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To a large extent, the American Civil War was fought in cities and farms of Tennessee; only Virginia saw more battles. Tennessee was the last of the Southern states to declare secession from the Union, but saw more than its share of the devastation resulting from years of warring armies criss-crossing the state. Its rivers were key arteries to the Deep South, and, from the early days of the war, Union efforts focused on securing control of those transportation routes, as well as major roads and mountain passes such as the Cumberland Gap.

A large number of important battles occurred in Tennessee, including the vicious fighting at the Battle of Shiloh, which at the time was the deadliest battle in American history (it was later surpassed by a number of other engagements). Other large battles in Tennessee included Stones River, Chattanooga, Nashville, and Franklin.

Although the state became a part of the Confederacy, pockets of strong pro-Union sentiments remained throughout the war, particularly in the mountains in East Tennessee. The Vice President of the United States, Andrew Johnson, was a Tennessee Union loyalist, as were a number of congressmen and state politicians. On the Confederate side, significant leaders included noted cavalryman Nathan B. Forrest and corps commanders Leonidas Polk and Benjamin F. Cheatham, as well as Governor Isham Harris.


Pro-Union and anti-Republican sentiment before the attack on Fort Sumter[]

John Bell.

Initially, most Tennesseans 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 and moderate who continued to search for a way out of the crisis.

A vocal minority of Tennesseans spoke critically of the Northern states and the Lincoln presidency. "The people of the South are preparing for their next highest duty– resistance to coercion or invasion," wrote the Nashville Daily Gazette on January 5, 1861. The newspaper expressed the view that Florida, Georgia, and Alabama were exercising the highest right of all by taking control of all forts and other military establishments within the area– the right to self-defense.[1] A pro-secessionist proposal was made in the Memphis Appeal to build a fort at Randolph, Tennessee, on the Mississippi River.[2]

Governor Isham G. Harris convened an emergency session of the Tennessee General Assembly in January 1861. During his speech before the legislative body on January 7, he described the secession of the Southern states as a crisis caused by "long continued agitation of the slavery question" and "actual and threatened aggressions of the Northern States ... upon the well-defined constitutions rights of the Southern citizen." He also expressed alarm at the growth of the "purely sectional" Republican Party, which he stated was bound together by the "uncompromising hostility to the rights and institutions of the fifteen Southern states." He identified numerous grievances with the Republican Party, blaming them for inducing slaves to run off by means of the Underground Railroad, John Brown's raids, and high taxes on slave labor.[3]

Harris agreed with the idea of popular sovereignty, that only the people within a state can determine whether or not slavery could exist within the boundaries of that state. Furthermore, he regarded laws passed by Congress that made U.S. territories non-slave states as taking territories away from the American people and making them solely for the North, territories from which "Southern men unable to live under a government which may by law recognize the free negro as his equal" were excluded. Governor Harris proposed holding a State Convention. A series of resolutions were presented in the Tennessee House of Representatives by William H. Wisener against the proposal. He declared passing any law reorganizing and arming the state militia to be inexpedient.

In Memphis, Unionists held two torchlight processions to honor their cause. The secessionists replied with their own demonstrations and a celebratory ball.[4][5] That week, on February 9, the state of Tennessee was to vote on whether or not to send delegates to a State Convention that would decide on secession.[6] The General Assembly convened by Governor Isham Harris did not believe it had the authority to call a State Convention without a vote of the people.[7]

In February 1861, 54 percent of the state’s voters voted against sending delegates to a secession convention, defeating the proposal for a State Convention by a vote of 69,675 to 57,798. If a State Convention had been held, it would have been very heavily pro-Union. 88,803 votes were cast for Unionist candidates and 22,749 votes were cast for Secession candidates.[8] That day the American flag was displayed in "every section of the city," with zeal equal to that which existed during the late 1860 presidential campaign, wrote the Nashville Daily Gazette.[9] On the corner across from the newspaper office, a crowd had gathered around a bagpipe player playing Yankee Doodle, after which ex-mayor John Hugh Smith gave a speech that was received with loud cheers.[10]

