In late April, 1861, about two weeks after the shelling of Fort Sumter and the beginning of what appeared to be an awkward war, Tennessee remained in the Union. Seven states, those of the Deep South generally known as the Cotton States, had formally left the United States; Virginia was about to follow. Tennessee would remain in the Union for the rest of that dramatic spring, but Unionists worried, none more so that the middle-aged guy with the permanent scowl whose career depended on Tennessee’s status. U.S. Sen. Andrew Johnson, the famous tailor from Greeneville, was a pro-slaver who owned slaves himself, and unlike most Tennessee Unionists, was a Jacksonian Democrat. No one in 1861 would predict he would ever be president of the United States.
A statewide referendum was coming up, and Johnson left Washington to campaign against secession in his home state. He had pretty much given up on Middle and West Tennessee, where secessionists ruled and Unionists feared for their safety. But the most populous part of the state, East Tennessee, was a puzzle, with lots of Unionists, lots of Secessionists, lots of people who had a hard time making up their minds, and lots of people who just wanted to lock the doors and hope it would all be over soon. Shots had already been fired in Knoxville: Shortly after Fort Sumter, Alabama Confederate troops crowded in a passing train took pot shots at an east-side brickyard where a Unionist family raised the stars and stripes. Knoxvillians had organized a Home Guard, which “does not propose to go into the service of either the North or the South, but to stand firm on our soil...”
Andrew Johnson’s Civil War and Reconstruction is the name of a new book by historian Paul Bergeron, professor and longtime director of the Johnson Papers project. The title makes it sound personal, and to Johnson, it was. Bergeron’s case is that Johnson was a complicated guy in a complicated time and place. He had never lived in Knoxville, but his droopy hound-dog face was familiar on Gay Street. He was here 150 years ago this week, making desperate pleas to the voters of Tennessee to vote for the Union. He spoke from a stand on Gay Street near Main, where “a tall and magnificent Liberty Pole” had been raised to bear the U.S. flag.
John Baxter, a prominent Unionist attorney—who would, by that fall, declare himself a candidate for Confederate Congress—introduced Johnson. The senator gave a patriotic speech, a proletarian speech, claiming the war was being waged on behalf of Southern aristocrats and against the interests of the working man. The secessionist Knoxville Register jeered that it was a “rehash” of his Congressional speeches, “with a little more agony about the stars and stripes.”
The Register couldn’t help observing that many of those who stood on Gay Street and cheered the speaker on, like Parson Brownlow, were Johnson’s longtime political enemies.
“Lincoln is prosecuting a war of subjugation against the slave states,” wrote the Register, impatient that Tennessee had not yet joined them, adding a sly aside:
“A word in kindness to our fellow citizens of Knox County who still, under the designation of ‘Union Men,’ abstain from cooperation with the defenders of the South.... If you cannot strike back with us in the noble and glorious work of defending Southern soil against abolition invasion, at least discard from your counsel that worse than demagogue—Lincoln’s emissary, Andrew Johnson.”
Fervent partisans had a lot of patience for long speeches in those days. Johnson was about halfway through a two-hour speech when, on the balcony of the Lamar House, hardly a block away, a band started playing, drowning out his words. It was the Sweetwater Brass Band, who’d ridden up to Knoxville with a trainload of Confederate recruits. According to the headline in the secessionist Register, it was an “An Unintentional Interruption.” The Lamar’s management had asked the musicians to play, to entertain the ladies who were staying there. By one account, they were entertaining the ladies with the songs “Dixie” and “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” while “two military companies, with drums and Secession flags flying, started toward the meeting.”
As armed Confederate recruits and passionate Unionists crowded the same street, it looked pretty ugly. Brownlow’s Knoxville Whig understated the matter: “We feared a collision....”
Two secessionists, Joseph Mabry and Confederate Col. David Cummings, intervened. Mabry, usually armed, was not known as a peacemaker, but worked to prevent a premature skirmish, or a riot, that day. At Cummings’ request, the band on the balcony allowed the future president to finish his speech.
“To these two gentlemen the public of both parties are indebted for a peaceful termination to the difficulty,” reported Brownlow’s Whig, “having prevented the effusion of blood, as there were many deadly weapons in the hands of men....”
The Register played down the incident as a trifle, blown out of proportion. But within a week, on that same block of Gay Street would see bloodshed.
Johnson left town to continue his tour of East Tennessee, pursued by credible reports of assassins.
During another Union rally on Gay Street, Charles Douglass, a Unionist businessman, got in a bitter argument with Capt. Washington Morgan, associated with the Confederate recruits, by one account concerning Douglass’ raising of the U.S. flag. Friends of Morgan, angered at Douglass’ insults, fired several shots at the businessman, grazing him, but killing a neutral pedestrian named Ball.
The fact that the intended target was not the man who was killed was apparently difficult for some secessionists to accept. A few days later, Confederate recruits attempted to make it right. Spotting Douglass sitting with his wife in the window of a building on Gay Street, some young men slipped into the Lamar House (through the Ladies Entrance, according to Unionist accounts) and shot him.
Some prominent Unionists feared attending Douglass’ funeral. But Col. Cummings, the Confederate, did. In that weird spring, it was a rare gesture of decency.