen through the generations, and he was determined to make the most of the life that had not been easy for him as a child, but especially in light of how much more difficult it was for his pioneer forefathers. Throughout his life, McEwen was told of the strong and hardworking Scotsmen in his family, who sailed across the sea, seeking out America and the freedom it provided. McEwen would never forget their sacrifice. Like Gerald O’Hara, although not an immigrant, Colonel McEwen was intent on not wasting his ancestors’ sacrifices.
The Lovely Cynthia Graham McEwen
Throughout his life, Colonel McEwen was known to be a fair, friendly and kind citizen, eventually becoming a lawyer, vast land owner, and farmer. Marrying Cynthia Graham October 13, 1842, the couple would build a family of four girls and a boy, and a gorgeous Italianate mansion on Fair Street in downtown Franklin. The McEwen home still stands today, and has been remarkably preserved. You can read the backstory of the Harris-McEwen home here.
Cynthia and the Colonel went to every effort in creating a beautiful home. Every room was perfectly appointed with elegant chandeliers, hand-carved marble tables, custom curtains, rugs, and wall coverings. The McEwens lived a life that many people of their age only dreamed of until losing their one and only son Richard in 1858. They grieved deeply at his loss.
Just as the McEwen family began to settle into an existence without their son, they began to see signs of war all around them. They soon realized their family would not be afforded much time to grieve over the loss of Richard. Concern amongst the townspeople of impending war was forever present, and finally became an actuality in April of 1861 with the fall of South Carolina’s Fort Sumter. It’s unclear as to whether Mayor McEwen or his alderman realized that the only thing that stood between the Federal occupation of nearby Nashville to the north was their little city of Franklin. Not unlike Gerald O’Hara, Colonel McEwen would fear the loss of all he’d worked so hard to build.
The McEwen household was a busy one, as Colonel McEwen and his wife Cynthia had four remaining daughters ranging in age from 5-18 years old living in their home when The Civil War broke out in 1861. There are many stories of the McEwens and their life on Fair Street. However, this story will focus mainly on Colonel McEwen and his third daughter Sarah (Sallie) Florence McEwen. Colonel McEwen and Gerald O’Hara both provided well for their families and with the onset of the war feared loss. Fear in the loss of material and monetary wealth was always at the forefront, but paramount was the fear of losing another child. Like McEwen, Gerald O’Hara also felt the sting of losing a son, except he lost three. None of Gerald’s sons had lived past the age of infancy, so it’s possible that the fear in O’Hara was even more prominent than the McEwens.
Franklin’s Female Institute for Girls
Colonel McEwen’s daughter, Sallie McEwen was 16 when war broke out, and near 17 when Federal occupation of the city began. She and her sisters attended school at the nearby Franklin Female Institute, within walking distance of the McEwen home. The McEwens were an affluent family that encouraged education for their children. The children carried on correspondence through letter writing and maintained diaries.
The Civil War Comes to Franklin
Sallie McEwen was one of two of Colonel McEwen’s daughters to keep a diary during the Civil War, with Florence’s elder sister Adelica also penning her memoirs years afterward. Most of Sallie’s diary consists of day to day briefings, along with the comings and goings of her family during the first few years after the start of the Civil War. Sallie McEwen’s diary makes reference and describes major events during the beginning years of Franklin’s metamorphosis into a federally occupied city. She took note of the day men formed regiments locally, and how their departure impacted the community. After local troops left to fight, most of the town of Franklin was left without the protection of their men. On Saturday, May 18, 1861, (“The Civil War as Seen Through the Female Experience”, Warwick, 2008) a little after a month after the start of the war, Sallie wrote,
”Capt. Hanner’s company left Franklin this morning on the 9 o’clock train. There was great crying by both the boys and their friends. The company has gone to Springfield, Robertson County where they will remain till ordered off.”
Less than a year later, in 1862, Florence would continue to write,
“Fort Donelson has fallen. We are defeated, a great number of prisoners have been taken, among them a great number of our acquaintances. There is great panic in Nashville, people are leaving there in great numbers.”
