Under Peaceful Colors
by Jack Neely
That fall, Gen. James Longstreet advanced north from Georgia toward the city of Knoxville. This campaign would prove to be a lot more trouble than the well-known Confederate commander, known as Lee’s War Horse, had expected.
The old man’s main problem was that he’d missed his connecting train in Cleveland. It was something of an indignity that a 69-year-old hero of the Bull Runs and other major battles should be left standing on a depot platform in a Tennessee railroad town. Longstreet had to wait for the next train. Still, the trip went a good deal quicker than the first time Longstreet approached Knoxville from the south. That was another fall, 27 years earlier, when he had 15,000 armed men with him. Many didn’t survive the trip.
The Knoxville campaign of 1863 had been the low point of Longstreet’s career. His proposal to retake the city quickly with a siege and surprise pre-dawn assault had failed so miserably that Longstreet offered to resign his commission.
This time, in 1890, he was riding in from his Georgia home for a grand reunionof all the forces who had fought in the Battle of Knoxville.
The 20-minute fight is barely a footnote in some histories of the war, but for the 38,000 men who fought in the Battle of Knoxville, it was the most dramatic moment of their lives, and something to remember.
The veterans came from all over, from New England, from Florida, from Texas, from the Dakota Territory, members of “every class from the capitalist to the day laborer.” Some wore their old uniforms. Estimates of the number of visitors ranged from 15,000 to 22,000. Veterans found a city almost unrecognizably larger, more industrialized, than the hilltop town it had been during the war.
They came not just to see Knoxville—most of the Confederate veterans had never been in Knoxville proper during the war, anyway—but to see old Fort Sanders. The old earthen ramparts of the fort built with trick features that had fooled Longstreet’s reconnaissance was still mostly intact, “a picturesque scene” in a neighborhood where it was slowly being flanked by stylish houses.
The old place was still recognizable enough to stir memories, some poignant, some horrible.
One Union vet remembered an Irish Confederate, just after the failed assault, “shot through and through, both arms and legs terribly shattered...slowly pulling himself along to a burning object. With great effort he reached it, and with a struggle lit his pipe. His life went out in that smoke.”
Another’s story was worse. From the ramparts the day after the battle, some spotted two local boys cavorting on the battlefield; they found a leftover bomb. “They began pounding it with might and main on a rock. The bomb exploded. One of the boys was torn literally to shreds. The other had both his legs blown off. I tell you, strangers, it was the hardest sight I ever saw, or ever want to see.”
After he finally made it to the Southern station downtown, Longstreet stayed at the Main Street home of Andrew Jackson Albers, the successful druggist. The Confederate general’s host was, significantly, a veteran of the Union Navy. According to the Journal , Longstreet was “captured by an Ohio soldier who requested the pleasure of entertaining him.”
Longstreet was one of the best-known Confederates alive in 1890. He was likely the most controversial. He had alienated some diehard Confederates by joining the Republican Party of Lincoln and Grant, and later standing with black soldiers facing a white-supremacist group in New Orleans.
Longstreet suffered from rheumatism in his right arm, as a result of his wound to the shoulder at the Wilderness in 1864, but when hundreds, black and white, came to meet him at Albers’ home at the corner of Main and Locust, the veteran with the long white side whiskers greeted each of them at the door with a firm handshake.
The parade downtown included brigades from both Confederate and Union armies, a sight rare on Gay Street. About 20 veterans of the “Fighting First” Regiment went to visit Parson Brownlow’s widow in her famous old house on East Cumberland.
Longstreet was not feeling well when he visited his old headquarters, the Armstrong residence on Kingston Pike known as Bleak House, but remarked that Mrs. Armstrong’s “eyes were much brighter” than they’d been all those years ago. Accompanying him was a Union group, members of the famous 79th New York Highlanders. Several of them climbed up to the tower to have a look at the famous bloodstains on the plaster wall.
