Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Tennessee Hero's Long Voyage Home

What comes to mind when you hear the word hero? Usually, a hero is thought of as an ordinary person who exhibits exceptional qualities, such as courage and sacrifice, in extraordinary circumstances. During one of the deadliest conflicts in U. S. history, Nashville native Sgt. Ben Clay Espey exemplified these virtues.

Portrait of Ben Clay Espey,
in uniform, at age 19, 1943,
Balch Family Papers, 1780-1996
Born January 28, 1924, he was the son of Ben King Espey and Nannie Mae Windrow Espey. At the age of 16, Ben Clay received his private pilot’s license. He was a member of McKendree Methodist Church and attended Duncan Preparatory School. After Espey’s graduation from Duncan Preparatory School in 1940, he attended the University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee. While attending the University of the South, Espey received the Algernon Sydney Sullivan scholarship and was a member of the Beta Theta chapter of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity, the German club and the golf club.

During his junior year (1942) at the University of the South, Espey volunteered as an aviation cadet and in December of 1942, he was called into active duty in World War II. Espey was stationed for a time in both north Africa and southern Italy. While stationed in Italy, he was the cartoonist for the 15th Air Force’s paper and fashioned the character “Sir Donald McAce.” Espey served in combat service with the 15th Air Force and participated in air offensives over the Balkans, Austria, Germany, Romania, and Italy. He was killed on April 15, 1944, while returning from a bombing mission over the Ploesti oil fields in Romania. At the time of his death, Espey worked as a tail gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress and was attacked by German fighter planes. Crew members of other aircraft participating in the mission saw Sgt. Espey’s parachute falling toward the front of his plane. It was thought for a time that he might have survived the attack and was listed as missing in action.

On May 20, 1944, the War Department notified Espey’s parents that he had actually been killed during the confrontation with the German fighter planes. His remains were found and returned to Tennessee in 1950, almost six years after his death. Espey’s funeral and burial took place on March 23, 1950. He is buried in Woodlawn Memorial Park in Nashville, Tennessee.

Espey truly deserves the title of hero and received several medals and honors including the Air Corps Citation, the Purple Heart, a Presidential Citation, and the Air Medal. Items related to Ben Clay Espey’s life may be found in the Balch Family Papers, 1780-1996, at the Tennessee State Library and Archives. Objects of note include correspondence, photographs, memorial items, newspaper clippings, a Sunday School certificate, and some of Espey’s original drawings.

"Espey Floop Special," color drawing by Ben Clay Espey depicting an aircraft, Nashville, Tennessee, ca. 1941.
Balch Family Papers, 1780-1996

World War II 15th Army Air Force Winged Star Bullion patch that has the number 15 above a winged star, believed to have belonged to Ben Clay Espey, ca. 1939-1945.
Balch Family Papers, 1780-1996

Cartoon type drawing by Ben Clay Espey depicting a plane, undated.
Balch Family Papers, 1780-1996

Title Page of Ben Clay Espey's Funeral Register, College Grove, Tennessee, March 23, 1950.
Balch Family Papers, 1780-1996

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Historic Maps of Tennessee and Beyond: Digital Maps at the Tennessee State Library and Archives

"I need to look at a map to understand it."

How many times have you said that? Tennessee's largest collection of historical maps is ready to be explored at the Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA). Maps are invaluable components of historical and genealogical research, and documentary records often cannot be fully understood without referring to maps.

Map of Tennessee (1818), by John Melish and John Strothers, Jr.
Tennessee Virtual Archive (TeVA) Historical Map Collection

In an effort to increase use of this tremendous research resource, TSLA is digitizing original maps and making them available in the Tennessee Virtual Archive (TeVA). An initial collection of more than 100 maps has just been released, and TSLA will continue adding its maps to this digital online collection to bring more of them to a wider public.

Davidson County, Tennessee soil map (1903), by Julius Bien & Co.
Tennessee Virtual Archive (TeVA) Historical Map Collection

On Tuesday, Jan. 27, the State Library and Archives and the Nashville Public Library will host a presentation on the collection, "Historic Maps of Tennessee and Beyond: Digital Maps at the Tennessee State Library and Archives." Dr. Wayne Moore, assistant state archivist, will lead the discussion.