It’s easy to feel Sallie McEwen’s emotion, and to imagine what she was witnessing during this time. The future was unknown and panic was setting in amongst her family and friends. As she watched events unfolding before her, Sallie most likely saw the concern on her parent’s faces, but heaviest was the heart of her Father, Colonel McEwen. Few people in Franklin, Tennessee felt the responsibility that Colonel McEwen would carry during the Civil War years. Aside from being a protective father and husband, Colonel McEwen also held the role of Mayor of Franklin, Tennessee during the entire four years of the conflict.
Living in a Federally Occupied City
It’s unclear how much Mayor McEwen and his aldermen knew concerning a threat to their city, when the Civil war began. Military fortifications began to appear at nearby Fort Granger, along with a picket line that cut citizens off from the freedom to come and go without a pass. Citizens were asked to sign an oath to the United States, and those that did not were forever considered suspect. As paranoia and fear increased amongst both sides, most townspeople grew afraid to speak up.
At least one group of women were asked to leave the city of Franklin after they were accused of spying. Federal troops in Franklin used the city as a shield to block Confederate troops from attacking crucial supply lines to federal troops, but more importantly to stop food and other supplies as a strategy. Nashville’s major shipping channels established on both its Cumberland River as well as by railroad made control imperative. Fortifications around Franklin, control of the city, townspeople and the town’s railroad depot were important components in protecting Nashville from Confederate raids.
The Women and Girls of the Confederacy
Federal soldiers were often spotted in town, causing the citizens of Franklin to be on edge. Desperate soldiers from both sides would help themselves to the fences, outbuildings, and trees on citizens property, taking chickens, cattle, or whatever they could find in smokehouses and icehouses. Most of the citizens of Franklin supported succession, so much so that initially they hung homemade flags supporting their troops from their flagpoles. These flags were hand stitched by Franklin women, who met often to sew together in the Masonic Hall. These women made uniforms for their troops, knitted socks for their men and at one point were so enthusiastic, they even made uniforms for themselves.
From the diary of Colonel McEwen’s eldest daughter Adelicia in her memoirs written in 1911, Reminisces of a Schoolgirl during the War Between the States,
“While the women worked, the girls made little ‘Housewives’ for their friends, to hold buttons, thimble and thread, one of which was presented to every soldier boy.”
As the war trudged on, Confederate soldiers were under terrible threat if they found a way to cross picket lines. Two unfortunate Confederates making pretense of being Federal soldiers were welcomed into the Fort; playing cards, gambling, and enjoying brandy and cigars with the higher ups at Federally occupied Fort Granger. When they were found out the next day, after almost getting away, the imposters were surreptitiously hung. The Federal soldiers who enjoyed the men’s company so much the evening prior, were said to be so regretful at the unavoidable realization that the men must be hanged to make an example. This is just one of the tragic and sobering events which increased the level of fear and trepidation amongst Franklinites, with the McEwens being no exception.
Federal Col. Henry R. Mizner Comes to Town
In 1862, Mayor McEwen called his aldermen together and they signed a decree, which was later presented to the townspeople of the city of Franklin. This decree stated that city officials would do whatever necessary to cooperate with Federal authorities to preserve the peace. Citizens of Franklin were asked to review and agree to help keep the peace. Not even a year later, that decree came in handy as they were asked to meet with Colonel H.R. Mizner of the Fourteenth Michigan regiment. At any emergency meeting in September of 1863, Mizner handed Colonel McEwen a piece of paper for him to read, explaining politely that he was a representative of the commanding officer who sent the notice. The note read as follows:
“Ordered that notice be given to all concerned that in the event of any Confederate raid being made into the streets of Franklin, that it will be at the risk of the lives and property of the citizens of the town; that in such an event the guns from the fort will be turned upon the town without further notice.”
