There were no half page obituaries last week when Lillie Odom died, no AP reporters or foreign papers called to ask about this lady. Yet with her passing, another tangible link to the war of 1861-1865 passed into history. She was unique in her own way and her story deserves telling.
For, you see, Miss Lillie was a daughter of a Confederate soldier, a black man from Kentucky who went to war as the assistant and cook to Dr. John Luther Vertrees, who was his step-uncle.Dr. Vertrees was highly respected in his community. Peter had never been a slave, but since he was a “man of color,” he was unable to enlist in the Confederate army. To further make Peter’s family tree curious and unique, his mother — the great niece of Patrick Henry, was fifteen-year-old Mary “Polly” Elizabeth Skaggs, a white girl, while his father was Rev.Booker Harding, a mulatto preacher.
He would never be a slave: when he was five his young mother had a legal document recorded at the Edmonton County, KY court house that indentured her son to Booker Harding’s natural father, Jacob Vertrees. A prosperous white farmer, this would ensure the necessities of life for her son. Though they lived only seven miles apart, Peter and his mother never had contact again, and he did not meet Booker Harding until he (Peter) was an adult.
Miss Lillie stated back in 2001 or so when giving an interview to author Mary W. Schaller for her book, “Papa Was A Boy in Gray,” that “My father was loyal to his family and felt honored to serve with his uncle.” The good doctor and his young charge went off to serve with Brig. Gen. John C. Breckinridge in the 1st Kentucky Brigade. In February of 1862 Forts Henry and Donelson fell to the Union, and the First was sent further south to serve. The First Kentucky was a unique group. Mrs. Schaller says that “unlike the soldiers from Virginia, North Carolina and Mississippi, the men of the 1st Kentucky Brigade did not go to war in defense of thir native soil. Instead they fought for a Confederate victory; for Southern independence from Yankee economic and governmental oppression.”
They fought in Shiloh and Vicksburg and on to Baton Rouge. There Peter learned that his step-grandmother Catherine Vertrees had died earlier that year — they had finally gotten mail. Peter wrote that her death “…caused me to seek that Friend of friends — Jesus Christ.” It also made him to totally give up drinking and gambling, to which he had fallen prey as a young man away from home and family.
About this time the First Brigade suffered their decimation, and it was General Breckinridge’s comment calling them “my poor Orphans.” which gave way to their new name, The Orphan Brigade. Dr. Vertrees and Peter stayed busy tending the sick and battle casualties, working side by side on the battlefields. More than 60 members were injured. Both of Peter’s daughters had heard stories of their father’s careful tending of the sick and wounded and of his great love for the men he served.
Early in the spring of 1862, a great evangelical revivalism swept through the Confederate camps. Encouraged by chaplains who carried supplies of religious tracts and pamphlets and with the thoughts of battle keen in their minds, the men were ready for this exposure, and the prayer meetings occurred daily with many making decisions for Christ. Peter attended these services, though he was the only black person there. When the minister asked for all to come forward who wished to accept Christ, and many of the men went forward to kneel at his side. Peter went also, kneeling alone by a large stump. He was basically ignored as the others eventually walked away after talking with the chaplain.
While many might have taken this as a sign against such religious fervor, Peter vowed to keep on until he could be baptized, and he was. Following the parole of Dr. Vertrees in 1865 in Georgia, he and his faithful nephew returned home. He was nearly 24 then, and the young man determined to find a way to become a minister which of course he did. After college he became a Baptist minister and served for over 60 years. After then he taught public school. After the loss of his first wife he again married, at the age of 61. They had five more children, including Miss Lillie as she was known, who was born January 8, 1915 when her dad was 74. He had started several churches and had worked in a number of schools, he had lived up to his ambition in life.
Like her sisters, Lillie was raised to sing the gospel songs her father loved, and he had been musically talented as well. The Vertrees Sisters became well known across Tennessee for many years. In 1921 Peter Vertrees was granted a Confederate Veteran’s pension by the State of Tennessee, an affirmation of his dedication and faithful service in the 6th Kentucky Infantry following the demise of the Orphan Brigade. When he died in 1926, so many people attended the funeral service that it had to be held in the auditorium of the white highs chool. Scholar, educator, Baptist minister, musician and humanitarian, as Mrs. Schaller says, “Peter Vertrees had kept faith with his illustrious heritage. Patrick Henry would have been proud of his descendant.”
At the conclusion of the interviews, Bertha Vertrees Griffin, Miss Lillie’s sister, said, “Seminars need to be held to inform the young African-Americans that 90 % of the Confederate soldiers were not fighting to preserve slavery.” And Peter Vertrees would no doubt say, “Amen!”
Miss Lillie was the type of lady whose smile and charm would “light up a room,” as Mary Schaller said. I met her in 2004 in Nashville, TN, when, as a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, she attended a convention there. The line to have pictures taken with her was quite long! She was loved by everyone she met, and as she lay in a hospital room the last two or three weeks, her walls were covered with cards, letters and notes from her “UDC sisters” around the country, whose prayers for her recovery helped her make the transition into Heaven. I’m betting that her dad was right there to meet her when she arrived.
Mayor’s Note: Appreciation is given to Mary W. Schaller for information contained in her “Papa Was A Boy In Gray” book. Mrs. Schaller interviewed Lillie Odom personally for her book, which was published in 2001 by Thomas Publications of Gettysburg, VA.