I thought Veteran’s Day would be a good time to talk a little about why I wanted to go to the Franklin, TN area in the first place. I’ve written before about my third great-grandfather James Conover. He was a sergeant in the 175th Ohio Volunteer Infantry and died either in Cahaba Prison or on the Steamboat Sultana. (I have a detailed post about James Conover’s story here. I also wrote a post about how Civil War soldiers don’t seem to be included in Veteran’s Day tributes. I have all the respect in the world for my male relatives who served in the World Wars, and for my brother who served in the Army and the reserves in the ’80s. I also feel strongly that long-ago soldiers deserve acknowledgment as well, and I feel a special connection to James Conover.)
I knew Conover was captured in Tennessee, possibly near Columbia, right before the Battle of Franklin. When we decided for sure we’d be going to the Franklin area on vacation, I ordered a book that intrigued me: Baptism of Fire, The 445th Missouri, 175th Ohio and 183rd Ohio by Eric A. Jacobson and Richard A. Rupp. This book traces the formation of these regiments and follows their movements through the entire Franklin/Nashville campaign. I was eager for new details about Conover and the 175th OVI, and the volume didn’t disappoint. Although James Conover wasn’t discussed by name in the narrative, the authors provided a short biography of him in the Appendix.
Much of this information I already knew. What I learned from the biography and the book’s narrative is Conover was captured near Thompson’s Station, TN on November 29, 1864. It was a complicated situation, but to simplify: Capt. William H. McCoy and fifteen soldiers of the 175th were isolated at a Thompson’s Station blockhouse, guarding Rebel prisoners. Texas units overran them and captured McCoy and all fifteen soldiers from the 175th; five of the soldiers were from Co. F, Conover’s company, so he was probably one of those.
The Union captives were sent south to prison, but beyond that the bio adds confusion to the story of James Conover’s death. It says he died a prisoner in Medina, AL on February 17, 1865, but then the bio notes that information may be in error and Conover may have been imprisoned at Cahaba, near Selma. It then notes that, according to the Highland Weekly of Highland County, Ohio, Conover was sent to Andersonville, but he has no marked grave there.
The bio makes no mention of Conover possibly dying in the explosion of the Sultana. However, I found him listed among the fatalities in Disaster on the Mississippi by Gene Eric Saleker. In the U.S. Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles on Ancestry, it says “Mustered out on 27 Apr 1865 at Steamer Sultana, Memphis, TN.” Others who were captured with Conover, including Capt. McCoy, did die on the Sultana, although that in itself isn’t proof of anything.
The original soldier graves at Cahaba were moved to the Marietta National Cemetery in Georgia. However, all the burials are listed as “unknown.” Several died in February, 1865, so it’s possible James Conover lies there. Or he’s buried in Memphis with the recovered bodies from the Sultana. Or he was blown to bits and came to rest on the bottom of the Mississippi.
In other words, I had no hope of ever finding James Conover’s grave. But I could see where, generally, he was captured; and when we went to Memphis, I could at least look at the Mississippi River and think of him. The Sultana went down seven miles north of Memphis.
On our trip, I was at least in the environs of Thompson’s Station. I mean, we saw a sign; and there was supposed to be a recreated train station in a small park along the same railroad line where Conover was captured. However, we missed our turn, and it hardly seemed worthwhile to take time to turn around and drive back (we’d entered a four-lane highway with a median and no immediate exit). I knew I probably wouldn’t see the location of the original blockhouse where the capture took place; plus, everything was so built up, I barely had a sense of countryside, let alone what it might have been like in 1865.
In Memphis, though, we did better than look at the Mississippi. Diamondqueen drove a few miles across the river into Arkansas to Marion, just south of where the Sultana exploded and sank. (The course of the Mississippi was different in 1865 than it is today; the actual site of the disaster is on private farmland.)
In Marion we drove in circles until we found the memorial to the Sultana, which consisted of several commemorative plaques. I knew there was supposed to be a small exhibit somewhere, but we didn’t know where. A sign indicated the site of the future Sultana museum, still to be built. A few streets over, we did locate the exhibit, but it was closed that day.
Diamondqueen knew how much I wanted to see that exhibit, so she drove us back the next day. Fortunately, it was open. There were two rooms of various artifacts, including a large model of the Sultana, and a smaller room where a video about the disaster was shown. (See the website for some great photos of the exhibit’s contents.)
According to the museum, James Conover died on the Sultana. He’s listed on a large placard with a list of names of all the casualties. I think this might have been lifted directly from Saleker’s book, but I reassured myself that if James Conover’s name appears on the walls of the Sultana museum, it’s good enough for me. I bought a small container of dirt from the site where they’re trying to excavate pieces of the Sultana; it was my way of taking a little memorial of James Conover back to Ohio.
For me, Conover’s entire tale encompasses the hardship and tragedy of so many soldiers, all of whom we honor on Veteran’s Day. I get depressed when I think of what he went through. Regardless of how he died, it was a horrible death: illness in a nightmare prisoner of war camp; or he survived those horrors only to die hideously in the Sultana explosion. It makes me even sadder to know his wife died a few months later, in June 1865. I’ve never discovered the cause, but their seven children were orphaned. My great-great-grandfather, William Henry Conover, was the oldest at about 18 when his parents died. I’ve been able to find through census records that the children were scattered to live with various relatives, including a grandmother and aunts and uncles.
Although James Conover has no known grave, his name appears on a Civil War memorial by the gates of Bloom Rose Cemetery in Brown Co., Ohio. It’s where his wife and some of his children are buried; at least symbolically he’s back home with them.