By Brian D. Kowell
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2021, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in December 2021.
“I want to be a writer like my great-granddaddy.”
William Clark Falkner was a lawyer, farmer, businessman, politician, soldier, poet, and great-grandfather to one of the greatest writers in American literary history. Born September 25, 1897 in New Albany, Mississippi, the writer William Faulkner never knew his great-grandfather. The young Faulkner spent his boyhood listening to stories told by his elders about the Civil War, slavery, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Falkner family. Faulkner’s grandfather also told him about the exploits of William’s great-grandfather, William Clark Falkner – or as the family referred to him – the “Old Colonel.”
William Clark Falkner was born in Knox County, Tennessee on July 6, 1825 or 1826. His family moved to Missouri and, at age 17, William moved to Ripley, Mississippi. He married Holland Pearce, but she died in 1849, a year after giving birth to their first child. In 1851 Falkner married Elizabeth Houston Vance and together the couple had eight children. One of those was John Wesley Thompson Falkner, who later fathered Murray Cuthbert Falkner. It was Murray’s oldest son who became Nobel Laureate author William Faulkner. (He added the “u” to the last name.) Faulkner was born after his great-granddaddy had died, but listened closely to the stories told about him. As a result, William Clark Falkner served as the inspiration for his great-grandson’s character Colonel John Sartoris in his novels Flags in the Dust and The Unvanquished.
William Clark Falkner was an imposing, self-made man with big ambitions. He was determined to accomplish whatever he set out to do, and nothing would stand in his way. He had a quick temper, which often made him enemies.
In 1845, he helped capture an ax murderer and single-handedly prevented the mob from lynching the man. He used this incident to write a pamphlet titled The Life and Confession of A.J. MacCannon: Murderer of the Adcock Family.
With the war with Mexico, William volunteered in the 2nd Regiment of Mississippi Volunteers and was elected 1st lieutenant. His unit saw no real action. Despite this, after the war he petitioned the War Department for a pension for wounds received while in northern Mexico. He claimed to have sustained the wounds when he was ambushed by Mexican guerillas. However, later in life when he was running for public office, some of his enemies advised the War Department that Falkner’s injuries were the result of a drunken brawl with Mexican civilians while he was AWOL from his company. Nevertheless, Falkner received and continued to receive his Mexican War pension.
Returning from Mexico, he practiced law and was involved with business and civic organizations. In 1849 his wife Holland died. That same year he was involved in an altercation with Robert Hindman, the brother of future Confederate General Thomas Hindman. Robert Hindman accused Falkner of slandering his name and attacked Falkner by drawing a gun and shooting at him twice, missing both times. The two men grappled, and Falkner managed to draw his pocket knife and stabbed Hindman to death. Indicted on murder charges, the jury acquitted him on self-defense. After the trial Thomas Hindman was Falkner’s sworn enemy, but it was a friend of Robert’s by the name of Erasmus Morris who challenged Falkner to a duel in his friend’s honor. Falkner accepted and killed Morris. Arrested and tried, he was again acquitted on self-defense.
When things settled down in his life, Falkner married his second wife, Elizabeth Vance, in 1851. He also wrote poems, a play, and books. His best-known novel is a murder mystery titled The White Rose of Memphis.
When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Falkner raised a company from Tippah County, which he named the Magnolia Guards. This company was incorporated into the 2nd Mississippi Volunteer Infantry with Falkner elected as colonel. The regiment was sent to Virginia and, combined with the 11th Mississippi and the 4th Alabama, became Brigadier General Barnard Bee’s Brigade in General Joseph Johnston’s Army of the Shenandoah. Falkner was anxious to earn his star and became a strict disciplinarian. His men came to resent him, but Johnston wrote of him, “Col. Wm C. Falkner…is one of the most distinguished volunteer officers now at the seat of war. He has his regiment in the most perfect drill, and though exceedingly strict with his men, is universally popular.” When Johnston’s army set out from the Shenandoah Valley to reinforce Beauregard at Bull Run, Falkner’s regiment was on the first train to arrive.
On July 21 Bee’s Brigade along with Colonel Francis S. Bartow’s Brigade moved from a position near the Henry House to reinforce General Nathaniel G. Evans’ Brigade on Matthew’s Hill against the Union flanking column. Bee’s Brigade was sandwiched between Evans and Bartow with the 4th Alabama on the left, the 2nd Mississippi in the center, and the 11th Mississippi on the right. Facing them was Colonel Ambrose Burnside’s Brigade with support from Captain William Reynolds’ and Captain Charles Griffin’s batteries.
The firing was hot between the green troops. Bee soon spotted another Federal brigade moving down the Manassas-Sudley Road (Colonel Andrew Porter’s Brigade) flanking their position and, along with the arrival of Major George Sykes’ eight-company battalion of regulars on his other flank, this spelled doom for the Confederate line. As his line began to waver – men first leaving the ranks individually and then in small groups – Bee tried to convince them to stay, but with the mounting pressure he ordered his Brigade to fall back.
