Gateway to the Big South Fork

Julia Marcum

Sept. 7, 1861 was a Saturday night that would forever change the Marcum family of Buffalo Creek northeast of Huntsville.

That’s the night Confederate soldiers raided their home, nearly killing their 16-year-old daughter. It was the night the family was placed squarely in the crosshairs of the lawlessness that prevailed across the northern Cumberland Plateau as war raged between the states, eventually driving them from their home and out of Scott County completely.

None of the Marcums died that night as a small but fierce battle was waged on Buffalo Creek. The family wouldn’t always be so lucky; the war was young, and peace would be a long time coming. But that night, at least, the Confederates who had targeted the family for their Union loyalties were turned away. And a legend was born in young Julia Ann — who was maimed for life in the fight but saved her family.

This is the story of Scott County’s Civil War heroine, 16-year-old Julia Ann Marcum.

A Second Generation Scott Countian

Hiram C. Marcum (1813-1864) was born in what would eventually become Scott County, Tennessee. His parents — Arthur Marcum (sometimes spelled Markham, 1774-1850) and Anna Bransgrove (1778-1858) — were both born in Virginia. At some point they moved to Tennessee. In May 1840 Hiram Marcum married Permelia (Pamela) Huff, the daughter of John Huff (1785-1862) and Prudence “Nancy” Chism (1787-1849) of Fentress County.

Like his own parents, Hiram Marcum’s in-laws were originally from Virginia. The Huffs moved to the Wolf River Valley near present-day Pall Mall. After their marriage, the Marcums moved to a small farm on Buffalo Creek, about four miles east of Huntsville — the county seat of newly-formed Scott County. They had five children, four of them daughters. One of their daughters was Julia Ann Marcum.

As an elderly woman, Julia Marcum wrote in a short autobiography that her father was “a farmer, lived on his farm, made a living and was a happy, law-abiding Christian man and also his family. He stood for the flag, the freedom of America, and its perfect laws.”

It was standing for the flag that would place the Marcum family in the middle of the fight during the Civil War. There were no major battles fought in Scott County, though there were several minor skirmishes, including the Battle of Huntsville and the Battle for the Bacon. Instead, the war visited Scott County primarily in the form of lawlessness — guerrilla warfare was common, and soldiers on both sides of the fight routinely raided the homesteads throughout the isolated Cumberland Plateau settlements in search of supplies.

Loyalty to the Flag

Some historical accounts of that fateful Saturday night in September 1861, including those written by major newspapers, leave the impression that Hiram Marcum and his family stood alone as Union sympathizers, which left them at odds with their neighbors in the Confederate south.

That’s actually not true. The Marcum family wasn’t alone in their loyalty to the Union. Most Scott Countians rejected secession, and the sentiments of the Marcum family were the sentiments of Scott County in general as the war unfolded. Those same sentiments were held in neighboring Fentress and Morgan counties, as well.

Earlier in 1861, Scott Countians joined the rest of East Tennessee in twice voting against secession. The first time, Tennesseans narrowly rejected a call to leave the Union and join  the Confederate States of America. But Gov. Isham Harris, who was fiercely opposed to President Abraham Lincoln, the new Republican Party, and calls to abolish slavery, pushed through another referendum in the Summer of 1861.

By the second vote, the Battle of Fort Sumter had occurred, Lincoln was calling for volunteers to squash the rebellion, and the mood was changing. While West Tennessee had voted heavily in favor of secession months earlier, Middle Tennessee broke for the Confederacy the second time around, and Tennessee officially seceded.

While much of East Tennessee was opposed to secession, Scott County was especially against leaving the Union. Voters here listened to an impassioned anti-secession speech by future President Andrew Johnson on the steps of the Scott County Courthouse, then turned out to vote against secession by the largest margin of any county in the state: 541-19.

When news reached back to Huntsville that Tennessee had seceded and joined the Confederacy, many of those same voters were incensed. A special meeting was held at the courthouse. One old farmer was reported to have jumped to his feet and cried, “If the g**d***n state of Tennessee can secede from the Union, Scott County can secede from Tennessee!”

