Old Central built by former governor who slugged Jefferson Davis

Old Central, the only building on campus that predates Vanderbilt, is the residential structure attached to what is now Benson Hall. The building was originally the residence of Henry Foote.

by Bill Carey

H enry S. Foote, who was kicked out of one Southern state for dueling but managed to become governor of another, was once described as, "A bald and pugnacious little man."

He was a man of many contradictions, the most notable being that he was a Unionist who served in the Confederate Congress. He was also a man of many enemies; he fought at least four duels in his lifetime and once got into a fistfight with Jefferson Davis.

So what does Henry Foote have to do with Vanderbilt University? The only building on campus that pre-dates the school is Old Central, the residential structure attached to what is now Benson Hall. Old Central used to be Henry Foote's home.

Not that it was his only home. In an era in which people rarely moved, Foote was a nomad. He was born in Virginia and for much of the 1820s practiced criminal law in Alabama. Foote was a good criminal lawyer, but he had a hot temper. After he got into a duel with another lawyer, his legal license was suspended for three years and he moved to Natchez, Miss.

Foote loved it in Mississippi. By the middle of the 1830s, he had restored his practice and had become the part owner of a Jackson newspaper. Then, in 1847, he was elected to the U.S. Senate. However, he did not get along with Jefferson Davis, the other senator from Mississippi at that time. According to a story that was repeated in several biographies, Foote and Davis came to blows on Christmas Day 1847.

The feelings of animosity between Foote and Davis worsened as the years passed. In 1851, Foote defeated Davis in a bitter race for the Mississippi governorship. However, Foote lost a race to return to the U.S. Senate three years later.

In the late 1850s, Foote moved to Tennessee and married a widow named Rachel Douglas Boyd Smiley. Smiley had inherited land west of Nashville from her grandfather John Boyd, property that is currently the part of the Vanderbilt campus north and east of where Sarratt Student Center now sits. Around 1859, Foote and his new wife built a home on the property. However, Foote and his bride didn't live there long. Two years after the house was built, war broke out and Foote was elected to be one of Tennessee's representatives in the Confederate Congress.

While in Richmond, Foote became Jefferson Davis' bitterest enemy from within the Confederate government. During the Civil War, almost every time Davis proposed measures that would increase executive power (such as mandatory conscription or martial law), Foote opposed him.

In 1874, in a 500-page autobiography, Foote accused the Confederate president of numerous improprieties, including making special arrangements to have his own cotton crops spared from destruction during the war. "When Jefferson Davis ordered all cotton to be burned... and so many suffered so ruinously by the destruction of their cotton in this way, the crops of Mr. Jefferson Davis and his brother Joseph are understood, in some mysterious way, to have escaped the destructive flames," Foote said.

Foote also defended the manner in which he conducted himself while a member of the Confederate Congress. "I did not intend to let Mr. Davis become an emperor if I could prevent it; nor allow his servitors in [the Congressional] Congress to organize a military despotism in Richmond upon the false pretext that they were extreme devotees of state's rights and Southern independence," he wrote.

Davis wasn't the only person annoyed by Foote and his speeches, which were known to last as long as two hours. Years later, one of Foote's colleagues in the House wrote that during legislative sessions, Foote "never spoke without indulging in denunciatory invective" against Davis and his cabinet. During one debate, Foote called a colleague from Alabama named Edmund Dargan "a damned rascal," words that led Dargan to attack Foote with a bowie knife. On another occasion, outside of the chamber, a Tennessee congressman named William Swan cut Foote's head with an umbrella.

The most notable thing that Foote did while a member of the Confederate Congress was try to end the war. As early as September 1862, Foote proposed a resolution that the Confederacy send commissioners to Washington in order to negotiate a "just and honorable peace." That resolution was rejected, as was a similar proposal put forward after a series of Confederate military victories in June 1864.

Then, in March 1865, with Confederate forces defeated on all fronts, Foote decided to go to Washington in order to meet President Lincoln and negotiate an end to the war. The first time Foote tried, he was arrested by Confederate forces and returned to Richmond, where he was censured by his peers but allowed to remain in office. On his second attempt, Foote made it to Washington, but Lincoln refused to see him.

After the war, Foote did not return to the South, probably because many Southerners regarded him as a traitor. Foote moved to Europe, where he remained for several years. In 1878, the Grant administration named Foote the superintendent of the U.S. Mint in New Orleans.

By the time Bishop Holland McTyeire picked the West End site for the Vanderbilt campus, Foote and his wife no longer owned it. After the war, the Foote's subdivided their property and sold it to three different owners: A.B. Beech (who bought the land that included the house), Daniel Dougheny (who bought the land near where 21st Avenue and West End now meet) and C.A.R. Thompson (who bought the land where Kirkland Hall now sits).

After Vanderbilt University was organized, the house Foote had built became a home first for Bishop and Mrs. McTyeire, then for Vanderbilt faculty members. Later it was used to house the English department, the mathematics department, students and the graduate program in economic development. In the 1980s, when it and Old Science were renovated, the combined structures became the home of the English and history departments.


Bill Carey is a Vanderbilt alumnus, A local journalist and the author of Fortunes, Fiddles and Fried Chicken: A Nashville Business History.

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