Octavia Courtney – Franklin’s Union Sympathizer, Spy and Traitor

The Courtney House – 515 Church Street, Franklin, Tenn.

“By traitor hand I marched at the point of a rebel bayonet, from the bosom of my home, to a court of secession…jeered, mocked and sentenced to imprisonment, to all of their charges, I answered guilty.”Octavia Courtney Cochnower

Florence Octavia “Octie” Courtney Cochnower

Traitor. Treasonist. Turncoat.

Born in 1839, Florence Octavia Courtney was 21 years old when the Civil War became a reality. Octie, as she was known by her family and friends, made no secret as to where her loyalties lie.  Octie Courtney was one of the few in her heavily secessionist leaning southern town of Franklin, Tennessee who boldly voiced her support for the Union. Even her family supported the South, with her brother William and sister Jenny’s husband, William G. Davis, both enlisting with the Confederate army.

Octie was from a wealthy, well thought of family in Franklin, with her family having deep roots in the area.  Upon examination of her life, Octie was the last person one would ever expect to have such a valiant voice, but she was never quiet. More than once, Octie bravely stood at her front fenceline, making a brave show in her support for Federal officers and troops passing by, waving patriotic red, white and blue ribbons or an American flag.

The Courtney House

Octie was a beautiful girl, and made quite an impression on both the troops passing by her home, but also on her strongly Confederate neighbors.  It wasn’t long before tongues were wagging and every window and screen door was filled with onlookers quietly taking note of Octie’s actions, and a big price was to be paid by this stunning young woman in her support for her country. 

Octie Arrested and Tried for Treason Against the Southern Confederacy

The life of Octie Courtney was so fantastical, that if she had not recorded the events that she lived through, by her own hand; they would be unbelievable. In 1879, “Recollections Awakened by the Unveiling of the Thomas Statue by the Army of the Cumberland” recounted Octavia’ Courtney’s story.

These remembrances were written almost fifteen years after the close of the Civil War, and were penned by Octie because she was invited to the dedication of a monument created in remembrance of Union Army Major General George H. Thomas. Octie offered her Recollections in her absence. 

Union Army Major General George H. Thomas

An excerpt below:

“My first experience, though a young girl (in the Civil War), was the arrest and trial for treason toward the Southern Confederacy, because of innate patriotism and fearless expression of loyal sentiment, when my position was asked.  By traitor hand, I was marched at the point of a rebel bayonet from the bosom of my home to a court of secession, purposely called in one of the public buildings of my native town (Franklin, Tennessee) there jeered , mocked and sentenced to imprisonment in a more remote portion of the South, for to all their charges I answered guilty.  Through the assistance of a faithful old slave, I escaped the guard, making my way to the Federal lines, where warm hearts received me.  I never stopped until reaching the headquarters of the Post.

The Courtney House

“Hurrah for the Union!”

Surely Octie realized that such ardent support for her country, when all of her neighbors and friends, and even her family at first, all supported the rebel cause, would not end well for her.  Upon the first experience residents of Franklin, Tennessee had with the Federal army, Octie made her position very clear.  On March 16, 1862 Union troops made their way through downtown Franklin, Tennessee on their way to Shiloh.  

This is one account of a few that describe Octie’s unflinching support for the Union soldiers, officers and cause.:

The streets and corners were thronged by fair daughters of the South, but the only expression upon their features was scorn and hatred.  As the column reached the suburbs of the city,  a beautiful blonde standing in the yard of an elegant residence, resolutely uttered a thrilling “Hurrah for the Union!” Had a thunderbolt burst, the soldiers could not have been more completely astonished.”

The Franklin, Tennessee correspondent for the New York Herald wrote in 1863:

When our army came, Miss O. Courtney was the first to welcome them, and now her beautiful face, lit up with its angelic enthusiasm, has a happy smile for every blue jacket that comes.  Such devotion should not pass unnoticed.  The bravery of Grace Darling was not more heroic and deserving of immortal honors than that of the charming Union loving girl Miss Ocie (Octie) C.

And another account:

She is an elegant lady and waved a string of red, white and blue ribbons when General Negley entered Franklin.”

