The Tale Of The Mysterious Murder Of William Caswell0
Some people are remembered for the things they’ve done before death. Others are remembered solely for their death. This is the story of one such case. This is the story of Mexican-American War veteran, General William Richard Caswell. While General Caswell’s heroic endeavors have been long forgotten, his death remains a popular tale in and around Knoxville, Tennessee.
William Richard Caswell was born in Rutherford County, Tennessee on October 22, 1809. His parents, William Caswell and Sarah Lytle, were prominent members of the community. After attending the University of Nashville, Caswell became active in the State militia.
He worked as a farmer and lawyer. Caswell served as attorney general for the state’s 12th District from 1843 to 1854. Caswell joined more than 30,000 Tennessee volunteers involved in the Mexican-American War. During this time, Caswell served as a confidential assistant to Major General Gideon Pillow. Pillow would later be involved in a scandal involving the falsification of battle reports.
As for Caswell, he spent most of his time in the Mexican City of Camargo filing reports. Caswell wrote letters to his wife, Elizabeth Gillespie, expressing his frustration with the boredom.
“Instead of being in the invigorating atmosphere of the mountains, of being in the battle if there is one, I must remain in this climate with the sick, the dying, the debilitated soldiers who are left behind but constitute a large army.” He later wrote, “I am no hero, and have no hopes of becoming one in this war.”
Caswell resigned from his post in October of 1846. He was ultimately elected captain of a regiment of the Tennessee mounted Volunteers. He saw some action in the battles of Vera Cruz and Cerro Gordo. After 12 months of service in the Mexican-American War, Caswell returned to his family in East Tennessee. He continued serving as a lawyer and banker until the Civil War broke out in 1861.
In 1856, Caswell retired from law and became the assistant cashier of the Dandridge Bank. He became very wealthy and influential in the area. Caswell owned land in two states, had several slaves, and was a member of the Board of Directors for the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad.
Despite being a Whig Unionist, Caswell was named the brigadier general of Tennessee state troops by Democratic Governor Isham Harris on May 9, 1861. He spent most of his time hunting down Union sympathizers. During his time in this position, he was praised by Governor Harris, who urged Richmond to appoint him general in the PACS.
Caswell resigned in October of 1861 and sat idle for rest of the war. On August 6, 1862, an event took place just six miles east of Knoxville that would cement Caswell’s name in history. On that date, General William Richard Caswell was attacked and killed roughly half a mile from his home. The news reports related to the incident offer various descriptions of the event.
The Knoxville Register reported that Caswell’s servants saw him struggling with someone on the road. Before they were able to reach him, Caswell was dead and the murderer had escaped. The General ultimately had his throat slit from ear to ear. In the New-York Daily Tribune on August 14, 1862, it was reported that the murderer of Caswell was arrested on August the 7th. The Avoyelles Pelican reported the same.
Some claimed that Caswell was struck down by a runaway slave. Others suggest that he was fired upon by a group of men from the woods. They claim that he was mangled with their knives after he fell. It was also claimed that Caswell’s involvement with the Confederate army may have inspired Unionist to murder him.
The Family Chronicle And Kinship Book printed by the McDaniel Printing Company in 1928 claimed that Caswell was murdered by an African American during the reconstruction period near Knoxville, Tennessee. Clergyman and Unionist, Thomas William Humes, wrote that Caswell was attempting to arrest a fugitive when he was murdered outside of his home.
After General William Caswell’s murder, Knoxville became heavily involved in the Civil War. It saw numerous battles and thousands were killed on both sides. Today, Caswell rests in the historic Old Gray Cemetery in Knoxville, Tennessee.
While William Caswell’s deeds have been long forgotten, his unsolved murder has not.