Book Review: War at Every Door: Partisan Politics and Guerrilla Violence in East Tennessee, 1860-1869 (by Noel C. Fisher)
War at Every Door: Partisan Politics and Guerrilla Violence in East Tennessee, 1860-1869, by Noel C. Fisher, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, (800) 848-6224, 250 pages, $29.95.
It is traditional to refer to the Civil War as a conflict between the “North” and the “South.” Yet this results in an oversimplification that ignores some important facts: (1) If “South” means the fifteen slaveholding states, then four “Southern” states–Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri–refused to support the Confederacy and contributed the bulk of their military manpower to the “North”; (2) four of the eleven states that comprised the Confederacy–Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas–initially rejected secession and did not secede until the outbreak of war at Fort Sumter left them, as the majority of their people saw it, with no other practical alternative; (3) in all eleven of the Confederate states, except possibly South Carolina and Mississippi, a significant portion of the population remained loyal to the Union; (4) three key Confederate states–Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee–contained large areas dominated by Unionists, and in four others–Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas–the same situation existed on a smaller scale. Consequently, at least 100,000 Southern whites from Confederate states served in the “Northern” army, contributing substantially to Union victory and Confederate defeat.
Nowhere were Southern Unionists stronger and more determined than in eastern Tennessee. A number of factors account for this phenomenon, but the essential one was the same that underlay pro-Union sentiment throughout the South: the soil, terrain, and climate precluded large-scale plantation agriculture, and thus few eastern Tennesseans owned slaves and fewer still owned many. This did not mean that they opposed slavery; on the contrary, they supported it before the war, and many of them resented its abolition during the war. But they also disliked and distrusted the big plantation slaveowners, an attitude intensified by what they perceived to be the haughty arrogance and contemptuous attitude of these “aristocrats” toward small-farmer “plebeians” such as themselves. Thus, they saw in secession not a defense of Southern rights against Northern wrongs but rather a conspiracy by the planter class to dominate the South for its own selfish ends. So they resolved to keep Tennessee in the Union.
At first they succeeded. In a February 1861 referendum, Tennesseans rejected by a sizable margin even the notion of holding a convention to consider secession. But then came the bombardment of Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for volunteers to suppress the rebellion, to which the Tennessee legislature reacted by taking the state out of the Union. The governor followed by calling for troops to serve in the Confederate army. A second referendum, held in June, ratified these actions, which already had made the state a de facto member of the Confederacy.
The great majority of eastern Tennesseans refused to accept this outcome, declaring it had been reached by fraud and intimidation. They chose to rebel against the rebellion. Unlike the Unionists of western Virginia, however, geography denied the eastern Tennesseans prompt intervention by Federal forces from a neighboring Northern state necessary to drive out the Confederates and establish a separate state. So, with Lincoln’s approval, they enacted a plan whereby partisan bands would destroy the main bridges of eastern Tennessee’s railroads. Then a Union army from Kentucky under George H. Thomas would invade and liberate the region.
On the night of November 8, 1861, Unionist saboteurs burned five of the nine railroad bridges in eastern Tennessee, cutting Confederate communication lines. But on the eve of the strike, the top Federal commander in Kentucky, William T. Sherman, canceled Thomas’s orders to advance. Oddly, Sherman, who was in the midst of a nervous breakdown, was himself a Southern Unionist and had expressed confidence that Thomas would succeed. As a result of the Union inaction, the Confederates maintained control of eastern Tennessee and intensified their efforts to suppress pro-Union activity in the area.
Still, thanks to Grant’s victories at Shiloh and Forts Henry and Donelson, Federal forces occupied most of western and central Tennessee in the spring of 1862 and installed eastern Tennessee Unionist leader Andrew Johnson as military governor of the state. But their efforts to liberate eastern Tennessee ran head on into geographical and logistical obstacles and commanders reluctant to undertake what they perceived to be a political rather than strategic operation.
Not until the summer of 1863, when William S. Rosecrans’s Army of the Cumberland occupied Chattanooga and Ambrose Burnside’s Department of the Ohio seized Knoxville, was Confederate control of the region finally broken. But even then the Confederates continued to pose a constant threat, as demonstrated by their nearly successful attempt to recapture Knoxville that fall. Frequent cavalry raids continued into 1865, and above all, savage guerrilla warfare almost literally brought “war at every door.” Probably only western Missouri suffered more than eastern Tennessee in what truly was a civil war within the Civil War.
The end of that civil war put eastern Tennessee Unionists in political control of the entire state, with William G. “Parson” Brownlow of Knoxville as the governor and Andrew Johnson becoming president of the United States. Their domination, however, was artificial and, as a result, tenuous. The majority of Tennesseans did not regret their adherence to the Confederacy, only their defeat. They supported the Democratic Party and the Ku Klux Klan in their efforts to restore “home rule” and “white supremacy” during Reconstruction. Only by disenfranchising tens of thousands of former Confederates, giving the vote to blacks, and employing the state militia to repress opposition could Brownlow and his fellow Republicans keep themselves in power. All this they did, but they could not do it forever. In 1869 they recognized this fact and disbanded the militia and repealed the franchise restrictions. Soon, the Democrats took over and eliminated black people from politics.
Eastern Tennessee suffered much for, and contributed much to, the Union cause, but geography doomed it to a minority status in the state and isolation in the South as a whole–a condition from which it would not emerge until after World War II.
Noel Fisher’s War at Every Door tells the story of East Tennessee during the Civil War and Reconstruction thoroughly and well. It is based on an intensive, indeed awesome, examination of the pertinent primary and secondary sources. The literary style is clear, crisp, and cogent, and analyses and consequent conclusions are balanced and perceptive. In sum, it is a superior work of historical scholarship and writing that should be read by everyone seriously interested in the Civil War–a most uncivil civil war as it occurred in eastern Tennessee and one, to repeat, that demonstrates why referring to that war as a conflict between “North” and “South” can be a misleading misnomer.