Uncovering the Forgotten Story of Octavia

As far as can be ascertained, up until now, Octie Courtney has never been acknowledged for her real life, true heroic efforts.  There are many accounts of Octie’s sister Fannie Courtney, as she lived a life worthy of its own movie script. 

Octavia’s sister Frances “Fannie” Courtney Carrington

Octie, Fannie and their Mother Eliza were real life heroines in their care of Federal soldiers after the Battle of Franklin, but again, all three women are compiled into one brave sacrifice, with Octie falling to the wayside. 

Guest book signed by Fannie Courtney

Make no mistake, Fannie Courtney is a heroine by her very own individual efforts.  However, the events leading up to the arrest of Octie Courtney have mostly been forgotten, scattered within script of letters written by homesick soldiers or briefly mentioned and absorbed within paragraphs in history books amongst descriptions of more dramatic events.  

The Courtney Family – A House Divided

The Courtney House – 515 Church Street, Franklin, Tenn.

Divided by war, torn apart by allegiance to opposite sides, the Courtney family share their story with other families separated by loyalty to the Federal or Confederate cause. To truly understand the family dynamic, it’s important some information about the family must be elaborated on.

Octie Courtney was brought up on a farm off Columbia Pike close to downtown Franklin, Tennessee. Built in 1838 by her carpenter father Robert Courtney, thousands of cars pass by her home. Known as the Courtney House, unbeknownst to the tragic events that occurred all around and even inside of the home.

The Courtney House sits across from Franklin First United Methodist Church’s Historic Sanctuary

Today, it sits only a short distance from Columbia Pike to the rear, the front of the Courtney House faces Church Street.  It sits across from Franklin First United Methodist Church’s Historic Sanctuary which was part of the Courtney farm. The church lot was bought in 1869 from the Courtney family.

The Center of the Civil War Battle in Franklin

The stunning circular floating staircase inside the Courtney House

The historic Courtney House literally sits on the battlefield, for the Battle of Franklin, but was also the site for so many events of note during the entire civil strife that took hold of the United States starting in 1861 and continuing even past the war’s finish in 1865.  The Courtney home sits on hallowed ground.

The home was a field hospital during and after the Battle of Franklin, and many covert operations were undoubtedly devised and discussed within its walls.

The Secret Cellar

Octie was  able to convert her mother Eliza and sister Fannie into also pledging their allegiance to the Federal cause. A secret cellar under the home, concealed by a trap door under a rug, was utilized in concealing food and supplies.

Courtney House Cellar

The storage of food in this covert area was so great, Federal soldiers nursed in nearby homes and churches exclusively by the Courtney’s after the Battle of Franklin, were fed for sixteen days before supplies were exhausted.

Courtney House cellar used to hide food and supplies during the Battle of Franklin

Octavia Courtney was described as beautiful, blonde and charming.  She was the oldest daughter of Robert and Eliza Courtney, and was 21 years old when the civil war began. The Courtney’s owned considerable land, were farmers and Robert Courtney was a carpenter by trade. Courtney must have been an excellent craftsman, as he built the Williamson County Courthouse and several other homes in the downtown Franklin, Tennessee area that are on the historic register. 

Robert Courtney – Patriarch and Franklin Builder Passes Away

Robert Courtney built the historic Williamson County Courthouse

Robert and Eliza Courtney were the parents of seven children, and were well respected within their community, which they were greatly invested in and had deep roots. Tragedy struck the family in 1859, when Robert Courtney suddenly died, leaving Eliza and their substantial family without a patriarch. 

Robert Courtney built the Kenneday House at 5th & Church

Mr. Courtney also built Boxmere on West Main Street. During the Battle of Franklin, 11-year old boy Hardin Figuers climbed a tree in the front yard to watch the battle going on around him. The home later became a Confederate hospital.

Robert Courtney built Boxmere on West Main Street, Franklin, Tenn.

The Civil War Comes to Franklin

When war broke out in 1861, Will Courtney, Octavia’s eighteen year old brother, joined the Confederate army.  Will, as well as Octie’s younger sister Jenny’s husband were both enlisted to fight for the South. 

