Historic Structures

Colonel McNeal House, Bolivar Tennessee

Date added: June 1, 2021 Categories: Tennessee House Mansion

Major Ezekiel Polk McNeal, who had the mansion built, was one of the earliest settlers of Hardeman County, having arrived there in 1822 with his father, uncle, and grandfather Polk. When the county was organized in 1823 its court first met on land of his father, Thomas McNeal; later the town of Bolivar was established on higher ground, originally owned by Ezekiel Polk (his grandfather). In addition to founding a dynasty with such grandsons as Major Ezekiel Polk McNeal and President James K. Polk, Ezekiel Polk should be remembered for writing one of the classic epitaphs of American cultural history. Ezekiel Polk died thirty years before this house was begun, but his grave is just across the road from it and the Polk Cemetery as a whole should not be overlooked. This is Colonel Ezekiel Polk's epitaph, "written by himself in the 74th year of his age.":

Here lies the dust of old E. P. One instance of mortality; Pennsylvania born. Car'lina bred. In Tennessee died on his bed. His youthful days he spent in pleasure. His latter days in gath'ring treasure; From superstitution lived quite free. And practiced strict morality; To holy cheats he was not willing To give one solitary shilling; He can foresee, and for foreseeing He equals most of men in being. That Church and State will join their pow'r And mis'ry on this country show'r; And Methodists with their camp bawling. Will be the cause of this downfalling; An era not destined to see. It waits for poor posterity. First fruits and tithes are odious things. And so are Bishops, Priests and Kings.

Family tradition states that Major Ezekiel Polk McNeal located his mansion where it is because of his wife, despondent over the loss of thier only child (Priscilla, who died July 16, 1854 at the age of eighteen), wanted to live as near the Polk Cemetery as possible. This story may be supported by the eastward orientation of the mansion (rear elevation, leading to the cemetery); the several other old houses in this section of town face northward, toward the public square. A number of very fine monuments grace the Polk Cemetery; several, including those of Ezekiel Polk McNeal and his daughter, are by L. H. and J. B. Fuller, St. Louis.

McNeal family tradition has preserved another story which may shed light on the architect's identity. The architect was said to be from Chicago, and a member of some military unit there. When Fort Sumter was fired upon (April, 1861) the interior of the McNeal house had not been finished, but the architect wanted to get back to his unit while travel was possible. Major McNeal assured him a safe conduct pass so that he could stay in Bolivar long enough to supervise completion of the house.

Bolivar was occupied by Union troops almost from the beginning of the war. Battles was fought around it, but no great damage was done to the town by either army; orders and reports by commanders on both sides indicate that it was spared by design, not by chance. At one point in the occupation, so the story goes, a Federal Cavalry unit was billeted on the grounds of the McNeal house. The troops were becoming boisterious, and some hitched their horses to the ornate cast-iron porch balustrade. Major McNeal's wife came out and requested them to tie the horses to hitching posts or trees, as the cast-iron might break off. When they refused, the officer of the day was summoned. He proved to be the architect who had designed the house, and rather emphatically supported Mrs. McNeal's request. The mansion was not subsequently threatened.

The McNeal mansion was also visited by General Ulysses S. Grant a short time before the Battle of Shiloh; the General aided Major McNeal in recovering a large sum of money which the Federal Quartermaster, through some sort of military pressure and personal extortion, had exacted from McNeal and had kept for himself.

The major section of the house is two stories with cellar and attic which was originally a Ball Room. The service portion of the house is one story.

The foundations are built of brick and stone. Exterior walls solid brick. Major interior partitions solid brick. Certain minor partitions are wood. The flooring is made of heart cedar laid on hand hewn joists and sills and covered from corner to corner with rich carpeting. Crystal chandeliers throughout the house have been adapted for electricity. The mantels are of Carara Marble imported from Italy and are exquisite examples. The cast iron porches were cast in Spain. Exterior woodwork in many cases is Cherry. Interior plastered walls hand painted throughout the down stairs section and in the hall and certain rooms on the second floor. This painting was done to emulate paneling and cornices in such a careful manner that it is only noticeable after careful and close observation that what appears to be cornices and panels are really paint,. Panels decorated in floral designs and the colors are quite intense.