Category Archives: Appalachian History

Oh, and speaking of Knoxville’s relationship to the Civil War

…there’s a new Knoxville Civil War Gateway on the corner of Gay St. and Hill Ave:

Beginning May first the Civil War Gateway will be open Tuesday-Saturday, 11 AM- 4 PM, providing maps, walking tour brochures, videos, troop information, and graphic presentations of the Civil War story here in East Tennessee. Saturday guided tours will be announced and conducted regularly. Consult for all details.

Sounds pretty cool!

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Admiral Farragut, both remembered and forgotten

Knoxville historian Jack Neely has written a fascinating article on the legacy of East Tennessee’s own Admiral David Farragut, with an update on the disappearing birthplace monument.

Wikimedia Commons

The current status of Farragut’s boyhood home and the marker that once stood there is…well, complicated.  Very, very complicated.

What I didn’t know before reading Neely’s piece is that Farragut has become a hero among Americans of Spanish-speaking descent.  His father was a native of Minorca who settled in the Knoxville area back when Tennessee was still the Southwest Territory.

Knoxville historians once assumed they were the only ones who’ve ever heard of George Farragut, the early settler. But there’s a high-quality portrait of him at the Smithsonian. He’s the one Knoxville settler of whom we have the clearest physical image: a robust fellow on the verge of a chuckle. Now he has his own Wikipedia page. George Farragut has emerged as a Spanish-American patriot of the Revolutionary War.

His son who became an admiral has also gained new attention. “I am extremely proud of sharing the same heritage as Admiral Farragut,” says Coral Getino, the Spanish-born leader of Knoxville’s HoLa Hora Latina, hosts of the popular annual festival. “Farragut is a role model for us: A first-generation Hispanic-American, hard-working family man, who earned the highest Navy rank for the first time in history,” she says. “His bravery, determination, and perseverance—in battle and in life—exemplify values we want to teach our children. He is a national hero who was born right here, almost in my neighborhood.” Learning the Farragut story, she says, helped inspire her to get involved in the Knoxville community.

Navy guys, Civil War buffs, and various other constituencies are also keenly interested in the fate of Farragut’s birthplace. A pity more people from the admiral’s own neck of the woods aren’t as concerned.  Neely notes that at the time of its dedication, the birthplace monument was probably the most prominent marker of its kind in the Knoxville area.  You wouldn’t expect a rock like that to fade from memory, but then you wouldn’t expect it to grow legs and walk away, either.

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Nancy Ward hits the stage

Through the magic of the Interwebs, I just found out that somebody has written a musical about Nancy Ward, Beloved Woman of the Cherokee.  The show’s on its premiere run in Hartwell, GA.

Ward (or Nanye-hi, if you prefer to use her Cherokee name) was one of those intercultural mediators that played such a prominent role on the early American frontier, which in her case consisted of what eventually became northeastern Tennessee.

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Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, History and Memory, Tennessee History

A jaunt through Jonesborough

If you want to see a stellar example of what happens when a community embraces historic preservation, you should visit Jonesborough, TN.  It’s the oldest town in the state (founded in 1779, when eastern Tennessee was still part of North Carolina) and a history lover’s paradise.  My cousin and I paid a visit the other day, after our tour of Carter’s Mansion in nearby Elizabethton.

The first thing you’ll want to do is stop by the visitor center to pick up a walking guide.  These brochures are only $1.00, and they point out all the important historic structures and locations, most of them within easy walking distance.  The visitor center also has a nice little exhibit on various aspects of Jonesborough’s past, including some nifty antique fire pumps.

Jonesborough has, at various times, been the seat of Washington Co., created by North Carolina out of some of the western districts across the mountains; a capital of the abortive State of Franklin, which ceased to exist in 1788; a government and economic center for the Southwest Territory, when North Carolina ceded her western lands to the federal government; and finally, a county seat for Tennessee.  A monument in front of the current courthouse building marks the approximate spot where a log courthouse sat over two centuries ago.

One of the oldest structures you’ll see in Jonesborough (one of the oldest structures you’ll see in the whole state, actually) is the log home of Christopher Taylor, built in 1788.  A young backwoods lawyer named Andrew Jackson lived there for a short time before moving on to Nashville and national fame.

Later, after his election to the presidency, Jackson was a guest at the Chester Inn.  Built in the late 1790′s, this building has also hosted Presidents Polk and Johnson, along with various other historic luminaries.  Now it’s the home of the National Storytelling Festival.  Check out the exhibit on the first floor; it offers a fine overview of the town’s history, and includes some pretty neat artifacts.

