If Vince Evans had enough time before he retires as superintendent of Gainesville’s Alta Vista Cemetery, he would have a story about everybody who’s buried there.
Most every cemetery is historic, but Alta Vista teems with history. Most people know famous citizens are buried there, including Confederate Gen. James Longstreet and two Georgia governors. But there are lesser-knowns who intrigue Evans. Sometimes he researches background on his own; other times descendants of deceased provide him with material.
That was the case with Cooper Bennett Scott. Not a name on the tip of your tongue, but the Confederate soldier has an important place in American history.
Scott was born in Anderson, S.C., in 1843. He joined the Confederate Army March 1, 1861, and was attached to Company G, 1st South Carolina Infantry. It didn’t take him long to get into action because, according to family tradition, he fired the first cannon April 12, 1861, at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor during the Civil War.
At the time, Fort Sumter was controlled by federal forces after South Carolina had seceded from the Union. After the federals refused to surrender the fort, Confederate forces prepared to attack it.
Scott’s granddaughter, Helen Scott Smallwood, related this story about the cannon shot: "When Cooper fired the cannon, he did so because he saw movement at Fort Sumter. He was immediately thrown into the brig for opening fire without an order. He was released the next morning when the Union soldiers surrendered."
Ella Mae Scott Carson, another granddaughter and half-sister of Helen Scott Smallwood, added, "Cooper had enjoyed some spirits that day and was not supposed to have fired the cannon. He was demoted and placed in the brig for his actions."
Nevertheless, Scott continued to serve, re-enlisting in February 1862. He was an orderly for Gen. John C. Pemberton and was promoted to corporal later that year. However, Scott had to forfeit a month’s pay after being court-martialed in November 1862 for an unstated reason. He transferred to the band the next year and back to the infantry the year after. Scott surrendered to Union forces in Waynesborough, N.C., April 26, 1865.
Although born in the South, he is said to have spoken with a heavy Irish accent and went to Ireland to fetch his bride, Matilda "Tildy" Fleming. Family records have them being married at sea by the ship’s captain, but also as being married in December 1865 in Anderson, S.C. They became parents of eight children.
After the war, Scott worked in railroad construction in South Carolina and Georgia, living in "shanty shacks" along the tracks.
The family moved to Gainesville in 1883, and he and his sons took up painting for a living. Scott was painting the pavilion at Chattahoochee Park, now known as the American Legion Park, at the end of Riverside Drive when he died April 7, 1905, at age 65. Some passersby found his body, and an inquest determined he died of natural causes.
Confederate veterans served as pallbearers for his funeral. He was buried in a casket with a Confederate symbol on it. Evans added a monument with a cannon on it about a year and a half ago.
At the time of Scott’s death, the family lived on Athens Street. He also owned a farm on the Isle of Palms near Charleston, which his sons later sold. His wife died March 5, 1924, and also is buried in Alta Vista Cemetery.
Two other people claimed to have fired the first shots at Fort Sumter, which were the first ones of the Civil War. They were Edmund Ruffin of Virginia and Lt. H.S. Farley.
In reporting Scott’s death, the Atlanta Constitution said Confederate veterans confirmed he fired the first cannon of the war. The Gainesville News likewise gave Scott credit for firing the first shot at Fort Sumter. His obituary in the Gainesville News appeared April 12, 1905, 44 years to the day he is said to have made that historic shot.
Despite furious attacks by Union forces for months after they surrendered Fort Sumter, the Confederates didn’t abandon it until near the end of the war. The fort remains in Charleston Harbor and is a top tourist attraction as a national monument.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.