Did you know that East Tennessee tried to withdraw from its home state to side with the Union in the Civil War? Comparisons were drawn between this Appalachian section of the state and Switzerland. Switzerland is famous for it’s wartime neutrality. For one thing, there were very few slaveholders among the hill people who lived in East Tennessee and the land wasn’t suitable to plantation agriculture. The issue of slavery was largely opposed on moral grounds.
Lincoln famously said, ”If the Union Army could take East Tennessee, we will have the Rebellion by the throat and it must dwindle and die.” What was so important about Knoxville and East Tennessee that would cause Lincoln to make such a statement? In the first two years of the Civil War, East Tennessee supplied to the Confederacy, 25,000,000 pounds of bacon and large supplies of livestock and grain. So, it was apparent that Lincoln and his senior military staff knew of the importance of this breadbasket to the Confederacy.
From just before the beginning of the Civil War in 1860, there were only three important North-South rail lines in the southeastern United States. One went from Richmond, Virginia to Savannah, Georgia and on to Atlanta; another from Richmond passing through Charlotte, North Carolina and Augusta, Georgia, to Atlanta. Finally there was an important line from Richmond through Roanoke and Bristol, Virginia, onwards through Knoxville and Chattanooga, Tennessee to its final destination, Atlanta.
The population of Knox County in the census of 1860 reveals 20,020 white residents and 2,307 slaves in the county with Knoxville having 3,704 citizens. By comparison, only one city in the south, New Orleans, had over 100,000 citizens. Richmond only had 37,910. Memphis had 22,623. So with populations this small the importance of a seemingly small population, at least by current standards, is magnified.
Early in 1861, both the North and the South were recruiting in Knoxville before the state seceded. After the state did withdraw from the Union, Jefferson Davis established the District of East Tennessee of the Confederate Armies and placed General Felix Zollicoffer in charge. One of his tasks was securing the railroad station and all railroad bridges and crossings to be sure that troops were able to get north to Virginia, where there was considerable fighting.
Among the Union loyalists in East Tennessee a group decided to burn the railroad bridges so that the trains couldn’t get through, taking troops north to fight. A plan was taken to Washington, approved by General George McClellan and, finally, by President Lincoln. $1,000 in funding was approved, expanded later to $20,000. On the night of November 8, 1861 the bridge burners struck and five of the nine bridges were destroyed. This made the railroad line north largely useless for the remainder of the war.
The Confederate government assumed that the bridge burnings were a sign that East Tennessee was indeed ready to secede and that an invasion of Union troops was imminent. Trials, convictions and incrimination lasted for years. Confederate authorities at Knoxville established martial law, suspended the writ of habeas corpus, sent 5 men to the gallows by summary justice and 1,500 to 2,000 suspected of involvement were sent to Tuscaloosa, Mobile and Macon for long prison terms. There was lots of bad feeling between the Northern and Southern sympathizers in East Tennessee. The Confederates tried with mixed success to quiet the population during a very excited, dangerous time.
General Ambrose Burnside
President Lincoln ordered General Ambrose Burnside (The man who gave his last name to the word sideburns) to move to East Tennessee and to take it for the Union as soon as possible. On August 16, 1863 he left Nicholasville, Kentucky with 15,000 men to travel 220 miles to east Tennessee. On September 3, 1863 he reached Knoxville without opposition. The son of Senator Harris sent a letter to his father in Washington:
“‘Glory be to God, the Yankees have come! The flag’s come back to Tennessee’ Such were the welcomes all along the road, as we entered Knoxville, it was past all description. The people seemed frantic with joy. I never knew what the Love of Liberty was before. The old flag has been hidden in mattresses and under carpets. It now floats to the breeze at every staff in East Tennessee. Ladies wear it-carry it-wave it! Little children clap their hands and kiss it”
Burnside had just emerged from a couple of defeats in the war and he was apparently feeling insecure about his abilities. He faced another battle-scarred General, James Longstreet, for the Confederacy. He had just lost 3 of his 4 children to a smallpox epidemic, which had just devastated Richmond and had suffered defeat at Gettysburg supporting Pickett’s Charge. Both men were exhausted. However, when the battle came, Burnside had a strong defensive position and this made all the difference.
