Pope’s Tavern Museum is arguably the oldest structure in the city of Florence, Albvama. Some believe it was built as a stagecoach stop around 1811, by a Scot named Thomas Cheatham. General Andrew Jackson stopped at the tavern in 1814, en route to battle the British in New Orleans. His army camped on the surrounding grounds in the vicinity of the clinic, Wilson Park, and the Florence post office.
The house was first used as a hospital during the Civil War following a skirmish on the corner of Court and Tuscaloosa streets. During the war, there was a livery stable on the site. Several Yankees took refuge in it. To smoke them out, the Confederates threw lighted pine knot torches onto the shingle roof of the building and set the stable on fire. The Yankees fled brandishing a white flag and bringing their wounded with them.
The wounded from both sides were brought to Pope’s Tavern and placed side by side on improvised cots and pallets. At that time, there were few available doctors and most of the nursing was done by the women of Florence. Among the nurses was Pauline Stewart, her daughter, Mrs. Cutler Smith, and Olivia O’Neal, the wife of General Edward O’Neal.
After a bloody cavalry skirmish at Elk River, the wounded from both sides were, again, brought to Pope’s Tavern.
One Union soldier, Oglvie E. Hamblin, a private in Company E of the 2nd Michigan Cavalry, was guarding Florence under the command of Brigadier General John Thomas Croxton, when Confederate General John Bell Hood made his famous crossing of the Tennessee River on the way to the Battle of Franklin.
On October 30th, 1864, Hamblin’s company encountered Confederate Brigadier General Jacob Hunter Sharps’ men on the north bank of the Tennessee River. Hamblin’s men were routed and retreated. Hamblin, himself, was shot in the left arm and captured. The Confederates marched him to Pope’s Tavern where his arm was amputated the following day.
After Hamblin recovered sufficiently, he was sent to the General Hospital in Columbus, Mississippi, where he convalesced for six weeks. Later, he was transferred to Cahaba Prison Camp, near Selma, Alabama.
On March 15, 1865, Hamblin was exchanged, and along with 1866 other ex-prisoners of war, he was sent to Vicksburg, Mississippi, to await transportation to his northern home.
A large portion of these ex-prisoners were slated to travel on the Sultana, a typical side-wheel steamer built in Cincinnati, in 1863, to haul cotton on the lower Mississippi. The Sultana was registered at 1719 tons and had a crew of 85. Her captain was, the competent and experienced, J. C. Mason of St. Louis. For two years, the Sultana had carried cotton between New Orleans and St. Louis. She also frequently transported Union army personnel.
On April 21, 1865, the Sultana left New Orleans, with about 100 cabin passengers, and a cargo which included sugar and assorted livestock. By law, she could carry 376 passengers, including her crew.
A few hours before reaching Vicksburg, a leak developed along a joint of one of the Sultana’s boilers. A quick repair job was made by putting on a “soft-patch,” of quarter inch iron plate.
After arriving in Vicksburg, soldiers eager to return home began boarding the Sultana in droves, quickly exceeding her capacity. In all, some 1800 – 2000 ex-prisoners boarded her, and, in addition, two companies of soldiers were brought aboard. Altogether, there were about 2300 passengers on the steamer when she cast off – six times as many as the steamer was designed to carry.
The Sultana pulled away and headed upstream against a current made stronger than usual by the river’s flood state.
She docked in Memphis and some of the passengers went ashore. Some of her cargo was also unloaded. The boiler was repaired again and the Sultana’s big paddlewheels began propelling the dreadfully overloaded steamer upriver toward Cairo.
Around 2:00 a.m., the leaky boilers exploded. The blast was heard as far away as Memphis. Steamers quickly headed upriver to offer assistance.
Half the vessel disintegrated. Hundreds of sleeping soldiers were hurtled into the water along with twisted remnants of machinery, fragments of wood, furniture, and deck beams.
Private Hamblin helped to open a hatch that saved the lives of soldiers trapped there. He was rescued several miles from the site of the explosion, found clinging to a tree branch he had managed to grab with his one arm.
Many of those on board the Sultana could not swim and remained on the burning hulk. Others leaped into the water. One survivor recalled: “The men who were afraid to take to the water could be seen clinging to the sides of the bow of the boat until they were singed off like flies.”
This photo was taken April 26, 1865, one day before the Sultana sank into the Mississippi River
After the remains of the boat washed ashore on a small island, the Sultana sank, hissing and steaming as the hulk descended into the dark waters of the Mississippi.
When dawn came, survivors were scattered down the river all the way to Memphis, clinging to legs, barrels, sections of railing, anything that would keep them afloat. One Confederate soldier is said to have rescued fifteen Union soldiers singlehandedly.
