muriel j smith 120 2018It’s got quite a bit of history, this little town of Holly Springs, MS. 25 miles outside of Memphis, Tenn, on a stretch of the Tallahatchie River. It’s no more than 8,000 to 10,000 in population, and is the county seat of Marshall County , named for the Chief Justice. It wasn’t even a town until 1838 when President Andy Jackson signed his infamous Indian Removal Act and the Chickasaw tribe who had been living so peacefully there was one of the five tribes forcibly ousted from their lands to set up residence west of the Mississippi in what is now Oklahoma. Hillcrest Cemetery, often referred to as the Arlington of the South because of the military dead buried there, was established on donated land soon after the Indian ouster and mostly European -born settlement took over. Purpose of the new city was to build cotton plantations with African-Americans enslaved to do the work.

The Civil War put an end to that, but not before Holly Springs chalked up more ribbons on its historical wall. Ulysses Grant saw Holly Springs as the ideal strategic site to set up his supply line along with his headquarters while he worked things out with General Sherman to wipe out Vicksburg. What made things even better for the Union Generals was the fact there was an iron foundry there, the place that made the railings that are still standing sturdy and strong at Hillcrest Cemetery.

martyrs of yellow fever 1At the start of the war, the foundry owner turned it over to the Confederate army for an armory where rifles and other weapons were repaired or rebuilt. Fearful of its capture after the devastating Battle of Shiloh, all the equipment and materials were moved; when Grant and his Union Army came in, they turned it into a hospital. That lasted only one month; Confederate General Earl Van Dorn came on the scene, attacked Grant’s supplies, and burned down the foundry, and halted through his daring leadership, Grant’s first attempt to take Vicksburg. Though the North eventually succeeded, Van Dorn even stayed around to burn down telegraph lines and cut up railroads. In spite of the fact his military record up until that point was not sterling, given reports of his fondness for liquor and women, General Van Dorn is still a local hero and one of the main streets in Holly Springs is named in his honor. Five months after squashing Grant’s supplies in Holly Springs, Van Dorn was murdered by the husband of a woman with whom he was rumored to be having an affair.

The city came through the War rather well, thanks to the kindness and gentility of the Southern ladies who opened their homes and food supplies to Army soldiers encamped there. It led Grant to order the city not be razed when the troops moved on.

But there is another, more tragic, yet more heroic, piece of history in a town with a thousand stories. There is the Yellow Fever Museum.

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Once an Episcopalian Church, the original structure was built in 1841 and within 16 years, and the growing church had outgrown it, sold the building to the Catholic Church, it was consecrated as St. Joseph’s Church. Within three years St. Joseph’s had a membership of more than 300 parishioners. Besides the church there was a school, Bethlehem Academy where Sisters of Charity taught young ladies from refined Catholic families.

Both the new and larger Christ Episcopal Church and St. Joseph’s survived the Civil War and are historic sites to visit in the city today.

It was 1878 when a fiercer enemy struck the city.

Little more than ten years after the war, the city was affluent, with shops, several churches, a main square, and antebellum homes magnificent in their splendor and size. But the same kindness that saved the town when Grant left brought in the plague of Yellow Fever. Since Holly Springs is one of the high points of the state, and as such, less damp and mud-ridden, the sick from lower towns poured in for the more salubrious air, hoping to be free from the ravages of the fever. They didn’t know the causation or the carrier at this point, so unknowingly, they brought their disease with them, and soon Yellow Fever became an epidemic spreading throughout Holly Springs..

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There were six Sisters of Charity from a Bardstown, KY convent teaching in the school, and one priest, Father Anacleto Oberti, who ministered to the parish. Together, they turned their church into a hospital, caring for the ill lying on whatever bedding they could muster on the floor. The sisters ranged in age from 29 to 47 years, two came Pittsburgh, one from Kentucky, one from Canada, and two from Ireland. Within a month, all seven religious died, all stricken with the disease they were helping others to fight. They are all buried at Hill Crest Cemetery in a single plot with a large monument honoring their heroism. More than 300 other Southerners are buried in the cemetery as well, many in a trench whose whereabouts is still not precise, dug rapidly to meet the challenge of burying so many bodies in so short a time.

The church is now a museum, the Yellow Fever Museum, and while the building is owned by the Diocese, the memories of the Yellow Fever Martyrs is maintained by a historic society. The statues from its days as a church still remain at the front, and the tabernacle and altar complete with a missal and altar linens remain in the center of the sanctuary. The 14 Stations of the Cross are 19th century old prints of the original plaques which were vandalized by federal troops who used the church for R&R in December of 1862. A life size religious painting and silver cross, gifts of others who also experienced miracles and kindness in Holly Springs are on display with their stories inscribed beneath.

And in the back of the church there are mannequins of the black and white-robed sisters administering to the dying on cots where both black and white victims of the 1838 Yellow Fever Epidemic were cared for in their final struggles with the fatal disease.