In a letter to Democratic senator Andrew Johnson, his servant C.O. Faxon surmised that the margin by which the No Convention vote won would have been even greater, had Union men not been afraid that if a State Convention were not called then, then Isham Harris would have again called for a State Convention when more state legislators were "infected with the secession epidemic."[11]

On March 7, the Memphis Daily Appeal wrote that the abolitionists were attempting to deprive the South of territories won during the U.S.-Mexican War. It pointed out that the slave states had furnished twice as many volunteers as the free states and territories, though it did not note that slave states were the ones who most supported the war.[12]

On March 19, the editors of the Clarksville Chronicle endorsed a pro-Union candidate for state senator in Robertson, Montgomery, and Stewart counties.[13]

On April 12, the Memphis Daily Appeal ran a satirical obituary for Uncle Sam, proclaiming him to have died of "irrepressible conflict disease," after having met Abraham Lincoln.[14] One Robertson County slave owner complained that she could not rent her slaves out for "half [of what] they were worth" because "the negros think when Lincoln takes his last, they will all be free."[15]

Reaction to the attack on Fort Sumter[]

With the attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, followed by President Abraham Lincoln’s (February 12, 1809 – April 14, 1865) call for 75,000 volunteers to put the seceded states back into line, public sentiment turned dramatically against the Union.

Historian Daniel Crofts thus reports:

Unionists of all descriptions, both those who became Confederates and those who did not, considered the proclamation calling for seventy-five thousand troops "disastrous." Having consulted personally with Lincoln in March, Congressman Horace Maynard, the unconditional Unionist and future Republican from East Tennessee, felt assured that the administration would pursue a peaceful policy. Soon after April 15, a dismayed Maynard reported that "the President's extraordinary proclamation" had unleashed "a tornado of excitement that seems likely to sweep us all away." Men who had "heretofore been cool, firm and Union loving" had become "perfectly wild" and were "aroused to a frenzy of passion." For what purpose, they asked, could such an army be wanted "but to invade, overrun and subjugate the Southern states." The growing war spirit in the North further convinced southerners that they would have to "fight for our hearthstones and the security of home." [16]

Governor Isham Harris began military mobilization, submitted an ordinance of secession to the $3, and made direct overtures to the Confederate government.

Tennessee secedes[]

In a June 8, 1861 referendum, East Tennessee held firm against separation, while West Tennessee returned an equally heavy majority in favor. The deciding vote came in Middle Tennessee, which went from 51 percent against secession in February to 88 percent in favor in June.

Having ratified by popular vote its connection with the fledgling Confederacy, Tennessee became the last state to formally declare its withdrawal from the Union.

East Tennessee[]

East Tennessee was a stronghold of Unionism; most slaves were house servants—luxuries—rather than the base of plantation operations. The dominant mood strongly opposed secession.[17] Tennesseans representing twenty-six East Tennessee counties met twice in Greeneville and Knoxville and agreed to secede from Tennessee. They petitioned the state legislature in Nashville, which denied their request to secede and sent Confederate troops under Felix Zollicoffer to occupy East Tennessee and prevent secession. East Tennessee thus came under Confederate control from 1861 to 1863. Nevertheless East Tennessee supplied significant numbers of troops to the Federal army. (See also Nickajack). Many East Tennesseans engaged in guerrilla warfare against state authorities by burning bridges, cutting telegraph wires, and spying for the North.[18] East Tennessee became an early base for the Republican Party in the South. Strong support for the Union challenged the Confederate commanders who controlled East Tennessee for most of the war. Generals Felix K. Zollicoffer, Edmund Kirby Smith, and Sam Jones oscillated between harsh measures and conciliatory gestures to gain support, but had little success whether they arrested hundreds of Unionist leaders or allowed men to escape the Confederate draft. Union forces finally captured the region in 1863.[19]

General William Sherman's famous March to the Sea saw him personally escorted by the 1st Alabama Cavalry regiment, which consisted entirely of Unionist southerners. Despite its name, the regiment consisted largely of men from Tennessee.