Upon reading this notice, McEwen most likely experienced a mixture of horror combined with an acute weight of responsibility in properly representing the citizens of Franklin. Until the close of the war in April of 1865, the town of Franklin remained under Federal occupation. During this period of time, the people of Franklin, including Colonel McEwen’s family, continued to experience many traumatic events. The most tragic of all was on November 30, 1864 during the bloody Battle of Franklin.
The McEwens Take Shelter
The McEwen home had fighting all around it and the McEwens were undoubtedly terrified as they heard constant explosions and hand to hand combat above them. They took shelter in the cellar below their Fair Street home after a cannonball destroyed the wall of their home’s cookhouse, located close to the rear of the home.
Over 10,000 casualties occurred during the battle, leaving six generals dead. Homes, churches and virtually every building in Franklin was turned into a field hospital for soldiers from both sides. All of the citizens of the town of Franklin aided in caring for the wounded and burying the dead, with the McEwen home being no exception. The McEwen family nursed soldiers in their home for many months after the end of the Civil War, with a few staying for almost an entire year.
The Remnants from the Battle
Even today, blood stains remain on the wooden floors of the McEwen Fair Street home from the many surgeries that occurred following the five hour battle. At least forty-four buildings and homes in Franklin would operate as hospitals following the November 30th battle. What the McEwens experienced once they emerged from the security of their cellar can only be described by an eyewitness. Adelicia McEwen once again from her diary wrote,
“In the afternoon, Dec 1st, some of us went to the battlefield to give water and wine to the wounded. All of us carried little cups with which to refresh the wounded. Horrors! What sights met our girlish eyes. The dead and wounded lined Columbia Pike for the distance of a mile.”From this sad scene, we passed on to the locust thicket, and men in every conceivable position could be seen, some with fingers on their triggers as death struck them so suddenly they didn’t move. Past the thicket we saw trenches dug to receive as many as ten bodies. On the left of the pike, around the old ginhouse, men and horses were lying so thick we could not walk. “
Difficult as it is to imagine a city going on with everyday life, after such horrific events, Franklin and its townspeople nursed the wounded, buried the dead and cleaned up the mess. Life went on.
The McEwen Daughters
Mayor McEwen had soldiers living in his home, and he and his family nursed them so long, it no longer seemed unusual. Many of these men died while in their care, others were terribly wounded or disfigured.
All four of McEwens daughters would eventually marry men who fought for the confederacy, but each also had a deep affection for soldiers from both sides.
Sallie Gets Married
Life did go on and in 1866, welcome was the marriage of the McEwens’ daughter Sallie McEwen to Reverend William Ledyard Rosser. Rosser served in the war as a soldier in the Confederate army, serving as chaplain for the 4th Tennessee Cavalry. Reverend Rosser was a very well respected man of God, serving the Presbyterian church in downtown Franklin, as well as the Presbyterian Church in Nashville in some capacity throughout his life.
Mayor McEwen would eventually purchase homes for all four of his daughters upon each of their marriages, but Sallie was the first. McEwen purchased property with a home located in it for Sallie and William, and they began to farm. They named their new home Creekside. Sallie probably realized she was expecting a baby early in 1867. A letter written (Tennessee Agriculture: A Century Farms Perspective, 1986, Van West) by Sarah (Sallie) Florence Rosser in the summer of 1867, only months before the birth of her child,
“Mr. Rosser is delighted with farming. Almost every pleasant day, he spends in the garden and fields till he is getting so tanned, you will hardly know him. “
A New Baby at Creekside, Then Tragedy
It’s easy to imagine how excited and happy Sallie and William were upon learning a baby was on the way. The entire McEwen family must have been overjoyed as well at the news, following all of the sadness they had experienced during the tragic events of the civil war and the death of their son Richard two years prior. Sallie gave birth to a healthy, beautiful baby girl at Creekside in September of 1867. Sallie and William named their baby after her mother, Sarah Florence Rosser, calling her Sarah.
