|Photo enhancement courtesy of Tom Myers|
For students of the battle of the Wilderness, the words "the Widow Tapp farm" evoke images of the near capture of Robert E. Lee followed by his stirring effort to personally lead the newly arrived Texas Brigade against Hancock's advancing troops. For all that has been written about that pivotal moment for the Army of Northern Virginia, much less is known about Mrs. Tapp and the personal stories of her extended family. As we shall see, were it not for the unlucky circumstance of having this battle fought near her cabin, no one would have ever heard of her. [Please note that all images in my blog may be clicked on for enlarged viewing]
Of course, she did not enter this world known as the Widow Tapp. She began her life in Orange County as Catherine Elizabeth Dempsey about 1803, a daughter of Daniel and Elizabeth Dempsey. In December 1833 she married Vincent Tapp of Culpeper County and by 1840 they had settled in Spotsylvania, where they raised their three daughters and two sons.
The Tapps were not wealthy people; far from it. They eked out a hardscrabble existence from land rented from Horace Lacy, owner of nearby "Ellwood." They owned no slaves. Before he died in about 1857, Vincent Tapp's name appeared on the list of Spotsylvania's insolvents.
|The Tapp house (National Park Service)|
This watercolor of the Tapp cabin was painted by artist and Union army veteran George Leo Frankenstein in 1865. It is the only known image of the Tapp home. The cabin measured about 20'x30' and housed as many as seven people at a time. The 1860 census tells us that this humble structure was home to Catherine Tapp, daughters Sarah Elizabeth, Margaret, Harriet and her husband Andrew Jackson Lewis, and son James. The other son, William Benjamin Tapp, was evidently living in Culpeper County at the time.
Shown on that census was one other person living in Catherine Tapp's cramped cabin - a baby girl. We will return to this child shortly.
|Western Spotsylvania, 1863|
Across Orange Plank Road from the Tapp place was the farm of Thomas and Eliza Pulliam. In the map detail above, their property is indicated as "Mrs. Pulliam" in the lower left of the image just southeast of the uncompleted Fredericksburg & Gordonsville Railroad. To the west of the Pulliams' house was "Mount View," the home of William V. Chewning, whose son Absalom supervised work at the Catherine Furnace for the Confederacy. To the southeast was the farm of Eliza's brother Richard H. Pulliam. Unlike the Tapps, who were tenant farmers, Thomas and Eliza Pulliam were freeholders and slave owners. Living with them were their two sons, Thomas Richard (known locally as "Tom Dick") and John James. By 1860 Eliza Pulliam shared two things in common with her neighbor Catherine Tapp. First, they were both widows. Like Vincent Tapp, Thomas Pulliam (who may have been a cousin of Eliza) died during the 1850s.
The other thing that these two widows shared was the fact that they were both grandmothers of the baby girl born in the Tapp house in February 1860.
By 1859 Thomas Richard Pulliam was having an affair with Catherine Tapp's oldest daughter, twenty five year old Sarah Elizabeth. The child born of this relationship, Eliza Frances, is known to history as Phenie Tapp.
Thomas R. Pulliam appears to have been at the least reluctant, and even unwilling, to acknowledge his paternity of Phenie or any obligation to marry Sarah Elizabeth. As one might expect, Sarah was herself unwilling to accept this unsatisfactory status quo and she sought relief in court. The result was that Thomas Richard Pulliam was compelled to sign this bastardy bond in June 1860, in which he finally acknowledged his paternity of Phenie and pledged to provide support until she reached age 14:
|Bastardy bond of Thomas R. Pulliam (CRHC)|
Know all men by these presents that we Thos. R. Pulliam & [blank] are held & firmly bound unto the overseer of the Poor for the county of Spotsylvania in the Just and full sum of one hundred fifty dollars to which payment well & truly to be made to the said overseer of the poor for said county, we bind ourselves our heirs Exors. & honor jointly & severally by these presents. Sealed hereto our seals [29th?] day of June 1860 and adjudge that Thos. R. Pulliam who was thereof accused & was the father of a Bastard child of Sarah E. Tapp an unmarried white woman of the said county, did order him the said Thos. R. Pulliam to enter into bond with good security conditioned for the maintenance of the said bastard child for the term of fourteen years. Now if the said Thos. R. Pulliam shall on each and every year on the first day of May on each & every such year for the term of fourteen years beginning this day to be paid to the overseer of the Poor of said county the sum of ten dollars per annum as aforesaid for the support & maintenance of the said bastard child; then this obligation to be void otherwise to remain in full force and virtue.
