Tennessee has a unique Civil War history. Similar to Virginia, it was a divided state; however, unlike West Virginia which split off in 1863, East Tennessee stayed stuck with the Confederacy until Federal armies secured the state. East Tennessee experienced civil war on multiple levels – Union vs. Confederate, neighbor vs. neighbor, and locals vs. Richmond Government. Tennesseans joined Union and Confederate armies, recruiting or conscripting for both sides from the same communities.
At the heart of Unionist East Tennessee sat Knoxville, a city with more pro-Southern leanings. In 1863, this city became the scene of an astonishing fortification network and series of attacks and defenses and Longstreet’s Confederates attempted to captured the location from Burnside’s Yankees.
I got to spend some time in Knoxville this week, passing through on my journey to Virginia. I started by heading downtown to tour the Museum of East Tennessee History, a local history center that did not disappoint!
Following a timeline chronology, the museum exhibits take visitors through the region’s important historical events and social changes. The journey beginnings with information about the Native American tribes who lived in the area, then moves into contact with white explorers. The Colonial and Frontier Wars period receives good attention and the displays feature important artifacts before moving on to the Expansion Era.
Of particular interest for Civil War researchers, there is a large section of artifacts, letter quotes, and wonderful details about the conflict in the region. An original Union flag flown in Knoxville during the war, a Confederate battle flag, artifacts and letters from the bridgeburners, uniforms, and more grace the collection. There are also displays about the Reconstruction Era, with a focus on Andrew Johnson; some of his original tailor ship items can be viewed.
“I have heard of no single neighborhood within the bounds of East Tennessee whose green sod has not drunk the blood of citizens murdered.” Reverend Nathaniel G. Taylor, 1864
The Civil War was certainly not the end of East Tennessee’s unique history. Continuing displays feature information about Appalachian culture, growth of industries, and Oak Ridge – a secretive facility that helped develop the atomic bomb during World War II.
I appreciated the balance of culture and military history shown in the Civil War section. Events like the 1861 Bridge Burning Attempts, Siege of Knoxville, Battle of Fort Sanders, and recruiting/conscription were addressed alongside the account and artifacts pointing to an embattled homefront.
If you’re looking for an introduction to East Tennessee History, researching ancestors (there is a glorious archive on the second and third floors!), or looking to explore the cultural roots of this region, then you’ll want to add the East Tennessee History Museum to your weekender list.
Museum of East Tennessee History
601 South Gay Street
Knoxville, TN 37902