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Captain Henry Boyle Clay

Captain H. B. Clay was born in 1840 and died in 1919. He is buried in the New Providence Cemetery near Surgoinsville, Tennessee. His wife Nancy (Phipps) Bynum was born in 1839 and died in 1916. She had first married John Gray Bynum, who was shot and killed by John D. Riley at Rogersville, Tennessee, December 15, 1862.

Captain Clay enlisted in July 1862, and was discharged in April 1865. He was assigned by Lieutenant General Kirby Smith to duty on the Staff of Brig. General John Pegram Com'dy Cav. Brigade, Bragg's Army. He commanded a Divison at Chickamauga. Davidson took command when Pegram was transferred to Lee's Army. Clay remained with him, afterwards with Hodges Brigade, who was succeeded by Cosby. He weas assigend by Echols to duty on Staff of Basil W. Duke. Clay wrote, "My last written order, reading - Capt. H. B. Clay, A. A. Gen'l Dept. will report for duty to Brig. Gen'l B. W. Duke, his Brigade having abandoned the service by going to Ky."

He was with Duke's Brigade in April 1865, and served on his staff during the march from Charlotte, North Carolina to Washington, Georgia. When Duke's Brigade formed part of the escort of President Jefferson Davis, Captain Clay and Basil W. Duke surrendered the 10th of May, 1865, after attempting his escape and by the order of General John C. breckenridge, Secretary of War.

Captain Clay was with General Morgan when the latter was killed at Greeneville, Tennessee. Clay, assistant adjutant general, was captured near the Williams house as he attempted to conceal himself in a hole where potatoes had been buried. After being asked to identify the body of the dead Morgan, he fell to his knees beside the general crying, "You have just killed the best man in the Confederacy."

(The following article was taken from the KNOXVILLE JOURNAL & TRIBUNE, written in 1899 or 1900.)


By Annie Riley Hale

(From a clipping from the KNOXVILLE JOURNAL and TRIBUNE, written in 1899 or 1900)

In a quiet little corner of the world, in the quaint old town of Rogersville, lives the oldest male descendant of Henry Clay, the man who, having openly avowed that he "would rather be right than President," was suffered by fate and the American people to have his choice.

This oldest living descendant is a grandson, about sixty years of age, whose name is Henry Clay, and who wears it as unostentatiously as if unconscious of the fact that it is "wreathed around with glory." He was born at Lexington, Kentucky, and is the eldest son of Thomas Hart Clay, the second son of the great "pacificator."

At the breaking out of the civil war, two of the three surviving sons of Henry Clay adhered to the union cause. These were Thomas and John M. Clay, and the former was appointed minister to Honduras and Nicaragua by Mr. Lincoln. It is little remarkable, therefore, that his eldest son, Henry, the subject of this sketch, should have cast in his lot with the people of the South, and in 1862, when only twenty-one, enlisted in the Confederate service as a member of Kirby Smith's staff. Twice he was recommended for promotion because of gallant conduct on the field, and left the service with the rank of major, though he is familiarly know in the life of the village as "Captain Clay."

In the closing year of the war, he met near Knoxville, Tennessee, a wealthy young widow from Rogersville, who shortly became his wife. Hence it was that he left his home in Lexington to settle among the Rogersville hills, and became the owner of “The Elms,” as his wife’s handsome home in the village was called. The house, a large massive brick, its walls ivy-grown, was built about fifty years ago, in the colonial style, and was furnished - a rare thing in that day - with water pipes, supplied from a stone reservoir in the rear of the gardens. The spacious grounds, bounded by a rock wall, are intersected by broad graveled walks, and shadowed by stately trees.

Its courteous host and his genial wife dispense the hospitalities of the fine old place, with unaffected grace, to all corners; and many objects of interest and value here meet the gaze of the curious. In one corner of the long, old-fashioned parlor stands a cut glass vase presented to Henry Clay by the glass manufacturers of Pittsburgh, wherein is seen “through a glass darkly” his advocacy of the “protective tariff.” It measures fifty-four inches in circumference and three feet from the floor to the top, being, at the time of its presentation, the largest piece of cut glass in this country. It is further signalized by being used as a baptismal font from which Henry Clay was christened when received into the communion of the Episcopal Church - Henry Clay, like his fiery antagonist, Andrew Jackson, having put off church vows until the stress of political warfare was over.

In an opposite corner of the parlor at “The Elms” is a mahogany arm chair which belonged to Henry Clay. It is upholstered in richly colored satin broche, with a writing desk attachment, and is so large as to suggest the notion that he might have framed the “Omnibus Bill” in it.