Thos R. Pulliam (Seal)
Thomas C. Pulliam (Seal)
R.W. Carter (Seal)
1868. April 6. Cr. the above bond by seventy dollars paid this day by T.R. Pulliam which has been paid over to S.E. Tapp.
This situation had scarcely simmered down when the sons of both Catherine Tapp and Eliza Pulliam took up arms for the Confederacy. Thomas and John Pulliam enlisted in Company E of the 9th Virginia Cavalry, the same regiment of my great grandfather. William Benjamin Tapp joined Stuart's Light Horse Artillery, while his brother James signed up with the 7th Virginia Infantry in the fall of 1862. James fell ill almost immediately and remained on the sick list for the entire time he was a soldier until he died in the summer of 1863.
One would think that Tom Dick Pulliam would have his hands full fighting the Union army and avoiding responsibility for his daughter. One would be wrong. During the war he found the time and energy to bed the wife of Oscar Mastin, the former Sarah Faulconer. Oscar and Sarah had married in 1859 and had a daughter together, Laura Lee. In due course Sarah's dalliance with Tom Pulliam became known to Oscar Mastin, who sued for divorce on the grounds of adultery. Sarah married Tom in June 1869; by then their oldest son was a year old. A second son, George, was born in 1872. Third was Judson Hammond Pulliam, born in February 1876. Sarah's youngest son, William Jefferson Pulliam, was born three years after her husband's death.
By May 1864 the peccadilloes of Tom Dick Pulliam did not loom large in the life of Catherine Tapp. The Union Army, twice the size of Lee's still divided forces, came pouring into Orange and Spotsylvania on May 4. By May 6 General Lee had set up his headquarters at the Tapp farm, trying to buy time until Longstreet's Corps could join him and stave off impending disaster. General Hancock's troops appeared at the far end of the Tapp property, with little to stop them from advancing and capturing Lee save for the artillery of William T. Poague. Some of A.P. Hill's men evacuated the Tapp family and shepherded them across the road to the house of Eliza Pulliam. In an interview she gave to National Park Service historian Ralph Happel in 1937, Phenie Tapp recalled how "the bullets struck the dirt around them, kicking up dust like the first drops of a coming storm."
At last the Texas Brigade, the vanguard of Longstreets's long anticipated arrival, came just in time to save the day. What followed next was one of the most dramatic moments of the Civil War.
Despite the ferocity of the gunfire and cannonading of that day, Catherine Tapp's home and family survived. Her surviving son William came home safely after the war and returned to Culpeper, where he lived until his death in 1876. Thomas and John Pulliam also came home in one piece. John married Melissa Chewning and established his own farm. Tom and Sarah lived with Eliza.
Whether Tom Pulliam continued his profligate ways is not known, but I am willing to hazard a guess that he was not a reformed man. In any case, his life came to an abrupt and violent end on 14 January 1876. As reported in The Fredericksburg News:
Tom Dick Pulliam was lying asleep on a sofa in his house near "Faulkners" when Tom Sutherlin struck him in the head with a piece of spoke timber, which killed him instantly. Cause, an old grudge. Sutherlin escaped. The citizens offer a one hundred dollar reward for him.
