John Somervell (1839-1875) was a son of Thomas T. and Mary Siler Somervell of Mason, Tipton County. An 1859 graduate of the University of North Carolina, John was an attorney in 1860. That year their plantation consisted of 800 acres, 47 slaves and farm productions of 2,000 bushels of corn and 75 bales of cotton.

On Sept. 1, 1862, John, (and his horse “Coppertop”) enlisted in the 7th Tennessee Cavalry and was promoted Sergeant.  Attorney John Marshall provides excerpts from two letters Somervell wrote;  a fragment of one dated July 7 reads in part:  

“This is Katie’s birthday…Tell her if I had paper I would write to her but I am using a borrowed sheet now.  Please send me some paper & envelops by the first passing.

“Mr. Wm. Smith (William D. Smith, Sr. 1813-1868) says you gave him the nicest tody with ice in it. Why didn’t you send me one with ice in it by him?  Tell Katie if I had it now I’d drink (to) her health, but ________ ‘branch water & corn bread straight—is my luck.’  We get little or nothing here to eat…had nothing but corn bread in three days now.

“Please see Fed Maclin for me and tell him I told you to ask him to get old App or Raf of Memphis to make me a pair of cavalry boots that will last & and he promised to do it for me  (size) 8 ½.  Tell Mother please send me cloth enough to make me a jacket & pair of pants of coarse home wove Jeans for the winter.  I want it the color of my new overcoat at home…

“I must have a horse and Negro from some where.  If I do not get to come home before the 15th of July send me Dabney (Smith) and my horse by the first safe chance…My mare  had a disease common to horses when they eat some spoiled corn and came near dying….Some 50 or more horses  have died of the same disease in the regiment…We have no Negro in our mess & the drudgery  is well nigh intolerable. Smith’s Negro Harry is at home working a crop…”

Somervell was wounded in battle at Harrisburg. While convalescing on July 22nd, he wrote his parents.

“Captain (James R.) Alexander has changed his mind about coming home and will send Lieutenant (Philip A.) Fisher…they are to return from Tenn. in 30 days…

P.S., please get me the cloth from Mrs. Twisdale or somebody enough to make me a suit, pants, vest and jacket of gray jeans coarse stuff homemade and strong for the winter...

“War news from Virginia encouraging but from Georgia the reverse.  We expect the Yanks out from Memphis in this Prairie again in a month…I dread the result myself of another fight with them.  I believe our Generals and authorities will hold this Prairie if it costs every man Gen’l (N. B.) Forrest has. We are decimated every fight and one more fight such as we had at Old Harrisburg on yesterday one week since and God only knows who will live to tell the tale. I’ll do my deed and trust the residue to heaven. Farewell.  May we meet again on earth if it is God’s will if not may we meet in Heaven is my prayer...”

John Somervell  and Dabney Smith survived the war.  Somervell was elected Superintendent of Memphis City Schools with an annual salary of $600.  He died unmarried in Memphis and was buried in his family burial ground in Tipton.  His servant Dabney Smith (1847-1919) moved to Covington and became a successful barber at his shop on West Liberty and is buried in Townsend Cemetery.

Jeff Ireland is The Leader's sports editor. To contact him, call 901-476-7116 or email jireland@covingtonleader.com.​

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