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General John Coffee

Page 1

Transcribed and Contributed by Patricia Hartley, January 8, 2017

Source: Northern Alabama Historical and Biographical, 1888 (Sketch was written by Col. James E. Saunders)

"John Coffee was born in Prince Edward County, Va., on June 2, 1772.  His father, Joshua Coffee, was born in the same County January 26, 1745.  His mother, Elizabeth Graves, was born in Hanover County, Va., January 28, 1751.  They were married June 2, 1767.


"Joshua Coffee was a tobacco-planter, and after his marriage continued to reside in Prince Edward County until 1775, when he removed to Granville County, N.C., where he remained until the close of the Revolutionary War, when he removed to the County of Rockingham. Here he continued to reside until his death, which occurred September 8, 1797. During 1780 he commanded a company of mounted gun-men.

"During the month of April, 1798, John Coffee removed with his mother to Davidson County, Tenn., where she died in 1804. 

"Mr. Coffee engaged in merchandise and continued in it until 1807, and (to use his own words) 'from some accidents and losses, and from bad management,' it proved to be a losing business. He engaged in surveying in the then newly acquired country on Duck and Elk Rivers, which business, by his great exertions, and unremitted attention, proved to be profitable. In the course of two years thereby he was enabled to pay the arrearages of his mercantile debt, amouting [sic] to six thousand dollars, besides reserving to himself several valuable tracts of land.

"On October 3, 1809, he married Mary Donelson, then sixteen years of age, a native of Tennessee, and a daughter of John Donelson, who carried the wives and children of the party, who went in advance with Gen. James Robertson to Nashville in 1779 to build houses.  The voyage was performed in boats from East Tennessee, down the Tennessee River and up the Cumberland through a nation of hostile Indians. Rachel, the eldest sister* of Mary Donelson (not then born), would sometimes fearlessly take the helm, when the boats were attacked, to enable her father to take a shot at the enemy. This Rachel became the wife of Gen. Andrew Jackson, and when John Coffee married Mary Donelson, this family union cemented a friendship which had existed between them for some years before, and continued uring their join lives. About this time Mr. Coffee was elected Clerk of the County Court of Rutherford, a position he was holding at the outbreak of the Creek War.

"General Coffee was engaged with General Jackson in the bloody fight which occurred between the Jackson and Benton factions, just before the Creek War of 1813; an unfortunate affair, which was brough about by the rashness of Jessee, a brother of Thomas H. Benton, afterward the distinguished senator from Missouri. In a few months the feud was at an end between the principal parties, and the latter was actively engaged in making speeches to raise volunteers to serve under General Jackson; took command as colonel of one of the regiments raised, and was the confidential personal and political friend of Jackson ever afterward. But Jessee Benton never made friends with any of the other party; and, it is said, never spoke to his brother Thomas afterward. He was a little volcano which was always in a state of reuption. 

"Coffee was not only a sincere, but a fearless friend. An amusing illustration of this is given by Judge Guild. Jackson was very fond of the turf; had the finest horses, and for some years was the ruler of it. At length his competitors brought in a chestnut fillly, named Haynies Maria, that ran away from every horse entered against her. This worked up Jackson to a lively resolve that she should be beaten. He canvassed Virginia and gave his friends carte blanche to buy for him the greatest horse in that or any other State. He finally bought Pacolet of Wm. R. Johnson at a fabulous price, with which he made a race against Maria. The appointed day and hour came. Monkey Simon, who rode Maria, had orders to pull the mare at the end of each quarter and fall back, their object being to get bets. This order wsa strictly carried out. Jackson was thus led to believe that Maria would not win, and proposed to bet $10,000 that she would be betaen. Elliott said he would take the bet. General Coffee, who was a giant in stature, endeavored to dissuage Jackson from betting, but, not succeeding, he stepped behind him, lifted him on his shoulders and carried him out of the crowd, kicking and cursing, and never put him on the ground again until Monkey Simon applied the whip and won the race. 

"The War of 1812 was ushered in with so many reverses in the northern part of the Union that the fiery Tennesseans found vent for their energies by engaging zealously in the contest. General Jackson and his friends raised a brigade of volunteers; one regiment of cavalry was commanded by Colonel Coffee, one of infantry by Col. Thomas H. Benton, and another of the same by Colonel Hall.  The infantry descended the river in boats, uner the immediate command of General Jackson, to Natchez, and the cavalry, under Colonel Coffee, marched by the overland route to the same place, where they were ordered into a cantonment in the little town of Washington, Miss., and remained for several months. At length an order came to General Jackson, from the War Department, 'to consider his force dismissed from service, and to take measures for the delivery of all articles of the public property in his possession to General Wilkinson' who was a brigadier-general in the regular arm.

"The effect of this disgraceful order would have been to have turned these patriotic men loose, hundreds of miles from home, without supplies or transportation, to make their way home as best they could, through the territories of two Indian tribes, where subsistence was always scant. General Jackson assumed the responsiblity of disobeying the order, and marched them back into Tennessee. In this movement he was firmly sustained by Colonel Coffee, and his attitude was remembered gratefully: for in the fall, when he called his men to fight the Creek Indians, two regiments instead of one, came to his standard.

"This call occurred in September, 1813. The massacre at Fort Mims on the 30th of August sent a thrill of horror through the bosoms of the brave Tennesseeans, but it was succeeded by a reaction as powerful. As slowly as news was then transmitted, a strong volunteer force came to rendezvous at Fayetteville on the 3d of October. On the 4th, General Jackson dispatched General Coffee with a large detachment to Huntsville, Ala., to keep an eye on the Creek warriors, and shortly afterward followed with his whole command. He failed to get the supplies he expected down the Tennessee River. In this emergency he determined to forage upon the enemy, and moved his force into the Indian country.

"On the 2d of November he issued an order to Coffee, now promoted to the rank of Brigadier, to take 1,000 men and proceed to the town of Tallascehatche, thirteen miles distant from the camp, and destroy it. He surrounded the town about sunrise, and was fiercely met by the savages, with war-whoops and the sounding of drums, the prophets being in advance. The troops charged them, with great slaughter. After a short but terrible action about two hundred warriors lay dead on the field. Not a solitary one begged for his life. Late in the evening of the same day Coffee recrossed the Coosa, and returned to headquarters.

*Transcriber's note: Rachel Donelson Jackson was actually the aunt of Mary Donelson Coffee, and not her sister; Mary was the daughter of John Donelson IV, brother of Rachel.

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