The Civil War
In the 1830s, Tennessee’s position on slavery hardened. The Virginia slave uprising led by Nat Turner frightened slave owners, who instituted patrols to search for runaway slaves and tightened codes on slave conduct. In 1834, the state constitution was amended to bar free blacks from voting, a sign of whites’ increasing fear of the black people living in their midst.
The division between East and West Tennessee widened as many in the east were sympathetic with the anti-slavery forces that were growing in Northern states. In the west, the support for slavery was unrelenting.
Despite several strident secessionists, including Tennessee’s governor Isham Harris, Tennessee remained uncertain about secession. In February 1861, the state voted against a convention on secession. But with the attack on Fort Sumter two months later, followed by president Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers to coerce the seceded states back to the Union, public opinion shifted. On June 8, 1861, Tennesseans voted 105,000 to 47,000 to secede.
A Border State
Tennessee was of great strategic importance during the Civil War. It sent an estimated 186,000 men to fight for the Confederacy, more than any other state. Another 31,000 are credited with having joined the Union army.
Tennessee had resources which both Union and Confederacy deemed important for victory, including agricultural and manufacturing industries, railroads, and rivers. And its geographic position as a long-border state made it nearly unavoidable.
Some 454 battles and skirmishes were fought in Tennessee during the war. Most were small, but several key battles took place on Tennessee soil.
The first of these was the Union victory at Forts Henry and Donelson in January 1862. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and 15,000 Union troops steamed up the Tennessee River and quickly captured Fort Henry. They then marched overland to Fort Donelson, and, 10 days later, this Confederate fort fell as well. The battle of Fort Donelson is where U.S. Grant earned his sobriquet: He was asked by the Confederate general the terms of capitulation and he replied, “unconditional surrender.”
The Battle of Shiloh was the bloodiest and largest to take place in Tennessee. The battle took place near Pittsburgh Landing (the Federal name for the struggle) on the Mississippi River about 20 miles north of the Mississippi state line. More than 100,000 men took part in this battle and there were more than 24,000 casualties.
The battle began with a surprise Confederate attack at dawn on April 6, 1862, a Sunday. For several hours, victory seemed in reach for the Southern troops, but the Union rallied, and held. They built a strong defensive line covering Pittsburgh Landing, and on April 7 they took the offensive and swept the Confederates from the field. The Confederates’ loss was devastating, and Shiloh represents a harbinger of the future bloodletting between Blue and Gray.
Another important Tennessee battle was at Stone’s River, near Murfreesboro, on December 31, 1862. Like at Shiloh, the early momentum here was with the Confederates, but victory belonged to the Union. The Battle of Chickamauga Creek, fought a few miles over the state line in Georgia, was a rare Confederate victory. It did not come cheaply, however, with 21,000 members of the Army of Tennessee killed.
Federal forces retreated and dug in near Chattanooga, while Confederates occupied the heights above the town. Union reinforcements led by General Grant drove the Confederates back into Georgia at Battle of Lookout Mountain, also known as the “Battle Above the Clouds,” on November 25, 1863.
Battles were only part of the wartime experience in Tennessee. The Civil War caused hardship for ordinary residents on a scale that many had never before seen. There was famine and poverty. Schools and churches were closed. Harassment and recrimination plagued the state, and fear was widespread.
In February 1863, one observer described the population of Memphis as “11,000 original whites, 5,000 slaves, and 19,000 newcomers of all kinds, including traders, fugitives, hangers-on, and negroes.”
Memphis fell to the Union on June 6, 1862, and it was occupied for the remainder of the war. The city’s experience during this wartime occupation reversed decades of growth, and left a city that would struggle for years to come back.
Those who could, fled the city. Many of those who remained stopped doing business (some of these because they refused to pledge allegiance to the Union and were not permitted). Northern traders entered the city and took over many industries, while blacks who abandoned nearby plantations flooded into the city.
While the military focused on punishing Confederate sympathizers, conditions in Memphis deteriorated. Crime and disorder abounded and guerrilla bands developed to fight the Union occupation. The Federal commander responsible for the city was Major Gen. William T. Sherman, and he adopted a policy of collective responsibility, which held civilians responsible for guerrilla attacks in their neighborhoods. Sherman destroyed hundreds of homes, farms, and towns in the exercise of this policy.
The war was equally damaging in other parts of Tennessee. In Middle Tennessee, retreating Confederate soldiers after the fall of Fort Donelson demolished railroads and burned bridges so as not to leave them for the Union. Union troops also destroyed and appropriated the region’s resources. Federals took horses, pigs, cows, corn, hay, cotton, fence rails, firearms, and tools. Sometimes this was carried out through official requisitions, but at other times it amounted to little more than pillaging.
Criminals took advantage of the loss of public order, and bands of thieves and bandits began roaming the countryside.
The experience in East Tennessee was different. Because of the region’s widespread Union sympathies, it was the Confederacy that first occupied the eastern territory. During this time hundreds of alleged Unionists were charged with treason and jailed. When the Confederates began conscripting men into military service in 1862, tensions in East Tennessee grew. Many East Tennesseans fled to Kentucky, and distrust, bitterness, and violence escalated. In September 1863 the tables turned, however, and the Confederates were replaced by the Federals, whose victories elsewhere enabled them to now focus on occupying friendly East Tennessee.
The Effects of the War
Tennessee lost most of a generation of young men to the Civil War. Infrastructure was destroyed, and thousands of farms, homes, and other properties were razed. The state’s reputation on the national stage had been tarnished, and it would be decades until Tennessee had the political power that it enjoyed during the Age of Jackson. But while the war caused tremendous hardships for the state, it also led to the freeing of some 275,000 black Tennesseans from slavery.
© Susanna Henighan Potter from Moon Tennessee, 5th Edition