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Jack Catos hunger for history creates bonds of friendship

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Local historian Jack Cato stands beside a Civil War marker on the town square where a ferocious battle took place May 5, 1862, between the North and the South. Three more markers were placed in Lebanon yesterday as part of the Civil War Trail.

KEN BECK / The Wilson Post

Three new Civil War Trail markers go up in Lebanon

By KEN BECKSpecial to The Wilson Post

Lebanon’s Jack Cato, a son of the South, can spurt Civil War history with every breath.

He is not alone in his passion of pursuing tales about the War Between the States.

In Woodstock, Md., Larry K. Fryer, a son of the North, is researching and writing a book about the 1861-1865 conflict that tore a nation apart.

And via the Battle of Lebanon, which occurred May 5, 1862, the two have become bosom friends.

“Jack Cato takes a stranger like me, northern, a Yankee, and takes me around like he has known me my whole life,” said Fryer, who was ushered by Cato to local Civil War sites this summer for a day-and-a-half. “He loves history and is happy to share that with anybody who is interested. I’m sure our ancestors would like that. They don’t want to be forgotten.”

“They come here looking, and I can take ’em out and show ’em,” said Cato, 79, a businessman and veteran of the Korean War, whose interest lies in family heritage as well as preservation of the nation’s heritage.

Cato is excited that three new markers for the Tennessee Civil War Trails were installed in Lebanon yesterday. The multi-state program identifies, interprets and creates driving tours of both the great campaigns and lesser-known sites by providing a history of the sites using interpretive and trail blazer signs.

Joining the ranks of a marker already on the northwest corner of the town Square which interprets Col. John Hunt Morgan’s flight from Federal forces are the following:

1. Seawell Hill in Lebanon (Site of Castle Heights), where Confederate Gen. Joseph Wheeler and his cavalry camped during their raid through Tennessee.2. The site of Gen. Robert H. Hatton’s home on West Main Street. Hatton’s statue sits on top of the Confederate monument in Lebanon’s town square.3. Cedar Grove Cemetery. Along with Hatton, more than 150 other Confederate soldiers are buried here, including Tennessee’s last surviving Confederate veteran, James Barry.

“The program asks each community to bring forward their Civil War sites,” said Noell Rembert, Tennessee Civil War Heritage coordinator with the state’s Department of Tourist Development. “A lot of sites are known, but some of them might be someone’s house that was used a military hospital or just a personal story.

“Through the grant awarded to TDOT (Tennessee Department of Transportation), we’ve been given money for 300 signs, and 38 counties have applied… Certainly there are more than 300 related Civil War sites. We want to keep going until almost every site is interpreted.”

With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War arriving in April 2011, she expects the sesquicentennial to be a huge commemoration for the state.

“We want it to bring people from around the country or other countries. Tennessee is second in the number of battlefields behind Virginia. It’s a unique story that Tennessee has in that it was very divided between pro-Union and pro-Confederacy, and we were the last to state secede and the first to return,” Rembert said.

The Civil War Trail markers in advance of the sesquicentennial should also be a plus for local businesses such as restaurants and motels as tourists eat, sleep and shop while on the road.

“These types of programs help boost tourism locally because they provide visitors and residents alike the opportunity to experience Tennessee's Civil War history and events,” said Ricky Rodriguez, director of the Wilson County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Civil War history at homeThree markers were installed in Lebanon yesterday in conjunction with the Tennessee Civil War Trails. The locations are:

1. Wheeler's 1864 Cavalry Raid at Seawell Hill, 200 N. Castle Heights Ave. (in front of city hall)

2. Cedar Grove Cemetery, 609 S. Maple St. (inside cemetery near Confederate monument)

3. Site of the home of Gen. Robert H. Hatton, 327 W. Main St.

For more information, go online to Sons of Confederate Veterans meet at 7 p.m. on the last Thursday night of the month. For more info, call 444-9273.   

“In other states where the program is offered, they are the most requested literature, and studies show that these travelers spend on average 30 percent more while traveling than traditional travelers.”

Cato has been to practically every major Civil War battlefield. For 50 years he has been a serious student of the conflict, inspired by tales his grandmother, Etta Cato, told him as a youth growing up on a farm in Beasley’s Bend in Smith County across the Cumberland River from the Rome community.

“My grandmother told me, ‘Your great-grandmother saved a lot of Morgan’s men. She fed his soldiers on an island at night.’ I got to thinking what was it like?” said Cato who has a Civil War reference library to match any serious scholar.

He owns 228 volumes of “The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies,” including the supplements.

“These books tell about every battle that happened during the Civil War,” said Cato, who has read of each battle.

His library includes copies of “Confederate Veteran” magazine, 1893-1932, while parked across the walls of his office are paintings of Southern soldiers Morgan, Nathan Bedford Forrest and Robert E. Lee. He also has numerous Civil War novels and copies of diaries and letters written by soldiers.