Happiness for the Rossers and McEwens was fleeting, however, only one month following the birth of her daughter, Sarah (Sallie) Florence Rosser would pass away, probably as a result of complications from childbirth. Sallie was only twenty years old. So many factors make Sallie’s death particularly sad. Not only was it unexpected, but she left a one month old daughter behind. Additionally, she and William had just begun to embark upon building a life, their farm and future together. After experiencing so much pain and destruction all around her, Sallie was probably feeling so hopeful at the prospect of a wonderful life with William by her side. The thought of her and her new daughter being separated after only a month is unfathomable. One would think that at this point the commonalities between Gerald O’Hara would end. One might think that Colonel McEwen, having suffered so much loss in the untimely death of another child, may feel all of his efforts were wasted. However, the story isn’t over yet.
Although Sallie McEwen Rosser had been given the property at Creekside, Colonel McEwen did not complete the transfer. He always made it very clear to his daughter, granddaughter and anyone that asked, that Creekside belonged to the women, stating that it was their home and that it did not belong to him. Being a very wise man, and seeing how difficult reconstruction was for everyone around him, combined with the lack of foresight that youth sometimes causes, probably numbered amongst the reasons McEwen left the property in his name. After all, in the end the property wouldn’t ever belong to his recently passed daughter Sallie, and his newborn granddaughter wouldn’t be needing any property for many years.
The Farm at Creekside
On the occasion of a grand birthday party given by McEwen celebrating his birthday, he made a speech to guests about the property and made reference to the farm as his granddaughters home. McEwen was remembered in an October 14, 1897 issue of the Williamson County News,
“When all had arrived, he stepped forward, and in a short speech stated that we were on historic ground; The house, being the schoolhouse where he had received his education and he pointed to a certain spot designated by him, and then stated that now the home is that of his granddaughter.”
Life resumed without Sarah (Sallie) Florence McEwen Rosser. Colonel John and Cynthia McEwen cared for Florence and William’s newborn, while William continued to work the farm at Creekside. McEwen and Rosser worked together for years, making profits from crops grown at the farm, eventually utilizing the perfect location as a dairy operation. Rosser remarried in 1869 to Ruth Jones, with daughter Sarah, now three years old, listed as living in their residence in the 1870 census.
Although the Rossers are listed in the 1870 census as residing in Lewisburg, Marshall County, Tennessee, in the 1880 census they are found residing in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. In 1872, when Sarah was just an infant, Rosser would graduate from Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. William would continue to have more children with Ruth, a daughter Hattie, born in 1873, a son Ray born in 1881 and a daughter Ruth born in 1884. Sarah Rosser would continue to be close to her three half sisters and her stepmother Ruth throughout her life.
McEwen’s Creekside Dairy
Since there are several mentions of Creekside as the “Rosser Place” in local newspapers in Franklin over the next few years, one would assume that the Rosser and McEwen men hired a farm manager. Reverend Rosser continued working as a minister after his wife’s death and was noted in both the 1870 and 1880 census as living a considerable distance from Franklin. Physically working the farm at Creekside would have been an impossibility for him.
Colonel McEwen, though, utilized the Creekside property as a “country home”, a venue for Gun Club meetings, hosting at least two large birthday gatherings later in his life. McEwen hired someone to operate the dairy, as is stated here in the January 27, 1876, Review and Journal newspaper;
“John B McEwen is establishing a 40 power dairy on Spencer’s Creek, one and a half miles from town. He has an experienced dairyman from Canada in charge of it. Cheese will be manufactured, and butter and milk sold. This is the pioneer enterprise in this section, and we hope it will succeed.”
The farm became known for a while as McEwen’s Creekside Dairy, and the operation continued as far as can be seen, until the end of both Rosser and McEwen’s life.
Ward’s Seminary for Young Ladies
During her teenage years, Sarah Rosser would attend Wards Seminary for Young Ladies in Nashville. Wards was an excellent education for young women, eventually becoming Belmont University.
Sarah Rosser married her neighbor from Murfreesboro, George Marion Adkerson in 1892. The couple would move into the home at Creekside, beginning both farming and operations of the dairy.
