The mansion was once was the center of a 1,100-acre plantation.
The front downstairs rooms were opened up by a postwar owner.
Stairs were changed
The central stairway was added in the 1920s.
Owner Nathaniel Cheairs
He challenged Federal Gen. U.S. Grant to a fist fight over a point of honor. (Courtesy of Rippavilla)
Cheairs-McKissack descendants provided much of the furnishings. Chamber pots were a necessity.
Bitter breakfast makes history
The most famous breakfast in Middle Tennessee during the Civil War is said to have been served the morning after what is sometimes called Hood’s Spring Hill blunder.
The story begins at nearby Oaklawn, where Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood had had gone to bed the night of Nov. 29, 1864, thinking his army had cut the Nashville highway, which runs just past Rippavilla, and had blocked the retreat of a large part of the Federal troops trying to reach Nashville. To Hood, it was a rare opportunity to catch an out-numbered enemy force in the open and defeat it.
But, the highway had not been blocked, and Hood was angry the morning of Nov. 30, 1864, when he and his corps commanders met in Rippavilla.
He chastised his generals for not executing his orders; they responded he didn’t give the blocking orders, and what orders they got were confusing and contradictory.
There is a strong oral tradition in Maury County that Hood’s anger was a big factor in his decision later that day to order the disastrous attack at Franklin later that day. (See Oaklawn for events leading up to the stormy breakfast at Rippavilla.)
But, back to the breakfast itself.
The master of Rippavilla, Confederate Maj. Nathaniel Cheairs, was not on hand to be the host. He was a prisoner of war.
His wife, Susan, and their children had been evicted from Rippavilla by Union sympathizers, who leased the plantation from Federal authorities. The Cheairs family was allowed to live in a cabin behind the mansion.
When Hood’s army moved into Middle Tennessee, Susan regained control of Rippavilla, and she invited Hood and his commanders to breakfast at her table.
She served the Southern generals biscuits, ham and a coffee replacement (because coffee was hard to obtain in the blockaded South) in the dining room, which then was the back room on the right on the first floor.
Though some accounts put Patrick Cleburne and Brown at the Cheairs table, they were not at Rippavilla. They were with their troops and on the move toward Franklin.
Construction of Rippavilla
Rippavilla was modeled after Ferguson Hall, the Spring Hill home of Martin Cheairs, Nathaniel Cheairs’ brother.
Construction began in 1851. Bricks for Rippavilla came from Cheairs’ father-in-law’s brickyard in Spring Hill. Slaves trained as masons did the brickwork.
The earliest parts of the house complex are the smokehouse and brick kitchen behind it. The Cheairs family lived in the kitchen while the main house was being built. When the family moved out, servants moved into the living spaces.
Three times Nathaniel had the mansion’s walls pulled down because he doubted their sturdiness. Once he suspected a sudden cold spell had frozen and cracked the mortar, which would have weakened the walls.
The house was completed in 1855.
The name of Nathaniel’s new home may have been suggested by his sister-in-law, Jessie Helen McKissack (Mrs. George B. Peters; see Ferguson Hall and the murder of Gen. Van Dorn.). Originally, Nathaniel spelled the name “Rippo Villa,” but it also has been spelled “Rippa Villa” and “Rippavilla.” The latter has become the accepted spelling.
Nathaniel’s new two-story brick home was the center of a 1,100-acre plantation. In 1860, the plantation was worked by 75 slaves, according to the census.
Nathaniel, however, owned land elsewhere, too, and properties in Lawrence and Giles counties were major sources for his cotton production.
Rippavilla changes hands
Susan Cheairs died in 1892 and was buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in Columbia, just south of Spring Hill.
In 1895 Nathaniel sold Rippavilla to his son, William M. Cheairs, for $40,000.
Nathaniel moved to Texas and often visited his daughter and son-in-law, Jennie and Austin Hickey, in Waco. He died in their home, on Jan. 2, 1914. He was 96. His remains were returned to Columbia and were buried by Susan.
Rippavilla was William’s home until 1920, when it was sold to John G. Whitfield, a millionaire from Alabama.
Whitfield remodeled the interior and made major changes. The original staircase went up the left side of the hall, crossed to the right and continued up the right wall to the second floor. Whitfield had that staircase removed and a new staircase built in the middle of the first floor hall. He had the first floor rooms opened and added the sun porch. The house was wired for electricity, and bathrooms were installed.
The upstairs floors were left alone, but the downstairs floorboards of yellow poplar were removed and replaced with what was then more fashionable narrow hardwood boards.
After passing from Whitfield’s hands, Rippavilla was home to a bootlegger and later to a tenant farmer.
The boxwoods in front of the house date from the 1950s.
The property changed hands a few more times before it was purchased in 1985 by the Saturn Corporation.
In 1994, Saturn leased Rippavilla and 20-plus acres to Maury County; the historic home and grounds were to be a visitors center.
