The tragic early loss of Michael Clarke Duncan at age 54 will not be easy for me to forget. It’s not that he was my favorite actor, though I loved every movie in which I’ve seen him. No, it’s a much more personal thing. You see, every year when I introduce my 8th grade “sons and daughters” at Westwood Middle School to Andrew Jackson in our American History class, I also tell them the story of how Coffee County, Tennessee got its name and of the man for whom our county is named, General John Coffee. Every year, without fail, several in each class say, “John Coffey? The guy in the movie, The Green Mile? I love that movie!” Discussion thus interestingly opened, we then talk about our counties’ namesake, and Andrew Jackson’s life-long and best friend, General John Coffee.
General Coffee’s story has not yet been adequately told, and so he has remained a bit of a “second-team” character in American history, but also in Tennessee history. As new materials become available for research into his life and times, it is certainly my hope that an in depth biography will be forth-coming in the very near future. A physically huge man for his day, any man who once bodily picked up Old Hickory, threw him over his shoulder, and physically carried him away from a horse race where Jackson was betting too much of his property much too freely (as the story goes) deserves to have his story told in full!
One way to explain the tone of the available articles and short studies of General Coffee’s life is that he was a very outstanding “average man.” The main reason Coffee is remembered in this way is that his career is usually mentioned in footnote fashion, attached to that of Jackson’s, his much more famous intimate friend. Jackson and Coffee were partners as well as friends, and many of the ventures in which they both participated have been more fully attributed to Jackson, due to Jackson’s historical prominence and larger than life exploits. I personally believe, since he steadfastly refused to run for political office himself, that there is one final point as to the seemingly “second-team” status Coffee commands in the annuals of American and Tennessee history: he did not want anything to do with such “prominence!”
Coffee came to Tennessee by way of North Carolina, where his grandparents, Peter and Savannah Coffee, had settled when they came from Ireland in 1750. Coffee was born in 1772 to the Joshua Coffee family. He “grew to manhood” in Rockingham County North Carolina, where he worked beside his father “raising and marketing cotton, tobacco, and ginseng root and in buying and selling slaves.” He received formal schooling at some point during his youth, as indicated by his ability and fluency utilizing the written and spoken word.
When his father died in 1797, Coffee, by his inheritance, was left with the means to purchase land in the “richest” part of Nashville. He did so, and moved there with his mother in 1798. Coffee quickly established himself in the frontier community in several ways. First, he stuck to his strength, and farmed. When this enterprise no longer required a lot of his direct attention, he entered business as a merchant trading in such commodities as “salt petre, pork, corn, cotton, tobacco, and slaves” down the Cumberland and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans. He also began and helped operate a store, a boat yard, and a tavern in the area that is now Donelson. TN (a suburb of Nashville and sister in that respect to neighboring Hermitage), dealt in real estate, and owned and operated a cotton gin. Hard times hit in 1807 due to European wars and the embargo of that year, and Coffee turned to surveying the unoccupied lands in Middle Tennessee to recover his losses and make a living. Though it is difficult to know with certainty, it would seem that Coffee was at least moderately successful. At the end of two years, he had paid off the debts he had incurred ($6,000), “… besides reserving to [himself] several valuable tracts of land.”
Coffee had been friends with the Andrew Jackson’s for some time, and the bond was further strengthened by his marriage to Mary Donelson in October of 1809. Mary Donelson Coffee was a grand daughter of Captain John Donelson (famous early Tennessee pioneeer settler) and was a niece of Jackson’s wife, Mrs. Rachel Donelson Robards Jackson. The new Mrs. Coffee received the plantation that John named “Sugar Tree Forest” as a wedding present from her father. Coffee began to devote himself to developing the place, but his “…connection with the land business prevented him from giving his undivided attention to this enterprise”, and then the War of 1812 intruded.
Coffee’s first military escapade began in November, 1812, but turned out to be a false alarm; initially attached to Jackson’s Tennessee volunteers, he was quickly raised to the rank of Colonel and placed in charge of a regiment reinforcing General James Wilkinson at New Orleans. He saw no action and returned to Nashville in May. A short four months later, Coffee was made a brigadier-general and participated in the retribution exacted against the Creeks after the Fort Mims, Alabama massacre. His “energy and resourcefulness…played an important part in the defeats administered to the Indians…” culminating in the end of Creek resistance in the area and the signing of the Jackson Treaty in March and April of 1814. Next, after their humiliating successes in the East, culminating in the buring of Washington, D.C., the British appeared and moved more quickly than had been anticipated on New Orleans. Coffee received the call to help on October 5, 1814, and by December 20 was in position in New Orleans with 2,600 Tennessee volunteer cavalry, and was placed in command of Jackson’s left flank defenses. Despite his position defending a virtual swamp, Coffee played a leading part in the ensuing engagements “culminating in the decisive defeat of the British on January 8, 1815.” Though he retained the rank of general until his death in 1833, Coffee was not again involved in any military action.
Next week’s article will conclude this brief illustration of the life of General John Coffee. The source for this article is Mr. George T. Chappel’s Tennessee Historical Quarterly article, and this article is a summary of Mr. Chappel’s work.
For information about current efforts regarding the revitalization of historic downtown Manchester, contact current CCHS President Mr. Evans Baird. For more local history information, contact County Historian Mr. Jess Lewis (email@example.com), who is also with the CCHS, or pay the kind folks at the Coffee County Historical Society a visit at 101 W. Fort Street. CCHS may be also be reached by phone at 728-0145. Comments or questions regarding this article may be directed to Greg Keeling (firstname.lastname@example.org).