|John J. Pettus, Civil War Governor of Mississippi and a relative of Jefferson Davis.|
In the lonely Flat Bayou cemetery near Wabbaseka, Arkansas, is an unmarked grave which for nearly two generations has been the cause of much agitation. Every decade or so an indignant journalist, having discovered the identity of the man whose bones rest under the weedy mound, publishes an eloquent account of this famous Mississippi hero whose grave has been "lost" in Arkansas since 1867. For 50 years newspapers in Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi have been publishing the stories. And always the horrified journalistic question is asked:
Why does John J. Pettus, Mississippi's celebrated Civil War Governor, rest in a neglected country graveyard in Arkansas? Why does not Mississippi claim him bones and rebury them in a place of honor, especially since his marble bust is one of the most cherished relics of the Mississippi Department of Public Archives and History, and the story of his turbulent, courageous life forms a colorful chapter in Mississippi's history?
The question was asked first 50 years ago, when the grave of Gov. John J. Pettus of Mississippi was not in Flat Bayou cemetery, but in the corner of a cornfield near Toltec, in Lonoke County.
In June, 1888, Col. R. A. Little, who recently has purchased a plantation in Lonoke County, was riding over his land when on the edge of a field he discovered a grave marked only with a post. Investigating, he learned that Gov. John Jones Pettus of Mississippi was buried here. At first he did not believe the story, until substantiated evidence proved it true. At one time the plantation, which Colonel Little had purchased from Thomas H. Allen of Memphis, was owned by a relative of Governor Pettus. An old Negro who had been on the plantation since antebellum days had been present at the burial of the noted Mississippian.
The newspapers of the day bristled with the story of the "lost" grave of Governor Pettus of Mississippi. Colonel Little declared, in a press interview, that if Mississippi officials did not care to have the body removed to Mississippi, he would have it disinterred and reburied in a cemetery in Arkansas.
And now the Granddaughter of Governor Pettus tells why the bones of her famous Mississippi ancestor still lie in Arkansas soil, in spite of the many movements commenced to have them removed to Mississippi.
She is Mrs. John J. Pettus of Pettus, Arkansas. Born Caroline Weedon, the daughter of the daughter of Gov. John J. Pettus of Mississippi, she married Kie Oldham, State Senator. When Senator Oldham died she married her distant cousin, John Pettus.
"The grave of Gov. John J. Pettus was never lost," she declared. "His family and his descendants have always known where it was. He is buried in the state that gave him sanctuary at a time when, broken in health and fortune, he had to flee for his very life from Grant's invading army. Arkansas owes nothing to him nor to his descendants, but the Pettus family owes Arkansas much. That is why we have never permitted the body of Governor Pettus to be removed from Arkansas.
"The grave was disturbed once, when it was moved from Colonel Little's plantation to Flat Bayou cemetery near Wabbaseka, in Jefferson County. There is no mystery attached to the burial of my Grandfather in the cornfield near Toltec. When he died, the plantation was owned by the Jones family, cousins of Governor Pettus, who also owned land in Lonoke County. The two families visited each other frequently. Governor Pettus was at the Jones home when, in 1867, he was stricken with pneumonia and died. He was buried on the Jones plantation. The land sold later, and eventually it came into the hands of Col. R. A. Little. When he wanted the body of Governor Pettus moved, our family had it disinterred and reburied in the Flat Bayou cemetery. Mississippi would claim the remains now if the family consented, but we all feel that the State which gave Grandfather some measure of peace during the last few years of his stormy life should be the place of his burial."
Looking into the unhappy, restless eyed face of Governor Pettus as depicted in an old daguerreotype taken after he had fled to Arkansas to hide and, later, to die, it is not difficult to trace that same expression of suffering as is seen in the faces of Lincoln, Jefferson Davis and other men who had been hag-ridden by the horrors of the Civil War.
John Jones Pettus was born in Williamson County, Tennessee, on October 9, 1813. The Pettus plantation was close to the Hermitage, the home of Andrew Jackson, who was a lifelong friend of the father of John J. Pettus.
In early manhood John Pettus moved to Kemper County, Mississippi, where he became prominent as a planter and a leader in civic and state affairs. His public career began in 1846, when he represented his County in the legislature.
In those days Jefferson Davis led Mississippi politics. Well-educated, cultured, brilliant, Jeff Davis had come to Mississippi after he had married the beautiful young daughter of Zachary Taylor. The Taylor family and the Pettus family were closely related. Jefferson Davis and John J. Pettus were friends as well as kinsmen.
