Knoxville on the Edge of Civil War

The wild and hazardous scheme of secession

On the weekend before Abraham Lincoln's inauguration, adults gathered on Gay Street to admire adolescent girls reenacting the coronation of Empress Josephine, as well as a scene of Minnehaha, the Indian heroine of Mr. Longfellow's recent poem, "Song of Hiawatha." The Daughters Collegiate Institute was holding its proud "Concert and Tableaux." An eccentric doctor turned Presbyterian minister named Richard Currey had only recently opened the posh boarding school for girls, advertising its locale, "the providential healthfulness of Knoxville." It stood on an elaborately landscaped patch of Gay Street just north of Wall, and was briefly notable for its array of nude statues in front. Dr. Currey was a man of both scientific and artistic sensibilities, but antebellum Knoxville wasn't quite ready for his statuary, which reportedly incited a "small riot." He was eventually obliged to bring the offending art inside.

An evening of good tableaux was a handy opportunity to ignore the gathering horror.

That same Friday, two giant, eight-ton cannons called Columbiads came wheeling through town on their way to Montgomery, Alabama, the capital of the new Confederacy, where Jefferson Davis had just been inaugurated president. The secessionist Knoxville Register hailed the shipment, calling the guns "an argument against coercion that Mr. Lincoln and his black Republican minions will be likely to respect"—continuing, "we have no fears as to the result if blood alone will satisfy the appetite of the vampire of Abolitionism."

In his inaugural address, Lincoln would claim he wasn't an abolitionist, really. But several states weren't taking the chance, and had already formally seceded. Tennessee was, as of March, 1861, a Border State—a slave state that appeared to be staying in the Union. When people talked about "the South" that March, they were talking about another place, the Deep South.

A downtown gun shop called the Sign of the Big Padlock ran display ads for seven-shot revolvers.

Parson William Brownlow had built himself a lonely perch. The editor of the Knoxville Whig called the secessionists "brutal, hellish, stupid, and wicked...country-destroying, God-defying, Hell-deserving Traitors to their country." But he jeered at Lincoln, too. On March 2, he wrote, "Most of his big speeches are very foolish, and betray more weakness than we thought he was capable of," referring specifically to one of Lincoln's rhetorical blunders, his claim that there was nothing seriously wrong in America. "The Border States, which have shown their willingness to give him a fair trial, may decline all further connection to his government. While the Border States speak out in open condemnation of the heresy of Secession, they are still of the opinion that there is something wrong, and that the Negro question must be settled permanently...." Brownlow was harshly critical of Lincoln's choice for Secretary of Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, whom Brownlow decried as a "violent" man "with ultra-abolitionist predilections."

Also on that front page, Brownlow criticized as groundless the Southern demand that slavery must be extended into the new territories.

Though Brownlow claimed to hate abolitionism, on that same remarkable front page was the full text of a new poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, the Massachusetts abolitionist: "Can ye divide with equal hand a heritage of graves / Or rend in twain the starry flag that o'er them proudly waves?"

Georgia and Alabama were denouncing Tennessee for not seceding. The Meridian (Miss.) Press called Tennesseans "cowardly...a disgrace to any union.... Henceforth the name of Tennessee, like that of Arnold, will recall treachery, contempt, infamy, and disgrace...the soil of Tennessee has never been dishonored, save by Tennesseans' tread." Brownlow, who respected a good barb, printed the insults prominently.

Brownlow remarked on the inauguration of Jefferson Davis, "the whole affair creating less of a stir, and of interest, than did the organization of the Empire Club,"—referring to the corrupt political machine in New York—"and certainly not entitled to more respect from the civilized world."

The Knoxville Whig had a national readership, and Brownlow was burned in effigy as far away as Harrison County, Texas. A Texan wrote Brownlow that he would be hanged "should your carcass ever be seen in this county." Brownlow remarked that he could remember when Texas was begging to get into the Union, and now Texans were demanding to leave it.

Before 1861, Brownlow's chief national fame was as a slavery advocate in a nationally published debate. But given the choice between what he called "the wild and hazardous scheme of secession" and Lincoln, he began to warm to the new president.

The pro-secession Knoxville Register ran a short summation of Lincoln's inaugural. Brownlow's Whig ran the entire text. "We endorse the entire address, as one of the best papers of its kind we have seen, and we commend it for its temperance and conservatism," Brownlow wrote. "Had it been delivered by Jackson, Polk, or Breckinridge, even the Southern states would have declared it to be the height of political perfection.... Let us, then, of the Border States, patiently await the development of the new Administration. We may be much better off under it than under the late profligate administration of Buchanan.... We shall have no war unless it be forced upon us by the reckless conduct of the South."

He apparently expected it anyway. "Fighting is to be done," Brownlow said in another article in the same issue, "and that at no distant day." He added a rueful irony, that the people of the Deep South wanted war the most. But he said it was clear that war would be felt most in the Border States—like Kentucky, Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee.

Brownlow's influence was limited, even in Knoxville. Lincoln's inauguration prompted the resignation of Knoxville's postmaster, and U.S. Attorney General J.C. Ramsey announced he could not in good conscience consider another term.

An unnamed university student on the Hill gave an address, printed in the Register, denouncing "the Abolition Party" which "has brought upon the country ruin and destruction" as well as those Unionists who would "utter that detestable, unmanly, servile word compromise."