Parmenas Taylor Turnley: West Point Class of 1846

Parmenas Taylor Turnley was a graduate of the West Point Class of 1846, many of whom fought in the Mexican War but would later serve on opposite sides in the American Civil War. About twice as many served the Union as served the Confederacy. Turnley, himself a Tennessean by birth, served the Union.

In his memoirs, Turnley describes himself as someone who always wrote down whatever was going on around him from a very early age, a habit he refined after his teenage years. At the request of his son, Ernest Seymour Turnley, Parmenas decided to publish his manuscript in book form for the benefit of his family. Sadly, that same year, his 17-year-old son died suddenly from typhoid fever on August 24, 1891. Turnley completed the project and dedicated the book to Ernest. In a letter written in 1893, he stated that only 250 copies were printed for private distribution. Reminiscences of Parmenas Taylor Turnley, from the cradle to three-score and ten… is available to read free online at Open Library and can also be purchased on Amazon. Original copies of the book are collector’s items and worth good money.

Future Confederates in the Class of 1846 included Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, George Pickett, Cadmus Wilcox and A. P. Hill. Union officers included George McClellan, John Gibbon, Jesse Lee Reno and Darius Couch. A 2010 book entitled “The Class of 1846: From West Point to Appomattox: Stonewall Jackson, George McClellan, and Their Brothers” delves deeper into the heroes of the class and quotes from the memoirs of Parmenas Taylor Turnley. He is called “acid-tongued” when he had less than praise for a classmate, but just quoted when he had praise.

Turnley really does have quite a lot to say about quite a lot of people, but he doesn’t really come off as “acid-tongued” — just human and honest. We all have people that we like or dislike and, in many cases, he does go into detail with the whys and wherefores. He said he wrote nothing in anger, but only what he believed to be true.

Here are some quotes:

  • On Abraham Lincoln: “As a general thing, the northern people worshipped this rising sun with peans while the southern people execrated, with equal fervency, this new leader of what they called “the John Brown” insurrectionists and murderers and organized specially to incite slaves against their owners.”
  • On General Winfield Scott: “Gen. Winfield Scott was no politican, albeit he was ambitious for political honors, and failed; but the United States never produced his superior, nor his equal, as a military general.”
  • On Brigham Young: “I talked to them in a manner about their Moses Brigham which amazed them no little. I told them how I had known Brigham Young long before they had ever heard of him, and when he was only a smart, wild, young fellow, bent only on money and women…. I never enjoyed any achievement or success so much as I did Brigham Young’s disappointment at the delivery of hay, straw and grain by his subjects for our use at that post…. Thus was achieved a bloodless victory over that wily and most astute schemer and religious fraud our country has ever produced.”
  • On General John Pope: “Pope’s prosecution, and persecution, of Fitz-John Porter, on what he knew to be false assumptions, false charges and garbled facts, forms an episode in the late military operations in Virginia without precedent; and shows a lamentable lack of manly courage and consistency in General Pope as a commander and as a man.”

Turnley had a particular grudge against General Ambrose Burnside for his elderly father’s mistreatment at a prison camp: “Burnside was in command at Knoxville, and walked through the prison almost daily, and saw and knew that old man to be the father of P. T. Turnley, of the Federal army—the same P. T. Turnley who had more than once helped and befriended the Cadet Burnside—yet he coldly and inhumanly permitted my father (past three score and ten) to linger in that prison, almost naked, nearly blind, and suffering for the kind of food his great age and lack of teeth required he should have.”

Turnley talks about many other famous figures of the day: Phil Sheridan, Ulysses S. Grant, Parsons Brownlow… Indeed, he and Ernest probably never considered that someday quite a few authors would cull information from his memoirs, from his trip to West Point on foot from his Tennessee home to recollections of rescuing several later famous Generals (and one future President) from punishment for their drunken West Point escapades.

Parmenas Turnley was married to Mary R. Rutter in 1853. They had 5 children, three born before the Civil War: George, who died before the age of 4, Emma (1855) and Mamie (1858). His youngest children were born much later: Ernest (1875) and Ethel (1878). Turnley served two terms as the mayor of Highland Park, Illinois. He died at the age of 89 on April 22, 1911, just a few weeks before the Annual Reunion of West Point graduates on June 12, 1911, that he had hoped to attend to be able to see the graduation of the grandson of his former roommate, Stonewall Jackson.

More books that quote Parmenas Taylor Turnley:

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