William Franklin Evitts: A Son, Soldier, Farmer, Husband, and Father
Updated: Feb 1, 2021
William Franklin, or Frank as he was called, was born July 10, 1838. He was the son of a farmer—Mr. Moses Robert Evitts (c. 1815). Dovye Evans Evitts was his mother. Both parents were from Tennessee, and that’s where Frank grew up. He, along with his 7 siblings, were raised on the family farm in a bend along the Cumberland and Caney Fork Rivers in Dixon Springs, Tennessee, once a booming farming community and trading port on the Cumberland River. Frank’s grandfather, Joseph, had spent his life farming there as well.
The family farm was likely land that was acquired by Joseph in payment of military service. The actual site of the family farm was chosen carefully: proximity to fresh water, fairly level, good soil, and ample timber for building and supplies. The planting fields, likely fenced to keep out free-ranging livestock, had been carved out of Tennessee wilderness. Thanks to their labor-intensive garden, their livestock, and their hunting and fishing skills, food was plentiful. The farmhouse, furnished with handmade furniture from the farm, was comfortable.
The Former People's Bank of Dixon Springs, Tennessee
Photograph by Carrie Bullock Fisher
For Grandfather Joseph, dad Moses, Frank and his brothers, the work was arduous, and never-ending. Joseph may have had even more on his plate in his latter years, as his wife Jane was listed as insane on the Census of 1850. What this actually meant is unclear; there were no precise guidelines for the label. Interestingly, census workers were required to specify if anyone in the household was ‘insane’ or ‘idiotic’ because there was genuine interest in securing funding to build asylums that would help people with mental disabilities. Within a few decades, the national emphasis shifted from a desire to help those with mental illness to seeing them as menaces to society that needed to be hidden and restrained.
For the women—life was equally taxing. While the men slaughtered the larger animals, Mama Dovye and the children killed and dressed the poultry.
It was up to Dovye to keep their household of 10 running. Sewing and repairing all their clothing, cooking every meal, cleaning, laundry, nurturing a young Frank, along with all his brothers and sisters (did I mention this was a household of 10?). Dovye also oversaw all the outdoor work, including milking the cows, and gardening to provide food year-round. Food was preserved in jars; butter had to be churned, coffee ground, and bread baked. Her kitchen range would have been fueled by either coal or wood, which had to be brought in. Water had to be hauled in and boiled on laundry day. Laundry was such a big job, it was termed the “weekly affliction” usually done on Monday, followed by an entire day of ironing on Tuesday.
The goal of all was firstly, survival, … of: the seasons, weather-related challenges, insect blights, isolation, illness, and so many other things. Secondly, they hoped for some relief from the burden of the pioneering life—for themselves, and for their children.
By the time young Frank was coming into his own, the debate over slavery had come to a full-blown crisis. Discord against the divided nation was growing, when in 1861, Illinois politician Abraham Lincoln was elected the nation’s 16th President. Tennessee was the 11th and final state to join the Confederacy in seceding from the United States, in response to Lincoln’s election. Neither Frank nor his parents had the means to own slaves, but the idea that those northern industrialists could impose their opinions, or that an out of touch president could impose his authority, well, that flew in the face of Southerners like Frank, who tended to be more than a little independent-minded.
War erupted between the United States and the Confederate States. Moses and Dovye could only look on while their eldest two sons packed up a bit of food and headed to the fight. Frank, a brown-headed, blue-eyed man in his prime, made his way to Knoxville, Tennessee. He enlisted as a Private in the Confederate Army, and fought in the 7th Regiment of the Tennessee Infantry, Company D—the Harrison Rifles.
But this war over the Confederate States’ desire to protect their right to self-govern would cost Frank, Sam, and their fellow soldiers more than they ever imagined. Frank suffered from extreme cold, hunger, fatigue, and from gastrointestinal maladies attributed to the unsanitary conditions of camp. Having never been away from home, he was quite homesick. Battle after battle, he endured intense fighting in tight formations; bullets and cannon blasts ripped all around, and through … his friends’, neighbors’, and comrades’ bodies, sending blood and worse—body parts—showering everywhere. Including on Frank.
Surely it was the worst of times. Union soldiers were enduring their own losses, including one regiment’s canine mascot, a bull terrier named Sallie. She had been with the unit most of the war, having been rescued when she was only 4 or 5 weeks old. Over the years, the men had grown fond of their fearless pup. During a skirmish at Petersburg, she assumed her usual spot, at the end of the first line of attack. Unfortunately, she was shot and died instantly. As the second wave of her unit advanced, they came upon her lifeless body. Under heavy fire, the weeping men immediately stopped their advance, and buried little Sallie right there on the battlefield.
