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About Dr. James M. Keller  Written by Bob Freeman  

Dr. James M. Keller was born at Tuscumbia, Alabama on January 29, 1832. He was descended from Caspar Keller, a native of Switzerland, who first settled in Maryland when he came to America in the middle 1700’s. Living for several years at Knoxville, Tennessee, Dr. Keller’s father – Casper Keller’s son – relocated to northern Alabama where he founded and named the town of Tuscumbia, and “entered” large tracts of land there. Once a year he journeyed from Tuscumbia to Philadelphia on horseback to purchase supplies for his plantation, and in the Keller family scrapbooks are many of the letters to his family which give charming and vivid accounts of these trips.

Dr. Keller’s mother was a daughter of one of Gen. Lafayette’s aides, Alexander Moore, and grand-daughter of Alexander Spotswood, the Royal Governor of Virginia Colony who was appointed in 1714 by Queen Anne. She was also second-cousin to Robert E. Lee.

Dr. Keller attended the Old Field School in Tuscumbia, and later entered the University of Kentucky at Louisville, later known as Louisville Medical College, where he received his Degree of Doctor of Medicine in 1852. During that same year he met and wed a twenty-two year old belle from Louisville named Sally Phillips. From that union two sons were born, Murray P. and James Irvin Keller.

When the war began in 1861, Dr. Keller was practicing medicine in Memphis, and living with his family in a country home just outside the city. Being a “true son of the South”, Dr. Keller enlisted in the Confederate Army, as did his younger brother Arthur, who was still living at Ivy Green, the old family plantation home at Tuscumbia. Dr. Keller was commissioned Surgeon by his distant kinsman, Dr. S.P. Moore, Surgeon General, C.S.A. His first order was to establish a military hospital at Memphis, as that city was considered a strategic point on the Mississippi River.

Sally Keller’s efforts soon matched those of her husband, as she helped organize the local ladies of Memphis to assist in nursing wounded Confederate soldiers at what became known as the Overton Hotel Hospital. Dr. Keller’s medical and organizational skills quickly came to the attention of the Confederate high command and – after the Battle of Shiloh, Tennessee in April, 1862 – he was given the rank of Major and transferred to Arkansas where he was designated Medical Director of the Trans-Mississippi Department under the command of Gen. Thomas C. Hindman of Helena. The task of organizing adequate hospitals and medical supplies in the rural state would be extremely difficult at best, therefore Dr. Keller believed the “wild country” of Arkansas was no place for his beloved Sally; so with great sorrow she stayed behind in Memphis where it was believed she would be safer. But events proved Dr. Keller’s thinking wrong, for Gen. W.T. Sherman and his armies invaded Tennessee, and captured Memphis in July, 1862, and made that city the a base of operations to control the Mississippi River and cut the Confederacy into halves.

Mrs. Keller became a thorn in the sides of various Federal Generals as she was very vocal about her hatred of the invasion of the South by Lincoln’s armies, Gen. Sherman soon ordered Mrs. Keller to be banished from the city of Memphis, and the order was executed [by] the Federal Provost Marshal who rowed Mrs. Keller and her two young sons across the river and abandoned them on a mud bank in Arkansas. With Mrs. Keller was a faithful, old slave – the former bodyguard of Dr. Keller. By his resourcefulness, he guided them overland through swamps and creek beds, dusty roads and broken country until they reached the home of Mrs. Keller’s parents at Louisville, Kentucky. Not until the end of the war did Dr. Keller learn of the whereabouts of his family. A copy of the order which banished Mrs. Keller from Memphis because a prized family possession, which Mrs. Keller often displayed at functions of the U.D.C.

Participating in numerous campaigns against Federal forces in Northwest Arkansas, Dr. Keller was conspicuous in his tireless attendance to the care and treatment of the wounded, both Confederate and Federal. Gen. Hindman commended Dr. Keller in numerous dispatches to Richmond and the Governor of Arkansas as a consummate medical officer. No matter what the color of the uniform of a wounded soldier, each was treated with all his attention and skill.

In 1864 Dr. Keller at his own request was assigned to the Dept. of the Gulf, with Headquarters in Mobile, Alabama. His plan was to outfit a navel war vessel with crewmen that he himself would select, and then participate in the naval war with Farragut’s fleet. Shortly before the fall of Mobile, Dr. Keller was transferred to the Army of Tennessee, and served on the staff of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest for the remainder of the war until surrendering on May 4, 1865 near Citronelle, Alabama.

After reuniting with his family in Louisville, Dr. Keller returned to Memphis to find his county home devastated, and the buildings burned. With no private practice in which to engage, Dr. Keller was offered by the Mayor of Memphis the position of Director of City Hospitals. For the next three years Dr. Keller, assisted by his energetic wife, treated some several thousand wounded and crippled veterans of the war.

In 1868 Dr. Keller and his family relocated again, and for the last time, to Hot Springs, Arkansas where he immediately entered into private practice. But the Kellers were anything but private in their new, adopted place of residence. Besides joining and helping to organize numerous art, literary and social clubs, both Dr. Keller and Mrs. Keller were vocal defenders of the cause for which the Southern States had contended in the late war.


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