At first Octie was alone in her leanings towards supporting Northern troops, as her Mother Eliza and sister Fannie felt an obligation to the south.  There is no indication when or what event turned the tide for mother and sister to join Octie. Although all three women supported the Union, there was never any indication that brother Will nor sister Jenny and her husband ever held any animosity for them in their decision.

Aside from standing at her fence and waving patriotic ribbons, and the American flag which Fannie termed “banner whose loveliness hallows the air”, shouting cheers of encouragement and gratitude to the Federal passing by, Octie was known to have other unforgettable interactions with Union soldiers and officers. One meeting described below was written by a Federal officer to his sweetheart back home:

“Miss Courtney called upon me a few days ago dressed in satin and silk, but no particular harm was done! She and her sister (Fannie) sing very well. I made a call there not long ago with General G. at his request.” (Notice the underlined is to emphasize to this Union soldier’s sweetheart that it was not his choice to visit with the beautiful Courtney sisters .)

Octie the Union Spy

It seems that not only did Octie support the troops marching off to battle who happened to pass by her home, she sought out opportunities to entertain them. Octie was, without a doubt, a Union spy, relaying important information to Federal officers whenever she had the opportunity. Reporters reflect back on the situation years after seeing how events unfolded:

Fannie and Octavia Courtney of Franklin, Tennessee had two or three brothers in the Confederate Army. They were surrounded by rebels, both male and female, and their parents were true southerners, but somehow or other, it almost seems a freak, these two young ladies with brothers in the Confederate service, were intensely Union, and often brought information of Forrest and Breckinridge’s movements to Thomas and Sherman and others high in command.” 

There is no doubt  from the newspaper report above that Octie and Fannie were both most definitely spies. 

The Tennessee Union Girl

Neighbors took notice almost immediately of Octavia’s unwavering and outward support for the Northern troops. It’s important to note that although Federally occupied much of the war, occupation of the town switched back and forth from the North and South throughout the war.  Espionage was dangerous. 

Octie was told that one particular incident that occurred, again at her fence line, was what initially brought her support for Northern troops to the notice of officers, as her patriotism was unmistakable. This same event undoubtedly also caused alarm in Octies neighbors, who were almost all Confederate leaning.  

“ It was related to her that she was first brought to the attention of Federal officers and soldiers by waving her handkerchief to a regiment. A Major was in command and he gallantly dismounted his horse, deftly slipping his diamond scarf pin from his throat, placed it upon the necktie of Miss Octavia Courtney, mounting his horse, he passed on without even knowing as much as the young lady’s name. As regiment after regiment marched onward, the story was wafted to the passing army, and cheer after cheer rented to the air, for the Patriotic girl of Tennessee.”

The support Octie so liberally and publicly gave the Union soldiers caused her to be shunned and ostracized by most of Franklin.  Because the town was largely secessionist, Octie could barely walk down any street free from from insults, as was described in an 1863 Nashville Union newspaper article entitled A Tennessee Union Girl:

Refused admission into church, she made her devotions at home. Denied the enjoyment of the social circles of the town, she wept in solitude; but her innocent and true heart kept the sweet consolation of a happier future. Even denied the future of walking the streets, unless met by insults, she steadily persevered under slanderous reports and malicious machinations, until by her strength of mind, persuasive eloquence and strong arguments, she converted her own family into a social home of love for herself and the cause of the Union.”

The Courtney House Used for the Union

It seems at some point Octie turned the melancholy she surely felt from the isolation she experienced as a result of her support for the Union, into a much nobler purpose than merely waving a flag. Her mother Eliza and sister Fannie joined her in her support for the Federal troops, and the three women together worked to stockpile food and supplies. 

“A secret cellar was made ready, the entrance to which was by a trap door under a carpet in the house of Mrs. Courtney, and this underground room was filled with substantial provisions; bacon, sugar, coffee, etc.”

Moving to the Union’s Fort Granger for Safety

There is no doubt the Courtney’s were prepared and willing to share their provisions with the Northern Army. Although the Courtney women turned their eyes towards being productive and using their ingenuity to its fullest capacity, the terrible oppression they had begun to feel from their fellow Franklinites grew to such a level, they were forced to move from their home, taking refuge in nearby Federal Fort Granger.