And, so, it did. The county court voted to pass a resolution declaring itself the Free and Independent State of Scott. The sheriff was dispatched to Nashville with a letter proclaiming Scott County’s independence.

Harris was not impressed. He ordered troops to Scott County with orders to capture and hang all members of county court. None were ever apprehended, but Scott County was under Confederate control until General Felix Zollicoffer — who was appointed by Governor Harris to command the Provisional Army of Tennessee in the east — died while attempting to invade Kentucky in early 1862. Zollicoffer was a newspaper man and former Congressman who had been opposed to secession, but who had volunteered to join the army being raised by Harris following the secession vote in 1861. Harris placed Zollicoffer in command in the east, ordering him to squash the pro-Union resistance here. Zollicoffer’s troops were later absorbed by the growing Confederate Army.

Originally, Zollicoffer encamped at the Cumberland Gap to prevent Union forces from reaching East Tennessee. But in late 1861 he began making advances into eastern Kentucky in an effort to weaken Union occupation there, first driving American troops out of Barbourville and later engaging in other small skirmishes. In January 1862, things finally came to a head at Mill Springs, a tiny village on the south shore of the Cumberland River, about halfway between Monticello and Burnside. It was raining and foggy, and Zollicoffer’s men mistook a Union regiment for one of its own. Zollicoffer — who suffered from near-sightedness — rode into the Union lines and engaged in conversation with a Union officer. Moments later, realizing his mistake and turning to ride away, Zollicoffer was shot and killed. He was the first Confederate general to die on the Western front in the war.

Late the following year, Union General Ambrose Burnside would march his sea of troops through Scott County as he advanced on Knoxville and seized control of East Tennessee from the Confederacy.

The Anti-Slavery Marcums

Zollicoffer was still alive and well in the fall of 1861, and Burnside wouldn’t arrive in Scott County for nearly two more years. These were the early days of the war, and sides were still being chosen. While almost everyone in Scott County had voted against secession, and most of those who chose to take up arms in the fight slipped across the border and into Kentucky to sign up with the Union army, the Marcum family took it a step further: They boldly gave aid to Union sympathizers.

Much of Scott County was opposed to secession simply because the people here wanted to be left alone. The settlements along New River, Brimstone Creek, Buffalo Creek, Chitwood, Station Camp, No Business and elsewhere were established primarily by subsistence farmers. There were fewer slaves owned in Scott County than in any other county in Tennessee, and the issue of slavery was not a particularly important one to the people here.

With that said, neither was the abolishment of slavery, the issue that loomed singularly large as a contributing factor to secession and the war. Lincoln was elected in 1860 as the first presidential nominee of the Republican Party, a new political party founded on a commitment to stopping the expansion of slavery. But there wasn’t much Lincoln enthusiasm in Scott County. He received just one vote here — Shade Lewallyn cast a vote for him — in that election.

But if most Scott Countians simply wanted to be left alone, it seems that Hiram Marcum was honest-to-goodness opposed to slavery. Julia Marcum wrote, “Hiram Marcum was for freedom of our nation and its liberties for the people … Father stood for the Union and its Principles.”

It wasn’t just Scott Countians who were slipping north to fight for the Union. Elsewhere in Tennessee, pro-Union men and teenagers were taking their rifles and heading to Kentucky. And as they passed through Scott County and towards the Cumberland River, Hiram Marcum gave them shelter and aid as they happened by his Buffalo Creek farm.

By the fall of 1861, the growing Confederate Army in East Tennessee had had enough. Zollicoffer had first tried a gentle approach, attempting to persuade people in East Tennessee to stop resisting the Confederacy. But by that fall, Governor Harris had called up 4,000 more troops in Knoxville, and had passed along orders to Zollicoffer: Stop the resistance at all cost. Banish Union sympathizers from their homes and from East Tennessee, if necessary.

War Reaches Buffalo Creek

Word had reached the Marcum farm that Hiram Marcum was an enemy of the Confederacy. His rendering of aid to people who were headed north to join the Union Army hadn’t gone unnoticed, and there was a price on his head — figuratively, at least.

