By Renée S. Gordon
“Three hundred thousand Yankees stiffen in southern dust. We got three hundred thousand before they conquered us”
–“I’m a Good Old Rebel” by Ry Cooder
Tennessee was originally settled because of its wealth of resources, the greatest of which was access to the Cumberland, Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers. These waterways continued to grow in importance and, with the addition of rail lines, by the onset of the Civil War (1861-65) possession of Tennessee (TN) was crucial to both sides. The state was the breadbasket of the Lower South and its physical location made it key for any attacks on the more southerly states of Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. Those factors, and the zeal and tenacity of such men as Nathan Bedford Forrest, led to Tennessee being the staging ground for more Civil War battles than any state other than Virginia. More than 200 battles occurred on Tennessee soil. www.tast.tn.org
“A Path Divided” is a free guide to Tennessee’s Civil War Heritage Trail. The sites include battlefields, cemeteries, historic homes, fortifications, museums, parks and National Historic Sites (NHS). Because locations are in varying stages of preservation the handbook contains interpretive information and sites are listed thematically. The 48-page brochure includes a map and can be downloaded online. www.tennessee.gov/environment/hist/path_divided/prologue
The 1860 census indicates that the state’s total population was 1,109,801 with 275,719 of that number being held in bondage. Tennessee wavered on secession but on June 8, 1861 it became the final state to do so. More volunteers, an estimated 120,000, joined the Confederacy than in any other state, approximately 50,000 joined the Union and 20,000 freedmen volunteered for the army. By the time Forrest’s Cavalry Corps surrendered on May 9, 1865 at least 124,000 soldiers bled and died on Tennessee’s battlefields.
Last to secede and first to be readmitted, Tennessee rejoined the Union in July of 1866. Since that time the state has preserved and interpreted 3,000-acres of land related to the conflict. I have selected several pivotal battle sites for inclusion in this article. My selections are based on the importance of the engagement, the quality of the on-site interpretation and how the conflict impacts on our overall understanding of the war and the era.
Forts Henry and Donelson were the guardians of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, the gateway to the South. On February 1, 1862, Grant was ordered to take the earthen Fort Henry. Unable to build the fort on the non-seceding Kentucky side of the river, the high ground, the Confederates were forced to build their fortification on ground that perpetually flooded. Commander, Brig. Gen. Tilghman, moved the majority of the men to Fort Donelson and left a skeleton crew to hold Henry once he realized defeat was inevitable. Grant presided over the surrender of the fort but realized he had to take Fort Donelson 10-miles away.
Fort Donelson was a 15-acre earthen fort constructed largely by slave labor that guarded the Cumberland and was well protected. Grant hammered away at the fort from February 13th to the 15th and on the 16th Brig, Gen. Simon Buckner requested terms of surrender from Grant. Grant’s response, “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted,” would earn him the nickname of “Unconditional Surrender” and brought him to national attention.