The Third Battle of Chattanooga was fought November 23–25, 1863.

Many battles were fought in the state, most of them victories by the larger Union forces.

Twin Rivers Campaign of 1862[]

Control of the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers was important in gaining control of Tennessee during the age of steamboats. Tennessee relied on northbound riverboats to receive staple commodities from the Cumberland and Tennessee valleys.[20] The idea of using the rivers to breach the Confederate defense line in the West was well known by the end of 1861; Union gunboats had been scanning Confederate fort-building on the twin rivers for months before the campaign.[21] Ulysses S. Grant and the United States Navy captured control of the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers in February 1862 and held off the Confederate counterattack at Shiloh in April of the same year.

Capture of Memphis[]

Capture of Memphis and Nashville gave the Union control of the Western and Middle sections. Control was confirmed at the battle of Murfreesboro in early January 1863.

After Nashville was captured (the first Confederate state capital to fall) Andrew Johnson, an East Tennessean from Greeneville, was appointed military governor of the state by Lincoln. During this time, the military government abolished slavery (but with questionable legality).

The Confederates continued to hold East Tennessee despite the strength of Unionist sentiment there, with the exception of strongly pro-Confederate Sullivan and Rhea Counties.


After winning a decisive victory at Chickamauga in September 1863, the Confederates besieged Chattanooga but were finally driven off by Grant in November. Many of the Confederate defeats can be attributed to the poor strategic vision of the incompetent General Braxton Bragg, who led the Army of Tennessee from Shiloh to the Confederate defeat at Chattanooga.


The last major battles came when the General John Bell Hood led the Confederates north in November 1864. He was checked at Franklin, and his army was virtually destroyed by George Thomas's greatly superior forces at Nashville in December.

Economy and society[]

Refugees poured into Nashville during the war, because jobs were plentiful in the depots, warehouses and hospitals serving the war effort, and furthermore the city was much safer place than the countryside. Unionists and Confederate sympathizers both flooded in, as did free blacks and escaped slaves, and businessmen from the North.[22] There was little heavy industry in the South but the Western Iron District in Middle Tennessee was the largest iron producer in Confederacy in 1861. One of the largest operations was the Cumberland Iron Works, which the Confederate War Department tried and failed to protect.[23]

Memphis and Nashville, with very large transient populations, had flourishing red light districts. Union wartime regulations forced prostitutes to purchase licenses and pass medical exams, primarily to protect soldiers from venereal disease. Their trade was deregulated once military control ended.[24]

Wartime politics[]

Fear of subversion was widespread throughout the state. In West and Middle Tennessee it was fear of pro-Union activism, which was countered proactively by numerous local Committees of Safety and Vigilance from 1860 to 1862. They emerged as early as the 1860 Presidential election, and when the war began activists developed an aggressive program to detect and suppress Unionists. The committees set up a spy system. intercepted mail, inspected luggage, forced the enlistment of men into the Confederate Army, confiscated private property, and whenever it seemed necessary lynched enemies of the Confederacy. The committees were disbanded by the Union Army when it took control in 1862.[25]


Tennessee has strong Confederate memories (based in West Tennessee and Middle Tennessee), which focused on the Lost Cause theme of heroic defense of traditional liberties (and ignored slavery). To a lesser extent Tennesseans celebrate Unionist memories based in East Tennessee and among blacks.[26]


Notable Civil War leaders from Tennessee[]


After the war, Tennessee adopted a constitutional amendment forbidding human property on February 22, 1865;[27][28] ratified the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution on July 18, 1866; and was the first state readmitted to the Union on July 24, 1866.

Because it ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, Tennessee was the only state that seceded from the Union that did not have a military governor during Reconstruction. This did not placate those unhappy with the Confederate defeat. Many white Tennesseans resisted efforts to expand suffrage and other civil rights to the freedmen. For generations white Tennesseans had been raised to believe that slavery was justified. Some could not accept that their former slaves were now equal under the law. When the state Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of African American suffrage in 1867, the reaction became stronger. The Nashville Republican Banner on January 4, 1868, published an editorial calling for a revolutionary movement of white Southerners to unseat the one-party state rule imposed by the Republican Party and restore the legal inferiority of the region's black population.

