Most Tennesseans initially showed little enthusiasm for breaking away from a nation whose struggles it had shared for so long. There were small exceptions such as Franklin County, which borders Alabama in southern Middle Tennessee; Franklin County formally threatened to secede from Tennessee and join Alabama if Tennessee did not leave the Union. Franklin County withdrew this threat when Tennessee did eventually secede. In 1860, Tennesseans had voted by a slim margin for the Constitutional Unionist John Bell, a native son and moderate who continued to search for a way out of the crisis.
In February 1861, fifty-four percent of the state’s voters voted against sending delegates to a secession convention. With the attack on Fort Sumter in April, however, followed by President Abraham Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers to coerce the seceded states back into line, public sentiment turned dramatically against the Union.
Thus historian Daniel Crofts reports:
- Unionists of all descriptions, both those who became Confederates and those who did not, considered the proclamation calling for seventy-five thousand troops “disastrous.” Having consulted personally with Lincoln in March, Congressman Horace Maynard, the unconditional Unionist and future Republican from East Tennessee, felt assured that the administration would pursue a peaceful policy. Soon after April 15, a dismayed Maynard reported that “the President’s extraordinary proclamation” had unleashed “a tornado of excitement that seems likely to sweep us all away.” Men who had “heretofore been cool, firm and Union loving” had become “perfectly wild” and were “aroused to a phrenzy of passion.” For what purpose, they asked, could such an army be wanted “but to invade, overrun and subjugate the Southern states.” The growing war spirit in the North further convinced southerners that they would have to “fight for our hearthstones and the security of home.”
In a June 8, 1861, referendum, East Tennessee held firm against separation, while West Tennessee returned an equally heavy majority in favor. The deciding vote came in Middle Tennessee, which went from 51 percent against secession in February to 88 percent in favor in June.
Having ratified by popular vote its connection with the fledgling Confederacy, Tennessee became the last state to officially withdraw from the Union.
People in East Tennessee were firmly against Tennessee’s move to leave the Union; as were many in other parts of the Union, particularly in historically Whig portions of West Tennessee. The East Tennessee Convention, which met at Knoxville in May 1861 and at Greeneville in June 1861, consisted of 29 East Tennessee counties and one Middle Tennessee county that resolved to secede from Tennessee and form a separate state aligned with the Union. They petitioned the state legislature in Nashville, which denied their request to secede and sent Confederate troops under Felix Zollicoffer to occupy East Tennessee and prevent secession. Many East Tennesseans engaged in guerrilla warfare against state authorities by burning bridges, cutting telegraph wires, and spying.
Many battles were fought in the state—most of them Union victories. Ulysses S. Grant and the United States Navy captured control of the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers in February 1862 and held off the Confederate counterattack at Shiloh in April of the same year.
After Nashville was captured (the first Confederate state capital to fall) Andrew Johnson, an East Tennessean from Greeneville, was appointed military governor of the state by Lincoln. The military government abolished slavery in the state and Union troops occupied much of the state through the end of the war. The long occupation depleted resources and contributed to a breakdown in the social order in many areas.
The Confederates continued to hold East Tennessee despite the strength of Unionist sentiment there, with the exception of pro-Confederate Sullivan County.
The Confederates besieged Chattanooga in early fall 1863 but were driven off by Grant in November. Many of the Confederate defeats can be attributed to the poor strategic vision of General Braxton Bragg, who led the Army of Tennessee fromShiloh to Confederate defeat at Chattanooga.
Trails sign located at 939 Upper Ferry Road, Carthage TN 37030
This was an important Cumberland River crossing for both sides during the war. Part of Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg’s army crossed here during his Kentucky campaign in 1862. In early 1863, the Union navy took measures to destroy the “means of crossing” including those at Carthage. After the river was secured, Carthage became a major supply depot.
Smith County Courthouse Square
Trails sign located at 211 N Main St, Carthage TN 37030
This was the control center for a major Federal base from 1863 to the end of the war. Union soldiers stationed here took measures to control partisan units in the area. The cemetery on the square holds the remains of soldiers from both sides.
Trails sign located at 570 Carthage Bypass, Carthage TN 37030
After taking control of the river, Union occupiers constructed a fort here to protect an artillery battery. From here, soldiers could view traffic on the river and the major roads leading into town. Remains of the fort survive in this three-acre site.
Trails sign located at 750 Lebanon Hwy, Carthage TN 37030
Famed Confederate cavalryman John Hunt Morgan used this ferry (luckily for him he found it on this side) to escape after his defeat at Lebanon May 5, 1862. He was forced to leave many of his prized horses behind here.