William Clark Falkner
compiled by Bill Gurney
edited by Tommy Covington
A search in the files of the Ripley
Library and the Tippah County Historical Society will reveal numerous
facts and legends that even members of the late Colonel's family do not
agree on. On the other hand, a great many facts, stories and anecdotes
have been preserved and documented without any attendant doubts. If a
buff's curiosity prevails, the story of Falkner's trek to Mississippi
in Donald Duclos' biography, SON OF SORROW, and in THE HISTORY OF
COUNTY by Andrew Brown.
Falkner was born in Knox County, Tennessee, in 1825, as his parents were migrating from North Carolina to St. Genevieve, Missouri. After passing his early years with his family, Falkner came to Tippah County about 1842. Several reasons for his leaving the family shelter are recorded. J. W. Thompson adopted his nephew upon his arrival.
Still in his teens Falkner expressed a desire to read law in his uncle's office, but this did not occur immediately. Thompson told his nephew that he would have to acquire first a basic education, such as the academies of Tippah county then provided. Falkner accepted this decision and spent several years attending classes when they were in session and doing odd jobs the remainder of the time.
The Mexican War came along and this provided young Falkner with his first opportunity to gain public attention, a trait manifested many times during his life. Leaving Ripley as one of the Tippah Guards, this volunteer group was absorbed into the Second Mississippi Infantry which mustered at Vicksburg and New Orleans.
Although never in combat in the Mexican "affair," Falkner gained a lieutenants commission and, after much correspondence with the War Department, a pension for wounds received while in northern Mexico. Two widely different stories survive as to how Falkner received his wounds. One, advanced by the young soldier himself, claims that he was ambushed by Mexican guerrillas and was attacked as he attempted to defend himself. The other, true or not, is the more amusing. Even as his public career was being launched, Falkner had managed to make enemies at home and they advised the War Department that Falkner was injured in a brawl with Mexican civilians while AWOL from his company.
The fact that Falkner's account of his misfortune was accepted by officials in the War Department is an indication that the man possessed unusual persuasive powers.
Returning to Ripley, Falkner began to read law in his uncle's office and soon entered practice. He also took time to attend to a personal matter; he married Miss Holland Pearce. Soon their first child arrived, a son whom they dutifully named John Wesley Thompson Falkner - for the uncle who had given Falkner a home after his trip from Missouri. But Falkner's joy at having an heir was soon dulled by the death of his wife, either in childbirth or a few weeks afterward from the complications attending her having a child.
Frequently mentioned by his biographers was Falkner's temper, which often got out of control and a contrasting trait; his unflagging determination to reach the goals he set for himself in his lifetime.
Violence and Falkner walked hand in hand many times. Before the start of the Civil War, Falkner had killed two men in separate encounters in Ripley. He was acquitted of charges in both cases but the aftermath of the tragedies produced more enemies for the rising young lawyer.
One of Falkner's victims, Robert Hindman, a member of a very prominent local family was buried in the family plot on the outskirts of town with the tombstone inscription: "Killed by W. C. Falkner....."
While making enemies, Falkner was not without his supporters, and in a small community like Ripley it was impossible for any thinking person to maintain a neutral opinion of Falkner.
While in Mexico, Falkner had begun to write little noticed prose and poetry, some of which did appear in the Ripley newspaper. Concurrently with his other interests - the law, politics, and farming - Falkner continued to write and accurately forecast ten years in advance of Secession, and bloodletting that history has labeled the Civil War.
This conflict provided yet another showcase for W. C. Falkner's diverse talents. Acting on his own initiative early in 1861, this man organized in Tippah county a company of volunteers to serve the South's cause and which he named the "Magnolia Guards." Soon a merger of this unit with others from north Mississippi took place and then men of the 2nd Mississippi, as it became known, elected Falkner as Colonel.
The 2nd Mississippi was sent to Virginia to join forces of General Joseph E. Johnston's Army of the Shenandoah At the first battle of Manassas, Colonel Falkner's conduct was sufficiently noteworthy to warrant the following comment from his general, "Col. Wm. C. Falkner... is one of the most distinguished volunteer officers now at this seat of war. He has his regiment in the most perfect drill, and though exceedingly strict with his men, is universally popular.."
