A Sesquicentennial Stroll in Knoxville

Clip and Save: Your Downtown Civil War Walking Tour

Are we ready for sesquicentennial tourism? Knoxville’s balance of stories of both the blue and the gray seems to me pretty fascinating, perhaps unique, but I’m not sure how much of it’s accessible to tourists. The rack at the Visitor Center offers three Civil War tours of the area, each with its own strengths. But they’re all about driving between distant points. The Tourism and Sports Corp’s own colorful brochure, “Divided Loyalties,” looks as if it might be most appealing to the casual downtown visitor, but the only downtown destination mentioned is the East Tennessee History Center, which it says is free and located at 600 Market Street—both of which it was, about 10 years ago. I figure the brochure needs some updating.

To me, ambling beats driving for most historical purposes. Nothing can spoil a mid-19th-century mood like a nice car. And Knoxville was so compact in those days that you can walk the outskirts of Civil War-era Knoxville in a leisurely afternoon stroll. There are lots of interesting Civil War sites right downtown.

Take the Lamar House. The 1816 building is best known today as the front part of the Bijou, but it played so many roles in the war it could almost be called a micro-theater, itself. The Lamar House Saloon—the Bistro’s there today—was Knoxville’s best-known bar during the war years, and witnessed arguments about secession in 1860 and 1861, when the uncomfortable city was squirming on the fence.

Under Confederate occupation, the hotel was briefly, in 1863, a headquarters for Gen. Joseph Johnston, who had an emotional reunion with an unexpected visitor—the black slave who had helped raise him. Later the same year, during the Confederate siege, its bridal suite served as a refuge for Union Gen. William Sanders, mortally wounded resisting the Confederate advance on Kingston Pike. He died in this building, and General Burnside, surrounded and fearing morale problems, kept Sanders’ body hidden there, concealing his death until Sanders could be buried secretly at a churchyard at midnight.

The Lamar House would see at least one more dead general. Six years after the war’s alleged end, prominent Confederate Gen. James Clanton, of Alabama, was shot in a gunfight on Gay Street with former Union Col. David Nelson. Friends carried the dying Clanton into the Lamar House.

Blount Mansion, then the Boyd home, was Confederate spy Belle Boyd’s mid-war sanctuary. A crowd once formed in the front yard, with a band, demanding that the famous secret agent give them a speech. Her appearance in a second-floor window to gracefully decline seemed to satisfy them. She later remarked that she found wartime Knoxville “gay and animated beyond description.”

Market Square was new in 1861. Its oldest buildings—numbers 22 through 26, on the east side—may or may not have been standing then, but the Square served as a polling place in the fateful presidential election of 1860 and the subsequent secession referendum, and later as the site of a Union barracks and ammunition magazine. Several buildings there today were built by Civil War veterans, like Peter Kern, the future mayor and bread magnate who was forced to settle here. After recovering from a wound at his home in Georgia, the German-born Confederate soldier was on his way back to the front in Virginia when the Union army occupied the city. Held first against his will, he decided he liked the place all right, built his bakery/confectionery at 1 Market Square, and became one of the most influential Knoxvillians of the late 19th century.

Market Square may be the only block in America where both the Union and Confederate veterans’ groups maintained lodges, on opposite sides of the Square, within sight of each other.

The Old City’s most prominent building, Patrick Sullivan’s Saloon, was built by that Irish immigrant, who was also a Union veteran. Up at the top of the hill, on Vine Street, there’s a plaque to Father Ryan, “the Poet-Priest of the Confederacy,” near the site of his church.

Antebellum houses near battlefields are invariably described as “Civil War hospitals.” It’s something people say to give an old building some cred. But the building now known as Lincoln Memorial University Law School, originally the state school for the deaf, really was a Civil War hospital, with doctors and orderlies—for months, and not just during the siege.

The graveyard of First Presbyterian Church was closed to new burials before the war started. One exception is especially interesting: the broken obelisk of Abner Baker, the young Confederate veteran who, during a fight, shot and killed a former Unionist on the courthouse lawn. That night, an angry mob lynched Baker for the crime. “His death was an honor to himself and an everlasting disgrace to his enemies,” reads the inscription.

Just about a 10-minute walk from downtown proper is the National Cemetery. Established by Burnside during the war, it’s one of the oldest national cemeteries in the nation, with its tall, marble Union monument and hundreds of concentrically planted Union war dead. Just over the wall is Old Gray Cemetery, which is full of Civil War lore, if you can read between the inscriptions. Both, I’d argue, are practically downtown.

Old Gray’s the last resting place of lots of Confederates, including slain Gen. William Caswell, Peter Kern, and John Horne, the Confederate-veteran leader who is represented with a statue of a Confederate soldier.

It’s also home to lots of Unionists (Old Gray’s name predates the Confederate color scheme). Among them are Capt. William Rule, the prominent postwar editor and mayor; Thomas Humes, the leading Unionist Episcopal priest; and Horace Maynard, a rare Southerner who represented his home district in U.S. Congress even during the war.

There’s hardly a weirder juxtaposition than the grand obelisk dedicated to the South’s most famous Unionist, Parson Brownlow, almost directly across the quiet lane from the grave of Col. Henry Ashby, CSA, who, accused of war crimes, was shot and killed downtown three years after the war by former Union Major Eldad Cicero Camp. Who, as it happens, is also buried in this graveyard. It’s Knoxville, after all.

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