The South in general hasn’t always been enthusiastic about remembering Lincoln’s Birthday. In 1860, Lincoln unnerved Southerners, who found the prospect of his inauguration so appalling they considered it cause enough to break loose from the United States of America.
But Knoxville was home to “Lincolnites” even during the War, though in 1860 they didn’t get a chance to vote for the man; he wasn’t on the ballot in Tennessee. Later in the century, the city’s predominance of Union veterans were observing Lincoln’s Birthday, with orations and singing and piano and violin recitals and recitations of the Gettysburg address, plus grandiose eulogies in the Republican Knoxville Journal. One century ago this week, the city planned a big doing on Market Square for the Lincoln centennial, which was significantly expected to be attended by a conciliatory delegation of Confederate veterans.
In our time, Lincoln Memorial University, founded as an homage to the 16th president, is opening its new law school in a Lincoln-era building in downtown Knoxville. Sunday night at Preservation Pub on Market Square—another Lincoln-era institution—more than 100 nightclubbers attended a concert by the nonpareil Phil Pollard and his nine-piece Band of Humans. The show featured Lincoln readings, some of the same lines recited here in 1909, over intuitive jazz funk. Pollard, and some audience members, wore stovepipe hats for the occasion. A few danced on stilts.
The real Abraham Lincoln, as far as we know, never set foot in Knoxville. It was not a big town in Lincoln’s early years as a prairie lawyer. But there’s reason to believe Lincoln carried a strong image of Knoxville in his unusual head.
Before he was a Republican, Lincoln was a Whig. Knoxville was a regional center for Whiggery, famous as the home of U.S. Sen. Hugh Lawson White, a godfather of the contrarian party Lincoln joined. As Lincoln was running for the Illinois Legislature, he publicly supported White’s 1836 candidacy for the presidency. “If alive on the first Monday in November,” the melancholy 27-year-old wrote in an Illinois paper that June, “I shall vote for Hugh L. White for President.” White, who died four years after coming in third in that peculiar election, is buried in downtown Knoxville, in First Presbyterian’s graveyard.
Later on, of course, President Lincoln knew some Knoxvillians, including Parson W.G. Brownlow. Though he declined Lincoln’s invitation to visit the White House, the Knoxville editor was impressed enough with Lincoln to start calling himself a Republican. Congressman Horace Maynard, who lived in downtown Knoxville, represented Tennessee’s second district in the U.S. Congress even as his state aligned itself with the Confederacy. Lincoln admired Maynard and considered him for a cabinet post.
Several times during the war, Lincoln insisted on the importance of liberating East Tennessee from Confederate domination. To Unionists pleading for relief in the summer of 1863, Lincoln wrote, “I do as much for East Tennessee as I would, or could, if my home and family were in Knoxville.” Burnside’s Union troops arrived weeks later.
Lincoln’s interest in East Tennessee has puzzled some historians. Some, like my old friend, the late David J. Harkness, were convinced Lincoln’s affection for the region was personal.
The great-uncle connection
I don’t dip into genealogy much, and may be out of my depth. But this is a story that fascinated Dave, and I think he’d be tickled to know that I finally got around to writing it. A warning: Just as there are new opinions of Lincoln’s character every week or two, his genealogy is kaleidoscopic. A cursory review of Lincoln’s ancestry on the Internet turns up convincing proof that he was illegitimate, German, African-American, Jewish, a New Englander, a Tarheel, and a Melungeon. And maybe a Communist, but only on his mother’s side. I found most of the following in books made of paper, in the actual library.
Lincoln was born 200 years ago, just 200 miles northwest of Knoxville, in central Kentucky, when Knoxville was still capital of the next state to the south. At the time of the Revolution, the Lincolns, first based in Virginia, scattered. Several came to East Tennessee.
Isaac Lincoln, a great uncle of the future president, settled on the Doe and Watauga Rivers, tributaries of the Holston, in 1775. Eventually he farmed 1,200 acres there near Elizabethton. He was a well-established planter by 1798, when the future father of Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Lincoln, moved here to work at his uncle’s farm. So for about a year, Abe’s dad was an East Tennessean, living in a cabin on Lynn Mountain. He apparently didn’t work hard enough to please his uncle.
Ironists like to point out that Isaac Lincoln was a slaveholder. He seems to have owned about 40. He kept his slaves; he got rid of his slacker nephew. Thomas Lincoln moved to Kentucky.
Three other Lincolns, a niece and two nephews of Isaac’s—all of them first cousins of Abraham Lincoln’s father—followed Isaac to East Tennessee. Mordecai and Jesse Lincoln settled in Greeneville. Mordecai became a prominent community leader there, a county official and justice of the peace. (A better-known uncle of Lincoln’s, also named Mordecai, lived in Kentucky.) Folks seem to enjoy the coincidence that Mordecai Lincoln presided over the marriage of Andrew Johnson, who almost four decades later would be Abraham Lincoln’s vice president.
A vigorous abolitionist movement was afoot in Greeneville in the 1820s, but the Lincolns showed little interest in it. Mordecai Lincoln, a tanner and cobbler, owned eight slaves.
Jesse Lincoln later settled in Roane County. Their sister was Rebecca Lincoln Rimel, who with her husband settled in Washington County. The most prolific of the Tennessee Lincolns, she had about 10 kids, some of whom wound up in Sevier County.
Two Roane County Lincolns, second cousins of the president, were soldiers in the war, members of the 43rd Tennessee Infantry. These Lincolns became Confederates.
Dave Harkness, maybe the most joyously emphatic scholar I’ve ever known, would have put an exclamation point there. Supply one if you’d like.