Julia Marcum wrote, “The Rebels invaded our county as there were but few Rebels in the county. They sent their armies there to kill and destroy our men, women and property.”

Hiram Marcum feared that the Rebs would invade his home in the middle of the night, so he had taken to hiding out in the woods and in the barn, away from the house, so that he wouldn’t be a sitting duck when they arrived.

His fears proved correct that Saturday night. The Confederates had been showing up day and night to look for him, but on that particular night, the 7th of September, three dozen of them showed up at the farm at 2 o’clock in the morning. With bayonets fixed to their rifles, they busted through the door of the Marcum home, demanding to know where he was.

“(They) said there were 36 men around who had come to kill Marcum and would kill all the women and burn us all in the house,” Julia Marcum wrote. “We began to holler and scream for help.”

As the men spread out across the farm to look for Hiram Marcum, who would’ve likely been shot on sight or arrested and hanged, one soldier stayed in the house. When Didama Marcum — Julia’s sister — lit a piece of a tallow candle so that the women-folk could see, the soldier began choking Permelia, their mother. Didama raced upstairs and the soldier went after her, grabbing her and yelling that he was going to cut her throat and set fire to the house.

Hiram Marcum, who was hiding in the barn, heard his daughters screaming for help and broke into a run for the house, throwing caution to the wind to save his family. There were no guns in the house; just two axes. Julia grabbed one of them, while another of her sisters, Minerva, grabbed another. As two more soldiers entered the house, Minerva threw down her axe, but Julia kept going, intent on saving Didama. A soldier stabbed at her with his bayonet. She went under the gun and hit him twice with the ax, splitting open his chin and hitting him in the chest. “Cut him to the hollow,” she wrote.

The badly wounded soldier dropped his gun and pleaded, “Don’t chop me any more.” But Julia Marcum didn’t stop. At some point in the fight, the soldier managed to retrieve his gun and stabbed her in the forehead with the bayonet. “Burst my skull, knocked my brains out,” Julia wrote. He also put out her eye with the gun, and shot off the ring finger on her right hand.

Finally, Hiram Marcum burst through the door and shot the soldier dead. Amid the confusion, the rest of the Confederate soldiers fled the farm.

Julia Marcum was unconscious. Hiram took his daughter and laid her in bed. Having done all he could do, he took his gun and retreated from the home, returning to hiding before the soldiers could return. He left not knowing if his badly wounded daughter would live or die.

Fourteen-year-old Clayburn, the Marcums’ only son, rode the dead soldier’s horse through the night, begging for help from the neighbors. One woman — a Mrs. Taylor — offered assistance. When daylight came, she went to the nearby Confederate encampment and told the commanding officer what had happened. The officer, Captain George W. Gordon, visited the farm with a group of soldiers, then sent back to the camp for their doctors. The doctors tended to Julia’s wounds, while the dead soldier was carried away and buried in a location unknown.

“We were left in a terrible fix to the mercy of the Rebels but they went away,” Julia wrote.

Enough is Enough

It was three months before Julia Marcum recovered from her injuries, but she did recover. Meanwhile, the Rebels may have “went away,” but they didn’t stay away. They continued to camp near the Marcum farm, and “destroyed all we had,” she wrote.

In January 1862, Marcum’s cousin, George Marcum, was at the Marcum farm as he tried to slip north to join up with his company. He was enlisted in the Union army, but was not in uniform. He hid in the barn, waiting for a chance to slip through the Confederate troops. When Julia — who had mostly recovered from her injuries and was finally out of bed — saw Confederates approaching the barn one morning, she raced from the house to warn George. One of the soldiers fired at her. He missed, but she wrote that the bullet was close enough to “cut a lock of my hair from my head.”

George Marcum heard the commotion and tried to escape from the barn, but was shot as he fled. Julia pled with the men to leave the mortally wounded man alone. They threatened to kill her and Didama. But they eventually relented, and allowed the teen girls to carry their cousin into the house. He died a few hours later.