Three months after the marriage, the young bride died. Jeff Davis found release from his grief by developing a system of self-government among his slaves that turned his vast plantation into one of the happiest and most successful slave communities in the South. Seeing no evil in slavery because his own Negroes were supremely content, Jefferson Davis, as early as 1850, hotly defended the question of states' rights. Soon Mississippi began to rival South Carolina as a leader of the Southern Constitutionalists in the defense of states' rights.
No patriot in the South was a more ardent supporter of states' rights than John J. Pettus. In 1854, he was president of the Mississippi Senate, which automatically made him Govornor for five days when Gov. Henry S. Foote resigned. Four years later he was nominated on the Democratic ticket. The paramount issue, of course, was states' rights. Pettus defeated his opponent, a Whig, Harvey W. Walter, by a large majority, three to one.
When Abraham Lincoln was elected President in November, 1860, Governor Pettus, knowing that the party which opposed slavery was in power, recommended the convening of a constitutional convention. Courage was required for so bold a stand, but Governor Pettus possessed all the courage needed, as well as a will of iron. Assembling the legislature, he named December 31, 1860, as a day of fasting and prayer. On January 7, 1861, the constitutional convention assembled. Two days later, on January 9, Mississippi seceded from the Union, the first Southern state that followed the example of South Carolina. Governor Pettus achieved national renown by his act.
When Grant came to Vicksburg he did not forget that John Jones Pettus was still Governor of Mississippi.
"Get that rebel!" was the order passed to the invading army.
Jackson, the Capital, fell, and the Federals were eager to capture the Governor. But Governor Pettus quickly gathered his staff about him, and with sufficient State records to keep the government intact, he fled to Macon, in Nuxobee County, which he made the Capital of Mississippi. The Federals continued in hot pursuit of the fleeing Governor. Soon they reached Macon, when Governor Pettus again eluded them, and, with his staff, went to Columbus, in Lowndes County, where he assembled the legislature. Five times he had to move his Capital to escape the wrath of the Federals.
He contrived to keep out of the reach of the enemy until his second term of office expired on November 16, 1863, when he surrendered the records of the State to Governor Clark.
Sick and broken in fortune, he went of Jefferson County, Arkansas, where he owned a large tract of land which he had kept mostly as a hunting preserve. A few slaves had been retained here to raise cotton in the rich bottom clearings. Here he felt comparatively safe from his enemies.
He was not completely without friends in Arkansas. His cousins, the Jones family, owned the plantation near Toltec. His brother-in-law, Gov. J. A. Winston of Alabama, had large holdings in Arkansas.
Until the fall of the Confederacy, he had some peace in Arkansas. But shortly after Lee's surrender and Lincoln's assassination, a runner from the Jones plantation came to tell him that the Federals were at his heels again.
"There's been a warrant issued for you and for Jeff Davis," he was told.
Jeff Davis was caught immediately, and for months he remained in prison with his hands constantly manacled together. To escape the fate of his kinsman, John J. Pettus became a refugee in Arkansas. At times he lived in disguise at the Jones plantation. Assuming the name of John Jones, he grew a matted beard and wore the clothes of a tramp. One day he went unrecognized when a searching party of Federals came to the Jones plantation. The Federals even engaged a squad of Indians to search the swamps for him. Some loyal Arkansan, to mislead the searches, had told them that Governor Pettus was hiding close to Bayou Meto.
In 1865, Arkansas had over 7,000,000 acres of swamps. There were few roads. Eventually the Federals wearied of their search for Governor Pettus.
And John Pettus grew to love the State that had offered him sanctuary, as he called the rough protection he enjoyed here. When he could do so he bought more land and enlarged his plantation. He was only 54 when, in 1867, he made his last visit to the Jones plantation at Toltec. Weakened from years of privation, he could not survive the pneumonia that attacked him. He was buried on the plantation, with only a hand-hewn cedar post to mark the spot.
After his death the family remained in Arkansas--the family which, in one generation, had supplied five Governors to the South. One of the women of the family was called "The Mother of Governors."
Mrs. John Pettus, the Granddaughter of Governor Pettus, still owns some of the land left by her noted ancestor. The little town of Pettus was named in honor of the Pettus family.
Besides Mrs. John Pettus, there is another grandchild of Governor Pettus living in Arkansas--John P. Weedon of 621 Cumberland Street, Little Rock. Houston Pettus of Little Rock, a son of the late Dr. Cowley C. Pettus, also is a relative.
Mrs. John Pettus said, "The family is now discussing the matter of a monument for the grave. Some day we shall decide on one. And then, perhaps, never again will some writer blossom out with another tale concerning the "lost grave of John J. Pettus, the harassed Civil War Governor of Mississippi."