Two weeks later, on 1 February 1876, George Washington Estes Row mentioned Pulliam's demise in a letter written to his fifteen year old cousin, Emma Farish: Tom Dick Pulliam was murdered by Tom Sutherland a week or two ago. They were on a drunk. Sutherland has not been caught - and if you see him catch him as the Governor has offered one hundred dollars reward. Give me half, won't you?
These were the circumstances in which Phenie Tapp was born and spent her formative years. It is little wonder, then, that the remaining sixty eight years of her life assumed the character that they did.
After her grandmother Catherine died in May 1879, Phenie continued to live with her maiden aunt Margaret at the Tapp place. In fact, Phenie would live there for all her long life.
In June 1881 Phenie gave birth to a daughter, Madosha. Father unknown.
On 19 January 1896 Phenie traveled to Washington, D.C. with John C. Stanford, with whom she exchanged wedding vows. Their marital bliss seems to have been of short duration. During a trip to Orange they encountered one of her old flames, Isaac Jones, and all hell broke loose. From the Fredericksburg Daily Star 26 March 1896. Written in the incomparable style of Charles Henry Robey:
A Row in Orange
Two Men Seriously Injured
Isaac Jones, of Spotsylvania, and John C. Stanford, of Fauquier, had an altercation, resulting in a desperate fight, at the house of Mr. Oscar Almond, near Locust Grove, in Orange County, Sunday afternoon about 4:30 o'clock, in which Jones received a pistol ball in his left arm and Stanford's head and face were badly hacked and cut with a grubbing hoe.
Both men are married men. Jones' family living near the Wilderness Store and Stanford's at Elk Run in Fauquier.
The row was on account of one Phonie Tapp, living near Parker's, in Spotsylvania, a rustic nymph du pave, whose charms seem to have enthralled both of them. She and Jones, it seems, have been friends for the past four or five years, all others being ousted in his favor, until Stanford, an itinerant sewing machine repairer, put in an appearance last fall.
He must have made a complete conquest of the woman, for she shortly abandoned Jones to follow her new lover.
Jones' rage at being left in the lurch is to have been terrible. He swore vengeance on both of them, and promised to carry it out, should they come in his way.
Stanford and the woman went to Washington, where they claimed to have been married, and came to Orange Sunday to attend some business matters that S. had left unsettled. The woman stopped at Mr. Almond's, while the man went to the home of Constable J. L Morris.
While he was absent, Jones put in his appearance, and when Stanford returned to Almond's they met and the row occurred. Jones says that after some words Stanford started to draw his pistol on him, and that he used the hoe in self defense.
Stanford's story is that as he approached the house of Almond, Jones came out, and picking up the hoe, cursed and assaulted him. The woman who got the men apart confirms what Stanford says.
Constable Morris who left home on his way to Orange Courthouse at the same time Stanford started for Almond's heard the pistol shots and screams of women.
He started in the direction of the sound, and met Stanford in an exhausted condition, and smeared with blood.
He told Constable what had occurred, and asked to be taken to some place where his wounds could be attended to.
Mr. Morris did this and then went to the scene of the affray.
He found Jones and the woman there. Jones gave him his version of the affair as related above, and said that the intended to follow and kill Stanford. The woman said that but for her he would have overtaken his victim before the Constable met him, and would have surely killed him.
Mr. Morris said he considered Jones's wound very slight, but he thought Stanford was in a bad way. The ball struck Jones' left hand, just breaking the skin and entering the fleshy part of the arm near the elbow. The wounded man wanted the constable to cut the ball out, in order to save him a doctor's bill.
Jones returned home Sunday night to have his wounds attended to, and Stanford and his alleged wife came to Spotsylvania to the home of the woman's mother Monday morning.
Constable Morris reported the matter to the Orange authorities Monday and the proper steps were taken to have the parties brought to justice.
The people in the vicinity are very indignant at the occurrence and there seems to be a strong sentiment in favor of dealing severely with the law breakers.
