The following blog post is an edited excerpt from my article published in the October 2014 edition of The Nashville Retrospect. The Nashville Retrospect is a monthly newspaper devoted to Nashville nostalgia and history. It features reprints of long-forgotten news, articles by local historians, and remembrances by older Nashvillians. The Nashville Retrospect can be purchased at a variety of locations throughout Davidson County and surrounding Middle Tennessee counties. Visit The Nashville Retrospect website for additional information.
On September 7, 1851, the Nashville Daily Gazette triumphantly announced the dedication of a monument erected in Nashville’s City Cemetery honoring Tennessee’s first governor, John Sevier. The newspaper’s editors declared, “This monument, in design and execution, is worthy of the distinguished man whose many virtues and heroic services it is intended to commemorate.”
Sevier’s memorial at the Nashville City Cemetery provided Tennesseans with a fitting tribute to a man historian Carl S. Driver later described as “Tennessee’s first hero.” Stone masons carved upon this fifteen-foot marble shaft a relief depicting two swords crossed, surmounted by a wreath, and beneath an Indian tomahawk and quiver of arrows. The noted North Carolina historian John H. Wheeler described this design as “emblematic of the triumph of our arms under the heroic auspices of General Sevier, and the blessings of peace and the arts of civilization succeeding the bloody and protracted Indian wars which illustrate the early history of our State, in which he acted a most arduous, responsible, and distinguished part.”
|In 1851, A. W. Putnam erected this fifteen-foot tall cenotaph on the grounds of the Nashville City Cemetery and dedicated it to the memory of Sevier’s accomplishments as a “Noble and successful defender of the early settlers of Tennessee.”|
For nearly four decades, the monument erected at Nashville’s City Cemetery stood as the only memorial tribute to John Sevier on Tennessee soil. Few Tennesseans realized, however, that Sevier’s body remained buried on a plot of land hundreds of miles away in an overgrown field in Alabama, with little more than a charred oak stump and a small headstone to mark his grave. Aggrieved to discover that no monument to Sevier existed in Tennessee’s capital city, Albigence Waldo Putnam vowed to correct posterity’s oversight.
As a lawyer, businessman, public official, writer, and founding member of the Tennessee Historical Society, A. W. Putnam devoted much of his life to preserving Sevier’s legacy and documenting the memory of Tennessee’s earliest settlers. Putnam located and preserved a variety of historically significant letters, including the papers of Sevier’s son, George Washington Sevier. Putnam’s collection provided a window into Sevier’s world and a rich narrative of early Tennessee history found nowhere else.
On Sevier’s grand obelisk at the Nashville City Cemetery, Putnam instructed stone masons to inscribe words declaring Sevier to be a “Noble and successful defender of the early settlers of Tennessee,” and his epitaph proudly proclaimed Sevier “served his Country for Forty years faithfully and usefully and in her service died.”
Sevier’s posthumous benefactor held no desire for public recognition. The words engraved on the cenotaph only revealed Putnam as an “Admirer of Patriotism and Merit Unequaled,” leaving the identity of the owner of Sevier’s monument at the Nashville City Cemetery a complete mystery. The Daily Gazette credited “This elegant tribute to one of Tennessee’s earliest defenders” to “the munificence and public spirit of a single individual,” unnamed by the paper, “a gentleman who has devoted much of his time to the investigation of the early history of Tennessee.”
Today, Putnam’s memorial at Nashville’s City Cemetery still stands as resolute and firm as the man he chose to exalt. Putnam once wrote of Sevier, “His was a busy life; never at rest, never a retired man or private citizen.” The same could also be said of A. W. Putnam. His tireless devotion delivered Sevier from the shadows of obscurity and far beyond the pages of history. Putnam cast Sevier’s legend into stone and placed his memorial tribute alongside Nashville’s most prominent citizens at the Nashville City Cemetery, insuring that posterity recalled the legacy of “Tennessee’s first hero.”
Look for the complete text of this article within the pages of the October 2014 edition of The Nashville Retrospect on newsstands now.
A. W. Putnam. History of Middle Tennessee; or, Life and Times of Gen. James Robertson. Nashville, Tenn., 1859. Introduction to the New Edition by Stanley F. Horn, published April 1971 by the University of Tennessee Press.
Albigence Waldo Putnam Papers, 1775 - 1869. Tennessee Historical Society, Tennessee State Library and Archives.
John H. Wheeler. Historical Sketches of North Carolina from 1584 to 1851: A reprint of the original edition as written in 1851. New York: F. H. Hitchcock, 1925.
"Monument to Gen. John Sevier." Nashville Daily Gazette, September 7, 1851.
Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.