The Weirdest December

A brief presidential visit, during wartime

That December, 145 winters ago, Knoxville was the most awkward city in the most awkward state in America. The war was just a year and a half old, and already Union troops had sliced up the the state's western regions. By year's end, the most pro-Confederate districts, including Nashville, were in Union hands. However, Knoxville, capital of Union-dominant East Tennessee, until recently home to the most staunchly pro-Union newspaper in the South, was under Confederate control.

Pretty securely, it seemed. A few weeks previously, during an early snow, more than 50,000 Confederate troops under Braxton Bragg and Kirby Smith had trudged into Knoxville, retreating from the frustrating Battle of Perryville, Ky. For a time, Confederate soldiers outnumbered civilians 10 to one.

Knoxville, an important railroad depot for Confederate supply lines, linking the Deep South and the fronts of Virginia, was a rough-edged town of about 6,000, and sharply, bitterly, obstinately, divided. Partisans of both sides left Knoxville, just because of the uncomfortable daily presence of partisans of the other side. Shops closed; by one account, most of Knoxville's occupied business was in whorehouses, of which there were reportedly 39.

Since Knoxville's most famous citizen, the pro-Union editor Parson William G. Brownlow, had left the Knoxville Whig, the only paper was the Knoxville Register, a pro-Confederate daily edited by Southern nationalist Austin Sperry, who cheered on the arrests of citizens who refused to swear loyalty to the Confederacy, like his predecessor at the Register—and warned against "cowardly and dangerous non-commitalism."

He denounced rumors that East Tennessee-raised Texan Sam Houston was siding with the Union as "another lie."

"Let it be made a war of extermination," declared the Register, which published some impromptu heroic verse called "The Song of Morgan's Men" who "Flashed the dripping sabre, red / With blood of Lincoln slain...."

Old Registers can be uncomfortable reading. Even Knoxville, where we hear that slavery was never a big deal, seemed preoccupied with slaves in 1862: escaped slaves, slaves found, slaves for sale, slaves wanted. A slave auction at the Knoxville courthouse offered two women and their five children, aged six months to seven years. A runaway slave named Will was described as a "light mulatto...could pass for a white man." One ad ran, "I wish to hire or buy a good girl 12 or 15 years old. Cash down. Apply next door south of the Lamar House." What he wanted to do with her was none of our business.

The Register confidently predicted the "Over-Throw of Lincoln's Empire." Word of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation had gotten around, and in the Register, Lincoln was routinely ridiculed as "the Abolition president," the Union army was "the Abolition Army." Sperry claimed to welcome the proclamation. He thought it might help bring pro-slave Unionists, of which there were many, into the rebel fold.

At the same time, a few young Confederate officers, chief among them Brigadier Gen. Pat Cleburn, who was in Knoxville that fall, were soon to propose the abolition of slavery in the Confederacy, in a way that might have outdone Lincoln. It didn't get far, but, to be fair, it was a long shot.

In several issues that December, the Register published the full text of the Confederate Constitution. Closely modeled on the U.S. Constitution, it differed in only a few particulars, including term limits and an explicit guarantee that "no...law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed."

Bragg's soldiers weren't the most cordial guests Knoxville could have hoped for. Officers tended to take what they wanted, while the army shed deserters like dandruff. Knoxville experienced an unprecedented crime wave. "There is not a day nor night without its robbery or theft or burglary." Even pro-Confederate journalists could have enough of actual Confederates. "Does the declaration of Martial Law suspend the municipal code and charter of Knoxville?" asked an exasperated Sperry. "Has it lifted our Mayor entirely out of his official boots?"

Early on the second Thursday in December, a train from Richmond pulled in, and a thin man of 54, wearing a Jefferson-Davis style goatee, stepped out into the train station at the north end of Gay Street. Just two years earlier, the man on the platform had been a U.S. senator from Mississippi; now he was president of the Confederate States of America. He was on his way to review his pal Braxton's troops in Murfreesboro. Apparently few knew about the visit; even the Register didn't have a reporter on hand, and had to rely on the memories of bystanders. As near as folks could remember, Jefferson Davis said "he had heard it reported that East Tennesseans were disloyal, but he was loth to believe that the land which owned a Jackson, a Coffee, and a Carroll could give birth to men who would prove recreant to their country."

His choice of examples is curious, considering that Andrew Jackson, John Coffee, and William Carroll all died long before the Confederacy, and none were East Tennesseans. Maybe President Davis had a Nashville speech that he couldn't give, under the circumstances, and didn't want it to go to waste.

Nonetheless, his address "was received with enthusiasm by the fortunate few who heard it."

He was "in fine spirits...confident in his capacity...to restore the conditions of things 12 months ago, in Mississippi and Tennessee." Nashville, the Register assured its readers, would soon be Confederate again, and "the Abolition host would be annihilated."

Lee's defeat of Burnside's army at Fredericksburg that week boosted Sperry's pep talks. But eight months later, Sperry and some comrades would be catching a late train, refugees bound for the real South, before the arrival of a renewed army under the same General Burnside.