Sense and Sesquisensibility: Some Random Notes About 2013, as it Pertains to 1863

In case you’ve forgotten, it’s still the Civil War Sesquicentennial. Here it is, two months before the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Knoxville, and I’m just not feeling the spirit yet.

There was more about it two years ago, when The New York Times was running a new Civil War story nearly every day. Maybe the whole country’s starting to get burned out on the Civil War. I suspect that’s one thing we have in common with most Americans 150 years ago.

But it did help to have a look at Joan Markel’s new mostly photographic book, Knoxville and the Civil War. It includes a lot of images I’ve never seen before and some I’ve seen, but not juxtaposed in this way. It’s a good companion to another recent book, Earl Hess’s The Knoxville Campaign, a text-heavy book about the actual strategy of the siege that, 150 years ago this week, was soon to commence.

And it boosted my Civil War spirits to visit, for the second time, the exhibit at the East Tennessee History Center. “Of Sword and Pen” is a modest exhibit, in terms of artifacts, but a thoughtful one that brings out the complexity of feeling in the war.

It offers some things to gawk at, some guns and some “grape shot” found at Fort Sanders, stacked in a pyramid. You always hear about grape shot, but I don’t usually picture projectiles quite this big. It would be more appropriate to call it plum shot. And a large iron sphere I first took to be a he-man’s bowling ball turned out to be a cannonball, found at Chattanooga. There’s a wooden tobacco pipe and a cane carved from a Greeneville tree used to hang an accused Unionist saboteur. There’s an invitation to an 1861 “Military Ball” held at the Lamar House, now the front of the Bijou Theatre, that included both soon-to-be Union and Confederate soldiers.

There are lots of diaries and letters and maps—selected, I think, to show how much complication there was within one region and within one city. And there are original documents from Nashville pertaining to Tennessee’s role as the first rebellious state to abolish slavery, two months before the end of the war.

The exhibit I pored over most wasn’t an actual artifact, and it was a representation of something I’d seen many times. It was at the entrance, enlarged and illuminated, a sketch of a downtown street I see every day. Late in the war, in a prison camp in Chicago, a young Confederate prisoner with a strong memory for detail and some artistic talent, maybe wanted to convey to his fellow inmates, and perhaps the guards too, something about his peculiar hometown and himself. So he drew a sketch of Gay Street as it was on one particular day: April 27, 1861.

Samuel Bell Palmer’s sketch showed a scene rarely seen in any city in the world: simultaneous rallies, on the same street, for opposing sides in a war that was well underway. Here, a Union rally near Main Street, under the stars and stripes. A few blocks down, a Confederate rally, under the original rebel flag, with a parade of Confederate soldiers coming this way.

The center of attention of the Union rally was reportedly a Unionist U.S. senator named Andrew Johnson. He is not a well-remembered man, but he was a brave man that day.

I first saw that picture in my grandfather’s copy of the first edition of Digby Seymour’s Divided Loyalties, when I was about 6. It holds up to magnification and scrutiny.

Anyway, have a look. It’s only up for another two weeks, closing on Oct. 13. That’ll be the same weekend as the Battle of Fort Sanders re-enactment, at the fort reconstruction out Washington Pike, near Corryton. Check their website—last I heard, they were still recruiting.

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Meanwhile, a surprising new book just landed on my desk, published by UT Press, We Are in His Hands Whether We Live or Die: The Letters of Brevet Brigadier General Charles Henry Howard, a Union officer from small-town Maine, a Bowdoin alumnus who until 1861 seemed headed toward a career as a Congregationalist minister.

He’d been wounded in the leg, early in the war, fighting under McClellan, but recovered enough to join the ranks again with Burnside at Fredericksburg, where he was wounded again, in the same leg.

He was a 25-year-old major when he arrived in Knoxville during Burnside’s occupation, just after Union troops here turned back the Confederate attack at Fort Sanders. The past tense in one passage may suggest something about the place: “Knoxville must have been rather a flourishing little city— Streets paved—regularly laid out—built upon side of a hill—two or three churches—a nice banking-building now used for Provost Marshall’s office.”

Of course, none of the buildings he mentions are still standing. Knoxville didn’t start saving interesting old buildings until recently.

He adds, “Parson Brownlow ran away on Longstreet’s first approach.” Brownlow, Unionist-activist editor of the Knoxville Whig, was nationally famous by then. “Some of our staff dined with Mrs. B. (his wife) and saw his accomplished and heroic daughter. A Rebel Colonel taken prisoner in that assault (week ago Sunday) proved to be a brother of Mrs. Brownlow and at her request has been paroled and was staying at her house, keeping his chamber most of the time however.”

That was Lt. Col. Alfred O’Brien, of the 13th Mississippi. Despite his sister’s intervention, he refused to swear loyalty to the Union, and ended up in a prison camp.

The rambling white-frame Brownlow house, near downtown on East Cumberland Avenue, was a pretty fascinating place that fall. It remained a much-visited shrine for some 50 years after the war, especially among Republican presidents: McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, Taft, many others felt obliged to pay their respects. Of course, we later tore that down, too.

Property rights. That’s the way we do things around hyar. Erase our history, on a regular basis. Hit’s our right.

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