The phrase "nymph du pave" was unfamiliar to me, so I looked it up. Of the various definitions offered, my favorite is "a woman of extinguished morality." It should be noted here that at the time of this altercation, Isaac Jones was sixty years old.
It is also worth noting that during this entire episode John Coffey Stanford was still legally married to Isabella, his wife of thirty three years whom he abandoned in Fauquier County in the early 1890s. A month after Stanford's showdown with Jones, John and Isabella mutually sued each other for divorce on the basis of desertion. A divorce decree was in due course granted to Isabella Stanford.
A year after that violent competition for the affection of Phenie Tapp, a child, Mary Catherine, joined the Tapp household. On the 1900 census she is designated as Phenie's adopted daughter, leading some to speculate that she was actually the daughter of Madosha. In any case, the identity of the father is unknown.
Phenie's escapades next made the news in this brief piece in the 10 July 1902 edition of the Free Lance, in which she is misnamed as "Vena Taft":
Although acquitted of the "offense" alledgedly committed with Andrew Jackson Banks, who was black, it is apparent that he enjoyed a relationship with Phenie beyond that of his employment as her "hired hand," as he is noted in subsequent censuses. Phenie and Jack lived together for the next forty years.
By 1910 Madosha had evidently married a James Oaks, whose occupation is variously given as "woodchopper" or "tie getter," which I presume meant someone who hauled railroad ties. After 1910 Madosha and James vanish from the written record, as far as I can see.
Mary Catherine Tapp married Frederick Thomas Hicks on 4 January 1917. They lived with Phenie for a time before moving to Richmond, where they raised six children. Mary Catherine died in 1935; Fred outlived her by nineteen years. They are buried in the Hicks cemetery in Spotsylvania:
Phenie Tapp was an undisguised foe of Prohibition and she and Jack Banks supplemented their income by distilling and selling moonshine. This brought unwelcome attention from Revenue agents from time to time, but I find no record that they did any serious jail time for their efforts.
During the 1930s historian Douglas Southall Freeman unsuccessfully attempted to buy the Tapp farm in order to preserve it, "but found Phenie eccentric, the title clouded and funds hard to raise." [The Wilderness Campaign, edited by Gary W. Gallagher. University of North Carolina Press, 1997, p. 194]
By the end of her life Phenie was living in the third house that had been built on the property, the original log cabin in which she had been born having long since decayed to ruin.
Eighty four year old Eliza Frances Tapp died on 31 May 1944 at the home of Calvin Macrae Jones, the son of her one time beau and a handy man with a grubbing hoe, Isaac Jones. From The Free Lance Star 2 June 1944:
Mrs. Phenie Tapp Dies at Wilderness
Mrs. Phenie Frances Tapp, 84, of the Parker neighborhood in Spotsylvania, died at the home of Calvin Jones at Wilderness.
Long a picturesque character Mrs. Tapp had an intimate knowledge of the famous battle of the Wilderness, fought over the section where she lived in 1864. She was four years old at the time of the great battle and was a granddaughter to the famous Widow Tapp, on whose farm General Lee had his headquarters and who is often referred to in accounts of the fighting.
Funeral services for Mrs. Tapp will be conducted be conducted at the grave at Oak Hill Cemetery at 3 o'clock Saturday.
A stone for both Phenie and Madosha stands at Oak Hill:
|The Free Lance Star 10 January 1950|
Six years after Phenie's death, the Tapp farm was offered for sale by her second cousin Elsie Davenport. At some point a portion of the property was acquired by Dr. Allan Mowry Giddings on behalf of the Civil War Round Table of Battle Creek, Michigan. This parcel he donated to the National Park Service in 1963. An additional fifty three acres was bought by the Park Service 1968-1972.
I wish to acknowledge the following persons whose help made possible today's post: Diane Ballman of the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center; historian Eric Mink of the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park; and my friends and fellow researchers Wil Bowler and Tom Myers. Many thanks to each of you. Any errors in this piece are mine alone.