Next to the Taylor cabin is the site where Elihu Embree published two anti-slavery newspapers, The Manumission Intelligencer and The Emancipator.  The latter was the first newspaper in the country devoted solely to promoting the eventual eradication of slavery.  The son of Pennsylvania Quakers, Embree was actually a slaveowner himself until age thirty, joining a Tennessee manumission organization in 1815.  The Emancipator circulated as far as Boston, but its run ended when Embree died at a young age in 1820.

Our last stop was the town’s old cemetery, which sits on a hill near the historic district.  Noticing a couple of small Confederate flags on one monument, I walked over to have a closer look.  Turned out to be the grave of Brigadier General Alfred E. Jackson, who served as a quartermaster and paymaster before spending much of the rest of the war engaged in the small-scale actions that often flared up in the mountains of Appalachia.  Jackson was quite unpopular among other Confederate officers; subordinates in Thomas’ Legion (which constituted part of his brigade) considered him “morally and physically unfit” for command and asked Jefferson Davis to give him the boot.  The end of the war found this formerly prosperous businessman farming rented land in southwestern Virginia.  He was eventually able to recover some of his antebellum prosperity and died in Jonesborough in 1889.

There are plenty of other stories and buildings to check out in Jonesborough, along with quite a few historic inns and small restaurants.  The town is just a short drive from some of Tennessee’s best parks and historic sites—Sycamore Shoals, Rocky Mount, Andrew Johnson’s home, and Tipton-Haynes Historic Site, to name a few—so if you’re looking for a place to spend a history-soaked weekend, it’s hard to beat.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Civil War, Historic Preservation, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

Keeping up with the Carters

Yesterday I finally took care of a nagging bit of unfinished business.  Being an aficionado of the Rev War and the Tennessee frontier, I’ve always had a soft spot for Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area, but I’d never visited Carter Mansion, the historic house museum just a few miles away operated by the park as a satellite site.

Built sometime around the Revolution, either by John Carter (one of the first settlers in what would become Tennessee and leader of the Watauga Association) or his son Landon (a veteran of the War for Independence and an important political figure on the frontier), the house is one of the oldest and most important structures in the region.

I’d wanted to see it for a long time, but it had been closed every time I’d visited the park, so when I found out about a living history event at the house this weekend, I jumped at the chance to make a special trip.  I took my cousin along; he’s a fellow history enthusiast who accompanied me on my last visit to the park.

If this doesn’t fit your idea of a “mansion,” bear in mind that most houses of that time and place were simple cabins; painted siding and brick chimneys weren’t the sort of architectural features you saw every day.

Where the house really knocks your socks off, though, is its elaborate interior.  The carved panels, crown molding, chair rails, and fluted columns of the first-floor walls put this home in a different class altogether from the rough dwellings typical of the eighteenth-century frontier.  Incredibly, some of the walls still have the original stain, visible above this fireplace in the parlor.

I’ve seen more than my share of historic house museums from the late 1700′s and early 1800′s, and this is one of the most beautifully restored and furnished of the whole lot.

Some members of the Carter family are buried on the grounds…

…although I could’ve sworn I saw John Carter himself treating some of the local militia to a patriotic libation.

A gang of Tories broke up the party by showing up uninvited, more than a little irate that their property had been confiscated.  The negotiations didn’t turn out well.

A good time was had by all—except for the Tories, I suppose—and I can finally scratch Carter Mansion off my bucket list.  Totally worth the wait.

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Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Museums and Historic Sites, Reenacting, Tennessee History

Two posts from my neck of the woods

Appalachian History just posted two stories in a row that are both pretty close to home, at least for me—one about a bloody labor incident here in my home county, the other about Middlesboro, KY, which is just over the state line.

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Flash forward, Ft. Sanders edition

Here’s some more virtual time travel.  This is Fort Sanders on the western outskirts of Knoxville, TN.  It was the site of a failed Confederate attack in November 1863, but I think the photo is from 1864.

Library of Congress (LC-B811- 4008)

Now the site of the fort is well within the city.  Here’s the same view, give or take a block or two.

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Lots of Americans had Civil War stories

…but not many had stories like this guy’s.

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A walk at Wildcat Mountain

In the fall of 1861, Felix Zollicoffer, the Confederate general responsible for the troublesome eastern section of Tennessee, moved north from Cumberland Gap along the Wilderness Road into the mountains of Kentucky with about 5,400 men.  Union forces in the Bluegrass State responded by sending a small detachment of raw recruits to Wildcat Mountain near present-day London.

