Home Events Articles 1860's Photos

Tennessee in The Time of Troubles

Most Tennesseans initially showed little enthusiasm for breaking away from a nation whose struggles it had shared for so long. In 1860, they had voted by a slim margin for the Constitutional Unionist John Bell, a native son moderate who continued to search for a way out of the crisis. In February of 1861, 54 percent of the state's voters voted against sending delegates to a secession convention. With the firing on Fort Sumter in April, however, followed by Lincoln's call for 75,000 volunteers to coerce the seceded states back into line, public sentiment turned dramatically against the Union. Governor Harris began military mobilisation, submitted an ordinance of secession to the General Assembly, and made direct overtures to the Confederate government. In a June 8 referendum, East Tennessee held firm against separation while West Tennessee returned an equally heavy majority in favour. The big shift came in Middle Tennessee, which went from 51 percent against secession in February to 88 percent in favour in June. Having ratified by popular vote its connection with the fledgling Confederacy, Tennessee became the last state to withdraw from the Union. The die was cast for war.

Much is made of the glory and great deeds that occurred during the next four years. Without diminishing in any measure the heroism of both soldiers and civilians, of women as well as men, the fact remains that this was the worst of times for Tennessee and its people. The trauma of war brought out greatness in some, but the worst in many more. Hardship visited households from one end of the state to the other and few families were spared suffering and loss during the conflict. Great battles were fought in Tennessee as much as in any theatre of the war, and the men who fought them deserve the respect of posterity for their sacrifices. For most Tennesseans, however, the period from 1861 to 1865 was a grim, brutish time when death and ruin ruled the land.

Tennessee was one of the border states that sent large numbers of men to fight on both sides of the Civil War. A sizeable part of the male population - 187,000 Confederate and 51,000 Federal soldiers - mustered in from Tennessee. In no state more than this one, loyalties divided regions, towns, and even families: on Gay Street in Knoxville, rival recruiters signed up Confederate and Federal soldiers just a few blocks from each other. Rebels enlisted from mostly Unionist East Tennessee, while pockets of Federal support could be found in the predominantly Confederate middle and western sections.

The provisional troops that Governor Harris turned over to the Confederate government became the nucleus of the Confederacy's main western army, the Army of Tennessee. While a few Tennessee Confederates were sent east to Lee's army, most of the state's enlistees, like the Virginians with Lee, had the distinction of fighting on their home soil to contest the invasion of their state. Being in part a home-grown force, the Confederate Army of Tennessee fought tenaciously against a foe that was usually better-armed and more numerous.

Geography dictated a central role for Tennessee in the coming conflict: its rivers and its position as a border state between North and South made Tennessee a natural thoroughfare for invading Federal armies. The Confederate commander in the West, Albert Sidney Johnston, set up a line of positions across Kentucky and Tennessee to defend the Confederacy from the Appalachians to the Mississippi River. It was a porous defensive line whose weakest points were two forts in Tennessee - Ft. Henry on the Tennessee River and, twelve miles away, Ft. Donelson on the Cumberland River. The Union high command was quick to recognise the strategic advantage of controlling these two rivers, flowing as they did through the heartland of the Upper South and holding the key to Nashville.

In late January 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant and Commodore Andrew Foote steamed up the Tennessee River with seven gunboats and 15,000 troops to attack Fort Henry. Union gunboats quickly subdued the half-flooded fort and, while Foote's flotilla came back around to the Cumberland River, Grant marched his army overland to lay siege to Fort Donelson. The Confederate batteries there were more than a match for Yankee gunboats, however, and the infantry battled back and forth around the fort's perimeter. Despite fair prospects for the garrison's escape, a trio of Confederate generals - John Floyd, Gideon Pillow, and Simon Buckner - decided on the night of February 15 to surrender their forces. Col. Nathan Bedford Forrest refused to surrender and, in the first of many brilliant exploits, managed to lead some troops out of the entrapment. Approximately 10,000 Confederate soldiers, many of whom had enlisted only a few months earlier, were surrendered and packed off to Northern prison camps.

The loss of Fort Donelson was the first real catastrophe to befall the Confederacy. Just to show who now controlled the waterways, Foote sent two gunboats steaming unmolested up the Tennessee River into Alabama. The rivers that had been such an asset to Tennessee before the war now became avenues by which Federal invaders captured the region's towns and cities. Nashville, which had been left undefended except for the two shaky forts, fell to Yankee troops on February 24, 1862, as panic-stricken refugees streamed southward out of the city. With the fall of Nashville and Middle Tennessee, the South lost one of its chief manufacturing centres, tons of badly needed supplies, the western Highland Rim iron industry and one of its richest farm regions. Nashville remained in Union hands until the end of the war, sparing it the physical destruction suffered by other Southern cities. The city would, in fact, serve as the headquarters, supply depot and hospital centre of the Union command in the West.

