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The Pattons, Part 1: Peggy And John

Updated: Nov 14, 2022

The Patton family entered my family tree on 8 January 1824 when Margaret "Peggy" French Williams married John Mercer Patton.

Margaret "Peggy" French Williams Patton (1804-1873)

Margaret was born in 1804, the daughter of Isaac Hite Williams and Lucy Coleman Slaughter.

Isaac, the son of Major John Williams and Eleanor Hite, attended William and Mary College and later settled in Fredericksburg, Virginia where he practiced law. He became a brilliant lawyer, with a legal knowledge and command of facts and authorities so unusual that he became known as "the Big Book."


Margaret grew to be a tall, stern-looking woman who preferred to use her middle name "French" because she felt that "Peggy" lacked dignity. She tended to look down on prospective suitors whose family prestige did not match her own.


While attending a party at "Spring Farm", her paternal grandparents' plantation near Culpeper, Virginia, she met a young attorney named John Mercer Patton. John's family owned an estate in Albemarle County named "The Meadows", but they were not as wealthy as the Williams. However, John was the grandson of General Hugh Mercer, a close friend of George Washington's and a brigadier general in the American Revolution who died of wounds received at the Battle of Princeton in January 1777. That familial connection did count for something in John's favor. John had attended Princeton University and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania's medical department in 1818, but never practiced medicine, choosing to study law instead.


After their marriage, they settled in Fredericksburg and John began to practice law. Nine months later, they welcomed their first child. They would have a total of twelve children, three of which would die in infancy. Of the nine surviving to adulthood, eight of them were sons.

John Mercer Patton (1797-1858)

In 1830, John was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Jacksonian Democrat to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of Philip P. Barbour. He twice won re-election and served until 1838. Initially he was a fervent supporter of states' rights and the interests of southern plantation owners. Like other secessionists at the time, he believed that the United States had become two separate and distinct countries: North and South, and that their differences were too great to be reconciled. He eventually changed his stance and became affiliated with the moderate Whig party of Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. After leaving Congress, Virginia legislators appointed him the senior councilor of the Virginia Council of State. As a result, he briefly served as the acting governor of Virginia for 12 days in March 1841, following the resignation of Governor Thomas W. Gilmer.


He had expressed hope that the Union would resolve its regional disputes through compromise, over slavery in particular, and stay intact. However, in his heart he feared that secession and war were inevitable. When his sons came of age, he sent them to military colleges (West Point, Annapolis, and the Virginia Military Institute) so they would be well prepared for the cause when the time came.


John was combative in court, but the opposite in private. He never disciplined his children. He left that to his wife. If they ever acted up, he would say: "French, if those were my children, I'd spank them." So if they misbehaved, she would either whip them or tie them to the bedpost for a day. She was extremely concerned with appearances and would not tolerate any insolence. One time John surprised her by bringing some friends home for dinner on a night when she planned to serve leftovers. She did not show her embarrassment as additional place settings were added to the table and the meal was served. However, after it was over, she announced that they had been "Mr. Patton's guests" that evening, but the next night they and their wives would be "her guests." True to her word, the following evening, she set out a lavish feast that was certain to prevent any rumors from circulating that the Pattons were letting anything slip.


At the age of 60, John was terminally ill. He gave his sons a directive: should war come, they must free their slaves before taking up arms. There was no honor in fighting for slavery. The honor would lay in defending Virginia.


John died on 29 October 1858. After his death, Peggy emerged as the dominant force in the family. As matriarch, she exerted her dominance over the family in 1861 on the eve of war when she countermanded his husband's dying wish that the Patton boys free all of their slaves. As officers and gentlemen of the South, they must have thoroughbred mounts, tailored uniforms, custom boots and servants to accompany them during their campaigns against the Yankee invaders.


She was a southern grande dame who instilled in her family the values of pride and grit. She expected her sons to fight and, if necessary, die for the Confederacy. Her expectations would be tested, as well as her sons, when the Civil War began.


Click here for Part 2


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