My 10-year-old son had a dental appointment in Mobile last Thursday and when that was done, we took a short field trip over to the historic Magnolia Cemetery on Virginia Street. For those of you unfamiliar with this old cemetery, it contains over 80,000 graves and covers more than 100 acres. This enormous cemetery is so large that it’s easy to get turned around or outright lost without a good sense of direction and a detailed map.
Last Thursday my son and I were there to see the grave of former Wilcox County resident John Herbert Kelly, the “Boy General of the Confederacy.” Kelly was born in Pickens County in 1840 but was orphaned at a young age. After the death of his parents, Kelly and his brother moved to Wilcox County to live with their grandparents, Col. Joseph Richard Hawthorne and Harriet Herbert Hawthorne, in the antebellum plantation home that’s now known as the Hawthorne House at Pine Apple.
Kelly spent the next decade of his life in Pine Apple and, under the tutelage of his grandfather, he became an expert horseman and marksman, two skills that would serve him well later in life as a soldier. Kelly later secured an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, and at the age of just 17 and 1,100 miles from home, he found himself in the same class with such famous soldiers as George Armstrong Custer.
Like many young West Point cadets from the South, Kelly became swept up in the tide of history, and, as war loomed, he withdrew from West Point in December 1860, a short time before the state of Alabama seceded from the Union. In those days, the Confederate capital was located in Montgomery and, with trained military officers in short supply, it was there that the 20-year-old Kelly offered his services to the Confederacy.
He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Confederate Army and moved up the ranks after serving at Fort Morgan and at the battles of Shiloh, Perryville, Murfreesboro and Chickamauga. Not long after Chickamauga, Kelly was promoted to the rank of brigadier general. At the time of his promotion, at the age of 23, Kelly was the youngest brigadier general in the entire Confederate Army, which is why we know him today as the “Boy General of the Confederacy.”
Less than a year later, on Sept. 2, 1864, Kelly, then a 24-year-old in charge of cavalry troops, was mortally wounded while leading a charge during a skirmish near the town of Franklin, Tenn. Sources say that a Yankee sharpshooter shot Kelly through the chest, knocking him off his horse. Fellow soldiers carried Kelly off the field in a blanket to the Harrison House, a plantation home just south of Franklin, where sources say he died in his bed two days later as a Union prisoner. Kelly was originally buried at the Harrison House, but his remains were exhumed in 1866 and transported back to Alabama, where they were laid to rest in Mobile’s Magnolia Cemetery.
Last Thursday, when my son and I arrived at Magnolia Cemetery, we had no clear idea of exactly where Kelly was buried, so we drove over to the cemetery’s main office to look him up in the burial directory. As we got out of the truck, the first person we encountered happened to be H.F. “Tighe” Marston, Mobile’s Municipal Cemeteries Manager. When we explained that we were looking for Kelly’s grave, Marston invited us inside and showed us on a map where to find Kelly’s grave.
Armed with his easy-to-follow directions, we got back in the truck and found ourselves standing before Kelly’s grave a few minutes later. If you go there today, you’ll see that atop his grave sits a large stone marker that was erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy on April 25, 1951. For decades, it has let visitors know that they are standing at the final resting place of Confederate hero John Herbert Kelly, the “Boy General of the Confederacy.”
As the sun shone down brightly on Kelly’s grave last Thursday, I was caused to wonder why he was buried in Mobile and not in Wilcox County. His grave did not appear to sit in a family plot, but perhaps he was related to those buried around him. I tried to imagine the crowd of mourners that stood there on the day he was laid to rest. Were their Wilcox County residents in the crowd that day?
In the end, if anyone in the reading audience has more information about Kelly’s connections to Wilcox County, please let me hear from you. No doubt he was one of the finest soldiers ever produced by Wilcox County, and I suspect he’d enjoy knowing that his service and sacrifice have not been forgotten.