Having grown up as a child of Smyth County, my early memories include many of the same experiences and local landmarks that countless others recall with fondness. Being raised in the shadow of White Top Mountain, in valleys where the Holston River steadily nurtures all that surrounds it, I feel blessed to know that this place was the setting for the scenes of my childhood. Life was uncomplicated with lazy summer evenings spent chasing lightning bugs and sitting on the front porch, listening to stories told by my Grandma. Sundays were devoted to God, family and long country drives. One of the most vivid and beloved sounds of my childhood was the echo of Bonanza coming through the screen door of my grandparents’ house. That echo still resonates across the generations to take me back in time. It serves to inspire me to remember simpler times and encourages me to preserve the memories of days gone by.
One local landmark occupies a significant place in the memories of my childhood—the Octagon House. I remember hearing my dad and Uncle Weldon talk about attending the auction of this massive structure. “Almost,” they said. “We almost bought it.” Their interest in the old Abijah Thomas home planted within me a curiosity and a love for the estate that was once known as “Mountain View.” As a little girl, I had no way of knowing that, someday, I would become fascinated with a young woman, a soldier and a romance that blossomed within the walls of the Octagon House during the Civil War.
Several years ago, I found myself seated in front of a box of over 100 old letters… letters that detailed the lives of the Thomas family and John D. Carter, a soldier who was destined to become a son-in-law to Abijah and Priscilla Thomas. The letters are full of tales of valor, faith, honor, loyalty, fear and a deep and abiding love. Each Valentine’s Day, my thoughts turn to Jennie Thomas and her beau, John. Their letters to each other document an incredible Civil War love story. She often teased him about catching the eyes of other soldiers. He proved himself equal to the task of overcoming any obstacle placed before him and persisted in winning not only her heart, but the approval of her parents.
One of the most poetic letters was written by John Carter on Sept. 27, 1864. He was in Bristol, Tennessee, at the time. Times were uncertain with word that the enemy was advancing and preparing for an attack. He reassures Jennie with the following lines: “If we are cut off from each other, darling, you must never forget that I am yours for life and death — that you will always have the warm, deep love of this fond heart. I was made to love and you are the ideal of my manhood, and worthy of all the deep devotion of this manly heart. Let us meet all the trials that may await us during the war, as Christians. Let us not repine, but trusting all in the hands of an all-wise God, leave the event to Him. And, above all, let us not forget to pray earnestly to our Heavenly Father to spare us to each other, that we may be made one ere long and that we may live long and happily together.”
In this same letter, he reminisces about the early days of their courtship. One evening, after he had returned from a church service, he tells her, “I thought of our first meeting and of how my admiration of your virtues and goodness gradually ripened into a deep and devoted attachment. I remember with what pleasure I met you the second time, on my return from Richmond in February, with what eagerness I watched your every word and action. What joy did I fancy that you was not totally indifferent to my suit, and with what happiness did I remark that you did not refuse to listen at a future day, to a tale of heart history that I had to unfold. And, there, too, as a pledge of your esteem, I brought away with me your cherished image that I now have, not only on a plate of glass, but indelibly engraved upon the most sacred tablets of my heart of hearts. Then passed in review my third visit and the events of that pleasant visit—our fishing excursion, pleasant stroll along the banks of your lovely native stream, and my anxiety to tell you my tale of love, but could not muster sufficient courage. Then, our ride to town and the unmerciful manner in which you teased me. Do you remember? And, then my utter failure in making a love speech. Oh, I never will forget my confusion and mortification on that awful evening. I thought you would despise me for being so unmanly. But, it was only my great love for you that made me ‘timid as a maiden.’ Then, in imagination, I approached the happy blissful Sabbath day. Don’t you remember it, sweet one? The day of alarm that I went to Wytheville? We were sitting on the sofa in the parlor—your dear hand was in mine and those dear sweet eyes were bent on the floor. Will I ever forget the joy of that moment? Never. Don’t you remember how I lingered, forgetting that time was flying, until you reminded me that it was nearly night.”
John and Jennie were married at her home, “Mountain View,” on March 13, 1865. They lived in Smyth County for a few years and, then moved to Huntsville, Alabama. Later, they settled in Knoxville, Tennessee. They had five children: Thomas Martin, Martha Cavinette, Albert Edward, Charles Benton and John Preston. Dr. John Carter died on May 19, 1895. Virginia “Jennie” Carter died 22 years later on Dec. 20, 1917, at the age of 78.
Thanks to the preservation of their letters, this incredible love story will forever be remembered. I can’t help but think that it would please John, to know that his proclamations of love will not fade with the passage of time. He was the true romantic of the pair, never hesitating to make his feelings known.
The Octagon House Foundation is working to restore “Mountain View” to its former glory. It is a labor of love, requiring much time and money. In an effort to help with the restoration, a fundraiser has been organized in partnership with Digital Memories LinK, a business specializing in the preservation of family photos, slides, negatives, films and VHS tapes. Anyone who places an order for the preservation of their priceless family memories will also be able to help in the restoration of the Octagon House. A percentage of each sale will be donated to the Octagon House Foundation. If you are interested in participating in this fundraiser, I may be reached at 1-833-497-7936 or orders may be placed at www.digitalmemorieslink.com.