Friday, May 9, 2014

David Philpott - The fiery ferry owner on the river

(Family lineage: David Philpott 1; Enos Philpott  2; Rebecca Philpott 3; Lula Jane Johnson,  4
Charles Thomas Copeland, Sr.  5 ; Charles Thomas Copeland Jr.)

1791 – 1873

David Philpott was born in what was called “The Merryland Tract” in Frederick, Maryland and grew up in Henry County, Virginia. Like several of his siblings, he married one of the 20 children of their neighbor and close friend, Reuben Nance. Sarah was a daughter of Reuben's second wife, Nancy Ayers Brown. After Reuben's death, a long drawn out suit for his large estate took place between the children of the older and younger families. Although he had left a will, the children from the “second family” believed they had been treated unfairly and filed suit in the Virginia Chancery Court, with David's father, Charles Philpott appointed as mediator.

Some time after the 1830 census was taken, David sold the land he had inherited and moved the family to Heard County, Georgia, where they built their new home on land purchased from a Scotsman who had come to the Creek Indian Territory as a trader. It was located near the mouth of New River in the horseshoe bend of the Chattahoochee River.

Besides managing his land holdings, David operated a ferry with his son, Reuben, which carried people and animals across the waters of the Chattahoochee River.   Today, most of his property in Heard County is underwater, thanks to the creation of the West Point Dam and Lake. And the ferry – which became a story in itself during the Civil War - now lies beneath the waters of this man-made lake. 

In 1849, Sarah died of an injury at age 48 and was buried in the Philpott Ferry Cemetery. A couple of years later, David married Exonia Foster, a much younger woman who was his son-in-law's sister. 

Then came the 1860s when the rhythm of life changed with the onset of the Civil War (aka "The War of Northern Aggression”). As tensions increased, the Philpott family joined the fray.  David's youngest son fought and safely returned home, but his second son, Enos, who was assigned to guard prisoners at Andersonville, died there and was buried as an unknown soldier on the grounds of the former prison. David's oldest son, Reuben, helped his aging father during those years to provide supplies to the Confederate Army and ferry soldiers, animals and equipment across the river.

Then unwanted fame came to the Philpott Ferry on July 30, 1864 when General Edward McCook of the Union Army led his troops to Newnan, Georgia after destroying sections of the Atlanta and West Point Railroad. But they met determined resistance under the command of Confederate General Wheeler, whose cavalry encircled the 1,200 Union troops. Now General McCook found himself out-flanked and was being forced into either surrender or escape.  In the end, he ordered his Union troops to fight their way through the Confederate lines and ride toward the Chattahoochee River. Eventually the desperate troops did break through the enemy lines and fled, leaving supplies and animals behind.  After hastily crossing the New River on a plank bridge, the troops stopped only long enough to burn the bridge behind them, and then headed toward the ferry owned by David Philpott  on the Chattahoochee River.

According to the book  "Sherman's Horsemen - Union Cavalry Operations in the Atlanta Campaign” by David Evans,  the horsemen who had fled with McCook, reached the Chattahoochee in the waning hours of July 30. After crossing a hastily repaired bridge which had previously been burned down, the fleeing Federals, led by their panicked leader, turned onto the road that led to Philpott's Ferry.
It is not known whether sixty-six year old David Philpott had heard the distant rumble of artillery that afternoon or had received word that the Yankees were coming.  But by the time McCook's advance guard finally reached the river at 11:00 that night, the ferry had been moved several 100 yards down river and sunk.  At first the soldiers tried to swim their horses across the river but the animals were too exhausted and the water too rough. McCook then had his men start the time consuming task of building a raft to ferry the men across. As the troops milled around helplessly, a slave directed one of the officers to where the Philpott ferry had been sunk. The desperate Yankee troopers were able to re-float the ferry, and it could soon be used to shuttle soldiers and horses across the river. 

In the meantime, the crowd of men left waiting for their turn to cross the river on the ferry swelled with the arrival of each new retreating company. With bullets flying into the growing crowds and seemingly no way to escape, panic set in. As soon as the ferry would nudge the west bank, there would be a mad scramble to get ashore, grab a horse and get out of range. The last troopers to disembark knocked a hole in the bottom of the ferry and sank it. This foiled any pursuit but it also stranded the rear guard on the east side of the river. Within minutes, the Confederates captured all the soldiers left behind, as well as their horses and equipment.

After the war ended, David Philpott, who was now living in Troupe County, petitioned for amnesty. The petition read in part that he was 73 years old, a farmer and, "during the Rebellion, he stayed quietly at home and attended to his own business and family so far as he could”. He also stated that none of his property was "in the hands of the United States or absconded properties – except such as was taken by McCook's Expedition, also known as McCook's Alabama Raid, which he did in no way abandon”.  He also vowed that he was “ ready and willing to be in the future a careful and loyal citizen of the United States”. Incredibly (and luckily for David and his family) amnesty was granted.

Despite - or maybe because of all the drama in his life - David lived to age 82 and was buried next to Sarah in the Philpott Ferry Cemetery which now can only be reached by boat..