The Rossers would begin their family with the birth of a son, McEwen John Adkerson in 1893. Owen Branch born in 1897, Florence born in 1904, Ella Marion born in 1906 and lastly Nellie born in 1910. Sarah and George, along with their children, lived a good life, with their children growing up at Creekside.
Much of their income was likely generated from sales of the dairy, and the milk, butter, eggs and cheese it produced. Colonel McEwen finally transferred the deed to the Creekside property to his granddaughter, Sarah Florence Rosser Adkerson in 1900. (Williamson County deeds)
On January 14, 1903, Sarah would lose her Grandfather, Colonel John Brown McEwen. Although at the time it may not have been so apparent, Colonel McEwen held on to the property at Creekside until his granddaughter Sarah settled into a life with stability. McEwen did this out of love.
The establishment of the dairy at Creekside provided income for Sarah and her descendants for 150 years. That income may have even given Rosser, McEwens former son-in-law some financial stability and afforded him the luxury of attending Princeton University. McEwen went so far as to hire a farm and dairy manager so that Creekside could operate and continue to produce income, without its owners living on the premises.
Reverend Rosser did remarry and have more children and McEwen knew that if the dairy was left to him, it might be sold. McEwen realized that as long as he kept the property in his name, it was safe and would be passed on to his granddaughter when the time was right. McEwen made Creekside Farm a success, an effort it seems that was purely out of the love for his beloved daughter Sallie and her newborn daughter Sarah. He set his granddaughter up to have a nice home on beautiful land that would always provide an income and a way to feed her family. McEwen made certain the property was in her name only. He made sure the time was right.
Sarah Rosser Adkerson’s Legacy
Sarah Rosser Adkerson was born at Creekside, raising five beautiful children alongside her husband George. The Adkerson children were all successes, each one receiving excellent educational opportunities. The two oldest children were boys, McEwen and Owen. As young men, both would join the military and have brilliant careers. Owen would get a job as an Electrical Engineer after obtaining a bachelor’s degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. The Adkerson girls, Florence, Marion and Nell, would all three also obtain bachelors degrees from the University of Tennessee. After graduation, each of the Adkerson girls would live in New York with their brother Owen. Owen had moved to New York after college, giving his sisters a place to live while they obtained their Masters degrees from Columbia University.
Both Marion and Florence were both great chemists. Marion would go on to do scientific research, with her work documented in several scientific journals. The youngest Adkerson, Nell, would go on to teach school locally and was a beloved home economics teacher at Franklin High School. The Creekside home would remain in the hands of McEwen descendants for 156 years. Read Kimberly’s Story on Miss Marion’s House at Creekside
From McEwen, to Rosser and with it finally being passed down to the Adkerson children, Creekside stayed in the family. The property became a Tennessee Century Farm in 2003, and the home was listed on the National Register of historic places in 1988.
Sarah Rosser Adkerson passed away at Creekside on July 30, 1951 at the age of 84. Her family would continue to live at Creekside for more than seventy years. Because Colonel McEwen knew the importance of holding on to land, maintaining property and utilizing it to its fullest potential, he was very much like Gerald O’Hara. Both men conveyed the importance of land to their daughters, and had intentions of using their properties to provide for their futures.
McEwen saw Creekside’s potential, and was very careful with the responsibility he felt towards his daughter Sallie in making sure she, her infant daughter and future grandchildren were set up for success. Creekside Dairy provided the funds needed to meet that goal. McEwen undoubtedly passed down this sentiment to his children and grandchildren, as did O’Hara. Even following both men’s deaths, Scarlet O’Hara and Sarah Rosser Adkerson continued to follow the advice of their fathers in the stewardship of their land.
This is indeed a love story, a love of the land and all that it provides in nurturing the family.
“Why, land is the only thing in the world worth workin’ for, worth fightin’ for, worth dyin’ for, because it’s the only thing that lasts” ~Gerald O’Hara, “Gone with the Wind”