Does Union Gen. W.H.L. Wallace haunt the historic Cherry Mansion in Savannah?
A tragic premonition set the scene for one of Tennessee’s best-known Civil War ghost stories.
The story didn’t take place on the bloody fields at Stones River, but instead at the horror that was called the “Hornet’s Nest” at Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River.
Martha Ann Wallace was extremely anxious about the welfare of her husband Brig. Gen. W.H.L. Wallace. Will Wallace, a lawyer from Ottawa, Ill., had been one of the heroes of the Union victory at Fort Donelson.
He was a hero because his unit weathered the worst of the battle.
At the start of the Civil War, Wallace volunteered as a private with the 11th Illinois, which was assembled in Springfield. He was then elected the unit’s colonel. He quickly climbed the ranks and commanded a brigade of Brig. Gen. John A. McClernand’s division of Brig. Gen. U.S. Grant’s Army of West Tennessee at the Battle of Fort Donelson in 1862.
At Fort Donelson, McClernand’s division had been driven back with heavy losses but Grant and others especially noted Wallace’s coolness under fire.
Brig. Gen. Lew Wallace described him as looking like a “farmer coming from a hard day’s plowing.”
Lew Wallace, who hailed from Indiana, was the more descriptive of the two. Besides being a Union general, he was also governor of Indiana after the war. But he’s best known as the author of one of the best-selling books of all time, “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.”
Modern readers tend to get the two Wallaces confused.
Will Wallace was born in Urbana, Ohio, and educated at Rock Springs Seminary in Mount Morris, Ill. He was invited to study law with Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, but was convinced to join the practice of T. Lyle Dickey in Ottawa, Ill., and married Dickey’s daughter, Martha Anne, in 1851.
He had joined the 1st Illinois Infantry in 1846 as a private. He rose to the rank second lieutenant and adjutant and participated in the Battle of Buena Vista along with a few other minor engagements. After this brief experience in the Mexican-American War, he became district attorney in 1853.
At Fort Donelson, Wallace’s troops had saved the day, although the 11th Illinois had lost nearly two-thirds of its men.
Wallace and his wife were close and constantly corresponded when they were apart. Perhaps something he wrote alarmed her, but legend claims it was a premonition of death that caused her hastily to seek permission to take a steam boat to where Grant’s army was assembling at Pittsburg Landing in Hardin County, Tenn. near Savannah.
It was Grant’s plan to combine the Army of West Tennessee with Gen. Don Carlos Buell’s Army of Ohio, but Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnson planned on hitting Grant and trapping him on the banks of the Tennessee before Buell could arrive.
Johnson, who was mortally wounded during the battle, almost succeeded. Grant was recovering from nearly being crushed by his horse in a fall days earlier, and his army was disorganized when Confederates attacked at daylight near Shiloh Church. Shiloh is a Hebrew word meaning a place of piece. That peace was to be broken early Sunday, April 6, 1862.
At 7:15 a.m., Grant, nine miles downriver at Savannah, had his breakfast interrupted by the sound of cannon fire. William T. Sherman was surprised as well. Sherman, who was to redeem himself at Shiloh, was fired on and slightly wounded at 7 a.m. by Confederates from Cleburne’s Brigade.
On the main Union defensive line, starting at about 9 a.m., men of W.H.L. Wallace’s division, joined by survivors of Benjamin Prentiss’ division, established and held a position nicknamed the Hornet’s Nest, in a field along a country lane now called the “Sunken Road.”
The pivotal position withstood 11 Confederate attacks until Brig. Gen. Daniel Ruggles was given permission to round up a massive battery of 53 to 62 cannons to blast the Union defensive line.
Lt. Abner Dunhan, of the 12th Iowa said the artillery fire “seemed like a mighty hurricane sweeping everything before it.... The great storm of cannon balls made the forest in places fall before its sweep, ... men and horses were dying, and a blaze of unearthly fire lit up the scene. At this moment of horror, when our regiment was lying close to the ground to avoid the storm of balls, the little birds were singing in the green trees over our heads.”
The Union troops held to the scant cover, but to move was to die. But Wallace’s men were forced to move when McClernand’s Division began to collapse on their flank.
At the same time, Wallace’s wife was on a Union steamer that was ferrying soldiers in and out of Pittsburg Landing. She recalled that terrible day in a letter to her aunt.
“The lower deck of our boat and that of others was used to ferry reinforcements over. Over and back, over and back we moved. I was earnestly watching these scenes more hopeful than most around me,” Ann Wallace wrote.
But “Elder Button,” who had been tending to the wounded, gave her a hint of the bad news to come.
“‘You have a great many relations on this field, you cannot hope to see them all come in safe.’ I answered, ‘They all came safely through Donelson, and today my husband is in command of a division and is comparatively safe.’ He repeated from behind my shoulder, ‘It is an awful battle.’” she wrote.
The truth then hit her like a steely, cold thunderbolt.
Some while later, her brother Cyrus Dickey came, crestfallen, with the official news.
“My husband was dead, and the enemy had possession of the ground where he lay. ‘Twas all they could tell me, and it was enough,” Ann wrote.
But Wallace still lived. He had been found on the battlefield, partly covered from the overnight rain by a blanket.
At about 10 a.m. Monday morning, Ann Wallace received the news that her gravely wounded husband was aboard the adjacent steam boat. She rushed to his side to find him with a horrible wound in his temple, but breathing naturally.
“The greatest joy was yet to come – Will recognized my voice at once and clasped my hand. I was thrilled and exclaimed, ‘He knows me; he knows me!’ Others said that could not be, but Will’s lips moved and with difficulty uttered, ‘Yes.’ ”
The steamer transported Wallace to Union headquarters in the Cherry Mansion in Savannah. The river front house was where Grant was enjoying his breakfast the previous morning.
Wallace was to linger three days in the loving embrace of his wife and surrounded by brothers Martin and Hitt Wallace and Ann’s brother, Cyrus. Gen. Sherman had refused Ann’s father, Colonel Dickey’s request to join them.
“No surroundings of my life were ever more painful, Ann had been in the neighborhood for three days and was hanging over the bedside of her dying husband and I could not come to her support,” Dickey wrote.
Wallace seemed to rally, then faded.
“My darling knew he was going and pressed my hand long and fondly to his heart. Then he waved me away and said, ‘We meet in Heaven.’ They were the last words upon those loved lips,” Ann wrote.
Today, the Cherry house is a privately-owned residence marked by a historical marker. Passersby have reported seeing the face of a man wearing a Civil War uniform peeking out an upstairs window.
Some say it’s the apparition of Grant, but a much more likely occupant is the spirit of long-suffering Gen. Wallace.