secret_history (2005-31)

Under the Red, White, and Blue

The Confederate flag’s place in Maryville’s heritage

by Jack Neely

The fracas over the Confederate flag at Maryville High may be something historians of the future struggle to understand.

Granted, high-school symbols and mascots specialize in absurdity. The choice of a mascot isn’t always one of a new school’s most careful decisions. It probably falls somewhere between whether to let juniors drive to school and whether to put Pepsi or Coke machines in the cafeteria.

It’s not unusual for football teams to represent themselves with annoying insects, like hornets, or non-indigenous carnivores, like tigers. Sometimes the animals they choose aren’t very troublesome at all, like beavers or badgers. And the Farragut High Admirals may be the only high school in America that employs Cap’n Crunch as a mascot.

At some point in the past—some think it was the 1930s—Maryville High chose as their mascot, “the Rebels.” I’m not sure why they did. It probably seemed droll at the time.

Of course, the word Rebels alone could refer to all sorts of Rebels: Cypriot rebels, Shia rebels, Aceh rebels, Tamil, Jacobite, Zapatista, Sepoy, Fenian, or Mau-Mau rebels. In 1775, the disdainful British called the American continentals “Rebels.” Some still do.

But use the word in the American South, and it’s usually understood that we’re referring to Confederate rebels. The iconography is often borrowed from Ole Miss, which has used both the little colonel-looking fellow and some version of the banner known to historians as the Confederate battle flag.

If it’s a universally popular high-school tradition, that’s one thing. But in defending this particular symbol, its champions go much farther. They feel obliged to declare that the flag has nothing to do with slavery—a point that requires some deft logical acrobatics—and that it’s an important symbol of “Southern Heritage.”

Cap’n Crunch or the Karns High Beavers were never entrusted with such a big load. Does the Confederacy, which lasted barely four years, still represent “Southern Heritage” 140 years after its unconditional surrender? And is it important for Maryville High to carry the banner forward?

The flag, and the Confederacy itself, was never a symbol of all Southerners, even in 1861. One of the our favorite oversimplifications of the war was that it was “North” versus “South.” Thousands of New Yorkers, some of them connected to the lucrative cotton industry, thought the secessionist cause was a wonderful thing, and cheered it on. Slavery kept American cotton competitive. Some New York politicians tried to get the Gotham State to secede, too. New York firms printed the first Confederate currency. Several other Northern states had major strains of pro-Confederate sentiment.

Meanwhile, in the South, the Confederacy didn’t offer much to the little man, the small farmer. Most Southern states hosted significant pro-Union opposition, even among the white males who were allowed to vote. It seems obvious that if we include black slaves as Southerners—and why wouldn’t we?—a majority of Southerners, even in 1861, never thought of themselves as Confederates.

A lot of Southerners didn’t buy into the short-lived political movement known as the C.S.A. Many Southerners actively resisted it, especially here in Knoxville. Thomas Humes, Knoxville’s first historian and the churchman who was later an influential president of UT, was one. Captain William Rule, U.S.A., the Knox County-born editor who became a popular mayor here. William Sanders, the Southern born-and-bred Union general whose death from Confederate fire put his name on a fort, and later a large hospital chain. All Southerners, all Unionists.


Today, many Maryville High students are alumni of Sam Houston Elementary School. Sam Houston grew up in the Maryville area, and worked there for a time as a schoolteacher. His lectures about history and mythology were so popular adults would crowd into his classroom, which was standing-room only.

No one in American history was more Southern than Houston. Born in Virginia, raised in East Tennessee, he became a war hero, badly wounded fighting British-allied Indians in the Deep South in 1813. He was elected to Congress, then elected governor of Tennessee, but then moved West. As a general he exacted revenge for the slaughter of his countrymen at the Alamo by beating Santa Anna at San Jacinto. He did more than any individual to found the Southern state of Texas. Except for when he was on the fringe of Virginia in Washington, D.C., representing constituents in both Tennessee and Texas in Congress, Houston spent his entire 70 years in the South.

Sam Houston was one Southerner who thought the Confederacy was a profoundly reckless and stupid idea. In the early 1860s, he attempted to keep his own state of Texas from seceding. “I know what war is,” he said. “I have been in it often, and do not want any more of it. War is no plaything, and this war will be a bloody war. There will be thousands and thousands who march away from our homes never to come back.”

When Texas did secede, Houston refused to take an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy. When they called his name in the statehouse to sign the pledge, three times, he sat there and whittled, a picture of defiant contempt. Houston resigned as governor of his beloved Texas rather than submit to the Confederacy. He believed it a trampling of the U.S. Constitution and a degradation of Texas.

“The Vox Populi is not always the voice of God,” Houston said in a speech just after Texas seceded. “This hiss of the mob and the howls of their jackal leaders cannot deter me nor compel me to take the oath of allegiance to the so-called ‘Confederate Government.’”

In his conviction the Confederacy was a dumb idea, the former Maryvillian had plenty of company back home. More than 31,000 Tennesseans enlisted to fight for the Union. Almost 9,000 of them died. Many of them were from Maryville. Some are listed on a monument in front of the courthouse.

Most East Tennesseans were Unionists, but Maryville’s Blount County was Unionist even by East Tennessee standards. In 1861, only white men were allowed to vote. We can only guess how Blount County’s black citizens would have voted. But that year the white men of Blount County voted decisively against secession, and the Confederacy. The pro-Union margin in Blount County was more than four to one.

You have to admit it’s all very ironic. There was never nearly as much rebel-flag waving in Maryville during the Civil War as there has been during the summer of 2005. If you hear a rumble underground, you might first check for ancestors, rolling in graves.

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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