ECW Weekender: Tennessee State Museum

Tennessee ranks second (exceeded only by Virginia) as the most-embattled state of the Civil War. Numerous campaigns crossed the eastern mountains, rolling middle hills, and western flat-land regions of the state where opinions about the war starkly differed. Understanding the local and state history is key to getting perspective on the Civil War in this state which was the last to join the Confederacy and the first to be readmitted to the Union.

Within view of the capitol building and at the heart of Nashville sits the Tennessee State Museum. Earlier this year, I had a “girls’ day out” in Music City with some good friends. We went exploring to see some local and state history and find some Civil War artifacts that I’d been waiting a few months to see in-person. 

We started our day at the Nashville Farmers’ Market, a permanent building hosting small food restaurants, local treasures, and fresh produce. There’s plenty of local cuisine, but watch out for the Hot Chicken! One friend got a much more spicy meal than she anticipated. I skipped the poultry here and enjoyed some fresh crepes instead.

Along the park between the market and the museum is a timeline, highlighting important dates in Tennessee history. I enjoy both reviewing and learning as we “walked through history.” The timeline design works with the places where the wall needed to angle or break to allow for cross-paths. The fractured stones at a path intersection for the Civil War years was especially poignant and made a sobering visual of the divisiveness of the conflict, both to the nation and the state.

The Civil War sections of the walk-through state history timeline.

The Tennessee State Museum is free and offers timeline galleries, along with some themed cultural exhibits. Beginning with early history and Native tribes and moving through the modern era, the displays are well-designed with interpretive videos laying foundational historic context for the different eras. I was looking forward to finding the Civil War gallery, but the Revolutionary War and early statehood galleries had some impressive artifacts, too! For example, British Major Patrick Ferguson’s personal effects and the Tennessee long rifle that killed him during the battle of King’s Mountain. 

Some effects belonging to British officer Patrick Ferguson during the Revolutionary War.

The Civil War gallery is large and well-designed to include the major military events and battles in the state, the divided state, common soldier and civilian accounts, and stories about slavery and emancipation. There are a few interactive displays, and we really enjoyed the life-size screen and interactive exhibit about Sam Watkins, a Confederate soldier whose post-war writings are some of the best-recognized. 

A life-size multimedia, interactive display feature Sam Watkin’s war accounts.

Some of my favorite artifacts included Sam Davis’s overcoat that he wore when he was captured by Union troops in 1863. (He was accused of espionage and later hanged, becoming a local, Confederate martyr figure.) A Union eagle from a flag staff that had been discovered among the fallen on Chickamauga battlefield. The guidon belonging to the 17th Indiana Mounted Infantry which fought in Wilder’s “Lightning Brigade.” 

Sam Davis’s coat
A Union eagle found on Chickamauga battlefield
17th Indiana Mounted Infantry Guidon

The artifacts I had been particularly waiting to see had belonged to Confederate General Patrick Cleburne. I’d spent a lot of time in the spring researching his life, military action, and battlefield death. His walking stick and the kepi he had been wearing at the battle of Franklin before his death are on display.

Some of Patrick Cleburne’s effects.

The museum does not shy away from addressing the Reconstruction Era and racial tension. Tennessee’s readmittance to the Union is highlighted, along with the continuing and emerging violence. The rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the state’s response are briefly explained. One display explains the 1866 Memphis Massacre when 46 African Americans were killed and many others assaulted, and it points out how this violence prompted Congressional action to try to protect civil rights through the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. 

The other museum galleries continue the state’s history through other challenges and triumphs. Moving into the last 60 years of history, the galleries are thematic and display important artifacts relating to the music scene, politics, and civil rights.

The museum visit prompted some good discussions among my friends. I particularly enjoyed seeing the Revolutionary War, Antebellum Era, and Civil War collections. If you’re in Nashville and looking for some “climate controlled” history on a hot and humid day definitely stop by the Tennessee State Museum and gain an increased appreciation for the “Volunteer State,” its historic figures, and its notable place in U.S. History.

3 Responses to ECW Weekender: Tennessee State Museum

  1. The Indiana guidon restoration was sponsored by the Franklin Civil War Round Table. We raised the funds etc. Very proud it is on display.

  2. Excellent post, Sarah. Wish I had gone there while attending my daughter’s dance competition last year. I really love the complex story and tragic/heroic ending of General Cleburne. Thanks again.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!