A tour of the site interprets the importance of the battle, the first major Union victory and how it forced the Confederates to abandon Nashville, Southern Kentucky and portions of Tennessee and gave control of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers to the Union. The fort was subsequently held by the Union and in 1864 nearly 300 slaves lived there and were employed by the army. There are 11 areas on the tour the highlight of which is the 1851 Dover Hotel. The restored hotel was Buckner’s headquarters and was the setting for his surrender to Grant. Tours begin in the Visitors Center with a 16-minute film and exhibit gallery. www.nps.gov/fodo
“A Stitch in Time: National Civil War Quilt Trail” also relates tales of the Civil War in Stewart County. The themes include the Underground Railroad, Heroes and Heroines, the Homefront and Quilt Pattern Sources. Visitors follow the trail using quilt squares on buildings as markers. Information is available online. www.stewartcountypubliclibrary.com
The Massacre at Fort Pillow is considered one of the most horrifying and controversial incidents in the war. On April 12, 1864 Nathan B. Forrest led 1500 men to attack the fort that was held by 600 Union soldiers, nearly half of them Black. When the offer of surrender was refused the cavalry overran the fort and massacred the Black soldiers. A federal investigation was launched and as a result Union policy on prisoners of war changed. Forrest claimed he was justified and no one was ever brought to justice for the killings. “Remember Fort Pillow” became a rallying cry for the US Colored Troops for the remainder of the war. A 12-minute video and displays are available in the visitors’ center and a battle reenactment takes place each April. www.tennessee.gov/environment/parks/FortPillow
The Battle of Shiloh took place on April 6-7 of 1862. General Albert Johnston attacked Grant, who was camped near the Tennessee River, to prevent the troops from moving into Mississippi. The fighting resulted in 23,746 casualties. The battlefield tour starts with a 32-minute orientation film and museum in the visitor center. Site tours of the 4,200-acre area showcase 152 monuments (Iowa’s is the tallest), 229 cannons and 450 interpretive plaques. Significant sites are Shiloh Log Church, the Bloody Pond and Grant’s Line. www.nps.gov/shil
General Ulesses S. Grant was headquartered in the 1830 Cherry Mansion in Savannah, TN. The bricks were made by slaves, as was the terracing in the yard. The library was his office and the dining room was where he met with his staff. The grounds were also the location of one of the war’s earliest field hospitals. The mansion is privately owned but visitors may walk the grounds.
A walking tour of Savannah’s Historic Trail encompasses 17 historic homes, the Trail of Tears Overlook, the Tennessee River Museum and the graves of Alex Haley Sr. and Queen, grandparents of Alex Haley author of “Roots.” www.tourhardincnty.org
On September 1, 1862 a four hour battle raged at Britton’s Lane five miles from Denmark, Tennessee. Fewer than 10 signs mark the site but it is here that a number of soldiers died within 10-miles of their home. The city of Denmark, one of the state’s earliest towns, memorializes their sacrifice and the region’s heritage at 63 different locations including the 1820 Denmark post office, the oldest continuously operating post office in West TN. www.bigblackcreekhistorical.com
The “Times of Trouble, Times of Freedom” 10-site driving tour was created by the Paris-Henry County Heritage Center to help visitors explore the war and its legacy from all perspectives. The first stop is the Paris Heritage Center and the final stop is the City Cemetery. A portion of the cemetery was set aside for the internment of African Americans and the city has erected a beautiful monument to the enslaved buried there. www.visithenryco.com
Casey Jones Village/Brooks Shaw’s Old Country Store Restaurant is a great place to end your Tennessee sojourn, put all that you’ve learned in perspective and experience the best of southern hospitality, food and culture. Casey Jones Village is one of TN’s top ten attractions and is a real “must visit.” The complex includes Casey Jones’ original home and Railroad Museum, shops, an1890s Ice Cream Parlor, the Old Country Store, Wildlife in Wood Studio and M. Brown Railcar. The restaurant features an outstanding buffet with authentic southern cuisine. There are a series of ongoing events, reenactments and music, and one should plan to spend several hours. www.caseyjones.com and www.jacksontncvb.com
Southwest Tennessee is a destination for all seasons. I’ve focused on the Civil War heritage sites but there are also opportunities for shopping, outdoor activities, or just relaxing with a spa treatment. There are lots of reasons to choose Tennessee. Check them all out at www.TNVacation.com
I wish you smooth and peaceful travels!
On November 2, 2010 the world-renowned Staatskapelle Dresden will, for a single evening, perform at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center as a stop on their North American tour. The orchestra was founded on September 22, 1548 and has performed continuously since then, making it one of the oldest and most storied orchestras in the world. The program, conducted by Daniel Harding, consists of works by Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann and features stunning pianist Rudolf Buchbinder. This is a once in a lifetime experience. Box-Office-215-670-2340. www.staatskapelle-dresden.de