Today, Rippavilla Plantation covers 98.7 acres.
Restoration of Rippavilla
Federal grants and private and public donations funded a $1 million restoration of Rippavilla in the 1990s.
But, the interior of house does not look exactly as it did during the Civil War. The National Trust was involved in the restoration work, and its research determined the 1920s renovation is historically significant. So, those additions, including electric fixtures, the bathrooms and the sun room, had to remain.
The blend of antebellum and 1920s features led to a decision to interpret Rippavilla as an evolving plantation home.
But, much of the house was made to look much as it might have in the Civil War. Original colors, wallpaper and draperies were duplicated as much as possible, and reproduction of pre-war carpeting was installed. Paneling installed in the 1920s was allowed to be painted to look like marble, a common decorating technique in the antebellum period.
Part of Rippavilla’s restoration was the gathering of written and oral material about the home’s history.
Saturn, which evolved into the General Motors plant in Spring Hill, helped acquire copies of documents about the home and the families who have lived in it.
“We have a lot of the records on microfilm, including letters from Major Cheairs to his family when he was a prisoner of war,” Liz Lovell of the Maury County Convention and Visitors Bureau said in 1996. “When the property sold out of the Cheairs family, there were records of what went with the family property: furnishings and equipment. We’ve got documentation on all those materials.”
Additional information about the house and the Cheairs family and subsequent occupants has been gathered from the Maury County Historical Society and area residents.
“We have interviewed a lot of people that grew up on the plantation, and we have information from all of them on how it was, things like where the gardens were,” Lovell said.
When Maury County took over Rippavilla, the mansion lacked any of the furnishings and personal items from the time when it was home of Nathaniel and Susan Cheairs. A descendant said that when William Cheairs bought the house, his wife wanted to give the old house a more up-to-date look inside, so Nathaniel took much of the furniture and other household items with him to Texas.
“A neat thing about Rippavilla is that over 70 percent of the furnishings and personal items have been provided by the Cheairs-McKissack families,” says Andrew Sherriff of the house museum’s staff.
Nathaniel’s descendants kept much of the furniture and household and personal articles that had come from Rippavilla. Their donations include a 12-piece parlor set, a side desk that was in Cheairs’ office and a six-legged table that family tradition says is where Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood and his senior commanders sat for the momentous breakfast on Nov. 30, 1864.
The returned furnishings included what the family called the “big bed.” “We had it in three different houses and couldn’t put the top on it,” said Susan McKissack Zuger, a sixth-generation descendant of the Cheairs and McKissack families.
Rippavilla is open to the public.
Nathaniel Cheairs in the Civil War:
Nathaniel raised a company of 110 soldiers for the Confederacy and was elected their captain. In April 1861, Nathaniel’s company and companies raised in Giles, Lawrence, Lewis and Maury counties were combined to form the 3rd Tennessee Infantry Regiment. Cheairs was elected its major, the third in command.
To Nathaniel’s disgust, he was given the humiliating task of having to carry the white flag to General Grant at the surrender of Fort Donelson, on February 16, 1862. It was while discharging this duty that Nathaniel took offense at a remark by Grant and offered to punch it out with the startled general.
Nathaniel was still in a Federal prisoner of war camp the following April, when U.S. Gen. William “Bull” Nelson’s troops, leading Buell’s army to Shiloh, stopped at Rippavilla. Nelson evicted Susan Cheairs and her family and took over the house for a temporary headquarters. While Nelson spent the night in Nathaniel’s bed, Susan and her family took refuge in the old family homestead, which was the overseer’s quarters in slave cabin area behind the house. Though Nelson and his Federal troops were soon back on the road to Shiloh, life at Rippavilla had changed for Susan and the family. Depending on the fortunes of war, they shuttled back and forth between the mansion and the homestead cabin.
Nathaniel was exchanged in August of 1862, and in the spring of 1863 he accepted an offer to serve as a volunteer aide on Nathan Bedford Forrest’s command when it was camped at Rippavilla. Nathaniel was with Forrest in the Battle of Thompson’s Station (see Homestead Manor) that March. In November, Nathaniel was captured while trying to buy cattle for the Confederate army.
Nathaniel was exchanged in February 1865, and he was assigned to Forrest’s command again. He was on the cavalryman’s staff for the attack on James H. Wilson’s cavalry at Selma, Ala. When the war ended, Cheairs was paroled, and he returned home, where he soon learned he had been indicted for treason. Nathaniel went into hiding, and worked his way to Washington, D.C., to see President Andrew Johnson. Johnson heard his case and gave him a pardon.
After the Civil War, many of the Cheairs slaves stayed on the plantation and became tenant farmers. It was common for slaves to take the last names of their masters, so descendants of a number of Rippavilla’s slaves have the last name Cheairs.