Route of the Memphis-Nashville-Bristol highway (1911).
Tennessee Virtual Archive (TeVA) Historical Map Collection

The presentation is free and open to the public and will begin at 11 a.m. in the auditorium of the Nashville Public Library, 615 Church Street in downtown Nashville.

Map of the British American Plantations (1754)
Tennessee Virtual Archive (TeVA) Historical Map Collection

Visit the Historical Map Collection on TeVA's website at to view more digital copies of maps at the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Reluctant Warrior Alvin York Subject of Next TSLA Workshop

He was a reluctant warrior who was denied conscientious objector status and agreed to combat duty only after a commander convinced him that doing so wouldn't conflict with his religious beliefs. He later helped lead one of the key offensives during World War I, earning a Medal of Honor and numerous other commendations for his efforts.

Sergeant Alvin C. York
aboard the S. S. Ohioan, 1919
Library Photograph Collection
Alvin C. York is one of Tennessee's most celebrated war heroes - and he'll be one of the main subjects of the next workshop sponsored by the Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA).

The workshop, titled "World War I and Alvin York: Tennessee's Service in the 'Great War,'" will be held in TSLA's auditorium from 9:30 a.m. until 11 a.m. Jan. 24. Dr. Michael Birdwell, a history professor at Tennessee Tech University, will lead the free session on World War I documents and photographs available at TSLA. Dr. Birdwell is curator of the Alvin C. York papers in Pall Mall and is considered an expert on World War I and York.

Although the workshop is free and open to the public, reservations are necessary due to limited seating in the auditorium. To make a reservation, email or call (615) 741-2764.

The State Library and Archives building is located at 403 Seventh Ave. North, directly west of the State Capitol building in downtown Nashville.

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

"The Glorious 8th of January"

The Tennessee State Library and Archives remembers the Battle of New Orleans on its 200th anniversary.

For nearly two weeks the drama unfolded. At stake was the important port city of New Orleans, the economic life line of the growing settlements of the Cumberland, Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi river valleys. American and British forces clashed several times from Dec. 23 until Jan. 7. The ultimate control of New Orleans was decided 200 years ago, on Jan. 8, 1815. The outcome also determined the fate of our nation and the respective fates of the opposing commanders in this consequential battle.

This engraving of the battle dates to the 1850s and depicts the Tennessee militia standing behind Line Jackson on January 8. Noteworthy is the fact that free black soldiers are shown within the ranks.
Library Collection.

By Jan. 8, 1815 the young nation had grown war weary. It had been nearly three years since British interference with American trade, impressment of American sailors, and perceived instigations of Indian attack on the frontier had spurred President Madison to ask for a declaration of war. Congress granted the declaration on June 18, 1812.

American war efforts focused on seizing British Canada. Repeated efforts to invade Canada failed and, in some cases, the British and their Indian allies successfully counterattacked and occupied U.S. territory. Although the U.S. Navy achieved some spectacular victories over its numerically-superior foe, for the most part American forces accomplished very little.

In the midst of the War of 1812, a civil war erupted within the Creek Nation (modern day portions of Alabama and Georgia). The Red Sticks allied themselves with Tecumseh, an avowed ally of the British. The Red Sticks attacked Fort Mims, Alabama, in August, 1813. As word of the Red Stick attack spread, the Tennessee militia mustered to contend with the threat. After months of difficult fighting, General Andrew Jackson and his army of Tennesseans, U.S. Regulars, and allied Creeks and Cherokees soundly defeated the Red Sticks at Horseshoe Bend. [see blog post from March 27, 2014). General Jackson’s victory earned him a promotion to major general in the regular army and the responsibility for defending the Gulf Coast.

Jackson’s victory over the British at New Orleans made him a national hero and his moniker “The Hero of New Orleans” would propel him to the presidency in 1828. This engraving of General Jackson dates to the early 1850s.
Library Photograph Collection.

In August and September of 1814, the British attacked and burned Washington and moved to attack Baltimore. Repulsed at Baltimore, the British turned their attention to New Orleans.

The British hoped to strike New Orleans by moving overland from Spanish-held Pensacola. General Jackson, however, raided into Pensacola in November 1814, despite the fact that the United States was not at war with Spain. Jackson’s attack spoiled the British plan and after being turned away again around Mobile, the British moved directly on New Orleans.

