A Comparison of Western Virginia and Eastern Tennessee in 1861

I have been reading Jeff Shaara’s novel, A Blaze of Glory: A Novel of the Battle of Shiloh. His book reminded me that the east versus west disagreement that occurred in Virginia as described in my book, Storm Coming: A Novel of the Civil War in Western Virginia, also occurred in Tennessee. Except in Tennessee it was the eastern counties that wanted to secede and form a new state.

Before South Carolina attacked Fort Sumter on April 2, 1861, most Tennesseans had wanted to stay with the Union. In the 1860 Presidential election they had voted by a slim margin for the Constitutional Unionist John Bell, a native son and moderate who wanted to find a way out of the crisis that led to the southern states seceding from the union. The following map shows the 1860 election results:

1860 Presidential Election Results
Unlike Virginia’s Governor Letcher, Tennessee’s Governor Harris did not believe he had the authority to call a State Convention without a vote of the people. In February 1861, 54 percent of the state's voters voted against sending delegates to a secession convention, thus defeating the proposal for a State Convention by a vote of 69,675 to 57,798. Many statesmen from the counties of western Virginia believed Governor Letcher usurped the people’s rights by creating, without the consent of the people, a State Convention to decide on the question of secession from the Union. Western Virginians argued that the people did not have to obey decisions made by that convention.

Lincoln’s call for 75,000 troops to put down the rebellion after the attack on Fort Sumter suddenly changed the views of many Tennesseans as it did many Virginians. Governor Harris began military mobilization, submitted an ordinance of secession to the Tennessee General Assembly, and made direct overtures to the Confederate government.



In a June 8, 1861 referendum, East Tennessee voted firmly against separation, while West Tennessee voted firmly in favor of separation. The deciding vote came in Middle Tennessee, which went from 51 percent against secession in February to 88 percent in favor in June. After ratification by popular vote Tennessee became the last state to formally declare its withdrawal from the Union.

So what happened in East Tennessee? Like western Virginia, East Tennessee was a stronghold of unionism. Like the western Virginians, they too lived in the mountains and valleys. They too had few slaves and those who were slaves were house servants. Slaves were a luxury rather than the base of plantation operations. East Tennesseans representing twenty-six East Tennessee counties met twice in convention—Once in Greeneville and once in Knoxville. They agreed to secede from Tennessee. Unlike the western Virginians, however, they could not count on help from Ohio and Pennsylvania for military assistance. So they petitioned the state legislature in Nashville to be allowed to form a separate state which would remain part of the United States.

The Tennessee state legislature flatly denied their request, and sent Confederate troops to occupy the region in late 1861to prevent them from breaking away. Many East Tennesseans suffered under the occupation but many escaped and joined Union forces. The 1st Alabama Cavalry Regiment, a regiment consisting largely of men from Eastern Tennessee, escorted Union General William Sherman's march to the sea! (Another story in itself!)

Like eastern Virginia, western Tennessee became a battleground and witnessed destruction almost equal to the destruction that occurred in eastern Virginia. After the Union Army invaded Tennessee and captured Memphis, Governor Harris joined the Confederate Army being led by Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston and was present when Johnston was mortally wounded.


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