One of the plantation’s slave cabins survives. It is unusual because board and batten, milled on the plantation, covers the log exterior. Most plantations’ slave quarters were plain log cabins. Rippavilla’s surviving slave cabin has not been restored and is not open, though it can be studied from outside.
A relatively recent addition to Rippavilla Plantation is a cabin from another property in Maury County. This cabin was used after the war as a Freedmen’s Bureau school for ex-slaves. This cabin has been restored.
“Antebellum home gets spruced up for the holidays,” by David R. Logsdon, The Nashville Banner, Dec. 2, 1996
Conversation in December 1999 with Alton Kelley, executive director of the Middle Tennessee Convention and Visitors Bureau
Conversation in October 2011 with Andrew Sherriff, Rippavilla staff
“Descendant Donates Rippavilla Artifacts,” Historic Maury, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2. Article by Kevin Litwin, originally published in Car Country News, March 24, 1997
“GM gives up historic Rippavilla,” by Sue McClure, Williamson A.M. (Franklin, Tenn.), July 21, 2006
“Historic mansion part of holiday tour,” by Sue McClure, The Tennessean, Nov. 30, 2000
“Local Civil War sites also honor black history,” by Melissa Hodge Beard; The Daily Herald (Columbia, Tenn.), Feb. 17, 1999
Notes from tour of Rippavilla by Alton Kelley, executive director of the Middle Tennessee Convention and Visitors Bureau, in March 1997
Notes from tour of Rippavilla in March 1997
“Rippavilla Revisted,” by Gilbert Orr, Historic Maury, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1 (published by the Maury County Historical Society). This article originally published in The Nashville Banner, Oct. 29, 1942.:
“Rippavilla visitors shed new light on some of its historic artifacts,” by Celeste Blackburn, The Daily Herald (Columbia, Tenn.); Oct. 2, 2003
“The ‘Confederate Sins’ of Major Cheairs,” by Robert M. McBride, Tennessee Historical Quarterly, June 1964
Tennessee Antebellum Trail Guidebook, David R. Logsdon, editor; 1995
The Tennessean article written by Sue McClure; article submitted Oct. 2, 2003
Rippavilla’s builder challenges U.S. Grant to a fistfight
Editor’s note: This incident occurred the morning of Feb. 16, 1862, as Confederates began negotiations to surrender Fort Donelson to Grant’s army.
“Personal Experiences in the War Between the States,” by Nathaniel F. Cheairs, 3rd Tennessee; The Daily Herald (Columbia, Tenn.), Feb. 3, 8, 15, 28, March 1 and 2, 1961:
“(Col.) Brown cut a strip about 1 1/2 yards long out of his tent and fastened it to a hickory pole for a flag, and selected Lt. Rhea and the leader of our regimental band as bugler to accompany me. … On going to (Brig. Gen. Simon B.) Buckner’s headquarters, General Grant asked me how many troops we had in this battle the day before. (I said,) ‘General, … if I said any number it would be guesswork.’ ‘Well, I would like to know your best idea of the number.’ ‘My best impression is we did not have exceeding seven or eight thousand.’ Grant replied, ‘I didn’t ask you for a falsehood, sir.’ I … said, ‘You are the commander in chief of the Federal forces, and I suppose I am your prisoner, but, sir, my father taught me to take the lie from no man,’ and off went my coat. Grant replied, ‘Oh, I did not mean to insult you, sir.’ ‘Under the circumstances, I will have to accept your apology, but would like you to be more careful of your language in the future.’
“I then escorted Grant to Buckner’s headquarters, which ended my career in the most disgraceful, unnecessary and uncalled for surrender that occurred during the four years of war. … We were put aboard our transports and sent to St. Louis and from there by sail to Camp Chase, Ohio. From there the field officers were sent to Fort Warren in Boston Harbor, the line officers to Johnson Island, and the rank and file to camp Douglas, Ill.”
Nathaniel Cheairs helps a neighbor
Editor’s note: Nathaniel Cheairs was about 25 years old at this time.
Historic Maury County, Vol. XI, Feb. 1975, No. 1. Source: “Mr. T.M. Morris Writes of Old Friends – the Akin’s, the Cheair’s – and Many Others of Early Pioneer Days,” undated clipping from the Maury Democrat (Columbia, Tenn.), Vol. XXII.
“My father had a cotton patch on the opposite side of the road from the Cheairs’ farm, and it rained every day in June exactly at 2 o’clock which caused the crab grass to take charge of the crop, beyond the reach of my older brother Jim and myself to combat it. We felt that we were lost. But one day without solicitation, Nat (Cheairs) brought his entire work force over and helped us work it out. … What a wonderful effect a little kind act makes upon the young mind! Of course, Nat took no note of as small a thing as that and perhaps never gave it a second thought. But the incident fixed in my mind that Nat Cheairs was the best man in the world.”