MOUNT VERNON -- Whether in its modern incarnation or one of its earlier versions, the Curtis Hotel has dominated the square in Mount Vernon for over 140 years.
But before the first Hotel Curtis was built in 1876, there had been an earlier hotel on that site, known as the Vance House. According to Knox Folklore and Fact by James Robert Hopkins, the Vance House was created by prominent Mount Vernon mover-and-shaker Joseph W. Vance.
Originally born in Washington County, Pennsylvania in 1809, Vance came to Mount Vernon in 1840 and began studying law with Columbus Delano. Quickly mastering the trade, he put out his shingle as a lawyer in 1842. He first served as mentor then law partner to William C. Cooper, who was to shape the community for decades to come.
Vance was famous for his passionate advocacy for his clients. Vance was prominent in the town, serving a term as mayor of Mount Vernon in 1852. He either lost re-election or declined to run again, because he only served that single year. Clearly other ideas were occupying him by the late 1850s, when he opened up the Vance House on the square.
In that early period, it most likely served as a refuge for people traveling by stagecoach, providing food, drink, and lodging.
As the 1860s loomed, the brewing war between North and South overshadowed everything. Vance was an outspoken abolitionist who initially supported William Seward for president. But when the Republican party met in Chicago for their convention, Vance's friend and fellow delegate Columbus Delano advanced an alternative candidate, Illinois politician Abraham Lincoln. Vance joined him in throwing his support to Lincoln, starting a swing that resulted in Lincoln becoming the party's candidate and the next president.
The Southern response to Lincoln's election was secession. Shortly, the Civil War was on.
Vance set his law practice and hotel business aside to get involved in the war effort. Vance became a colonel in the 96th Ohio Volunteer Infantry and was sent to the western theater of the war. One of the major objectives of Union forces west of the Mississippi River was to cut off Texas from the rest of the Confederacy. As the war advanced, the Union forces were able to occupy some coastal areas, but had not made progress striking deep.
In 1864, an invasion up the Red River valley into Louisiana was proposed. The plan was that the Union's Army of the Gulf of Louisiana would head up the Red River, bringing gunboats along the way, and be joined by reinforcements marching south from Arkansas. The combined forces would then strike west into Texas.
That was the plan, at least. In reality, little of it worked. The gunboats had to turn back because of the historically low level of the Red River brought on by a drought. Progress was additionally slowed by constant rebel raids. Once the Army of the Gulf had reached northwest Louisiana, their reinforcements were nowhere to be found.
Northwest Louisiana was densely forested, and the only route for the invasion force to take was the narrow road heading north toward Shreveport. As the force neared Mansfield, Louisiana, on April 8, 1864, they ran into a large Confederate force, waiting for them behind a rail fence in a broad clearing along the Sabine Crossroads.
Union Major General Nathaniel P. Banks immediately called for infantry units to rush to the clearing and prepare for battle, but his forces were stretched out so far along the road, it would take hours to get them all onto the field of battle.
Confederate Major General Richard Taylor (son of former president Zachary Taylor) didn't wait for Gen. Banks to get in place. In total numbers of troops, the Confederates were woefully outnumbered, 25,000 to 11,000. But because of the obstructing trees, Taylor had twice as many soldiers on the field when the battle started.
General Banks sent his available two brigades forward to hold their positions until more soldiers could reach the crossroads. General Taylor didn't wait. He ordered the infantry on the left side of his force to attack, screaming the infamous Rebel Yell as they erupted from behind the split rail fence.
As they hammered forward, they ran into Banks' second brigade, commanded by Col. Joseph W. Vance. Vance, surveying the charge from his horse, inspired his infantry troops to hold the line. Responding to the rebel attack with a deadly volley, the Union troops didn't budge.
The Confederate charge wavered, and many of their men were pinned down in a swale in the battlefield. The Union line held.
But the Confederates had not placed all their hopes on a single charge. Just after that charge was launched, Gen. Taylor split his cavalry and had them attack both Union flanks. Outnumbered and overwhelmed, the Union line began to crumble. At that same moment, Taylor sent a new charge against the center of the Union line. The battle turned into a nightmare of hand-to-hand combat.
General Banks sent orders for his troops to fall back. In the chaos of the developing rout, word never made it to Col. Vance. As the Union line disintegrated around him and troops began fleeing away from the battlefield, Col. Vance refused to yield. As rebels closed in around Vance's command, the colonel was hit by a bullet which knocked him off his horse. The Confederates took over the field and took hundreds of Union troops prisoner.
The following day, the Union forces struck the Confederates, doing great damage and evening out the conflict. But it effectively ended the Red River campaign, and is marked as a strategic Southern victory. The Union troops retreated down the valley.
As soon as Col. Vance was wounded, a letter was posted to his wife in Mount Vernon, to apprise her of the situation. According to Dr. Lorle Porter's book Politics & Peril: Mount Vernon, Ohio, in the 19th Century, that letter did not reach Sarah White Vance until early May. No further information was immediately forthcoming.
Vance's wife and numerous friends and colleagues in Mount Vernon desperately sought information, hoping that perhaps Col. Vance had been taken prisoner and was unable to communicate to them but was still alive.
But it wasn't to be. Col. Joseph W. Vance had died soon after being shot, as the Union forces fled the battlefield at Sabine Crossroads. Fortunately, the forces were able to bring his body away among their casualties, and Vance was returned to Mount Vernon for burial in Mound View Cemetery.
When word reached Mount Vernon, the family placed a black wreath of mourning on their door, and tributes streamed in from far and wide. Even the Mount Vernon Banner, a Democratic newspaper bitterly opposed to Vance and his causes, paid their respects to him, saying, “he proved his faith by his works, and died as he had lived, a mistaken, but an honest man.”
Vance's grave was marked with an obelisk monument, and just 12 years later, his hotel building was torn down to make way for the new Hotel Curtis. But Vance's heroic memory remains.