Battle of Knoxville
On November 9, 1863 the battle took place. Fort Saunders, which no longer stands, was built in what was essentially downtown Knoxville, near 17th Street and Laurel Avenue. A deep, 6 to 8 foot moat, surrounded it although it didn’t appear that deep. It appeared to Longstreet to be shallow. Both sides lacked food, adequate clothing and shoes. Burnside’s troops had been reduced to quarter rations.
Some boards had been put across the moat to allow the Confederates, who were attacking, to storm across the water, but they proved inadequate to the task. It had rained; the rain had frozen on the edges and across the top of the water the night before the battle.
Longstreet looking at the ditch that surrounded the fort mistakenly thought it very shallow and ordered a charge. The Confederates were soon found caught up in telegraph wire strung across tree stumps on the water’s edge, which immediately impeded their advance. Then they began plunging into the frozen moat. They were immediately sunk into the icy water and the Union troops inside the fort had an easy time shooting them.
The Battle lasted only twenty minutes and resulted in an overwhelming victory for the Union. The union lost 13 men and the Confederates lost 813. Longstreet withdrew and retreated south.
The victory for the Union brought a decisive end to the war in East Tennessee. After the Battle of Knoxville, the Union occupied East Tennessee until the conclusion of the Civil War.
Civil War Reflected in Knoxville Today
If you travel to Knoxville today, what can be seen of the Civil War times? There is a rather wonderful 19th Century house near downtown Knoxville, the Mabry Hazen House Museum, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, built in 1858. It has a collection of original furnishings, clothing, silver and china from the period of the Civil War and later, which is in a remarkable state of preservation. It is a thoroughly enjoyable walk through the past. The house was used as the headquarters for both the Confederate and Union armies.
Fort Saunders is gone; part of the urban landscape, torn down, the site now a part of downtown Knoxville.
Bethel Cemetery is located on the grounds of the Mabry Hazen House museum and contains the bodies of over 1600 Confederate soldiers, hundreds killed during the Battle of Fort Saunders. There is a monument to the Confederate dead there, erected by the Ladies Memorial Association and later unveiled on May 19, 1892.
The Armstrong-Lockett House & W.P. Memorial Gardens (Crescent Bend) was built in 1834 by Drury Paine Armstrong. It contains an exquisite collection of 18th Century American and English furniture, decorative arts and an outstanding collection of English silver. You can also see beautiful three acre, formal, three-acre formal Italian-terraced gardens overlooking the Tennessee River.
Where to stay
The Holiday Inn in downtown (at the Convention Center) Knoxville is a gem. Inexpensive, impeccably clean with a small breakfast restaurant on the ground floor. It sits beside the site of the 1982 World’s Fair grounds held in Knoxville. Rooms are $112 per night for a single, with breakfast for two included.
Where to eat
Chesapeake’s, a wonderful fish restaurant in the downtown area, is a spot with good food and service. Chesapeake’s offers a full bar, casual attire and relaxing atmosphere. Located just a few steps down the street from the Holiday Inn, this is one of the best seafood restaurants in a landlocked environment. Chesapeake’s is a member of the Copper Cellar Family.
I fell in love with Knoxville and I think the feeling is catching.
Mabry Hazen House Museum
1711 Dandridge Avenue
phone (865) 522-8661
1917 Bethel Avenue
The Armstrong-Lockett House & W.P. Memorial Gardens (Crescent Bend)
2728 Kingston Pike
The Holiday Inn
525 Henley Street
500 Henley Street
Guest contributor, Richard Basch, is a writer/photographer based in Washington, DC. He has been a professional photographer and video producer in Washington, DC and Los Angeles, CA. He has taught the Smithsonian Institution, Brown University, Rhode Island School of Design and Chapman University. He has been published in “The Baltimore Sun”, “The Arizona Star”, NPR’s “Savvy Traveler”, “Modern Maturity”, International Living’s “Mexico Insider”, www.52perfectdays.com and other publications. His website is www.richardbasch.com