Here, also, are displayed the family portraits. Life-size painting of Henry Clay, and his wife, Lucretia Hart; a lovely pastel of H. B. Clay’s eldest sister, who died at twenty-one, as the first wife of W. C. P. Breckinridge, of “silver tongue” fame; and two, with delicate, high-bred faces, who, our host informs us, are his maternal grandparents, whose name was Mentelle, and who fled from France during the stormy days of 1793. They settled with a party of French emigres at Gallipolis on the Ohio river, where their rich costumes and luxurious habits contrasted strangely with the rough hewn walls and puncheon floors of their cabins in the wilderness. Here in their rude frontier homes, these aristocratic emigres - so hated by the red-bonneted Jacobins of the Reign of Terror - danced and dined, and played cards through the long winter evenings, while savage wolves, and more savage Indians, prowled without.

One might fancy from Mme. Mentelle’s expression, that she could mould circumstances to her own will, and wrest success from failure; but her grandson testifies that through possessed of considerable literary talent, she was never able to turn it to practical account; and that, both her own and her husband’s education, better fitted them to move in the gay society of the French capitol, than to grapple with the difficulties of pioneer life in America. And but for the fact that they had a daughter whose graces of mind and person attracted the second son of Henry Clay, the Mentelles would probably have been lost in the stream of American history. But in the Clay house at Rogersville several rare curios keep alive their memory.

One of these is a cross of the Legion of Honor, presented by Louis XVIII to Edmond Mentelle, father of the emigre. There is also a facsimile of the death warrant of Charles I, brought from France; and an autograph of Tallyrand, appended to the passport which secured the Mentelles passage to America.

In one corner of the sitting room at “The Elms” is a queer grouping of souvenirs. The sword used by Waldemir Mentelle in the Indian wars under “Mad Anthony Wayne,” is crossed by one worn by Capt. Clay in his battles for the “Lost Cause,” while just above them hangs a picture of the man who is accredited by some with having shed the first blood in defense of the Union. This is Col. E. E. Ellsworth, who was commissioned by Lincoln to command the N. Y. Fire Zouaves in the Civil War, but was shot dead en route, by Jackson, the hotel-keeper at Alexandria, for hauling down the Confederate flag which Jackson had hoisted.

Ellsworth was fencing master to H. B. Clay when the latter was a student at Madison, Wisconsin, and a warm friendship sprang up between them.

It may not be generally known that this man, who made such a brilliant record as drill captain of the famous U. S. Zouaves, with whom he starred through the eastern cities, at one time starved in a garret in Chicago, before success came to him. The writer was permitted to read a letter from him to H. B. Clay, written at Chicago in 1860, in which he alludes to his hard struggle - now happily past - and to the fact that he has just received an offer to leave Chicago and enter the law office of “one of the most prominent political men in this country.” This prominent political man” was Abraham Lincoln, from whose office at Springfield, Illinois, Ellsworth went to command the N. Y. Fire Zouaves, and marched to his death.

Very interesting to the student of political history, is a silver cylinder in the possession of Captain Clay, engraved with the legend: “Central Clay Committee of New York City to Henry Clay,” and enclosing an embossed address delivered by the central committee of the “Democratic Clay Clubs” of New York on March 4, 1845, after Clay’s defeat for the presidency. He may wonder a little at the apparent solecism in the phrase, “Democratic Clay Clubs,” just as the future political student may view the “McKinley Aid Society” formed by the “Goldbug” democrats of recent times.

This address is eloquent of disappointed Whig hopes, and is divided between high-flown panegyric of their great leader, and impotent abuse of their victorious opponents. It is also published in an aged and wrinkled copy of the N. Y. Tribune which accompanies the scroll in the cylinder, and is in itself, a journalistic curio. It bears date, March 5, 1845, and instead of flaming headlines over foreign and domestic news, the first page of this venerable sheet is covered with six columns of poetry. Besides the laudatory address to Henry Clay, it contains the inaugural address of Jas. K. Polk, with an editorial comment thereon which makes us grateful that editorial manners towards the Chief Magistrate have improved since 1845.

We also learn from this “sere and yellow leaf” edited by the ill-starred Horace Greeley, what an iniquitous scheme was the annexation of Texas, and we marvel that the republic has been able to wag along as well as it has, with its “Lone Star State” attachment.

In addition to the Clay relics at “The Elms” there are some ante-bellum treasures belonging to Mrs. Clay, who was, in her day, a noted beauty, and “the country toast.” In the dining room with its high frescoed ceiling, the sideboard and china closet glitter with these treasures - one set of Dresden China imported from Paris fifty years ago, being especially remarkable for its rare coloring and for the variety and beauty of its designs. In the library, a cabinet and round table of costly inlaid wood, and a writing desk inlaid with mother-of-pearl, were also the property of Mrs. Clay before her second marriage.

But of all the objects at “The Elms” that which most excites the wonderment of the villagers is a plaster cast bust of Henry Clay. One old colored “aunty” on beholding it exclaimed, “Poor man must have enjoyed mighty bad health to look so pale!”

Copyright © 1999 &2000 by Sheila Weems Johnston, Rogersville, TN 37857