"In this State, reconstruction has perfected itself and done its worst. It has organized a government which is as complete a closed corporation as may be found; it has placed the black man over the white as the agent and prime-move of domination; it has constructed a system of machinery by which all free guarantees, privileges and opportunities are removed from the people.... The impossibility of casting a free vote in Tennessee short of a revolutionary movement ... is an undoubted fact."

The Banner urged its readers to ignore the presidential election and direct their energy into building "a local movement here at home" to end Republican rule.[29]

According to the 1860 census, African Americans made up only 25% of Tennessee's population, which meant they could not dominate politics. Only a few African Americans served in the Tennessee legislature during Reconstruction, and not many more as state and city officers. However, the Nashville Banner may have been reacting to increased participation by African Americans on that city's council, where they held about one-third of the seats.[30]

See also[]


  1. "The Effect" (PDF). Archived from the original on September 26, 2007. Retrieved September 6, 2007. [dead link][dead link]
  2. "Pro-secessionist proposal to construct a fort at Randolph, Tennessee, on the Mississippi River" (PDF). Retrieved September 6, 2007. [dead link][dead link]
  3. "Excerpts from Governor Isham G. Harris' Legislative Message" (PDF). Archived from the original on September 26, 2007. Retrieved September 6, 2007. [dead link][dead link]
  4. "Secession Demonstration and Ball in Memphis" (PDF). Retrieved September 7, 2007. [dead link][dead link]
  5. "Another Political Demonstration—Minute Men Torchlight Procession" (PDF). Archived from the original on September 26, 2007. Retrieved September 7, 2007. [dead link][dead link]
  6. "Tennesseans, Decide for Tennessee" (PDF). Archived from the original on September 26, 2007. Retrieved September 7, 2007. [dead link][dead link]
  7. "The Convention" (PDF). Retrieved September 7, 2007. [dead link][dead link]
  8. "The vote against secession, and against 'Convention' or 'No Convention'" (PDF). Archived from the original on September 26, 2007. Retrieved September 7, 2007. [dead link][dead link]
  9. "Display of Flags" (PDF). Retrieved September 7, 2007. [dead link][dead link]
  10. "Jovial" (PDF). Retrieved September 7, 2007. [dead link][dead link]
  11. "The great news from Tennessee..." (PDF). Archived from the original on September 26, 2007. Retrieved September 7, 2007. [dead link][dead link]
  12. "Abolitionist attempts to divest the South of the territory acquired by the Mexican War" (PDF). Retrieved September 8, 2007. [dead link][dead link]
  13. "Pro-Union candidate for State Senate endorsed for Robertson, Stewart, & Montgomery counties" (PDF). Retrieved September 8, 2007. [dead link][dead link]
  14. "Obituary for Uncle Sam; a pro-secession argument in Memphis" (PDF). Retrieved September 8, 2007. [dead link][dead link]
  15. "'The negros think when Old Lincoln takes his last they will all be free.' The letter of Martha Gilbert of Robertson County to Cave Johnson Couts" (PDF). Retrieved September 8, 2007. [dead link][dead link]
  16. Daniel W. Crofts, Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis (1989), p.334.
  17. Thomas B. Alexander, "Whiggery and Reconstruction in Tennessee," The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 16, No. 3 (August, 1950), pp. 291-305 in JSTOR
  18. Carroll Van West, ed., Tennessee History: the Land, the People, and the Culture. James McDonough "Tennessee in the Civil War" 1998. p 155
  19. Noel Fisher, "'The leniency shown them has been unavailing': The Confederate occupation of East Tennessee," Civil War History, Dec 1994, Vol. 40 Issue 4, pp 275-91
  20. Cooling, Benjamin (1987). Forts Henry and Donelson: The Key to the Confederate Heartland. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press. p. 1. ISBN 0-87049-538-0. 
  21. Cooling, Benjamin (1987). Forts Henry and Donelson: The Key to the Confederate Heartland. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press. pp. 65, 66. ISBN 0-87049-538-0. 
  22. Durham, 1985; Durham 1987
  23. Michael Thomas Gavin, "War Comes to Iron Country: Middle Tennessee's Defense Industry during the Civil War," West Tennessee Historical Society Papers, 2009, Vol. 63, pp 82-108
  24. Jeannine Cole, "'Upon the Stage of Disorder:' Legalized Prostitution in Memphis and Nashville, 1863-1865," Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Spring 2009, Vol. 68 Issue 1, pp 40-65
  25. James B. Jones, Jr., "'The Reign of Terror of the Safety Committee Has Passed Away Forever': A History of Committees of Safety and Vigilance in West and Middle Tennessee, 1860-1862," West Tennessee Historical Society Papers, 2009, Vol. 63, pp 1-28
  26. James B. Williams, "The Tennessee Civil War Centennial Commission: Looking to the Past as Tennessee Plans for the Future," Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Winter 2008, Vol. 67 Issue 4, pp 270-345
  27. Freedmen and Southern Society Project: Chronology of Emancipation
  28. TSLA::This Honorable Body: African American Legislators in 19th Century Tennessee
  29. cited in Harcourt 2005.
  30. W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, New York: Oxford University Press, 1935; reprint New York: Free Press,1998, p.575.