The British Navy defeated a small U.S. Navy force on Lake Borgne on Dec. 14, 1814, providing them the opportunity to land south of New Orleans on Dec. 23rd. The news of the British landing soon reached American headquarters and Jackson readied his troops to attack.

In a bold move, General Jackson launched a night attack on Dec. 23rd. The attack caught the British off guard. With an American ship bombarding the British positions from the Mississippi River, Jackson’s soldiers pushed into their camps. The arrival of British reinforcements and the fact that several of Jackson’s units got lost in the dark, forced the American withdrawal. While the night battle proved indecisive, it provided Jackson’s men with combat experience and confidence.

The next day, Jackson established his defensive line behind the Rodriguez Canal on the east bank of the Mississippi River. Jackson’s troops, augmented by local slaves, proceeded to build a sizable parapet with the canal serving as a moat. Over the next two weeks the line transformed into a strong defensive position dubbed "Line Jackson." The right end of Line Jackson rested on the Mississippi River while the left anchored on a nearly impassable cypress swamp. Eight artillery positions boasting twelve cannon bristled along the line. Troops also built additional defensive works on the west bank of the Mississippi to provide flanking fire on any force attacking Line Jackson.

U.S. Army Regulars, sailors, marines, volunteers and militia from Tennessee as well as the militia of Louisiana, Kentucky, and the Mississippi Territory (modern day Alabama and Mississippi) defended the city. A small group of pirates, Choctaw Indians, and two battalions of Free Men of Color recruited in the city of New Orleans further augmented Jackson’s force. This motley American force prepared to meet the veteran professional soldiers, sailors, and marines of the British crown.

Letter from General William Carroll to General James Winchester, January 3, 1815 In this letter General Carroll describes the actions of the Night Battle of December 23, 1814 and the construction of Line Jackson. At the time of the letter, General Winchester of Sumner County, Tennessee was stationed at Mobile.
James Winchester Papers, Tennessee Historical Society Collection.

On Christmas Day, Lord Edward Pakenham arrived to take command of the British land forces. Over the next week, Pakenham instigated probing attacks to determine weaknesses in the American Line. On Jan. 1, he ordered an artillery barrage to breach Line Jackson which ultimately failed. On Jan. 7, Pakenham laid out his plans for the imminent attack on the American positions.

Pakenham’s plan called for a combined force of sailors, marines, and soldiers to paddle across the Mississippi and move up the west bank. These troops were to capture the American artillery and then turn them down the length of Jackson’s line. Meanwhile, British soldiers on the east bank were to attack in three separate columns. One column, under the command of Colonel Rennie, planned to move along a levee on the east bank of the Mississippi and storm the American redoubt. Another column, under the command of General Gibbs, was to attack the American center. The center was perceived to be the weakest point in the American line due to the fact that it was manned by Tennessee militia under General William Carroll and supported by Kentucky militia. A third British column would launch a diversionary attack into the swamp.

William Carroll served in the Creek Wars as General Jackson’s Inspector General. Wounded severely at Horseshoe Bend on March 27, 1814, Carroll rose to command all of the Tennessee militia upon Jackson’s promotion into the Regular Army and proved a capable leader at New Orleans. Carroll later served as governor of Tennessee longer than any other person.
Tennessee Historical Society Picture Collection.

In the middle of the night, British soldiers, sailors and marines prepared for their passage across the Mississippi to the west bank. The fast current of the river quickly swept the boats down river. The attack on the west bank would be seriously delayed.

On the east bank, fog draped the fields as British soldiers prepared for the assault. Colonel Rennie’s command pushed silently along the levee and rushed the American redoubt. The British gained the outside wall and leapt into the American works. The Americans, initially stunned by the British audacity, quickly regained their composure and a counter charge by the 7th U.S. Infantry and Beale’s Louisiana Rifles reestablished the American line and killed Colonel Rennie in the process. The British attack on the American right failed.

Meanwhile, as the fog vanished from the field, the British attack on the center came into full view. Exposed to deadly artillery and rifle fire, the British attack faltered. Furthermore, the ladders needed to scale Line Jackson were inadvertently left behind and had to be retrieved. The British 93rd Regiment of Foot faced a deadly predicament. Ordered to support the attack on the center, the regiment marched diagonally from the British left toward the center exposing its flank to artillery and rifle fire. The regiment was decimated.