But most of the activity was at old Fort Sanders itself, where huge tents and amphitheaters with bleachers had been assembled.
Joshua Caldwell, the local lawyer whose family had been Confederates, was among the first speakers. “This beautiful and flourishing city of ours happily represents the spirit of the time....” Claiming that half of all Knoxvillians were Northerners, he declared, “were never enemies.... The soldiers were not angry.... It is only the politicians who are angry.”
A few speakers later, Longstreet gave his long, dry, and lawyerly defense of his failed campaign. He had protested to Bragg about “the apparent danger of sending so small a force for such heavy work.”
But he ended on an upbeat note. “It is a pleasure to meet again, under peaceful colors, the brave men we encountered in hostile array in our attempts to enter this beautiful city....”
He alluded to those still bitter about the war. “For years there was a gulf made wider between the two sections by the sinister acts of designing men....” However, he said, “You are soldiers, and have proven your courage, and your greetings are sincere and loving. You are Americans, and none but Americans ever fought as you fought, and love for a common country should efface every trace of personal passion....
“And I speak to gallant soldiers who will accept this as probably the last public utterance I shall be allowed to make. Strangers may not, and cannot know how it is, that surviving veterans of the blue and the gray who once contended here in deadly array should meet in common as we do today. But with us, the war is over, and is settled upon the basis of mutual esteem and respect.”
That was one thing everyone on the podium seemed to agree on: that the damn war was over. It was, after all, 1890.
But there were still some reverberations. On Thursday night, “the evening stillness was stirred by the sudden boom of a cannon, and as the echoes and re-echoes were reverberating among the hills, many an old soldier’s heart was thrilled as in days gone by, when the sound meant death and destruction.”
By 7 p.m., “the hillsides were black with people,” some 35,000 of them, assembled around the fort, more than were ever there during the war. From a stand on Clinch, fireworks experts set off more explosives than had been seen there since ’63: “an illumination of the grounds, with tableaux line of prismatic tints, green, yellow, purple, and white,” which, “in the twinkling of an eye,” spelled the unwarlike word WELCOME.
There followed more than an hour of extravagant fireworks. We can guess the names of some of them by what they were called: The “Jeweled Face”; The “Monster Flight of Pyric Sparrows”; The “Grand Explosion of Aerial Contortions”; The “Grand Illumination of Wizard Batteries”; “Italian Shells”; “Algerian Shells;” “Grecian Rose”; “Parisian Glory”; the “Grand Aurora Borealis Illumination.” A “fiery Phoenix darting heavenward, with screaming, fiery monsters shooting here, there.”
The fort itself was outlined in fire, “tinting the heavens with crimson.” There followed a sort of pyromaniacal reenactment of the battle itself, “fiery bombs, taking their flights...cannonading peals of thunder, the tactics of the Storming of Fort Sanders.”
There were “Two Dancing Skeletons.” As the band played and the drummers drummed, the fireworks display concluded with the “Reunion of Gray and Blue.” “Magnesium lances, representing in the foreground two soldiers clasping hands.”
“Nothing unpleasant has occurred, no lives were lost, and no one was seriously injured,” wrote a surprised Journal editor. “Our visitors go away with a much better opinion of East Tennessee than they had in 1863.... Our roads were miserable, and the soldiers who were here, especially those from the north, have a horror yet for East Tennessee mud. They say it is sticky, and perhaps it is. We have some of it left, and, in some localities, it sells high....”
It wouldn’t be Longstreet’s last public appearance, as he expected. Through his 70s, he spoke at other reunions, drawing enormous cheers in spite of his friendships with Unionists and exhortations of reconciliation.
In Knoxville, old Fort Sanders stood proud on its hill for a few more years. “All veterans who visited this historic spot yesterday expressed the wish that it might be preserved, and so it should,” wrote the Journal editor in 1890. Within the next 30 years, though, Fort Sanders melted into the residential neighborhood then known as West End; its once-formidable ramparts left no traces.