The square and compass
My great-great-grandfather, Abbott Milton McWhorter was a physician in the small town of Gaylesville, Alabama, about fifty miles south of Chattanooga, TN, during the latter half of the 19th Century. He had been born in Carroll Co., GA on May 11, 1828. On July 13, 1851, he married his childhood sweetheart, Mahala Jane Davis. Mahala Jane was the daughter of Jesse Davis, who was Jefferson Davis’s cousin. Her mother, Mahala Harris, was a full-blooded Indian. She named her daughter Mahala, her tribe’s word for powerful woman, to remind her daughter of her heritage.
After serving as the postmaster of Villa Rica, Carroll Co., GA, Abbott Milton attended Atlanta Medical School and graduated in 1857. With his wife and children, Abbott then relocated to Gaylesville. On March 9, 1862, Abbott Milton and Mahala Jane had their fifth child and third son, Zach Davis McWhorter.
When Mahala Jane was pregnant with Zach Davis McWhorter, she wrote her father’s cousin, Jefferson Davis, asking his permission to name her child after him if he was a boy. Jefferson Davis wrote back agreeing to her request, but reminding Mahala Jane that his first wife, Knox Taylor, was the daughter of Zachary Taylor. Because Knox died after less than three months of marriage, they never had any children. Jefferson Davis indicated that if his first wife had lived long enough to bear a male child, they would have named him Zachary Taylor Davis. Jefferson then requested that Mahala Jane name her yet to be born child after Zachary Taylor rather than himself. Of course, when the child was born and it was a boy, Abbott and Mahala Jane acceded to Jefferson Davis’ request named him Zach Davis McWhorter.
Included with the letter that transmitted Jefferson Davis’ response to his cousin’s request, was a gift for the expectant mother: an 1854 U.S. two and a half dollar gold piece. Mahala Jane converted this gold piece into a pin, which she wore with pride for the rest of her life. This gold piece has been handed down in our family and is currently in the possession of my brother, Zach Davis Cox, Jr., who was named for his father, Zach Davis Cox, Sr., who in turn was named for his grandfather, Zach Davis McWhorter.
A little over six months after the birth of Zach Davis McWhorter, the Battle of Chickamauga had been fought and won by Confederates under Braxton Bragg. In the aftermath of the battle, the Confederates held Chattanooga under siege for two months. Then, Ulysses S. Grant was placed in command of all Union forces between the Appalachians and the Mississippi in late October. Grant quickly moved to lift the siege by driving the Confederates off Racoon Mountain and establishing a new supply line. The formerly besieged troops were fed and re-supplied, and fresh soldiers were brought in. Despite a fierce defensive stand on the northern end of Missionary Ridge by men under the command of General Patrick Cleburne, Grant drove the Confederates from Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain and removed the threat to Chattanooga in a three day battle on November 23-25, 1863.
Within a few months of this success, Grant was elevated to overall command of all the Union Armies and moved to the East to confront Robert E. Lee. William Tecumseh Sherman was promoted to Grant’s former position in command of the Union’s western armies. With Grant and Sherman in charge, the Union finally had the commanders who knew how to wield the superior forces that the North had always possessed. The Confederacy’s last flickering hope of independence was extinguished and the Civil War became an exercise in mathematics.
In the retreat from Chattanooga, the Confederate Army hired additional physicians to tend the wounded. During the Civil War, doctors were not always formal members of the military, but some were civilians hired on a contract basis. Upon deciding to leave with the retreating Confederate Army, Abbott Milton McWhorter left the only protection he could for his wife and children.
He carved the Masonic symbol, the square and compass, into the gate post at the front of his home. Shortly after his departure, soldiers that the Union Army euphemistically called foragers arrived at the McWhorter home.
The officer in command of the foragers stopped at the front gate and saw the square and compass. Fortune had smiled on the McWhorters, because this officer was a brother Mason. With hundreds of years of persecution only ended a mere dozen before the Civil War, the tie that bound Masons together in brotherhood was strong beyond what can be comprehended today. The officer in command of the foragers ordered a guard posted at the gate to the McWhorter home and gave explicit orders that neither the house nor the surrounding farm were to be disturbed.
A month or two later, another Union foraging party arrived at the McWhorter home. This time it was led by an officer who was not a Mason. The foragers collected what they called rebel contraband from the farm and finally the only thing left was a crib full of corn. The Union soldiers moved to seize that. But Mahala Jane Davis McWhorter had enough. She picked up a double-bladed axe that was sharp as a razor and interposed herself between the corn and the soldiers. She told them that they had taken her horse, mules, hogs, cows, chickens, and hay, but they couldn’t have the corn. She said that the corn was the only thing left with which she could feed her children. She announced that if they took the corn, then her children would starve. Finally, she proclaimed while holding axe above her head, that if they wanted the corn, then they would have to kill her to get it. Maybe the soldiers had already gathered enough or maybe they noticed a little bit of a defiant Indian in the glint of Mahala Jane’s eyes.
Either way, the Union foragers retreated from the fearsome apparition that had appeared before them with an axe in her hands. For the rest of that winter and until crops could be harvested in the summer, Mahala Jane Davis McWhorter fed her children from the corn she had saved. Over hundred and thirty years later, the descendants of Mahala Jane have retained an intuitive fondness for corn mill cakes like the ones that sustained their ancestors so long ago.