When the East Tennessee Convention reconvened on June 17 in Greeneville, a small town near the North Carolina border, the Union-minded delegates assembled on what was technically Confederate soil — though nothing in their defiant tone acknowledged the fact.
On June 8, East Tennessee had voted 32,923 to 14,780 to remain in the Union, in resounding contrast to the 87,392 to 14,315 vote for separation in the rest of the state. It was a dramatic shift from four months prior, when unionists had outpolled secessionists statewide by over 60,000 votes, trouncing Gov. Isham Harris in his first attempt to lead Tennessee into the Confederacy.
The majority of the delegates assembled in Greeneville were not prepared to accept this sea change in opinion as a true expression of their fellow Tennesseans. They charged the secessionists in Nashville with suppression of speech, fraud and voter intimidation in their tainted victory. But the greatest anomaly in the election may have been the resiliency of East Tennessee’s loyal mountaineers.
The conditional unionism prevailing in Middle and West Tennessee had vanished, as it had throughout much of the Upper South, with President Lincoln’s call for 75,000 troops in the wake of Fort Sumter. In East Tennessee, however, a combination of anti-secessionist leadership, geographic isolation and lack of plantation slavery had produced a more enduring brand of unionism. The state’s divided loyalties forced the delegates in Greeneville to contemplate dire alternatives: declare an independent East Tennessee and wage an internecine struggle to preserve a union exclave deep inside enemy territory, or submit to Confederate rule.
Oliver Temple, a prominent lawyer, was one of the few moderates on the first day at Greeneville, perhaps because he had witnessed firsthand the seismic shift in political opinion that isolated his region from the rest of the state. In early May, Temple had traveled to Nashville for the Union Party’s gubernatorial convention. He was stunned to find that, “as soon as we passed over the mountains into Middle Tennessee, we had evidence that secession had swept over that country like a cyclone, prostrating every object before its resistless force. All who entered the train during the remainder of the way to Nashville were loud, noisy and…wild with excitement.”
The train ride portended conditions in Nashville, where the Union Party convention ended in disaster. Not a single speech was given, and the meeting adjourned in haste when a pro-secessionist mob stormed the hall. In the aftermath Temple found many of his Unionist associates yielding to the secessionist hysteria. Even John Bell, who in November had carried the state for the Constitutional Union Party, meekly declared for the Confederate cause.
Union leadership in East Tennessee proved more resilient. They were aided by a strong Whig tradition in a region long hostile to the arguments of fire-eating Democrats. Unlike their Middle and West Tennessee counterparts, they would not face a battle with masses of hostile constituents. Secessionist sentiment in the region was confined to the counties near the Georgia border and in the towns of the Great Valley that had prospered with the new rail line connecting them to Virginia, Georgia and the western cotton states. The subsistence farmers of the upland counties, disconnected from the region’s transportation boom and far removed from secessionist rhetoric of the plantation zones, remained overwhelmingly unionist.
The Union spokesmen in the east even united across traditional party lines. Longtime rivals Andrew Johnson and Thomas Nelson teamed up to canvass the region against separation, while the irascible Knoxville Whig editor William Brownlow halted two decades of vicious slander against Johnson to lavish praise on the pro-Union Democrat. The united East Tennessee leadership bristled at the legislative coup announced in Nashville on May 6, when the General Assembly endorsed a “Declaration of Independence” recommended by Governor Harris to avoid a lengthy convention on secession. The assembly had also voted to approve a formal military pact with Confederacy, muster a state army of 55,000 men and authorize the issue of $5 million dollars in war bonds. In response, Temple, Brownlow and other leaders in Knoxville had called a unionist convention for the last two days of May.
A total of 469 delegates from across the region attended the Knoxville Convention, where they adopted unanimous resolutions rejecting the work of the General Assembly as “hasty, inconsiderate, and unconstitutional legislation” and “an act of usurpation” that proved the anti-democratic leanings of the secessionist leaders. This revolution by decree confirmed the fears of East Tennessee unionists that an alliance with the Confederates would make them second-class citizens in a government antithetical to Tennessee’s egalitarian tradition. “We have no interest with the Cotton States, we are a grain growing and stock raising people.” Brownlow asserted, “We can never live in a Southern Confederacy and be made the hewers of wood and drawers of water for a set of aristocrats and overbearing tyrants.”
After a rousing three hour speech by Senator Johnson, the Knoxville convention adjourned with the stipulation that they reconvene as necessary following the June 8 referendum. But by the time they did, in Greeneville on June 17, the Knoxville consensus had fractured irredeemably.
Among other things, Andrew Johnson, the most prominent proponent of the Knoxville Consensus, had fled north to Ohio in response to assassination threats a few days after the referendum. Without him, the convention almost immediately divided into rival camps. Nelson, who led the ascendant radical faction, penned a Declaration of Grievances that charged that the June 8 election “was free, with but few exceptions, in no part of the State, other than East Tennessee,” and that “Union men were overawed by the tyranny of the military power, and the still greater tyranny of a corrupt and subsidized press.”
Nelson’s proposed resolutions amounted to open rebellion against the lawmakers in Nashville. They refused to recognize Tennessee’s “Declaration of Independence” and claimed the eastern counties would continue on as the true state of Tennessee. They recommended the formation of military companies in the loyal counties and declared that if the state or the Confederacy was not willing to respect the region’s neutrality, East Tennessee would summon federal assistance and “use every means in our own power for our common defense.”
But the moderate wing, led by Temple, disagreed. On the Greeneville convention’s third day, they presented an alternative set of resolutions. Moderates feared Nelson’s position would precipitate a disastrous war with Confederate forces, one that East Tennesseans were ill prepared to fight — and that the federal army was in no position to assist. Designed to avoid civil war within the Civil War, the moderates’ resolution denounced the General Assembly, but then proposed to petition Nashville for the right to separate statehood. The next day the convention voted for Temple’s camp.
Predictably, the General Assembly summarily declined the petition for statehood. But the moderates weren’t necessarily wrong, at least in their suspicion that federal assistance — a key component of the radicals’ plan — wouldn’t be forthcoming. Unlike the northwestern counties that broke from Virginia, East Tennessee was more than 200 miles from federal forces on the Ohio River. Effectively surrounded by Confederate territory (the border with neutral Kentucky lay across the rugged Cumberland Mountains) and without a feasible supply line, the region would have been prohibitively difficult for an invading force to defend. Even with President Lincoln’s interest in liberating East Tennessee, it took 28 months for federal forces to occupy the region.
With statehood rejected, the region dug in; the earlier rhetoric of defiance had steeled Unionists for violent resistance. Guerrilla bands began organizing for a coordinated attack in November of nine bridges on the East Tennessee rail network, expecting a simultaneous Union invasion that failed to materialize. Nevertheless, violence would plague the region throughout the four years of war, a conflict that continued, town to town, door to door, long past the surrender at Appomattox.