A Peculiar Fourth: Some Picture From Knoxville's Most Anxious July

"There's No Danger," went a column directed at patrons of Knoxville businesses. The shops of Gay Street and Market Square were suffering for lack of customers. Knoxville's retailers and nascent wholesale trade depended heavily on visitors coming by wagon or train from elsewhere in the region, especially the countryside and smaller towns, to shop. The assumption was that country people feared shopping in Knoxville because they might get hit by shrapnel.

"Our city does not present a very business-looking presence," the editor of the Knoxville Register admitted, using a phrase that perhaps might have seemed less awkward 150 years ago. "Some of our merchants have a few goods which they are daily sacrificing to cash buyers. Whether the fear of a raid prevents our numerous country friends from investing in city commodities or not, we can't say. We notice blackberries offering on the streets at $1 a quart."

Their meaning might seem obscure at first. That would be crazy cheap for fresh blackberries in July today, of course, but a dollar a quart sounds expensive for 1863. If customers were scarce, you'd think everything would be cheap.

But then I remembered, they weren't talking about U.S. dollars. This is Confederate money, and that summer there was too much of it. Inflation was rampant. If I'm reading my charts right, a Confederate dollar in the summer of 1863 was worth about a U.S. dime. It got much worse.

"We will simply state for the benefit of our country friends that they need have no apprehension of a raid." It was a pretty bold claim to make, considering that just two weeks earlier, the city had suffered a substantial cavalry raid led by a 29-year-old Union colonel named William Sanders. Though raised in Mississippi, Sanders was a career military man, and loyalty was his business. Just before the solstice, he'd led 1,500 troops toward Knoxville, and after an artillery duel on the north side of town, withdrew with 31 prisoners, 80 Confederate horses, and a couple of rebel cannons.

He sent a message to the Confederate defenders: "I send you my compliments, and say that but for the admirable manner with which you managed your artillery, I would have taken Knoxville today."

That threat was over, the newspaper editor assured readers, despite reports that General Burnside and his army were lurking in the region, perhaps waiting for the opportunity to pounce on Knoxville.

"We have made arrangements to plant a 60-gallon syringe on the outskirts of the city which, when filled with hot water, will be sufficient to keep Burn-his-side, dad-burn him, and his whole army at bay." I think that's a joke, and a pretty odd one. But if you know of some rusty hulk that looks sort of like a 60-gallon Confederate syringe, let me know.

"Come in frequently, friends. There's no danger; or lots of your acquaintances wouldn't be here."


Then as now, newspapers showed a pro-business bias. Advertising was how they made their living. And back then, even here, one of the biggest businesses were those connected to the slave trade. Every issue featured classified ads about escaped slaves, and even in July, 1863, six months after the Emancipation Proclamation, there was still a lively slave trade in those parts of the South the Union army hadn't reached yet.

A regional firm advertised "Negroes for Sale. At our Yard in Loudon, Tenn. FAMILIES -- MEN -- GIRLS AND BOYS / In Parcels to Suit Purchasers."

Atlanta's Whitehall Street Slave Yard advertised in another Knoxville paper, The Daily Southern Chronicle, using a bizarre line to advertise it: "a commodious, well-arranged Yard, with every convenience for the health and comfort of slaves."

You'd think they'd see the writing on the walls. By the summer of 1863, the Federals controlled several of the South's biggest cities, including New Orleans, and most of the Mississippi River. Nashville and Memphis had been in Union hands for a year. Maybe slave traders were trying to divest without seeming desperate.

Or maybe they were overconfident. If so, it may have been because they read the Confederate newspapers. Jacob Austin Sperry's Knoxville Register always put a positive spin on the news of every battle. "Lee's Army Safe" was the headline after Gettysburg, with confident reports that Lee was soon to strike again in Pennsylvania.

"Grant Defeated by Johnston" went another headline about Vicksburg, adding that Grant's army had been "cut to pieces."

Even Knoxville Confederates must have experienced some cognitive dissonance that month. Several inches lower on the same page of the same paper acknowledged, "Vicksburg has Fallen."

For the U.S.A., it was the most dramatic 4th of July since 1776. The South didn't make a big deal of the enemy's holiday. Three years before, Knoxville had hosted parades for the Fourth. But in 1863, the Knoxville Register published correspondence "from the United States," as if it were a foreign country. That column was full of ridicule for Lincoln and his cabinet.

The Register aimed to be helpful to Knoxville's anxious Confederates, and even offered its readers assistance with theological quandaries. "The Bible says ‘love your enemies,'" Sperry's Register allowed. "This is intended for civilized enemies, and not brutes. People need have no fears, while following the Bible to the letter, to hate the Yankees incessantly—for it tells us to hate sin—and if the Doodles are not a perfect embodiment of all that is sinful, then there is no necessity of distinguishing between good and evil."

Doodles was Sperry's word for Yankees. Yankee Doodles.

I'm not sure how Mr. Sperry got along with his family. After the war, both of his Tennessee-born sons both moved to New Jersey, where they became very successful businessmen—co-founding the S&H Green Stamp empire—and leading citizens of the town of Cranford.

It was Sanders whose name would endure in Knoxville. He'd led the raid that made Knoxville jumpy that summer. But he would die defending the same city from a Confederate siege, five months later.