Firearms expert Rick Davis examines a Rutherford Rifle with Bill Ledbetter, a descendant of William Ledbetter Sr. Ledbetter Sr. was a Seccessionist who was charged with producing rifles in Rutherford Co. for the Confederate Army.
July rarely deviates from its prescribed humid misery and July of 1861 was no exception.
Few among us could imagine experiencing the heat of this past week without air conditioning or refrigeration.
Fewer still could even fathom donning a heavy wool uniform and marching for hours under the same oppressive sun, but it is precisely what men North and South were doing exactly 150 years ago as Union and Confederate forces were mustered and trained in makeshift camps.
Most thought the war would last a few weeks, consist of a few entertaining battles, and end with a glorious parade and military honors.
Southerners took this a step further, sending off their boys with elaborate parades and music, and Rutherford County’s citizens joined in the fun.
On the morning of May 2, 1861, hundreds of citizens throughout the county turned out for a farewell parade of its company, the Rutherford Rifles, which included such notable Rutherford countians as Sam Davis.
The best description of this spectacle can be found in the writings of the late local historian Mabel Pittard:
“Devoted sons received the parting kiss from broken-hearted mothers; wayward boys submitted to the last benedictions from indulgent fathers; noble brothers bid a long farewell to tender sisters; and husbands committed their all to God.”
The company departed the Murfreesboro Depot and arrived in Nashville, marching at the public square to the Scottish ballad of “Annie Laurie.”
The July heat would later find them training at Camp Cheatham with such prominent locals among its officers as 1st Lieut. Hardy Murfree, 3rd Lieut. C.H. King and Capt. William Ledbetter.
Capt. Ledbetter and his father William Ledbetter Sr. led early Secessionist activities in Rutherford County.
As detailed in local historian Greg Tucker’s recently published work “Rutherford For Real,” William Sr. received a $7,500 advance from the Tennessee Legislature to build an armory in Murfreesboro crafting “Harpers Ferry” rifles for the Army of Tennessee.
The Ledbetter armory produced between 240 and 480 of these rifles throughout the war, and Tucker speculates that a portion was used to equip the Rutherford Rifles company.
If so, it was an advantage that few Confederate units enjoyed.
Capt. Ledbetter would later lead the Rutherford Rifles in such noted battles as Shiloh, Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, Kennesaw Mountain and Atlanta.
After sustaining severe wounds, he was captured at Versailles, escaped by jumping from a rail car into an icy river, recuperated with locals who protected and nursed him to health, and rejoined the Confederates, only to surrender May 4, 1865 in Athens, Ga.
His Salem Pike home (Hwy 99) stands today in the same location, but upon returning he found it confiscated by Yankees and later auctioned in bankruptcy.
The family was forced to live in an un-partitioned room above the Planters Union Bank on the Murfreesboro Square, hanging sheets to provide some semblance of privacy.
A century and a half later, Capt. Ledbetter’s Great Grandson, William “Bill” Ledbetter, resides in downtown Murfreesboro and continues to tell the story of his ancestors’ hardships.
Two rifles manufactured at the armory survive, along with what is said to be the captain’s pistol.
Though the prelude was one of pomp and spectacle exactly one and a half centuries ago, the years to come would be fraught with death and hardship for our soldiers and citizens.
The Rutherford County Archives keeps that history alive this July and August with an in-depth exhibit entitled “This Cruel War” detailing civilian life during Rutherford County’s Union occupation.
We hope your family can take advantage of this opportunity to learn more about our community’s rich history.
Jonathon Fagan is Communications Director for Rutherford County’s Sesquicentennial Committee, chaired by Denise Carlton and comprised of community members dedicated to the preservation of Rutherford County’s Civil War heritage.