Before embarking on his military career, Falkner had remarried, his second wife being Elizabeth Vance of Pontotoc. Also, his second son, Henry, was born in 1853; Willie, the Colonel's first daughter arrived in 1856. Two other children, Vance, named for his mother, and Elizabeth Manassas were added to the family by 1861. Vance died at the age of two in 1861 and Elizabeth died the same year as an infant.
When news of the children's death reached the father in Virginia, he wished to be home and his return came about shortly thereafter.
Col. W. C. Falkner and his men, initially mustered in for a one year period, returned to Tippah County on furlough after the Manassas battle and after having re-enlisted for the duration of the war. Despite his having been commended for his leadership in battle, an election of officers of the 2nd Mississippi held in 1862 resulted in Falkner's displacement as Colonel by John M. Stone of Iuka, later to be governor.
Despite this setback to his ambition to be a general in the Confederate Army, the peripatetic Falkner was to serve the South in its "lost cause."
In 1862, the Confederate Military hierarchy in Richmond authorized the formation of "partisan regiments" and this decision afforded Falkner an opportunity to perform in the area where his talents bore the most results: recruiting. From the able-bodied men still left in Tippah County, named the "First Mississippi Partisan Rangers." The Partisans were expected to wage what in modern parlance is known as guerrilla warfare.
The Colonel must have reasoned that, as leader of a force not strictly accountable to a host of superior officers, he could enjoy more freedom of movement and perhaps render some spectacular service which would bring to him the coveted prize he still sought - a rank of general in the Confederate Army.
Recognition of Falkner's "Rangers" was not to last long in coming, but from an unexpected source, Union General Philip Sheridan. Sheridan found it necessary to use some of his men to pursue the Partisans as they destroyed his points of provisions and his communications lines. Falkner's unit provided the sorely pressed Confederates in north Mississippi with some relief by harassing Union Army post at Rienzi, Iuka, and Ripley. His success was more apparent, however, in his destruction of the vital rail line between Federally held Memphis and Corinth. And during this time, when the ordinary man would have been fully occupied with leading an aggregation such as the Partisan Rangers, Falkner's pen was not idle. He dispatched numerous letters to friends and acquaintances who he thought might help aid his still burning ambition to obtain a commission as a general.
This pen waving had an effect, to be sure, but not the prime one Falkner had in mind. Instead authorities at Richmond elevated the Rangers to a position in the regular Confederate forces. At the same time, the Partisans were assigned picket duty along the railroad in the vicinity of Hernando, where Falkner and his men were attached by Union forces and soundly defeated.
This debacle ended Col. Falkner's participation in Civil War combat because the defeat in 1863 caused his men to be scattered. In his own mind, Falkner's setback of his forces were not entirely his own fault, and resigned his commission about two months later.
A chronological account of Falkner's action is difficult because he was engaged in so many widely divergent activities simultaneously. At any rate, after his setback in 1863, Falkner dropped from public view for several years.
The late Andrew Brown's book, HISTORY OF TIPPAH COUNTY, contains an account of the remainder of Col. Falkner's career and from that source mention is made of Falkner's status in 1888: He had built up a large law practice, had successfully run, with Richard Thurmond, the Federal blockade at Memphis between 1863-1865, owned and operated a 2,000 acre farm near Ripley, played the part of a philanthropist in the re-establishment of Ripley's only school worthy of note - Stonewall College, and had attained fame as a railroad builder and writer.
Brown's assertion that Falkner was the most prominent man of Tippah County and one of the leading citizens of the state, cannot be seriously questioned.
Falkner's extraordinary talents and almost superhuman efforts spelled the difference which caused Ripley Railroad to grow and prosper through a maze of mergers and often mysterious juggling of the road's finances into the highly successful and innovative Gulf, Mobile, and Ohio system. Without Falkner's guiding genius, the original 25 mile long narrow gauge line from Ripley to Middleton, Tennessee, could very well have succumbed to any one of the several crises which it faced.
Falkner's writings, which date from his Mexican War experiences and which took form in poetry, a popular course for all literary hopefuls of his era, burst beyond the bounds of Tippah County when his novel, THE WHITE ROSE OF MEMPHIS (the "White Rose" was the name of a steamboat on the Mississippi River) was republished in 1953, an introduction accompanying this republication said that 160,000 copies of the book had been sold between 1881-1909. The revived novel did not match its earlier success.
