Category Archives: Appalachian History

Two new books on the Cumberland Gap region

Arcadia Publishing has just published two photographic histories of the Cumberland Gap region for their popular Images of America series, and it just so happens that friends of mine wrote both of them.

Natalie Sweet’s book covers the towns of Harrogate and Cumberland Gap, TN.  Harrogate has an unusual story for a small community; in the late 1800s a British industrialist founded a swanky resort there, which hosted some of the richest people in the country for just a short while before financial reverses brought down the whole enterprise.  Natalie will be signing copies at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum on the campus of Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate on February 18 from 2:00 to 5:00 P.M.

Martha Wiley’s book is about Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, where she serves as historian, but it includes material on the history of the area before the park was founded.

I worked with Natalie and Martha at LMU’s Lincoln museum, and they’re darn good at doing history.  If you’re interested in Appalachia or the history of the National Park Service, these books should be well worth a look.

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Two items of note from here in Tennessee

Eight Tennessee sites have joined the National Register of Historic Places, including Crockett Tavern in Morristown, just down the road from my hometown.  Davy Crockett’s family moved to the site when the famous frontiersman was still a boy.  The present structure is a replica built in the 1950s, during the Crockett craze whipped up by the Disney series.

I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t been there yet, but I’m going this year, as soon as they re-open for the spring.  It’s not that uncommon for history buffs to spend years driving all over the country to visit sites and let the ones in their own backyards fall through the cracks, but the fact that I’ve gone this long without crossing Crockett Tavern off my bucket list is downright scandalous.

Also, the East Tennessee Historical Society is hosting a Brown Bag Lecture on Jan. 16 at noon about an interesting archaeological site in downtown Knoxville: the home of Peter Kern, a remarkable guy who turned a run of bad luck into a fortune in the food business.  Kern was a German immigrant who settled in Georgia and signed up to fight for the Confederacy.  Wounded in Virginia, he went back home to recover.  While returning to the front by train, he ended up in Knoxville just as the city fell into Union hands.  Stuck in town for the duration of the war, he made the most of his situation and established a bakery and ice cream parlor.  Kern’s bread business was quite a success (you can still buy baked goods with the Kern’s label here in East Tennessee) and he stayed in Knoxville, running successfully for mayor in 1890.

So on behalf of my fellow East Tennesseans to whichever Yankee soldier managed to knock Kern out of the action—thanks for all the awesome sandwiches.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Archaeology, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

Confetti

A few items worthy of note as we ring in 2014.

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, American Revolution, Appalachian History, Civil War, History on the Web, Tennessee History

Ford’s Theatre will host new exhibit from LMU’s Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum

Cross-posted to the blog of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy

The Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum (ALLM) will display a new exhibit “Abraham Lincoln and the Technology of War” at the Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership in Washington, D.C. Curated by Steven Wilson, ALLM curator and assistant director, the exhibit investigates the significance of inventions and new machines in the Civil War.

Included in the exhibit are artifacts from the B&O Railroad Museum, the Kentucky Military History Museum, the National Firearms Museum, the Center for Northern Indiana History, the Tennessee State Museum and the Vicksburg National Military Park-U.S.S. Cairo. Some rare items from the collection of the ALLM are a Greene bolt-action breech-loading rifle, Captain John Worden’s speaking trumpet and a collection of carte de visite photographs.

“Abraham Lincoln and the Technology of War” will open to the public on January 14, 2014.  The exhibit will remain on display through July 6, 2014. Admission is included with regular daytime visit tickets to Ford’s Theatre, which is free but requires timed entry tickets. Tickets may be reserved in person at Ford’s Theatre Box Office, through Ticketmaster at 800.982.2787, or online at http://www.fords.org.

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Fort Sanders sesquicentennial for Black Friday

In 1863 Nov. 29 fell on a Sunday instead of a Friday, but it was a pretty black day nonetheless, at least for the hapless Rebel soldiers who launched a disastrous assault against Fort Sanders at Knoxville.  Those twenty bloody minutes ended Longstreet’s effort to re-take the city for the Confederacy, following its occupation by Burnside that September.

The attack on Ft. Sanders was neither a particularly big battle as far as Civil War engagements went nor as consequential as what was going on down in Chattanooga.  But it’s a pretty big deal for history buffs here in my neck of the woods, so here’s another anniversary link-fest for you.

