Tag Archives: Knoxville

A belated exhibit endorsement

When I was a kid, one of my favorite haunts was the University of Tennessee’s Frank H. McClung Museum.  My dad and I usually found some excuse to stop by whenever we were in Knoxville so I could check out the fossils.

Back in those days, one of the smaller exhibits was a display on Knoxville in the Civil War.  It was in a tiny room next to a specimen storage area, with a potent smell of formaldehyde in the air.

The McClung has changed a lot in recent years, upgrading its core exhibits and bringing in some first-rate traveling shows.  The new galleries on Tennessee paleontology, southeastern Native Americans, and human origins are on a par with any museum in the country.  It was exciting to see all this going on, especially as someone who’d been visiting for years.  So when the museum unveiled an updated Civil War exhibit back in 2007, I determined to get down there and see it as soon as possible. 

For various reasons, though, I never did.  Circumstances would always get in the way.  (I’d be in Knoxville but remember the exhibit too late to get to the museum, I’d be on campus but run short on time, etc.)

A few weeks ago I had to run to UT on an errand, so I was determined to hit the McClung, forty-five-minute parking permit be darned.  I hoofed it over to the museum, pored over the new exhibit, absolutely loved it, and made a note to recommend it to all of you fine people.

Then I forgot to do so.  (They say your short-term memory is the first thing that goes.)

So allow me to extend my deepest apologies, and to partially redeem myself by directing your attention to the museum’s website about the exhibit.

This display is a fine piece of historical interpretation, one that packs a lot of information into a confined space with clarity of presentation and elegance of design.  The 1863 Confederate siege of the city and attack on Fort Sanders take center stage, but it covers the wartime political divisions in East Tennessee and the way Knoxvillians remembered the war, too.  We’ve come a long way from the days when the Civil War Knoxville display consisted of a few artifact cases and photographs tucked away in a back room.

A few features deserve special mention.  There’s a nice cross-section of armaments and accoutrements on display, along with archaeological material and some archival pieces.  One of the things that I really enjoyed was an interactive, 3-D map of the siege, where the major positions and other key locations lit up with the push of a few buttons.  The exhibit also includes a video with computer renderings of the fortifications and surrounding terrain, alongside footage of the same area as it appears now.  I’m very familiar with Knoxville, but seeing all this really helped me get my head around the geography of the siege in a way that it had never been before.

The museum is also screening a documentary on Fort Sanders, shot in and around a full-scale replica of the earthwork.  This modern-day fort proved so impressive that it’s still used in reenactments of the assault.

So there’s my belated endorsement.  See this exhibit.  It’s well worth the hassle of trying to park at UT.

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

Saving a Civil War site in Knoxville

I was down in Knoxville this evening and picked up an issue of Metro Pulse, a weekly paper on life in and around the city.  There was an interesting story on an effort to preserve a site associated with Longstreet’s unsuccessful attempt to take the city in the fall of 1863.  Here’s an online version if you’d like to have a look for yourself.

The spot in question is a wooded area on the south side of the Tennessee River, just a stone’s throw from downtown and very close to some extant Union fortifications that you can see in this aerial image from Wikimapia.  Hopefully the plan to preserve all these sites and combine them into one historic/natural “greenway” will work out.  Having a nice chunk of green space and a few Civil War forts just a mile from the center of a city sounds like a pretty sweet deal, especially since all those important works north of the river are gone.

While I’m at it, let me recommend the work of Jack Neely, who wrote the news story and has a regular column for the Pulse on little-known aspects of Knoxville’s history.  You can read these short essays here, or in two collected volumes here and here.

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Filed under Civil War, Historic Preservation, Tennessee History

Assault on Fort Sanders

Last night I found myself in the Fort Sanders neighborhood of Knoxville.  I decided to take a quick stroll over to the 79th New York Infantry monument, a testimony to a short but brutal Civil War battle.

East Tennessee’s considerable Unionist population was a thorn in the Confederacy’s side.  Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Ohio arrived in September of 1863 and surrounded Knoxville with a network of fortifications; at the northwest end stood a bastion surrounded by an eight-foot ditch, above which rose a steep embankment.

James Longstreet, sent from Chattanooga to deal with Burnside, tried to cut the Union forces off from their fortifications at the Battle of Campbell’s Station on November 16.  When that failed, the two sides settled into a siege; during the stand-off, a Confederate sharpshooter mortally wounded General William P. Sanders.  The northwest bastion, held by the 79th New York, was re-named in his honor, and was also the focal point for the Confederate attack on November 29.

Crossing a field obstructed by telegraph wire strung between tree stumps, the Confederates plunged into the ditch, only to find themselves unable to climb the frozen walls without scaling ladders.  A few managed to make it to the top; many more fell to Union bullets and hand grenades sent over the walls and into the ditch.  The attack lasted only twenty minutes, during which the Confederates suffered 813 casualties.  Union losses were only thirteen.

digital file from original neg. of left half

In the nineteenth century (as in the twenty-first), Knoxville grew to the west, and the area occupied by Fort Sanders eventually became a neighborhood of Victorian houses; one of the natives of this area was James Agee.  Today it’s mostly occupied by students from the University of Tennessee.  The 79th monument near the corner of 17th and Laurel is one of the few reminders of what took place there.

(The top image is an illustration of the attack by Lloyd Branson, from the Knoxville Civil War Roundtable’s website, which offers an account of the Civil War in and around the city.  The bottom photo, from the Library of Congress, was taken by George Barnard after Longstreet abandoned the city.  The Tennessee River is in the foreground, with East Tennessee University beyond.)

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Filed under Civil War, Tennessee History