Further reading[]

  • Alexander, Thomas B. Political Reconstruction in Tennessee (1968)
  • Ash, Stephen V. Middle Tennessee society transformed, 1860-1870: war and peace in the Upper South (2006)
  • Cooling, Benjamin Franklin. Fort Donelson's Legacy: War and Society in Kentucky and Tennessee, 1862-1863 (1997)
  • Cottrell, Steve. Civil War in Tennessee (2001) 142pp
  • Durham, Walter T. Nashville: The Occupied City, 1862-1863 (1985)
  • Durham, Walter T. Reluctant Partners: Nashville and the Union, 1863-1865 (1987)
  • Fisher, Noel C. War at Every Door: Partisan Politics and Guerrilla Violence in East Tennessee, 1860-1869 (2000) excerpt and text search[dead link]
  • McKenzie, Robert Tracy. One South or Many? Plantation Belt and Upcountry in Civil War-Era Tennessee (1994) uses longitudinal census data to demonstrate similar economic and social trends among Tennessee's three regions excerpt and text search
  • Temple, Oliver P. East Tennessee and the civil war (1899) 588pp online edition

Military studies[]

  • Connelly, Thomas L. Civil War Tennessee: battles and leaders (1979) 106pp
  • Connelly, Thomas L. Army of the Heartland: The Army of Tennessee, 1861-1862 (2 vol 1967-70); a Confederate army
  • Daniel, Larry J. Shiloh: The Battle That Changed the Civil War (1998) excerpt and text search
  • Engle, Stephen D. Don Carlos Buell: Most Promising of All (1999)
  • Engle, Stephen D. Struggle for the Heartland: The Campaigns from Fort Henry to Corinth (2001)
  • Groom, Winston. Shiloh, 1862: The First Great and Terrible Battle of the Civil War (2011)
  • Lepa, Jack H. The Civil War in Tennessee, 1862-1863 (2007)
  • Woodworth, Stephen E. Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West (1990)
  • Woodworth, Stephen E. Decision in the Heartland: The Civil War in the West (2011)
  • Woodworth, Stephen E. Six Armies in Tennessee: The Chickamauga and Chattanooga Campaigns (1998) excerpt and text search

Primary sources[]

  • Jones, James B., ed. Tennessee in the Civil War: Selected Contemporary Accounts (2011) 286 pp
  • McCaslin, Richard B., ed. Portraits of Conflict: A Photographic History of Tennessee in the Civil War (2006)

External links[]

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