The Marcum family decided that enough was enough. They packed up what was left of their belongings, what the Confederates hadn’t destroyed, and headed out through the snow for Kentucky. They eventually sought refuge in Casey County, near the Green River, a ways northwest of Somerset. They would never return as a family to their Buffalo Creek farm.

Hiram Marcum joined the Union army. He was attached to the Thirteenth Cavalry of Tennessee, but later contracted smallpox in Nashville. He died in February 1864 at the age of 51, a little more than two years after his family fled their Scott County home. He is buried in a military cemetery at Nashville.

The rest of the Marcum family later moved east to Pulaski County, to Flat Lick Creek just northeast of Somerset. Permelia Marcum, Julia’s mother, died in August 1865, just after the end of the war, at the age of 53. She is buried at Flat Lick Baptist Church.

Didama Marcum, the sister Julia saved with the axe, married Dr. Lafayette Sproule and remained in Kentucky. She died in 1908 and he in 1912. Both are buried in the Highland Cemetery in Williamsburg.

Minerva Marcum, the 19-year-old sister who took up an axe to help Julia fend off the Confederate soldiers, married Albert Wolford, a brother of Union Colonel Frank Wolford who was discharged from the Union Army during the war after protesting President Lincoln’s policies of enlisting African-American soldiers. Minerva’s brother-in-law was arrested for an anti-Lincoln speech in Danville. Lincoln intervened and he was released from prison, but he continued his speeches and was later arrested a second time. When he was told that charges would be dropped if he stopped the speeches, Wolford wrote to Lincoln, “Excuse the bluntness of a soldier, (but you have) by an exercise of arbitrary power caused me to be arrested and held in confinement contrary to law, not for the good of our common country, but to increase the chances of your re-election.” Lincoln eventually ordered Wolford released again. He was later elected to Congress and played an instrumental role on Julia’s behalf. Minerva Marcum died in Casey County, Ky. Albert Wolford also died in Casey County.

Clayburn Marcum, Julia’s 14-year-old brother who rode into the night for help that September night in 1861, married a Casey County girl, Emma Brown.

Martha Marcum, Julia’s youngest sister, married John Ford.


It wasn’t only the Marcum family who were driven away from their Cumberland Plateau homes during the Civil War. By the war’s end, marauders and guerrillas had managed to drive away many families throughout the region.

In 1867, as the adventurer John Muir passed through the Cumberlands on his walk to the Gulf of Mexico, he wrote that a woman in Jamestown warned him that most homes in the remote countryside had been abandoned.

Beyond the next house two miles away, she told him, “there are no houses that I know of except empty ones whose owners have been killed or driven away during the war.”

As Muir continued his journey from Jamestown to Montgomery, near modern-day Wartburg, he wrote that although the war had ended he still encountered bands of guerrillas hiding along the road. And, he wrote, “Houses are far apart and uninhabited, orchards and fences in ruins — sad marks of war.”

Julia Marcum returned to Tennessee after the war and was a schoolteacher for 12 years before her injuries eventually forced her to retire. She petitioned Congress for a Civil War pension, and it was eventually granted, thanks to the help of Congressman Wolford, Minerva’s brother-in-law. She was one of only a handful of women to be granted a Civil War pension, and the only woman in the U.S. granted a petition as a combatant in the war.

She was initially granted $30 a month; it was later increased to $40 in 1922. Her pension would’ve been worth about $620 a month today.

By 1926, when she wrote her short autobiography, all of Julia’s brothers and sisters and their spouses had died. “I am still here yet to enjoy the great blessings of life and God’s love,” she wrote.

It was 10 years later, at the age of 91, that Julia Ann Marcum died of pneumonia in Williamsburg, where she moved after retiring from teaching. She was buried in Highland Cemetery, near the graves of her sister Didama and her husband.

Today, a plaque on the lawn of the Whitley County Courthouse in Williamsburg recognizes “Aunt Julia” Marcum, as she became known in later years, as the only woman to receive a U.S. pension as a fighter during the war.

This article first appeared in the Independent Herald.

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