  • Knoxville’s own historical columnist Jack Neely on the assault
  • The Knoxville News-Sentinel‘s sesquicentennial coverage of the war in East Tennessee
  • If you haven’t seen the McClung Museum’s exhibit on Ft. Sanders, you should definitely check it out.  They have fossils, too!  (By the way, that new Edmontosaurus is now called “Monty.”)
  • The East Tennessee Historical Society has some nifty Civil War displays of their own, and they’re commemorating the Ft. Sanders anniversary with a free admission day.
  •  Need to read up on the contest for control of Knoxville?  I recommend The Knoxville Campaign by Earl Hess, Lincolnites and Rebels by Robert Tracy McKenzie, and Divided Loyalties by Digby Gordon Seymour.  For additional background, try Noel Fisher’s War at Every Door and W. Todd Groce’s Mountain Rebels.
  • Last year we paid a virtual visit to the site of the battle.  The fort is long gone, but there are still a few landmarks from the Knoxville Campaign around.  Click here to book a guided tour, or stop by Longstreet’s headquarters and the Mabry-Hazen House.
  • Watch the battle reenacted at a replicated Ft. Sanders, constructed for a documentary produced in conjunction with the McClung Museum’s exhibit.
  • And finally, here’s a depiction of the attack by Lloyd Branson, the same Tennessee artist who did the painting of the Sycamore Shoals muster at the top of this blog:

Wikimedia Commons

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“Equal parts P.T. Barnum and Huey P. Long”

The East Tennessee History Center has launched a new exhibit on early Knoxville television in conjunction with the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound.  One of the artifacts on display is the original backdrop from Cas Walker’s TV show.  Doing the history of Knoxville TV without Cas Walker—self-made grocery magnate, broadcaster, populist, politician, and one-man Knoxville institution, referred to by one writer as “equal parts P.T. Barnum and Huey P. Long”—would be like doing the Jacksonian era without Old Hickory.

Born in Sevier County in 1902, Orton Caswell Walker spent his early years working jobs at mills and coal mines in North Carolina and Kentucky before opening his first Knoxville grocery store in 1924 with $850 he had managed to save.  In a few decades, he turned this initial investment into a multi-million-dollar chain of establishments in three states.

Walker owed his success to a knack for self-promotion.  No advertising gimmick was too outrageous, whether it involved dropping coupons from airplanes, tossing chickens off the roof of his store, or burying a volunteer stuntman alive.  His image as an unpolished, uncultivated hick who enjoyed a good raccoon hunt served him well with working-class customers.

Walker leveraged his popularity into a role in local politics, winning a seat on the Knoxville City Council in 1941 and a short term (ending in a recall election) as the city’s mayor in 1946.  In office and in his self-published newspaper he railed against higher taxes, the consolidation of Knoxville’s city and county governments, flouridation of the municipal water supply, and the local elites who considered him a backwards embarrassment.  Reveling in his persona as a rough-and-tumble champion of the little guy, he denounced his opponents in what he called the “silk-stocking crowd.”  A demagogue he may have been, but he endeared himself to the same working-class voters who had patronized his grocery stores.

The highlight of Walker’s political career came in 1956, when a dispute with J.S. Cooper during a city council meeting erupted into a full-fledged fistfight.  I consider this the most delightful moment in Knoxville’s political history since the Sevier-Jackson showdown of 1803, and thankfully a newspaper photographer was on hand to preserve it for the ages.  The image appeared in Life magazine, putting Knoxville’s contentious local politics in the national consciousness.

Walker, at left, winds up for the punch. (Photo by Tom Greene, from the McClung Historical Collection via Wikimedia Commons)

The centerpiece of Walker’s promotional efforts was his self-hosted TV program, the Cas Walker Farm and Home Hour, which ran for three decades and offered him a platform to plug his stores, showcase regional musicians, and pontificate.  From a purely historical standpoint, the show is most notable for giving a young Dolly Parton one of her first breaks in the entertainment business.  But for sheer entertainment value, none of the musical acts could top Cas himself, holding forth in his own rambling and occasionally profane style.

Here’s Cas discussing the subject of store security (mildly NSFW language):

And in this clip, he shares some advice on professionalism with his musical guests:

You can enjoy more of his televised antics here; his political career is discussed in detail in Dr. William Bruce Wheeler’s history of Knoxville.

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More to it than a family feud

Here’s a story about a woman whose investigations into her family’s history uncovered the true story behind a 1926 shootout in southwestern Virginia.  Newspapers dismissed the incident as just another violent hillbilly squabble; turns out they were wrong.

This bit of genealogical research is sort of a microcosm of Appalachian history in general.  The more you study it, the more the stereotypes and assumptions start to give way to fascinating and complex realities.

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Novel approach to King’s Mountain

I finished reading Sharyn McCrumb’s novel King’s Mountain night before last, and I’ve got to say that I’m pretty impressed at how much Overmountain Men lore she managed to pack into it.  The gang’s all there, even fairly obscure characters like Enoch Gilmer.  McCrumb is obviously passionate about the subject, and she’s done her homework. 