But the North had more of everything—more money, food, horses, factories, and railroads, making them more powerful than the Confederate States. However, the Confederates proved to be more skilled at fighting—and devious in maintaining troop numbers. Enlistors such as Frank, who volunteered for a 12-month stint, were now being forced by the Confederacy to remain in the army, due to so many of the ill-equipped soldiers looking for ways to return home. This legislation left many feeling disheartened, and cheated by the government. Desertion rates grew, but Frank and his comrades pressed on. He was eventually promoted to Corporal in November of 1864.
Just months before the war’s end, General Grant saw an opportunity. He believed that if the Union could capture nearby Petersburg, a major crossroads and railroad hub that supplied the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia—and Lee's army—Richmond would fall as well, bringing an end to the war. It was a ten month initiative, with victories and losses mounting on both sides.
It was mid 1864, and Frank and Sam had somehow survived almost 4 years of the nightmare. But with the Union focused on bringing the war to an end, Frank’s luck ran out. He sustained injury, and was captured during one of the engagements. A friend of Frank’s from before the war, Private A. K. Miller, was picked up that day as well. Frank’s older brother, Sam, had been captured nearby at the Battle of Hatchers Run, just a few months before. Things were bad, but miraculously, the brothers and friend were reunited at POW Camp Hoffman.
Confederate prisoners at Camp Hoffman
Point Lookout, as the camp was called, was the largest, and one of the worst of the Union prisoner-of-war camps. Prisoners lived in overcrowded tents with little protection from the harsh elements along the coast; in fact, many froze to death in their tents. They didn’t have enough food, so rats became a major source of protein for many of the camp’s residents. Most of the guards were black, and there was much animosity between the inmates and those guards … to the point that many of the prisoners were murdered.
Point Lookout Prisoner-of-War Camp Marker
Somehow, Frank and Sam survived the violence and the elements.
General Lee’s army could no longer overcome all the disease, desertion, and lack of adequate supplies. His only choice was to surrender, bringing an end to an ugly chapter of the young nation’s history.
At the war’s end, Frank and Sam were some of the last prisoners to be released—a full 2 ½ months after. Their freedom was contingent on pledging allegiance to the United States—even if their hearts weren’t fully committed to that sentiment.
Back home, Moses and Dovye had languished immeasurably as well. The separation and worry over their sons in this abominable war were all but unbearable. They had endured a poorly managed smallpox epidemic that penetrated all classes of society in nearby Nashville. They were vulnerable to Union and Confederate soldiers stealing along with their demands for food. Even a neighbor was needlessly murdered by renegade Union soldiers when he caught them in the act of stealing his horses. It was a dark time to be alive.
Railroad yard and depot with locomotives; the capitol in the distance, Nashville, Tenn., 1864.
Photograph by George N. Barnard.
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (LC-B8171-2651 DLC)
The war bankrupted the South. It left roads, farms, and factories in ruins. It all but wiped out an entire generation of men—one in three soldiers were killed or wounded. One in 13 returned home amputees.
Southern States continued to lack trust in the federal government, and much unease remained. Southern politicians undermined the nation’s intent on slavery reformation. The assassination of President Lincoln further impaired reconstruction efforts.
Back in Smith County, Tennessee, Frank survived the darkest period of the nation. But he was physically battered. He most likely suffered from rheumatism, malaria and chronic diarrhea. For him, like so many others who returned home, the war had a very long and devastating reach. His ability to perform the manual labor of farming was forever impaired.
And then there were the invisible scars; even in sleep, he couldn’t escape the nightmare he had miraculously survived. There was little understanding about the emotional impact the war would have, so symptoms of post traumatic stress were misunderstood and untreatable, rendering Frank—in many ways—a mere shell of the man he could have been.
The state of Tennessee endured more fighting than every other state in the nation, with the exception of Virginia. Farms had been burned or forced to feed both Union and Confederate Soldiers. There was certainly no rest for the weary, as the task of rebuilding remained.
There is some indication that Frank, who would’ve been 27 at the conclusion of the war, was married at some point, … and may have been a widower—on top of everything else he had already endured. Records from the time period are incomplete. But in 1874, at the age of 36, Frank married Cumberland River neighbor (about 12 miles west) Sophia Malinda Bodine. It was a chance for a fresh start.
Dixon Springs Union Church, established 1878
Photograph by Carrie Bullock Fisher
Reconstruction. It marked an opportunity to pick up the shattered pieces—for Frank, for the family, for the South, and for the newly United States, to have hope for their future, and for the generations that would follow.