The Confederates badly outnumbered the force at Camp Wildcat, so on Oct. 2oth they were reinforced by the arrival of additional troops under Brig. Gen. Albin F. Schoepf, bringing their total to 7,000.  They arrived just in the nick of time; the next day, the Confederates launched an attack on a hill occupied by the 33rd Indiana.  The Union troops’ stubborn resistance convinced Zollicoffer that Wildcat Mountain couldn’t be taken by assault, so the next morning saw the Yankees still in possession of the ground and the Confederates returning southward toward Cumberland Ford.

The Battle of Wildcat Mountain/Camp Wildcat was small by Civil War standards—the Union forces suffered around 2o casualties, the Confederates around 50—but Zollicoffer’s withdrawal the night of Oct. 21st marked the end of his first attempt to secure control of eastern Kentucky, and gave the Union its first victory in that state.  Today the Camp Wildcat Preservation Foundation preserves and interprets the site of the battle.  I got the chance to pay a visit this week.

Getting to Wildcat Mountain is both easy and difficult.  Easy, because I-75 cuts right through the part of eastern Kentucky where it’s located; difficult, because the site itself is in a rugged, wooded, mountainous area, and the only access is via a narrow gravel road.  But it’s well worth the effort.  An interpretive kiosk offers visitors an overview of the events leading to the battle and the way in which the struggle played out on the wooded slopes.  There are two trails, one of which takes you past the original bed of the old Wilderness Road to a monument near the site of the Union camp.

The longer trail, about an hour’s hike, takes you to Hoosier Knob, the hill where the most intense fighting took place.  Both trails feature signage and various interesting sights along the way; to see the whole battlefield requires about an hour and half to two hours.

What impressed me most about the battlefield was the obvious dedication of the CWPF in developing the site.  Its location and the nature of the terrain present considerable difficulties to anyone trying to interpret it, but there were a number of visitors there when I arrived, and a large tour group stopped by later in the day.  It’s a great place to learn about the Civil War in the Appalachian border region, so see it if you get the chance.

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Pachyderm pays ultimate penalty

The University of Virginia is about to mount a theatrical production about an East Tennessee hanging that took place in September 1916, which wouldn’t really be all that interesting, except the individual who got hanged was a five-ton circus elephant belonging to Sparks World Famous Shows.

The show was traveling through the Southeast that fall when the regular elephant trainer had to leave the tour in St. Paul, VA, forcing the owner to take on an extra hand.  On Sept. 10th or 11th, the circus hired a young man named Walter Eldridge, who had been working as a janitor at a local hotel.

Just think—one day you’re mopping up after tourists, and the next you’re responsible for a herd of multi-ton animals.  Who says there’s no such thing as the American Dream?

Eldridge’s second day on the job turned out to be his last.  On Sept. 12th, the circus arrived in Kingsport, TN, where the janitor-turned-pachyderm-handler was responsible for escorting the elephants to and from their watering break.  Accounts of what happened next vary a little, but here’s the way one eyewitness remembered it:

There was a big ditch at that time, run up through Center Street, …And they’d sent these boys to ride the elephants… There was, oh, I don’t know now, seven or eight elephants… and they went down to water them and on the way back each boy had a little stick-like, that was a spear or a hook in the end of it… And this big old elephant reach over to get her a watermelon rind, about half a watermelon somebody eat and just laid it down there; ‘n he did, the boy give him a jerk. He pulled him away from ‘em, and he just blowed real big, and when he did, he took him right around the waist… and throwed him against the side of the drink stand and he just knocked the whole side out of it. I guess it killed him, but when he hit the ground the elephant just walked over and set his foot on his head… and blood and brains and stuff just squirted all over the street.

Not exactly the kind of thing you can walk off.

In actuality, the circus had five elephants rather than seven or eight, and the elephant that killed Eldridge was a she, not a he.  Her name was Mary, and she’d been with the circus for twenty years.  That wasn’t enough to get her off the hook for Eldridge’s death.  The crowd who saw the whole thing happen started calling for blood, and in any case a rampaging elephant was bad for business, so the circus owner decided that Mary had to be put down.

But imposing the death penalty on an elephant is one thing, carrying it out quite another.  Guns proved ineffective, and the idea of smashing Mary between two railroad engines seemed a little grotesque, so the circus decided to try hanging.  The nearby town of Erwin had a large rail yard, where about 2,500 people turned out to see Mary hoisted by the neck from a derrick.  Hoisted twice, actually, since the chain broke on the first attempt.

That’s admittedly pretty horrible, but the good news is that somebody had the presence of mind to take a photo.

This sordid episode has enjoyed quite a bit of notoriety on the Interwebs, and is also the subject of a short book.  If you’re curious about the play, copies of the script are available on Amazon.  Believe it or not, this is only one of two plays about this incident; another one premiered in 2009.


Filed under Appalachian History, Tennessee History