General Bee found Brigadier General Thomas J. Jackson’s Brigade on Henry House Hill and wanted Jackson to move to his support, but Jackson refused and his Brigade stayed like a stone wall as Bee’s men fell back to rally on Jackson’s right flank. Bee’s men were disorganized as the Federals followed, and Bee was killed. Falkner, his regiment maintaining their organization, was ordered to move to Jackson’s left flank with parts of the 11th Mississippi. With the 6th North Carolina on their left, Falkner’s men helped support the 4th Virginia as they pushed back the 14th Brooklyn and 1st Minnesota, taking Griffin’s guns. Falkner advanced against the 1st Minnesota, but the 1st Minnesota along with men from the 1st Michigan and the 11th New York responded and forced the Mississippians back, capturing the 2nd’s Lt. Colonel Bartley. When Colonels Arnold Elzey and Jubal A. Early arrived and attacked the Federal flank from Chinn Ridge, the day belonged to the Confederates. Falkner’s men maintained their position on Henry House Hill.
After Bull Run, Falkner and the 2nd Mississippi were sent west. Their term of enlistment up, most of the men re-enlisted for three years. In the re-organization, when electing new officers, Falkner was voted out in favor of Colonel John M. Stone of Iuka. (Stone later became a governor of Mississippi.) Demoted and still wanting his star, Falkner resigned his commission and formed a cavalry company, which he designated the 1st Mississippi Partisan Rangers. Falkner led his Partisans against the Federals’ lines of communication – destroying tracks, telegraph lines, and supplies.
On August 26, 1862, with an estimated 800 men, Colonel Falkner tore into Colonel Philip Sheridan’s camp near Rienzi, thinking the camp weakly defended. The day was excessively hot, “one of those sultry debilitating days” as Sheridan recorded, and most of his men were lounging or sleeping in their tents. At the first sound of shots, like bees from a hive, Sheridan’s men swarmed from their tents, armed and firing. This firing and the shots from Captain Henry Hescock’s battery soon repulsed Falkner’s men. Sheridan then sent Colonel Edward Hatch’s and Colonel Albert L. Lee’s veteran cavalry and a section of artillery to pursue the Partisans, causing such a precipitous retreat that many of the Confederates lost their hats, including Colonel Falkner. Falkner rallied his men in a line at Newland’s store near Hernando, Mississippi, but his men soon panicked “and ran in the wildest disorder in a mad rush” to escape. The chase went on, and the demoralized rebels discarded guns and coats and blankets and fled to the woods where they were hunted down until dark. Falkner, now without a command, made his way back home to Ripley. Soon after, he resigned his commission, and the war was over for him.
After the war, Falkner built a large law practice with another attorney, Richard J. Thurmond. Falkner also owned and operated a 2,000-acre farm near Ripley and helped to rebuild northern Mississippi railroads and re-establish Stonewall College. He was known around the area as Colonel Falkner or just “The Old Colonel.”
In 1889 Falkner won a seat in the Mississippi State Legislature on the Democratic ticket. He had an acrimonious falling out with his law partner, and on November 5, Election Day, Falkner was confronted by Thurmond on the Ripley Courthouse Square. After heated words, Thurmond drew a pistol and shot Falkner in the throat. Falkner lingered for one day until the swelling in his throat cut off his air supply. He died on November 6, 1889 at 64 years of age. Thurmond was later acquitted of manslaughter charges. Today there is a tombstone and a statue of Colonel William Clark Falkner in Ripley, Mississippi.
Colonel William Falkner’s great-grandson, William Faulkner, became a renowned writer, and Faulkner’s writings were profoundly influenced by the “Old Colonel” and also by the tales that Faulkner heard of the Civil War. Forty-three years after the “Old Colonel’s” death, William Faulkner, the “Old Colonel’s” great-grandson, published The Sound and the Fury, ranked number six on a list of the 100 Best English Language Novels of the 20th century. In 1948 Faulkner wrote a classic passage of every Southern boy’s dream in his novel Intruder in the Dust:
“For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but
whenever he wants it, there is an instant when it’s still not
yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades
are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready
in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break
out and Picket himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in
one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill
waiting for Longstreet to give word and it’s all in balance, it hasn’t
happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet
but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and
those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and
Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to
begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at
stake and at that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old
boy to think, This time. Maybe this time….”
A year later in 1949, William Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature and later two Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction.
William Faulkner’s “A Letter to the North”
Sources (Click the book title to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.)
The Falkners of Mississippi: A Memoir, Murray C. Falkner, LSU Press, Baton Rouge, 1967.
Lives of Mississippi Authors, 1817-1967, James B. Lloyd (ed.), University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, MS, 1981.
Personal Memoirs of P.H. Sheridan, General, United States Army, Philip Henry Sheridan, Charles L. Webster & Co., New York, 1888.
Sheridan: The Life and Wars of General Phil Sheridan, Roy Morris Jr., Crown Publisher, Inc., New York, 1992.
Sheridan, Richard O’Connor, Konecky & Konecky, New York, 1953.
The Maps of First Bull Run, Bradley M. Gottfried, Savas Beatie, California, 2009.
The Early Morning of War: Bull Run, 1861, Edward G. Longacre, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK, 2014.
“The First Mississippi Partisan Rangers, C.S.A.,” Andrew Brown, Civil War History, 1: 371-399, December 1955.
“Biography of Colonel William Clark Falkner, 1825-1889,” Bill Gurney, edited by Tommy Covington (https://www.msgw.org/tippah/FalknerBio.html).