The book’s not totally free of historical slip-ups.  McCrumb indicates that Ferguson’s posting to the Carolinas was essentially a banishment to a backwater of the war, but the South had become the seat of Britain’s major offensive efforts by the time Ferguson arrived with Clinton’s Charleston expedition.  At one point she says in passing that Light-Horse Harry Lee was an Overmountain Man, which is an error I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else.  Finally, her characterization of James Williams as a first-rate scoundrel traces back to questionable statements found in Col. William Hill’s 1815 memoir.  Hill’s account is like Super Glue—it’s handy to have around, but you’ve got to be extremely careful when using it.  It’s the work of an old veteran nursing a grudge, and some of his charges against Williams just don’t hold up in light of other sources.  (For a detailed discussion of the whole Williams/Hill kerfuffle, I recommend William T. Graves’s new book.  I’m not as inclined to exonerate Williams as fully as Graves does, but he makes an excellent case for taking Hill’s memoir with a generous dose of salt.)

When it comes to matters open to novelistic license, my only complaint is that McCrumb’s Ferguson is a pretty humorless, embittered guy.  Although Ferguson endured repeated disappointments during his military career, his letters also indicate an endearing charm and wit, and they don’t really come across in the novel.

These caveats aside, I enjoyed the book and I hope it sparks widespread interest in the battle.  If you like the Southern Campaign and early Tennessee history as much as I do, you’ll get a kick out of it.  McCrumb employs John Sevier and Virginia Sal as dual narrators, and as much as I’m drawn to Sevier as a historical figure, I found the Virginia Sal chapters the most compelling.  We know so little about Ferguson’s purported lover and the other women who followed the armies that they’re among the voiceless participants in the Revolution; McCrumb effectively lends them a voice of their own.  Reading the story in fictional form as told by the people who lived it reminds you that they didn’t have our benefit of knowing how things would turn out, and they endured the pivotal autumn of 1780 with all the hopes and fears of flesh-and-blood human beings.

It’s worth noting that the novel is a distinctly Appalachian story, written by an author who specializes in the region.  This is an interesting modern example of Appalachians claiming King’s Mountain as their own American Revolutionary moment, a process that began with regional historians and antiquarians of the nineteenth century.  If you’re interested in how this regionalized memory of the battle emerged, you might enjoy my article on that subject in the Fall 2009 issue of Tennessee Historical Quarterly.

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Various items worthy of note

  • I can’t believe I forgot to mention this until now, but it’s time for John Sevier Days Living History Weekend at Marble Springs State Historic Site in Knoxville, TN.  The action starts tomorrow and continues through Sunday—reenacting, demonstrations, food, and presentations on the Lost State of Franklin and King’s Mountain.  It’ll be a blast, so stop by if you get the chance.
  • While we’re talking about Marble Springs, let me also recommend a great way to support the site and get some nifty benefits for yourself.  Join the Governor John Sevier Memorial Association and you’ll get free admission when you visit, discounts on gift shop items, access to special events, and more.  Memberships start at just $25.
  • Late September-early October is King’s Mountain season.  If you can’t make it to Knoxville for the Marble Springs event, there’s another option for those of you in southwestern Virginia.  On Sunday, Abingdon Muster Grounds is hosting Sharyn McCrumb, who will read from her new novel about the battle.  They’ll also have living history demonstrations and the unveiling of a new painting of William Campbell, whose unit marched from Abingdon to Sycamore Shoals to meet the other Overmountain Men.
  • Some Connecticut parents are quite understandably upset over a school function where students got a taste of slavery…including the racial slurs.  What.  Were.  They.  Thinking?
  • Here’s a Rev War infographic from 1871.
  • Some folks are working to preserve the area around Kettle Creek battlefield in Georgia.
  • A supplementary AP history text is drawing criticism for the way it refers to the Second Amendment.
  • Next time you’re driving through Shepherdsville, KY keep an eye out for the new John Hunt Morgan mural on an underpass along Old Preston Highway.

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Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Civil War, History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites, Teaching History, Tennessee History

Mattie Randolph’s showdown with the TVA

What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?  The Tennessee Valley Authority found out in 1936, when they tried to persuade the Randolph family to vacate their Campbell County farm.  The irresistible force was the rising water impounded by Norris Lake; the immovable object was Mattie Randolph, the woman of the house.  The resulting report would be a fantastic primary source to use in the classroom.

Although the exasperated author of the report claimed that “neither [Mrs. Randolph] nor any of her family have any idea as to the meaning of the TVA,” when you read the document you can’t help but wonder who was misunderstanding whom.

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