Depiction of Ft. Granger – the Union fort in Franklin, Tenn.

Although there is no absolute date as to when this move by the family to the Fort took place or what precipitated it; most likely Octie’s arrest, imprisonment, trial and sentence was the catalyst. As described in Octie’s own Recollections, she was assisted in her escape from rebel imprisonment by a faithful old slave. 

The Courtney’s were slaveholders, although Robert had always taught his family it was not right. In Robert Courtney’s 1859 will, seven enslaved individuals are listed. Charlotte was the oldest slave at fifty-one years old, with only one other adult slave in her early twenties, the rest being children.  Charlotte was most likely the loyal slave who helped to free Octie from her imprisonment in Franklin, assisting her in fleeing to Fort Granger a few miles away.  

Many of these events have no date attached, just that they occurred and their description. To add to that, we have no idea what happened to Charlotte after she assisted Octie in breaking free of her detainment.  We have no idea what happened to any of the Courtney individuals who were enslaved after the war, but absolutely Charlotte deserves some recognition for her outstanding efforts in freeing Octie. 

Octavia Marries a Union Lieutenant

It seems things would calm significantly for the Courtney’s, and Octie in particular, when Federal troops occupied the town. This calm allowed the Courtney’s to be able to return to their home, although one can imagine at times they lived in fear. 

Lieutenant James H. Cochnower married Octavia Courtney

Despite the constant state of subjugation the Courtney’s felt from their fellow townspeople, Octie managed to fall in love.  A comrade of Octie’s beau, Lieutenant James H. Cochnower, penned a letter to his wife back home:

“Miss Courtney was married two days ago (March 27, 1863) to a Lieutenant in a Ohio regiment, she is holding her reception this evening: we were invited, but I preferred writing to my own wife to going to see any other man’s!”

Octavia’s new husband, James Cochnower, was moving around constantly during the period between 1862 and 1865, as he was an Officer with Durmonts Brigade of the Army of Ohio.  These first few years of the marriage most likely consisted of brief meetings and very few at that.

The Battle of Franklin – November 30, 1864

Love will find a way however, and on November 30th, 1864, when the bloodiest battle of the Civil War occurred, Octavia Courtney Cochnower was pregnant. The horrific Battle of Franklin was fought all around the Courtney home, with their property turning into a literal battlefield.

Octie recalled how bad things got in her Recollections:

“Our residence was located so near the din of the engagement that we could distinctly hear each charge that was made.” 

“From a rambling shot and shell, round our doorways fell, many a valiant soldier.”

Note the star and the central location of the Courtney House during the Battle of Franklin

The Battle of Franklin was brutal, much of it ending in hand to hand combat, occurring right at sunset. Lasting only five hours, it took place over a condensed area, causing casualties and those mortally wounded to be stacked right on top of one another.  Around 8,500 soldiers became casualties, almost 2,000 were killed in action.

Franklin’s Forty-Four Field Hospitals

The small town of Franklin, Tennessee was overwhelmed with the task of burying those that had fallen, and nursing those who needed care. Every building and home in Franklin became a field hospital, forty-four in all.  The Courtney home was no exception.

Octie, mother Eliza and sister Fannie are remembered today for their outstanding sacrifice in caring for the Union soldiers after the Battle of Franklin. They nursed them, fed them, gave all they had in their care; even using their own clothing and linens in their care. 

McGavock Confederate Cemetery Franklin TN

Octie continues in her Recollections in describing the scene post battle:

“I was not in a condition to witness such sickening scenes, expecting each day to become a mother, yet nerved myself for the trying ordeal at four o’clock in the afternoon. It was ten o’clock and still the fierce conflict was raging, and continued until midnight.”

At 11:45 Octie’s husband, Lieutenant James Cochnower left on horseback to join his command that was marching towards Nashville, having concluded their time in Franklin. As Octavia watched James leave, amongst the tattered remains of her home, shattered windows and her heavy with child, she sobbed to herself, knowing she may never see her husband again.

The night would be sleepless after the battle, as the rebels fired off more than 100 rounds before leaving Franklin, only drowning out the cries of hundreds of men scattered about the battlefield, crying out for help, water, their mothers and wives; some type of comfort.  It was a gruesome scene.