For many days after the accident, a barge was sent out to pick up dead bodies in the Mississippi. It is estimated that between 1500 – 1900 men were killed on the most terrible steamship disaster in history.
Private Oglvie Hamblin was discharged in July and returned to his home in Pulaski, Michigan.
One Florence doctor who treated soldiers at Pope’s Tavern, and who came from a prominent Florence family, worked as a spy for the Yankees.
His name was Dr. Hugh McVay and he was related to former Alabama governor, who bore the same name, Hugh McVay, and who served a very brief term as governor of the state from July 17, 1837, until November 22, 1837.
Governor Hugh McVay was born in South Carolina in 1788. He moved to Madison County, in 1807, and represented the county in the Mississippi Territorial Legislature from 1811, until 1818. In 1819, McVay moved to Lauderdale County, and represented it in the 1819 Alabama Constitutional Convention. In addition, McVay served in the Alabama House of Representatives from 1820, until1825, and he held a seat in the State Senate from 1825, through1844.
In July 1837, Alabama Governor Clement Comer Clay was appointed to the US Senate. Hugh McVay had won the seat of Speaker of the Senate in 1836, and as per the Alabama Constitution, McVay filled Clay’s position and became Acting Governor of Alabama on July 17, 1837. McVay served until November 22, 1837, when A. P. Bagby was elected Governor.
McVay continued to serve in the Alabama Senate until 1844. Afterward, he retired to his plantation near King Spring Park on Mars Hill Road. McVay died in 1851, and is buried in the McVay family cemetery in Industrial Park in Florence.
Governor Hugh McVay
Dr. McVay certainly held sympathy for the Union cause. In his Official Records report, of January 23, 1864, Union Brigadier General Grenville M. Dodge writes to Lieutenant Colonel Phillips in Athens: “Dr. McVay says a force from Bainbridge passed up the Waterville road on Wednesday night. They went 15 miles and were still going on. How many men do you want to go down and clean out this band of rebels, and how many can you take from your command?”
Dr. McVay was a frequent visitor of the Union Captain A. P. Hall, who convalesced under the care of Pauline Stewart and her daughter, Ophelia Smith, at their home on Court Street.
In 1863, Hall, who was a member of the 7th Illinois Regiment commanded by Colonel Rowett, heard that several horses had been hidden about 14 miles out of Florence on Butler Creek. He took his men to confiscate the horses and encountered a group of Southern bushwhackers. A skirmish ensued and Hall was wounded. He was brought back to Florence and taken to the Stewart home where he was attended by General Sherman’s medics. Upon examination, it was determined he would not survive.
The Stewart women nursed Hall until his death, about month later, and then had him buried in the Florence cemetery, where his body remained until it was disinterred, by order of the War Department, and removed to the National Cemetery at Corinth, Mississippi.
Before Hall’s death, he was visited several times by Dr. Hugh McVay. Hall gave McVay his boots who sold them to Mrs. Sample for $10.00. She gave them to her brother who was a Confederate soldier.
Civil War medical care was primitive by modern standards. Sanitation was rare and cleanliness was often an afterthought. Instruments were never sterilized and were often used over and over again as doctors moved from patient to patient. Gangrene, tetanus and blood poisoning were common, as were many contagious diseases such as typhoid and dysentery.
Treatment was equally primitive. Wounds were bathed in unsterilized cold water to relieve the sensation of burning, and amputation was the typical way of dealing with wounds in the arms and legs. As for drugs, that which was available — chloroform for operations; morphine and laudanum for pain relief — was highly addictive and often poorly administered. Demand for these drugs and treatment often quickly exceeded supply, especially after major battles.
Although treatment improved as the war progressed, the quality of care remained low, and many patients died as much from the treatment they received as from the wounds they sustained or the diseases they contracted.
Pope’s Tavern remained a hospital until after the surrender of Lee at Appomattox. Thirty-three soldiers were known to have died there and countless others underwent surgery there.
Ophelia Smith, in her memoir of the Civil War, wrote: “In our hospital here, in 1862, the sick soldiers were brought from Forts Henry and Donelson after their fall, and as well as I can remember, there were 700 of them and out of this number 32 died and were buried in the Florence Cemetery along with two others that were killed in a skirmish about 4 miles from the city by General Rowett’s command in 1865.”
Pope’s Tavern is still standing and serves Florence as a museum. Many Civil War artifacts are on display there, including: the flag carried by Charles Daniel Stewart with the 4th Alabama Infantry Regiment at the Battle of Bull Run, the coat worn by General Edward Asbury O’Neal, and the saw used by wartime surgeons to amputate wounded limbs.