It is obvious that the reprinting of the first Falkner novel was an attempt by the publishing world to capitalize on the worldwide recognition so recently heaped upon the novels published by his great-grandson, William Faulkner. The younger writer's fame caused several family members to follow his addition of a "u" to the spelling of the family surname. Genealogists say that Falkner and Faulkner are variant spellings of the original, which was Falconer.
The addition of the "u" to the spelling of Falkner has caused its share of confusion and it has not been clearly established whether the change occurred by accident or design.
Undoubtedly a rich man, as a result of his success at writing and as president of the solvent rail line, Colonel W. C. Falkner undertook an exploration of new horizons by embarking on a tour of Europe in 1883, taking along his daughter Effie.
While abroad, the Colonel's pen was again busy and soon detailed accounts of his journey began to arrive at the newspaper office in Ripley where they were dutifully published by his friend Capt. Thomas Spight. In 1884, the Colonel published in book form the account of his European sojourn under the title RAPID RAMBLINGS IN EUROPE, the last of his popular literary efforts. Perhaps Colonel Falkner was copying the course another American writer, Mark Twain, had followed under similar circumstances that resulted in Twain's INNOCENTS ABROAD. Both books had similar themes. THE LITTLE BRICK CHURCH had appeared in print in 1882, prior to his trip to Europe. Falkner's first novel, THE WHITE ROSE OF MEMPHIS, proved to be the best seller of all his books..
Aside from his RAPID RAMBLINGS, another inspiration came to Falkner as a result of his contact with Europe. He decided to emulate European architecture and remodel his home into an ostentatious residence in Ripley.
It may appear unbelievable that Co. Falkner, so often cited for his many talents applied to varied pursuits, stayed out of the political arena for so many years. It is known that he did appear in the grandstand of politics as a cheerleader for the Whig and Know-nothing parties before and after the Civil War, and he finally became a staunch Democrat, like many Tippah County residents.
In 1889, his supporters prevailed upon Falkner to run for the state legislature. Falkner feigned disinterest in the contest but soon saw that, if elected, he would have another avenue open to obtain support for his still expanding railroad venture.
His entry into politics produced a tragic climax for Falkner's colorful and eventful career.
The final episode, undoubtedly the most dramatic of his life, had its start many years before his demise when his path crossed that of another Tippah citizen of great wealth, R. J. Thurmond. Although lacking Falkner's flamboyance and devoid of ambition for public acclaim, Thurmond was an astute business man and respected citizen of Ripley.
A rift between Thurmond and Falkner, smoldering for a long period, once erupted in a "cussing match" on the town square, a harbinger of more serious trouble ahead. This verbal encounter, records show, resulted in both men being hailed into court and each fined $7. for their public display of strong language. It is also recorded that other prominent men in Ripley often attempted to mediate the differences between Thurmond and Falkner, but all efforts failed.
Falkner became obsessed with the idea that Thurmond was out to get him and in late October, 1889, had an elaborate will drawn, naming trustees to administer his considerable estate upon his death. Prophetic or not, the executing of the will occurred only 10 days before Falkner was fatally shot by Thurmond on Ripley's courthouse square. But it must be added here that Falkner won the election easily and the hand of fate prevented his ever occupying the legislative seat he won the day of his encounter with Thurmond.
Falkner lived until the following day, succumbing to his fatal wound while surrounded by his family and faithful friends.
His funeral was held before what was probably the largest crowd ever assembled in Tippah county and concluded with full Masonic graveside rites. What further glory might have come to old Colonel had he been spared his enemy's bullet will forever be a matter of speculation. But Col. Falkner's exploits will linger in the minds of the people of Tippah county and his admirers elsewhere, as he sleeps beside his statue, the figure relaxed, yet commanding, the right arm extended forward from the elbow, the left hand fingers maimed in the Mexican War inserted into a pocket of the waistcoat spanned by a heavy watch chain. Behind the figure, merging into the long coat, is a stack of books. It was that scene in Ripley Cemetery William Faulkner thought of as he described Col. John Sartoris' statue in his novel, SARTORIS.
Other Falkner Links:
William Clark Falkner- Mississippi Writers Page - Ole Miss
William Falkner -A Critical Study - University of Chicago
"Old Colonel" (1826-1889) William Clark Falkner - Starkville High School
Strangers to Us All -Lawyers and Poetry - University of West Virginia
© 2004, by Melissa McCoy-Bell. All rights reserved.