The retreat of Confederate forces to Mississippi left much of Tennessee occupied by enemy troops, a harsh condition that soon stirred up resistance from civilians. Guerrilla warfare was the Confederacy's answer to having lost control of its rivers: Federals might secure the towns and waterways, but they could not always control a hostile countryside. Vicious behind-the-lines warfare between Confederate partisans and Federal troops, and between bushwhackers of both stripes and ordinary citizens, afflicted much of the state.

Military rule in Confederate-controlled East Tennessee was equally onerous, and fighting there was widespread between Unionists and Confederate sympathisers. Military occupation offered many opportunities for settling blood feuds, vendettas, and scores of all sorts. Ambushes of Union soldiers in Middle Tennessee brought reprisal in the form of lynchings, house-burnings, and even the razing of courthouses and churches. With most of the fighting-age men away, bands of armed men - little more than bandits - roamed the country, leaving in their wake the breakdown of civil order.

In April 1862, near tiny Shiloh Chapel in Hardin County, General Johnston had his chance for revenge on Grant and the Federals. On a Sunday morning his army of about 40,000 collided in the woods with an encamped Union force of roughly equal size. By dusk that evening the Confederates had come close to driving Grant into the river, but they had not delivered the knockout blow. Their attempts cost the lives of many men, among them Johnston himself. During the night 25,000 fresh Union troops reinforced Grant's battered brigades, allowing him to mount a strong counter-attack the next day. The weary Confederates, now under the command of General P.G.T. Beauregard, were not pursued as they withdrew that evening from the field. Shiloh was a bloody wake-up call - more men were lost in that one battle than in all of America's previous wars, and both sides began to realise that the war would be neither brief nor cheaply won.

West Tennessee now lay open to Federal rule, and on June 6, 1862 the Union flag was raised over Memphis after a brief naval fight. Ironically, only pro-Union East Tennessee remained in Confederate hands. Governor Harris and the state government, which had moved to Memphis after Nashville's fall, were forced to flee the state altogether. The secessionist regime that had led Tennessee into the Confederacy lasted less than a year and spent the rest of the war as a government-in-exile. In its place, President Lincoln appointed Andrew Johnson, a former governor of the state, to be military governor. A staunch Greenville Unionist, he had kept his seat in the U.S. Senate despite Tennessee's secession. Johnson introduced a new political order to Federal-occupied Tennessee, one designed to return the state as soon as possible to the Union by favouring the Unionist minority while suppressing the pro-Confederate element. Johnson's was an unpopular and often heavy-handed regime that had to be supported at all times by the Federal military presence.

Confederate hopes were raised in late summer of 1862 when brilliant cavalry raids by Forrest and John Hunt Morgan thwarted the Federals' advance on Chattanooga and returned control of lower Middle Tennessee to the Confederates. The Army of Tennessee, now commanded by the irascible Braxton Bragg and emboldened by recent successes, advanced into Kentucky. Following the inconclusive Battle of Perryville, Bragg's army withdrew to winter quarters near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, to await the Federals' next move. In late December an army of 50,000 under William Rosecrans moved out from Nashville to confront the Confederates thirty miles to the Southeast. Once again, after successfully driving back the Union flank on the first day of battle, December 31, the Confederate advance faltered and wore itself down battering against strong defensive positions. On January 2, Bragg launched a disastrous infantry assault in which the Southerners were decimated by massed Federal artillery. The next day, as a bone-cold Army of Tennessee trudged away from Murfreesboro, it left behind one of the bloodiest battlefields of the war. One of every four men who fought at Stone's River became a casualty.

The Army of Tennessee stayed in a defensive line along Duck River until late July 1863, when Rosecrans bloodlessly manoeuvred Bragg's Confederate army out of Tennessee altogether. Having relinquished the vital rail centre of Chattanooga without firing a shot, Bragg then awaited the Federal advance into north Georgia. Overconfident from the ease with which he had pushed the Confederates so far, Rosecrans stumbled into Bragg's army drawn up along Chickamauga Creek. On September 19 and 20, the two armies grappled savagely in the woods - a battle that one general likened to "guerrilla warfare on a grand scale." On the second day, part of Bragg's left wing poured through a gap in the Union line and touched off a near-rout of the Federal army.

