The other day, my friend Debra and I were riding the backroads of Clarke, Monroe and Baldwin counties. If there is anything we love it’s some backroads and a general idea. Thanks to Debra on this particular day we hit an historical jackpot. The sister of the Union General George B. McClellan is buried in the middle of nowhere Alabama. And how, pray tell, did this anomaly come to be?
It started with the love affair and subsequent marriage in 1840 of Alabama- born Thomas Cassander English and Philadelphia socialite Frederica Sarah McClellan. The lovebirds met at dinner at her parents’ home while Tom was attending medical school in Philadelphia. They married before Tom finished his studies and moved to Cedar Hills Plantation in Eliska, Alabama. City girl was now isolated in the middle of nowhere as the wife of of a slave-owning plantation owner. Frederica had a difficult time adjusting to the isolation, the foreignness of slavery, different social customs, and all the while missing her family and friends in Philly. Frederica would sob her heart out under the cedar trees. Tom was sympathetic to his wife and would send her back to Philadelphia for extended stays, in fact a three year old daughter died there during one of these visits. She eventually adjusted and became active in the community while overseeing the welfare of both the white and black folks on the plantation.
When the Civil War broke out, Frederica and children were visiting Philadelphia. Her younger brother General George B. McClellan arranged for them to safely enter what was now the Confederacy. Husband Tom English served in the English Independent Calvary and Watts Rangers as well as supplied material to the Confederacy. Their son, George McClellan English served as 2nd Lieutenant on Company 1of the 31st Alabama Infantry. Son George was captured in the Battle of Big Shanty in Georgia and was sent to the Union POW prison called Rock Island Prison. Story has it that his Aunt Mary Ellen, wife of his uncle General McClellan got word of his capture and sent him a care package though I can’t confirm this. Son George returned home in poor health following the war and died in 1866. My heart hurts for Frederica whose loved ones were so divided and literally fought for two different causes. The McClellan-English families were one of many caught in this dilemma.
In one of the last battles of the war, the Battle of Eliska on April 12, 1865, Union soldiers rode up to Cedar Hills Plantation with orders to burn the house. A slave woman and one of Frederica’s young daughters were on the front porch. The woman told the soldiers that the child was General McClellan’s niece. The soldiers posted a guard on the property to insure the safety of the family and the house. One of the ironies of this story is that General McClellan’s personal property would later be sent to Cedar Hills Plantation. His saddle, uniforms, silverware, books and guns were divided among Frederica’s descendants. The reason- both of the General’s children died childless so he had no direct heirs.
Frederica and her family are buried at Cedar Hills Plantation. The Plantation house burned in the 1870’s, but family still lives on the property. The story is on quiet nights you can still hear Frederica sobbing under the cedar trees. I’ll take Kathryn Tucker Windam’s word for this because I’m not about to try and confirm it!
PONDERINGS: I would love to see a photograph of Frederica’s house. Photography was in its infancy during the 1870’s so there may not be a picture. For those who love old Southern houses, please see Silent in the Land by Chip Cooper, Harry Knopke and Robert Gamble. A beautiful description of this book: “Eloquent in their silence, these houses stand as sentinels over landscapes of memories…Whether abandoned, declining or maintained through generations of living, they all speak volumes about history of the southern countryside, even though these muted structures are silent in the land.” The book is published by CKM Press in Tuscaloosa, AL, and proceeds benefit The University of Alabama Division of Student Affairs.
CREDITS: Thank you to Debra Blackburn for graciously sharing her research on Frederica and to the unidentified descendant of Tom English for sharing his photos and knowledge on civilwartalk.com site.
#alabamahistory #civilwarhistory #southernhistory