Historians say ‘It’s complicated’: Surrounded by Confederate support, Northeast Tennessee voted to stay in the Union

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TRI-CITIES, Tenn. (WJHL) – On June 8, 1861, Tennessee leaders voted to secede from the United States. Following the suit of 10 other states, Tennessee was the last state to join the Confederacy, and the Civil War would bloody American history for the next four years.

This was the state’s second consideration of the matter -Tennessee voters rejected a proposal for a state convention that would consider the secession of Tennessee from the Union on February 9.

Local historians say that most East Tennessee counties voted to stay in the Union. Anne G’Fellers Mason, Executive Director at the Washington County Heritage Alliance, said that it was the votes in middle and west Tennessee that pushed the state to join the Confederacy.

Northeast Tennessee votes to stay in the Union

In the June 8 vote that solidified the state’s secession, East Tennessee’s votes showed that voters opposed the secession – East Tennessean voters remained against separation by a margin of 32,923 (68%) to 14,780 (32%).

Narrowing the scope to northeast Tennessee counties, only Sullivan County’s votes tallied in favor of separation (71.7% in favor of secession, 28.30 against). In Washington (41.4% in favor of secession), Greene (21.7%), Johnson (12.4%), Carter (6%) and Hawkins (38.3%) counties, votes tallied against joining the Confederacy (Unicoi County was not established until 1875.)

Steve Nash, an Associate Professor of History at East Tennessee State University, notes that northeast Tennessee is the outlier of the region. While he says it’s common for people to think of southern Appalachia as pro-Union, places like western North Carolina and southwest Virginia tended to lean toward the Confederacy.

Citing “Mountain Rebels” by W. Todd Gross, Nash said that East Tennesseans represented the largest population of people arrested for dissent to the Confederacy during the war.

According to the American Civil War Museum, leaders from the South feared that the election of President Abraham Lincoln spelled the end for enslavement in the South. Documents from Virginia’s secession convention in March 1861 demand from the United States government that “involuntary servitude, as it now exists, shall remain and shall not be changed” south of Virginia’s northern border at the time.

Nash said the region’s relationship to the institution of slavery complicates the picture of the region, even up to the eve of war. He said enslaved people made up anywhere from 10-12% of the population in Appalachia.

According to historians with Black in Appalachia, there were 1,084 enslaved people in Sullivan County (8% of the population) and 2,584 enslaved people in Washington County, Virginia, in 1860 (15% of the population).

The same year, Washington County recorded 104 free black people, and Sullivan County recorded 247 free individuals.

“That doesn’t mean Appalachians were disconnected from slavery, it doesn’t mean slavery wasn’t very important within the region,” Nash said.

But Nash said it’s important to draw the line between a Unionist and an abolitionist, and stressed that just because someone – such as Andrew Johnson – was pro-Union, but believed that the Constitution protected enslavement.

“These Unionists were very much supportive of the institution of slavery,” he said. “They argued that secession would actually be detrimental to the protection of the institution, so many of them argued against secession because they saw that as the best way of protecting slavery.”

Tracks to war

Although no major battles broke out in the region, Nash and Mason said that railroads drew the eyes of both armies to the area.

Nash said that in the 1850s and ’60s, the railroad connected southwest Virginia to the rest of the state. As a result, the enslaved population began to increase as the entire state’s economy reaped the benefits of stable crop production and could have pushed that region more into the Confederacy.

Mason details several accounts of regiments marching through Jonesborough and noted that the line was vital to the Confederacy early in the war. The railroad also brought out bridge-burning Unionists, she added, bent on cutting the Confederacy’s supply line.

Nash said the Union did have plans to send troops to east Tennessee, but the movement never went forward, and Union control didn’t reach the region until Knoxville fell in 1863.

“Abraham Lincoln was very interested in East Tennessee both from what we would kind of call a public relations element, which is he wanted to bring these southern Unionists back into the Union,” Nash said.

“On a larger part, it’s strategic, it’s those railroads, it’s the supply lines, it’s the connections between Virginia to the Tennessee border that then goes down to Knoxville and then there’s a railroad connection that then heads into Georgia.”

Though a look at votes would peg northeast Tennessee as pro-Union, Mason describes loyalties between citizens as a “mixed bag.” The early years show Jonesborough leaning more towards sympathy for the Confederacy.

“I think part of that is cause Jonesborough has a fair amount of money in it, and that tends to be who supports the Confederacy, especially early on,” she said.

She notes one of the more prominent Jonesborough citizens – an industrialist and merchant Alfred Eugene Jackson – rose through the ranks of the Confederacy to become a brigadier general.

Loyalties shifted, though, and the town reflected more Union sympathy by the war’s end in 1865, complete with a pro-Union sheriff. Mason said some merchants scrambled to show Union support as the war came to a close, but not every Confederate supporter gained sympathy from the sheriff.

“There are some people who are not welcome back in town,” she says. “The Jackson family is not welcome back in town, of course, being a brigader General, his property has been confiscated by the Union Army anyway for his role in the war.”

While most of the town’s Confederates were run out of town after the war, Mason said they didn’t stay gone for long and most of them came back in the 1870s.

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