How many are alive today who can say they knew someone who was born in 1845, fought in the Civil War, and that the person was their father. Morristown’s John Oliver can say it, and he’s one of a very few remaining who can make the claim.
My friends, Eddie Woods and Ronnie Yount, recently went along on a visit with John Oliver and his close and long-time friend Wayne Roberts at Jefferson City’s Creek Café, where John was enjoying a banana split. During our visit young Carson-Newman student Alexis Jurgielewicz stopped by for a memorable meeting with one of the last Civil War sons.
“Mr. John is amazing,” she said. “My husband Ryan and I are huge history students.”
Through our lunch, we learned about John’s Civil War father, as well as John’s full life of 94 years.
John Oliver’s father, also John Wilson Oliver, was originally a Grainger County farm boy who was born in 1845. As a 19-year-old, the 5’10” blue-eyed John was in Rutledge when he joined a group of men and a pilot to walk at night through the occupying Confederate troops to Kentucky to enlist in the Union Army. There the exiles from East Tennessee joining the 505-man 4th Tennessee Infantry Regiment under the command of Col. Daniel Slover, the son-in-law of Tennessee Gov. Andrew Johnson. John became a member of Company F of that regiment.
On Aug. 31, 1863 the regiment reported to Camp Spears near Nashville, where Col. Slover became seriously ill and never commanded the regiment in the field. He later passed away in Nashville in 1864. On Sept. 9, the regiment, now under Maj. Patterson, left Nashville for McMinnville. On Oct. 4 the regiment was surrounded and captured by Confederate Gen. Joe Wheeler’s much larger force. By then the regiment consisted of 270 men and 50 armed convalescents, after having lost seven killed and 31 wounded prior to the surrender.
After being captured, the men of the 4th were stripped and robbed of every article which could be useful to the Confederates. They were then made to sign an amnesty before being paroled and started toward Sparta, where most then headed back to their East Tennessee homes. On Oct. 12, Maj. Patterson and about 50 of his men had made it back to Nashville where Gov. Johnson ruled their parole invalid and the parolees were ordered to Camp Nelson, Kentucky for the regiment to be reorganized. By Feb. 28, 1864 the unit was in the works across the river from Knoxville. An inspection that month found the men dirty with bad clothing, not well-disciplined, and some entirely without ammunition.
Reorganized again on April 10, the 4th was ordered to Loudon, where they stayed before returning to Knoxville on Oct. 31. On Dec. 7, they were sent to Sevierville and Paint Rock to hold the mountain passes. They eventually made their way to Moser’s Mill in Morristown and marched within 500 feet of our John Oliver’s present home. On Feb. 5, they were sent to Greeneville, where they fought skirmishes in both Warrensburg and Greeneville and returned to Morristown on the 25th of that month. While in East Tennessee, many of the men asked for furloughs to visit their homes but were refused. On March 22, the unit were sent to Taylorville to hold those passes before moving to Jonesboro on April 20. The men were mustered out of the army in Nashville on Aug. 2.
After returning home, John Wilson Oliver returned to farming and became a minster. He married the former Nancy Walker in 1870 and had seven children with her. By 1883 he was preaching at four churches, Macedonia, Turley’s Mill, Central Baptist and Union Grove, two of which were Grainger and two in Hamblen County. For an unknown reason, Rev. Oliver moved to Oregon in the 1880s, where his wife Nancy died in 1899. Those seven children became half-siblings to today’s John, who can only remember one or two of them.
A land suit brought Rev. Oliver back to Tennessee, where the widower met and married Emily Taylor and returned with his new wife to Oregon. There he became the father of Ruth in 1921 (deceased 1978) and John, who was born Nov. 17, 1924 when his father was 79 years old. Rev. Oliver died in 1934.
John still has those early memories of his father, as well as a few of his personal items which include a Grand Army of the Republic ribbon.
“My dad had come back to Tennessee and met my mother, Emily Taylor through some of his kinfolks.” John said. “They were married and got along good. As a kid on Memorial Day they would come and get dad and he and I would ride in the parade. In Lagrange we had a Fourth of July parade and were at the City Park where I remember some smoke coming from the mountains and soon a group of dressed-up Indians would come riding in on their horses. The Daughters of Union Vets would come by on his birthday. They took a picture of him with his Bible and I still have it. My dad was nice to me.”
Following his father’s death, John’s mother became seriously ill, leaving John and his sister to be sent to a Portland orphanage, where they stayed for a year and a half. Finally sent for by his father’s Tennessee relatives, John returned to Grainger County, where he lived with his Creech relatives before leaving to stay with the Roberts family. In Tennessee, John attended Rutledge Grammar and a year at Rutledge High School.
“I remember when we had a man that done odd jobs had a T Model that he would jack up and turn the rear wheel to start it,” John recalled of his early Tennessee days.
As 18, John set out on his own and moved to Knoxville, where he worked for the C.M. McClung Company, and later at an auto store. In 1946 he moved to Cleveland, Ohio to work for a steel company that made jet engine parts. That job allowed him to become one of the first to hold a piece of titanium metal. In 1955 he moved to Morristown to work at the Jefferson City Magnavox plant until his retirement in 1989. From an early marriage to the former Leada Germaine Wampler, he has a son, John Wilson ‘Chuck’ Oliver, who was born in 1954.
A man of a cultivated taste, John enjoys classical art while, since the late 1960s, he and friend Wayne Roberts have traveled around doing high quality landscape photography. Up until very recently he enjoyed riding motorcycles. Devoutly religious, he had earlier played the organ at horse shows and continues to play at his Talbott Baptist Church, where the church members hold him close. Thank you, Barbara Parsons of the Jefferson County archives, for restoring the photo of the Oliver family.
“I never thought a thing about drinking and don’t care nothing about it. I still do work around my house and if something ever happens I’ll be ready to go,” John ended.
-Jim Claborn is a retired history teacher and a historical reenactor, as well as a published historian.