His most prized book may be “The Journal of B.L. Ridley,” which took him 20 years to track down and which refers to his great-grandmother, Helen Price Cato.

Cato’s great-grandfather, William Cato, served Gen. Robert Hatton and the 7th Tennessee infantry regiment and fought in the Battle of Gettysburg, and his great-uncle, Joe Cato, enlisted at 16, was captured four times and fought in the final battle of the Civil War where he lost an arm.

Closer to home, Cato knows the Battle of Lebanon as if he had been there. He summarizes what took place.

Confederate Col. John Hunt Morgan was a raider who worked behind the enemy lines and was famous for his beautiful horse Black Bess.

Morgan came to Lebanon in the late afternoon of May 4, 1862, and was welcomed. He placed some of his men in Cumberland University (then located at the southeast corner of East Spring and College Streets), some in the courthouse and some in the Odd Fellows Hall. While Nashville and Gallatin were Federally occupied, Morgan thought himself safe.

But he didn’t know what was happening in the dark that night as Federal Gen. Ebenezer Dumont brought about 700 men toward Lebanon from Murfreesboro in a rainstorm.

Morgan had guards on all the roads, and along Murfreesboro Pike before midnight, Pleasant Whitlow saw those 700 men coming toward Lebanon. He got on his horse and rode with the Union Army like he was one of them and somehow alerted Morgan. (Whitlow paid with his life and is buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery.)

Just after daylight, Gen. Dumont attacked the Square from Maple and West Main and Murfreesboro Street (South Cumberland). One soldier recalled all the horses hooves on the street sounded like distant thunder.

Dumont wrote in his own words: “It was as yet hardly light, the rain fell in torrents, the town was illuminated by a sheet of flame and redolent with unceasing roll of musketry.”

The surprise attack caught Morgan and his men off guard, and a fierce two-hour battle resulted in Morgan mounting Black Bess and riding as fast as he could to the ferry at Rome about 13 miles east-northeast of town. The Union army captured his horse but Morgan and a handful of his men escaped.

Federal soldier, Charles C. McCormick, 7th PA Cavalry, wrote his folks back home the following on May 7, 1862, from Camp Parkhurst near Murfreesboro:

“We halted two miles from the town (Lebanon) about 3 o’clock next morning and waited for daybreak. When we started, taking a two-mile charge into the town. They had got wind of our coming and were ready for us. As soon as we entered the town, firing began from the windows of almost every house. On we dashed through every street and then surrounded the town. Parties were fighting on every street and outside of the town. I was, after our charge, in a desperate fight. It was all done with sabres and pistols, about 30 of us on each side. We killed and took prisoners all of our men with the exception of four, with the loss of only one man (my 2nd sergeant) and a few wounded. I did not get a scratch although one ball went through my coat sleeve between my shoulder and elbow between arm and breast and another one through my pants. Gen. Dumont said that the charge and fight were the most desperate he had ever witnessed. He with the 2nd Battalion of our regiment charged on Col. Morgan for 23 miles. Morgan had about 40 men with him. They were all shot or cut down with sabres except for about 12, and they escaped into the mountain passes of Kentucky.”


Jack Cato has made a friend for life with Larry K. Fryer of Maryland who is writing a book about the 7th Pennsylvania Cavalry with whom his great-great-great grandfather served during the Civil War.


The Federals paid for not capturing Morgan in Lebanon. He took revenge for the loss of his horse as on Dec. 6, 1862, he returned to Wilson County at Baird’s Mill with 800 cavalry and 400 infantry. Passing through Lebanon on Dec. 7, he captured about 2,000 Union soldiers at Hartsville and brought them back through Lebanon.

Fryer, 52, a retired federal agent, is a member of the 7th Pennsylvania Cavalry Descendants Association as his great-great-great grandfather Isaac Marks served with Company I from 1861-1865.

He has spent 10 years researching the 7th Pennsylvania Cavalry and is working on a regimental history, tentatively titled Who Knew No Honor but His Country‘s Good. While his ancestor was not involved in the Battle of Lebanon, his regiment was.

“I try to go to all the locations to get a feel for what they did and have been to Lebanon numerous times,” said Fryer, who also is using copies of 300 letters that members of the regiment had written as the basis of his book.

“I met Jack Cato through one of the employees at your town hall after I asked who the local authority was on the Battle of Lebanon,” Fryer said. “They referred me to him. He took me down to Rome where Morgan escaped across the river, and we went down to the cemetery where the first casualty supposedly was buried.

“Lebanon, Tenn., was probably the first urban battle of the Civil War, later to be followed by the Battle of Fredericksburg, Va., in December of 1862. It was urban warfare because citizens and soldiers fired at the Union soldiers from the buildings. Most battles took place in rural areas.”

Fryer believes the sesquicentennial will create a resurge of interest in the Civil War just as the centennial did in 1961.

“I think Americans are looking for a tie to their personal history. People become more ardent when there is a personal connection,” Fryer said. “I hope the new generation is as interested in history in the future as we are today.”

Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at

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