Lord Pakenham rode into the midst of the chaos within his attacking force to reinvigorate the assault. His horse was felled by an American artillery round. As he tried to mount a second horse, rifle and artillery fire mortality wounded the British commander. General Gibbs, Pakenham’s second-in-command, also received a death wound. The British attack on the American center collapsed. The diversionary attack on the American left proved useless as well.

Lord Pakenham commanded the British land forces attacking New Orleans. During the attack on January 8, 1815 Pakenham received a mortal wound and died within the hour.
Library Collection.

On the west bank, British soldiers, sailors, and marines, delayed by their unexpected trip down river, attacked. The British overwhelmed the lightly-armed and poorly-led Kentuckians and Louisianans and captured the American line. Their success on the west bank, however, proved too little, too late. As the British soldiers on the west bank looked across the Mississippi they saw Line Jackson firmly in American hands and their comrades withdrawing from the field. With little to gain, the British withdrew and recrossed the Mississippi River.

The battle lasted less than two hours. In that short time, the British suffered more than 2,000 killed, wounded, and missing. American losses were less than 60 with only 13 killed. The British completely abandoned the areas around New Orleans by the first week of February with nothing to show for their efforts but a lengthy casualty list, including Colonel Rennie, General Gibbs and Lord Pakenham.

“The Glorious 8th of January” went down in history as the greatest American victory of the War of 1812. Indeed, up until the Civil War, Jan. 8 joined July 4 and George Washington’s Birthday as the only nationally celebrated American holidays. General Jackson’s victory brought with it national prominence and public recognition as the “Hero of New Orleans,” a moniker that propelled him to the presidency of the United States.

This artist rendering illustrates the gold medal presented to General Jackson for his victory at New Orleans on January 8, 1815. Congress awarded medals such as these to victorious American generals and naval officers.

The legacy of the Battle of New Orleans and the War of 1812 remained strong within the state of Tennessee and is mixed with pride and controversy, providing lessons for future generations in understanding the state’s rich history.

A new exhibit, “Answering the Call: Tennesseans in the War of 1812,” which recently opened at the Tennessee State Library and Archives, not only explores the Battle of New Orleans in greater detail, but also examines Tennessee's important role in the War of 1812. With 16 panels full of images and information on this fascinating period in our history, this exhibit explores the political and military actions of Tennesseans in the War of 1812.

We invite you to come explore this important episode in Tennessee's history through this new exhibit, on display now at the Tennessee State Library and Archives. Click HERE here to learn more.

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

New TSLA Exhibit Explores Tennessee’s Role in the War of 1812

The War of 1812 represents a pivotal period in Tennessee’s history. Congressional leaders like Felix Grundy made the nation aware of “western” interests and concerns. Andrew Jackson provided overwhelming victories in the Creek War, and the astonishing triumph at New Orleans propelled him to national acclaim and the presidency. The legacy of the War of 1812 remains strong within the state — nearly one-third of the counties are named for men who were connected to the war. The nickname, “Volunteer State,” had its roots in the volunteer spirit displayed by the thousands of Tennesseans who participated in the war.

"Drawing of the Battle of New Orleans by Hyacinth Ladott, 1815"
Tennessee Historical Society Picture Collection

Military campaigns of this war led directly to treaties with southern Native American tribes that ceded native territory, including the rich lands of West Tennessee. The war catapulted Tennessee and its leaders to a position of unprecedented influence on the national stage. The legacy of the War of 1812 in Tennessee is mixed with pride and controversy, providing lessons for future generations in understanding the state’s rich history.

"General Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans"
TSLA Photograph Collection

A new free exhibit, “Answering the Call: Tennesseans in the War of 1812,” opened January 6 at the Tennessee State Library and Archives. With 16 panels full of images and information on this fascinating period in our history, the exhibit explores the political and military actions of Tennesseans in the War of 1812. The public is invited to come explore the role Tennessee played in the War of 1812. The exhibit will remain open until mid-April.

The State Library and Archives is located at 403 Seventh Avenue North, just west of the State Capitol building in downtown Nashville. The exhibit, free and open to all visitors, is located in the building's lobby directly behind the main entrance.

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, from 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., with the exception of state holidays. Parking is available in front, behind and beside the building.

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.