Reunited With Will

As soon as the rebel artillery ceased, Octie and her family were overjoyed to see their precious brother and son Will, who they had not seen for three years because he had been fighting tirelessly for the Confederate army.

Once again, Octie from her Recollections:

“Oh the joyful meeting! And his first greeting since my marriage (although he knew my sentiments before leaving home). But he must join his regiment the same day, which was to march on to the blood stained field at Nashville”

The Courtney women, upon visiting the Federal wounded soldiers housed in nearby churches and two or more homes, could not help but notice the surgeon assigned to the care of the men seemed to be stressed, heartless, anxious under the pressure of such a responsibility. More than one young soldier would look up with pleading eyes that conveyed, “Please don’t leave me alone with this inept and negligent doctor!”

Octavia continued:

We took charge of one hundred and twenty Federal soldiers, occupying a church and two smaller houses owned by us. We had been able to conceal more provisions than some of our neighbors. Our negroes were our friends, and would never betray us to anyone.  Mother and sister were most of the time at the hospital, frequently spending the night raising the dizzying, dying creatures, to administer food or medicines, or store in their memories for them one last message to their loved ones.”

Pregnant Octie, “On my knees, I rolled out many a bushel of crackers.”

Most shocking were the next statements Octie makes in her Recollections:

“I remained home to assist the servants in cooking. On my knees, I rolled out many a bushel of crackers, because it hurt me to stand. And Oh! The gallons of soup did I make.”

It seems Octie was so pregnant, she was cooking and preparing food for the soldiers on her knees. 

At the end of the sixteenth day after the Battle of Franklin, all of the food and provisions the Courtney’s stockpiled had been exhausted.  The women rejoiced however when the rebel army who had been occupying Franklin since the battle, withdrew on the seventeenth day, as they knew more food would be on the way. Still they grieved as they witnessed straggled and wounded, beaten down soldiers from both sides often walking by their residence.

Our Heroines (Thomas Nast, Harper’s Weekly April 9, 1864)

Octavia’s mother, Eliza, and sister, Fannie, cared for the 120 wounded Federal soldiers occupying the Presbyterian church. The Courtneys continued to nurse Federal soldiers until the last one left Franklin more than a year later.  Brother Will had been in a prison camp and would soon reunite with his Union sisters and mother.  From all evidence, after the war, the Courtney family put their separate leanings behind them, no resentment being held for their division of support.  Both Octie and her sister Courtney, who both ended up marrying Union men, left Franklin to begin life with their new husbands after the war. 

Although Octie stated in Recollections that she was pregnant in late 1864, no evidence of that child remains on any record. Perhaps the events of the battle and the tragic scenes she experienced were too much and she lost the baby. One can only speculate whether or not that may be true, but the grief must have been unbearable coupled with Octie’s other recent experiences. 

Life After the Civil War

After the Civil War, Octie moved to Washington D.C; where her husband worked as a United States Customs agent. The couple had two children Fanny Mae, (1869) named for Octie’s sister, and James Jr. (1872).

Screenshot

In 1880, Octie received notice that she would receive a pension from the United States government for services provided during the Civil War and Battle of Franklin. 

In a United States Senate Bill, Florence “Octie” Courtney Cochnower was recognized as a nurse during the war. It was said, “she was everywhere an angel of mercy among our wounded soldiers, binding up their wounds and nursing them.”

Added to this declaration, was the statement:

“Her services in conveying important information at the risk of life and liberty, were commended by General Thomas in the strongest terms.”

Octie lived out her life in Washington D.C; dying at her sister Fannie’s home in Boston at the age of 63. Octie is buried alongside her sister Fannie, her headstone reads across the bottom the words “Faithful Nurse.” 

But, we all know the truth, Octie was a spy.

Many thanks to Arlington® Family Offices who own the Courtney House. We appreciate them for allowing us to tell Octavia’s story and preserving this historic home so beautifully.

Thank you to Williamson County Historian Rick Warwick for allowing us access to his collection of historic photos. We also appreciate Trenton Lee Photography and his beautiful photography of the Courtney House.

Sharing the forgotten stories of the women of historic Franklin,

Kimberly Clutsam

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