With two-thirds of the Union army in full flight back to Chattanooga, a total collapse was averted by the stand of George Thomas's corps on Snodgrass Hill, which covered the escape of the rest of Rosecrans's army. The Army of Tennessee won a great tactical victory at Chickamauga but at a frightful cost (21,000 casualties out of 50,000 troops), and Bragg again failed to follow up his success. The Federals dug in around Chattanooga while the Confederates occupied the heights above the town. Grant hastened to Chattanooga to take charge of the situation and, on November 25, his troops drove Bragg's army off Missionary Ridge and back into Georgia. It would be nearly a year before the Confederate army returned to Tennessee.

At the same time that Bragg abandoned Chattanooga, a Union force under Ambrose Burnside captured Knoxville and restored East Tennessee to the nationalist fold. The whole state was now in Federal hands, and the grip of military occupation began to tighten. With constant requisitions of food, grain and livestock, soldiers became a greater burden on local citizens, added to which was the indiscriminate stealing and foraging by undisciplined troops. Anything of value that could be eaten or carried off was taken by soldiers of both sides. Tennessee's unfortunate position as the breadbasket for two different armies, especially the vast Federal forces quartered here, brought more destruction and loss of property than was caused by actual combat.

The war brought a sudden end to the age-old system of slavery, making the times even more turbulent for African Americans than for other Tennesseans. The system of plantation discipline and slave patrols began to break down early in the war, particularly in Union-occupied areas. Northern commanders organised "contraband" camps to accommodate the large numbers of fugitive slaves who flocked to Federal army encampments. Black labourers impressed from such camps built much of the Federal military infrastructure - railroads, bridges and forts - in Tennessee. In these camps, too, missionaries and sympathetic Union officers provided education, solemnised marriages, and arranged for some ex-slaves to work for wages on military projects. This wartime conversion of blacks from unpaid forced labour to paid employees of the U.S. government was an important element in the transformation of "contraband" to freedman. In late 1863, the Union army started mustering in "Colored regiments," some of which eventually saw combat duty in their home state. Tennessee furnished one of the largest contingents of black troops during the Civil War: 20,133 served in Federal units, comprising fully 40 percent of all Tennessee Union recruits. African Americans in Tennessee, partly because of their experience with military duty, secured citizenship and suffrage earlier than most black Southerners.

After the long Atlanta campaign and the capture of that city by William T. Sherman's army, the new commander of the Army of Tennessee, John Bell Hood, decided on an aggressive plan of action. He would leave Georgia to Sherman and strike back north into Tennessee, threaten Nashville, and draw Union pressure away from threatened areas of the Deep South. It was a quixotic plan with little chance of success, but the Confederacy's situation was desperate, and Hood was desperate for glory. The Tennessee troops were in high spirits as they crossed into their home state. When they and their comrades reached Franklin on the afternoon of November 30, 1864, the Army of Tennessee stood on the verge of its finest performance of the war as well as a blow from which it would never recover. On Hood's orders, nearly 20,000 infantry, including a large contingent of Tennesseans, made a grand, near-suicidal charge across an open field against an entrenched Federal army. One thousand seven hundred and fifty Confederate soldiers were killed as regiment after regiment hurled itself against the Union breastworks for five ferocious hours. When the carnage was over, Hood's recklessness had destroyed the Army of Tennessee. It would go on to fight a two-day battle outside Nashville in the sleet and mud, but its defeat there was a foregone conclusion. As the tattered remnants of the western Confederate army hastily retreated across the state line, the military struggle for Tennessee ended, although the war would continue for another four months.

The devastation of the war in Tennessee was profound. A substantial portion of a generation of young men was lost or maimed, resulting in an unusually high percentage of unmarried women in the years to come. Planting and harvesting were extremely difficult during the war, and foraging consumed what little was produced between 1862 and 1865. With the slaves gone, husbands and sons dead or captive, and farms neglected, many large plantations and small farms alike reverted to wasteland. The economic gains of the 1850s were erased, and farm production and property values in Tennessee would not reach their 1860 levels again until 1900. On the other hand, the 275,000 Tennesseans who had been enslaved four years earlier were no longer anyone's property. They were free at last. The only other group who benefited from the Civil War were the behind-the-lines profiteers who siphoned off some of the Federal capital that flowed into Tennessee's occupied towns. Veterans of both sides lived with the wounds and memories of the war for the rest of their lives, and the chief reward for most was a place of honour in their communities.

Extracted from Tennessee in The Time of Troubles from the Tennessee State's Blue Book Online. 2001-02 Edition