GLIMPSES: The Civil War left lasting impacts and legacies for East Tennessee

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Author’s note: The following three premises are essential to this column: 1) None of us see the past or present with absolute clarity; 2) Each of us has the capacity for glimpses of informed insight that draw from and reflect our personal values; and 3) Cordial, forthright exchange of those insights enhances our mutual well being.

My last two columns explored consequences of the Civil War yet failed to mention the war’s impact on the locale most dear to the majority of my readers.

Nor did the columns comment on the region of the United States that arguably bore the most direct and lasting imprint from the war.

Fellow historians may question if East Tennessee deserves that distinction, but several considerations make me confident in that assertion.

First, the major factions that went to war in 1861 lived in closer proximity here than in any other setting of comparable size.

Twice that spring, East Tennessee Unionists soundly rejected secession. But the sizable minority that opposed them included many of their most prominent neighbors.

Most significantly, at the war’s outbreak perhaps as many as one-third of East Tennesseans were uncertain of their loyalty. Many simply hoped the war might pass them by.

When the northern triumph gradually became apparent, many undecideds became Unionists.

Later in 1865, this group led Tennessee in becoming the first Confederate state to rejoin the Union — confirming our region’s reputation as a “Unionist stronghold.”

Still nowhere was this more “a war between brothers” than in East Tennessee.

Reflecting our characteristic fierce individualism, East Tennessee families and communities divided. Sadly, some who survived neither forgave nor forgot, and long after Appomattox, outbursts of violence erupted sporadically in the streets of Knoxville and remote communities like Cades Cove.

Geography offers two additional explanations for the war’s enduring impact on East Tennessee.

First, Presidents Lincoln and Davis both understood that the Tennessee Valley linked Confederate Virginia with its Deep South brethren. Hence, major campaigns struggled to control Cumberland Gap and Chattanooga hosted several important battles.

But other than the brief period in the fall of 1863, when Knoxville temporarily became a contested battleground, few battles occurred in the rest of East Tennessee.

Skirmishes, of course, were common.

That reality, however, misleads. Our strategic importance meant that northern and southern armies occupied East Tennessee for most of the war.

Both forces lived off the land and requisitioned supplies from local businesses and farmers without regard to their political affiliation.

More fundamentally, geography well before the outbreak of war left East Tennessee economically ill prepared for its wartime role.

The region’s steep slopes, thin soils, cooler temperatures and great distances to markets were not conducive to the commercial agriculture that transformed antebellum America. When many East Tennesseans left their disadvantaged region for greener pasture in Middle and West Tennessee and beyond, its economy suffered further.

Of those who remained in East Tennessee when war came, the vast majority were small farmers.

By the 1860s, soil exhaustion reduced their output of grains and livestock. Servicing and feeding two ravenous armies wrecked what remained of a fragile economy and left starvation in its path.

When compensated at all, farmers received worthless Confederate dollars or Union IOUs that paid 10 cents on the dollar.

After the war, observers pointed to grinding poverty and occasional outbursts of violence to portray East Tennessee and the greater Appalachian region as a cultural backwater.

Seeds of truth and self-serving perceptions shaped this picture. In the absence of legitimate political authority, citizens often took the law into their own hands.

Lingering wartime hostilities and intense deprivation left East Tennessee much like post-Saddam Hussein Iraq: a proud region mired in division, distrust and disarray.

After the war, extractive industries exploited East Tennessee’s timber, coal and other resources and fueled the nation’s industrial explosion.

More fortunate locals benefitted, but at the price of economic, environmental and cultural patterns that plague parts of East Tennessee and the greater Appalachian region today.

Finally, Civil War unionism left East Tennessee decidedly Republican. Briefly during Reconstruction, East Tennessee Republicans dominated state politics and secured government policies that favored construction of railroads and other internal improvements.

These pro-growth polices may shock today’s GOP, but they were hallmarks of the “party of Lincoln” and temporarily benefitted East Tennessee.

However, by the mid-1870s, Middle and West Tennessee Democrats regained power in Nashville and took revenge on their “treasonous” brethren.

For much of the next century, East Tennessee was shortchanged in funds for education and transportation lending credence to charges that we were “ignorant and isolated.”

New Deal policies of Democrat Franklin Roosevelt countered those “Appalachian” conditions but contradicted modern Republicans rhetoric and left many East Tennesseans confounded about their views of government and political identification.

Perhaps readers will recognize some East Tennessee traits — both real and imagined — in these recollections. Some may even connect them with present-day challenges.

Knowing this history will not solve our afflictions, but understanding how they came to be might be a first step.

For the nation at large and for East Tennessee, the Civil War’s most basic lesson warns against the kind of divisive and destructive conflict prevalent in our present moment in history.

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Mark Banker is a teacher/scholar/historian who lives in Kingston.