Tuesday, April 12, 2011


Despite (or perhaps because of) its silly sound, I have always rather liked the word sesquicentennial. It’s a sufficiently odd word that I decided to look it up before writing this, just to make sure that I was spelling it properly! In doing so, I learned that the first recorded use of the word was in 1880 - although for what particular anniversary I have no idea! Be that as it may, the Civil War Sesquicentennial is now in full swing, commemorating the 150th anniversary of that terrible conflict, which began today with the Confederate assault on Fort Sumter. (As battles go, it was a bloodless victory by the 500 Confederates – commanded by P.G.T. Beauregard – over the Union garrison of 80 – commanded by Robert Anderson. In its lack of casualties, it would prove completely unlike the war it unleashed, as the initial Confederate victory would be unlike the ultimate Union triumph). Since the Civil war was, for the most part, fought in the South, it is hardly surprising that the Sesquicentennial seems to be getting more attention in the South (where battles will be re-enacted, etc.) than in the North. But this may also reflect the unresolved character of the Civil War – at least from the perspective of the traditional Southern culture that was once the base for the Democratic Party and perhaps also that of the New South which has become the base for a Republican Party radically different from the “Party of Lincoln.” For us Northerners (at least for those who haven’t fallen for contemporary re-incarnations of the ideology of “states’ rights”), the Civil War is just ancient history. More importantly, the national character of the United States seems a settled question. But it may not seem that way to everyone everywhere, which is why, paradoxically, the Civil War’s sesquicentennial really should be more of a big deal for all Americans. Starting with South Carolina on December 20, 1860, several southern states had already seceded from the Union and created the Confederate States of America before the actual inauguration of hostilities at Fort Sumter. That event – and President Lincoln’s subsequent call to arms to put down the rebellion – soon led to intense debate in some “border” states, resulting in several more secessions. The last to secede was Tennessee on June 8, 1861. The length process leading up to that secession illustrates how divisive the issue was, even in individual communities. East Tennessee remained strongly unionist, even though the state as a whole seceded. Last Sunday’s Knoxville paper included an illustration of Knoxville’s main street in 1861 with the American and Confederate flags both flying from different locations on the same street – symptomatic of the deep differences and divisions right here in this community. Indeed Knox County voted overwhelmingly (77%) to remain in the Union. Outside the city of Knoxville, unionist sentiment was even stronger. The overwhelming majority of votes for secession came from what was then called the 1st Civil District, which comprised downtown Knoxville. Even so, anti-secessionist sentiment – personified perhaps in the famous Parson Brownlow - remained strong even in the city. (It would be interesting to try to find out if there were any members of Immaculate Conception Parish among the city’s unionist minority). The story of secession in Tennessee – the last state out and the first back in – and the strong resistance to secession here in East Tennessee is itself fascinating. So is the city of Knoxville’s Civil War story - both before and after its capture by the Union army in 1863. What is especially interesting is how it highlights the inextricable connection between secession and slavery. Since slavery was not a significant element of East Tennessee’s economy, a majority of East Tennesseans apparently saw little common interest between themselves and the pseudo-aristocratic slave-owning culture of the deep South, the perpetuation of which was what secession was all about. Understanding the dynamics of that division 150 years ago remains enlightening - and perhaps even essential - for fully appreciating the conflicts that continue to divide our nation even today.

1 comment:

  1. I really appreciate that being so new to Knoxville you have already learned so much about the history of the city.