Teen digs up forgotten history in Hendersonville
Hollie Deese, For Sumner County Publications 9:59 a.m. CDT May 20, 2015
(Photo: DESSISLAVA YANKOVA)
When Hendersonville High School sophomore Jon Hill, 16, moved to Sumner County June 2013, it was like history heaven for the Civil War enthusiast. Although he has lived all over the country because of his dad’s job, not many of his former homes have the number of historical sites that Middle Tennessee does.
But unlike most visitors to the sites, Hill was interested in learning much more than what was simply presented, especially when it came to Monthaven mansion, the site of many skirmishes during the war among brothers.
“I would go visit all the Civil War sites throughout the country, and I had heard about Monthaven,” Hill said. “I think I had just seen it online featured as a Civil War hospital, and I knew it was open to the public. So I went down and I talked to Dan (Tidcomb), the director down there, about how I do genealogy and stuff, and he put me in contact with Beckye.”
That was genealogist Beckye Taylor, who is also on the board of the Hendersonville Arts Council and teaches research classes in the area. From the moment she met Hill she has been amazed at his passion for history, and his tenacity at digging for the truth.
“I have been doing genealogy research for 35 years and love history,” she said. “And you just don’t usually see kids who are just this together and know this much stuff like he does. This kid is so beyond his years.”
For nearly a year now, the two of them have been doing research about Monthaven and what really happened there during the Civil War. Hill knew there had once been blood stains on the floorboards, but why? And were the rumors true that one of the owners cared for both Confederate and Union soldiers on site?
“I had pulled years ago some records out of the state library and archives, but there wasn’t a whole lot on it,” Taylor said. “So I met with Hill and we went up to the Sumner County Archives and started pulling the deeds and land grants on the property, all the way back to the original land grant in 1783, and began with that. We pulled wills and started looking at families.”
And while people had thought the owner of the house at the time, Leonard B. Fite, had gotten in trouble with the federal government for allowing the treatment of soldiers from both sides, what they found shot down that rumor.
“Jon actually found where Andrew Johnson had pardoned Leonard B. Fite after the Civil War – but it wasn’t for that at all,” Taylor said. “He was actually out recruiting confederate troops, which was so much more interesting than what we thought. I have done research and know how to pull deeds and pull wills and go into military records, but nothing like this kid does. He has just blown me away.”
Hill also helped discover that Cole and Garret Funeral Home in Goodlettsville originally started by a carpenter who was commissioned to build coffins during the Civil War, as well as uncovering details about wartime skirmishes in the area.
“I found a newspaper article from the Nashville Daily Union in September 1862, and in the article it gave all the specifics of a three-part battle,” Hill said. “The first part happened at Drake’s Creek, and there was no casualties. The cavalry rode down from Gallatin to up in Saundersville, and there was one or two killed. Then they captured about 50 men, and there was a stockade where Rivergate Mall is now where they were keeping southern sympathizers.”
Taylor and Hill have walked Monthaven looking for items from the era, and have had luck finding things, much to Taylor’s surprise.
“I said we are never going to find anything,” she said. “Well, we did. Just walking around he found several of the big, square handmade nails that were used in the mid-1800s. And he found a blade to a civil war pocket knife – and this was just out walking around the house.”
Hill’s fascination with the Civil War began when he was just 5 or 6, and has only grown in the decade since.
“I don’t know how I got interested in it, but I just was one day and started to learn everything I could about it,” he said. “I don’t really know where it came from, I just really liked it.”
He said his parents aren’t really big fans of the Civil War, and his grandfather is more into the Revolutionary War. But they have always encouraged his interests, driving him to sites and reenactments.
When Hill finds time, he devotes himself to volunteer work with the Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, identifying the names of unknown soldiers.
“They gave me a list of a couple thousand Civil war soldiers who are buried in the cemetery,” he said. “Over the past few years, I have been researching every name on the list and forwarding my research to the cemetery’s historian, and he either puts it in system or on the headstone, depending on the research.”
And he does the same for the National Civil War Gravesite.
“When you look at the gravesite, it will say ‘unknown,’ but you go into the records it will say the headboard that was found was washed out, but you could read such and such letters, and usually you can figure out who they are. But the problem is no one has done that because no one has taken the time to look at every single one,” he said. “I have been getting somewhere with that.”
Taylor said he was even able to clear the name of a man who had been identified as a deserter because of the volunteer work. When presented with his research, the state cleared the man’s name.
Hill and Taylor made presentations of all of their new findings at a Questers meeting in Hendersonville last month, but their work together is coming to an end.
Hill’s family is moving again in June, this time to New Hampshire.
“I am heartbroken, but he has gotten something started and I am so excited,” Taylor said. “What Jon has found and what he has done for other people is amazing.”