Located at 16th and Laurel Avenue, the old church we call the Laurel Theatre would have been within the ramparts of the old Union Fort Sanders. When the church went up in 1897, parts of the old earthworks were still visible hardly a block away.
Gretchen Geisinger is the young woman who often introduces the Laurel's music shows. Like a lot of people who work in the entertainment business, she's not from here. When she took her job with Jubilee Center Community Arts, she had been to Knoxville only once, the obligatory visit to the World's Fair. Her roots are in South Georgia and Pennsylvania, where her dad grew up. But as she was on her way to town, her dad mentioned that somebody in her family had once spent a lot of time in Knoxville.
Her father, Bill Geisinger, found out about it himself some years ago when he was helping clean out his grandmother's house in Columbia County, Pennsylvania. "Like many old farmhouses, it was full of stuff," he says. "They saved everything—string, bottles, old letters." In the bundle of letters were several that were more interesting than the others. They bore three-cent stamps, each canceled with the postmark KNOXVILLE, TENN. The date on the circular postmarks was '64.
The letters were from a Union soldier writing home about life down South. The grandiose letterhead of Colvin's Illinois Battery sports a team of horses raising dust as they haul a cannon. The letters, gracefully penned but indifferently spelled and punctuated, were signed by a young enlisted man named John F. Eck. He was probably never a hero, but his letters give us a glimpse of the life of a young soldier, and a glimpse of Knoxville during wartime. (For clarity's sake, I took the liberty of helping Mr. Eck with his spelling and punctuation.)
"This is Wednesday evening, and a very rainy one it is," he wrote one evening that fall. "I am on guard tonight and it makes it very inconvenient for me.... There is not much on tonight and the old town is as dry as ever. This place one year ago was as nice a town as there was in the state and has been one half of it destroyed by fire when we had the siege here last winter and many are the graves of those that were slain.... It is nothing but a graveyard all around."
He estimates there were 7,000 in the Federal graveyard, 13,000 in the Confederate graveyard "besides those 1,200 that were buried in the entrenchments at Fort Sanders." To author Digby Seymour and other Civil War authorities I know, those figures sound pretty high. They're probably soldiers' exaggerations. In the end, though, we don't know exactly how many Civil War soldiers are buried in Knoxville.
Eck was an enlisted man and wasn't in the army much more than a year, but today he shows up even on the Internet, in the Illinois Civil War Veterans Database. It tells us that John F. Eck lived in Chicago at the time of his enlistment on March 20, 1864, in Colvin's Battery—later known as Co. K of the First Illinois Light Artillery. He seems to have spent most of his time stationed in Knoxville, holding this city that Longstreet had unsuccessfully attempted to conquer the previous sNov. 30.
Geisinger thinks John Eck was her great-great-grandmother's brother. Geisinger thought it "an odd coincidence" that her relative had done time in the city where she lives. It might be a little too odd if Eck had been stationed at Fort Sanders, the same spot where she's stationed.
He probably wasn't. Eck sent his family a schematic drawing of his fort. It's so detailed that latter-day censors wouldn't have allowed it through.
"This is the place where we live and expect to stay all summer and perhaps next winter," he wrote. "This inside line is drawn of is four feet thick of dirt, logs, etc. etc. above the portholes which throws it above the level of the ground about 18 feet.
"The battery boys has built it since last November. It is not quite done yet but it will not take more than a week to finish it. It stands up on a high hill in one edge of the town. It is called Fort Summit, one of the strongest forts in the vicinity."
Eck makes it sound like a big deal, but this fort, built months after the siege, isn't mentioned in the standard histories, and I couldn't find anybody who'd ever heard of Fort Summit. However, we can guess where it was. In Eck's drawing, eight "portholes," open to the east, north, and west with the soldier's entrance on the south, suggesting it was on the north side of town.
Long before it was the name of an awkward boulevard that saws off the northern quarter of downtown, Summit Hill was the redundant name of the highest hill in old Knoxville, the site of the first Catholic church in East Tennessee. Both the Confederates and the Federals built defenses there. Fort Summit was likely an addition to those fortifications.
Longstreet had withdrawn to the east, where the Confederates kept rummaging around through 1864. Union commanders kept a wary eye in that direction. But this enlisted man sounds more interested in the corn crop in Illinois, and in Midwestern politics. A Lincoln man, he followed the presidential campaign, speculating about the Republican's chances in Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Illinois. Pennsylvania, in particular, was going Republican. "Bully for her," wrote Eck. "I am glad it is going the way it is. It is making big changes here with the Tennesseans. It is changing a number here. They go the way the majority goes." Eck may be describing the birth of Knoxville's Republican Party.
"There has been a great many sick and wounded soldiers sent home on furloughs from this place," he adds, "mostly Indiana boys going home to give their governor a vote."
The Knoxville garrison apparently got rosy assessments of the war's progress. Eck heard the Confederates had evacuated Petersburg, Virginia, six bloody months before they did.
"Old Sherman has turned Hood in another direction from what he was going," Eck wrote on Oct. 23, 1864, referring to recent actions near Atlanta. "They have again been whipped pretty bad leaving a great many of their dead and wounded in our hands. That is the only trouble with them. They let us to take care of their wounded which makes it very troublesome...." I had never pictured Knoxville tending to the wounded of the Atlanta campaigns. But it wasn't over here yet.
"Our little command up in East Tenn. has been falling back. They have fell back to New Market although they have not done much damage yet so far as we have heard.... The rebels has a pretty large force in there. There was a few rebs came down to Strawberry Plains and scouted around there a little while and a part of the 10th Michigan cavalry got after them and hauled in some 30-odd in a very short time.
"The reports is that a portion of the army from Lee is coming in through to this place. They may come here, but whether they get in or not...my opinion is some of them will get pretty sore shins in the operation...."
Lee's army never fell back to Knoxville, though, and those guerrillas in East Tennessee never challenged this well-fortified city. Eck may never have seen much real combat. He survived the war as a sergeant, mustered out three months after Appomattox. The Geisingers aren't sure what became of him after the war. But his letters have somehow made it through the lines.