One of McMinn County’s most historic homes was recently damaged by fire, a large brick structure right under the public’s nose but largely hidden from view. On the hill behind Eastside Shopping Center and the American Cinemas, surrounded by overgrowth and kudzu, is the dark, imposing home built in the 1830’s, known as “Prospect Hill”. It was the home of one of East Tennessee’s most notable citizens, Thomas Nixon Van Dyke.
T. N. Vandyke was immersed in history as soon as he was born in 1803, at Fort Southwest Point in what is now Kingston in Roane County where his father, Thomas, was an army doctor. His grandfather was Judge David Campbell, a close companion of John Sevier who was involved in much of early East Tennessee history, including the short-lived State of Franklin.
After receiving an education in Pennsylvania, T.N. Van Dyke went to Alabama where he practiced law, and was soon appointed to be the clerk of the State Legislature. Van Dyke was known as an efficient clerk and attorney, and soon found himself practicing law in Athens in 1833.
It was around this time that Van Dyke acquired the sizeable tract of land on the town’s southern outskirts, and constructed the large brick structure on the hill overlooking Oostanaula Creek. The home was remarkable for the time, one of the largest in the area, with terraced gardens and large oaks and sycamores encircling it. Its walls were of solid brick, some 18 inches thick, baked on site from hand-dug clay acquired by slaves from the nearby hillside. In a few years, he was appointed as director of the Branch Bank of Tennessee, was a principle figure in bringing the railroad to Athens, and in 1854 was elected Chancellor.
As the Civil War broke out and McMinn Countians faced almost constant dangers from both armies, Mrs. T.N. VanDyke saw a campfire burning on the hill near the Van Dyke Cemetery. She approached, and asked which army the soldiers were with. From the darkness came the reply, “Colonel Nathan Bedford Forest, ma’am, at your service.”
Van Dyke was a staunch Seccessionist, and suffered much as a result. He swore not to shave until the Confederacy won the war, and at the end of the conflict had a long, white beard that had to be thrown back over his shoulders. Four of his sons (William, Richard, John, and Thomas, Jr) volunteered for service in the Confederate Army. Only William survived the war, as both Richard and John were killed in the area of Darksville, Virginia and Thomas became ill at Cumberland Gap and died in Athens. T. N. was arrested by Union authorities as a Confederate supporter in 1864, and sent to prison in Ohio, where for a time it was rumored that he had died. While Van Dyke was away, a red-haired Union General passed through Athens, and finding the women at Prospect Hill in a deplorable situation, provided them passes to stay with kinfolk in Illinios. The General than took up residence for a time at the house, which must have infuriated Van Dyke, as the general was William T. Sherman. Van Dyke was eventually released, and returned to Athens in 1866.
After the war, Van Dyke maintained his plantation and was involved in numerous civic affairs, including serving in various appointments by the state legislature, was a trustee for the Tennessee Hospital for the Insane, tried cases before the Tennessee Supreme Court, and was commissioned Chancellor four times between 1878 and 1880. In 1873, Van Dyke sold the land surrounding his family’s cemetery to the Town of Athens, which later became Cedar Grove Cemetery.
T.N. Van Dyke died in March of 1891, at the age of 88, in Rome, Georgia. He was brought home and buried in the family lot, within sight of the home he had built on the hill in Athens. And that home still remains, surviving the years of war and neglect, and even a late fire, to remain a symbol of one of Tennessee’s most prominent citizens.
A recent article about the old Van Dyke home, known as Prospect Hill, behind the present American Cinemas in Athens has produced a great amount of interest. Recently, local historian and author Bill Akins presented me with even more interesting information on the Van Dyke family.
Published several years ago by the East Tennessee Historical Society (Journal No. 28) is a copy of a memoir by Mrs. Anna Marie Deaderick Van Dyke, wife of William Van Dyke, the only son of T. Nixon Van Dyke who survived the Civil War. Ms. Van Dyke was 25 years old when the War began, and records much of her experience while a resident of McMinn County.
“Well do I remember the first time I ever saw the Yankees. True they were Tennesseans-but they wore ‘the Blue”. ‘Twas on a September afternoon of ’62, that the alarm was given- that the Yankees had driven their wagons into the corn field & were sweeping everything-That corn meant food for man and beast - &although there were only females about the house- We determined to have a small share of that corn….. We succeeded in saving severl loads of corn-and being very weary from the new experience- I had seated myself on the front porch steps- and had scarcely gotten a good breath when two most inoffensive looking ‘blue coats’ walked up and asked for something to eat. I tried to rise, but sank back- seeing my agitation, one sneeringly remarked, ‘Madam, we are not horned animals!” hastily and almost unconsciously I replied Sir, to me you are more horrible than any horned animal. In after days I got over this terror. But, ‘they hungered, and I gave them meat.’ “
“Athens was often raiding ground- today the Confederates, tomorrow the Yankees- One afternoon my husband (a Confederate officer) dashed in to spend a short time with his family- these homecomings were always attended with so much danger….. After an almost sleepless night, I looked out early the next morning, to see everything ablaze with campfires….. I aroused Mr. Van Dyke-explained the situation- told him to dress and prepare for a flight while ai reconnoitered. Taking with me a sister-in-law- we ran about a quarter of a mile….until we reached the encampment. In the gray dawn of the early morning- we could scarcely discern the color of the uniforms- and hesitantly I inquired ‘Whose command is this gentleman?’ Not receiving a satisfactory answer I approached a commanding figure who seemed to be marshalling his forces- ‘Won’t you tell me whose command this is?’ The answer came….’Madam, it is mine, Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Brigade.’
With almost fleetness of the wind we returned to Prospect Hill- my husband was standing beside his horse, ready to leap into the saddle….Suffice it to say he retired ‘decently and in order with General Forrest.”
“Soon after this, General Sherman pressed his way into our little village- I have not time nor disposition to enumerate all the inconveniences, annoyances and outrages, that this acquaintanceship of six weeks with Sherman’s army brought us. Will only say the house was ordered burned- the order revoked- and it was taken for headquarters fir the officers.”
After her father-in-law’s arrest by Federal forces, Ms. Van Dyke and her two children were sent out of Athens under a flag of truce to the Confederate lines, and she headed for her father’s home in Jonesboro. But this trip would have its own reward in store for the Southern lady as she passed through Strawberry Plains: “On the second day of our journey- we met a flag of truce going to Knoxville, on official business, commanded by my husband- For nine months I had not seen him nor hear one word from him. Perhaps you can imagine the meeting- after a Happy half hour the flags were ordered to move on- for war is a tyrant.”
Mrs Van Dyke also records the many hardships facing the citizens of McMinn County: “I have lived on little, and then on less- have lived three months solely on Irish potatoes and corn bread- have been nauseated on the fancy coffee of dried apples- sweet potatoes, and rye…..have seen my children sicken with the angel of death over them, and no resources at hand….Have knit socks by the dozens- have sent to the front boxes of bandages and lint….Have spent all night in cooking for retreating soldiers…”
Mrs. Van Dyke’s memoir is a window into our history during the Civil War, and her experiences tell us much about day to day life, especially as she relates her own experience as an expecting mother during the war years: “During the siege of Vicksburg-with mind torn and distracted, for my precious ones were there, a little stranger came to my home unattended by nurse of physician.”