Tennessee Unionists in the Civil War 1 - "A Choice Forced upon Us"

Aug 20, 2019 12:00 AM

Pvt. Alvis Hicks

Pvt. Alvis Hicks, from a ferrotype dated around 1862

A Choice Forced Upon Us

August 1861

Late in the afternoon on Tuesday, August 20, 1861 a company of three hundred sixty men, give or take a few, arrived at Camp Dick Robinson, Kentucky. Their march through the rolling hills of the Bluegrass region the past couple of days made for a mild end to a rough journey that began over a week earlier. They were among the first to enlist in the newly formed 2nd East Tennessee Infantry (Volunteer), U. S. A. One of them was my great-great-grandfather, 21-year-old Alvis Hicks. Footsore and wearing the dust of travel, he stood in line behind his 25-year-old brother, Will. They would soon be joined by thousands of men and boys from East Tennessee who held Union sympathies. Theirs was one of the large columns. Others would come in smaller groups, while a few straggled in by ones and twos.

The Kind of Men They Were

 Alvis Duncan and William Jackson Hicks were the sons of Adry Hicks, a farmer born about 1814 probably in Morgan County, Tennessee. That’s apparently also where Alvis was born on February 2, 1840. We are not completely sure. There are conflicting stories and his offspring and relatives did not remember him speaking of his birthplace except in generalities.[i] 

Adry Hicks and his family are listed for the first time in the 1850 Morgan County census. He and his wife, the former Nancy Jenkins, are listed as natives of Tennessee and best evidence is that Morgan County was his birthplace. The record tells us that Adry and Nancy had nine children. It also says that Adry could read and write.

Adry was a farmer owning real estate in the value of $300. To assess the comparative value of this property, consider that in 1850 the average daily wage of a common laborer on the Erie Canal was $.88, and for a skilled carpenter $1.50. So, for a simple farmer in East Tennessee, $300 would represent the savings of about a year’s wages. The Hicks family was not affluent by any standard but considering that several Hicks family households in the same neighborhood likely shared in a cooperative arrangement, neither were they the poorest of the poor. By pooling their resources, together they had enough acreage to grow a marketable crop, probably of wheat or corn.

Will was the second born in the family, after elder sister Elvira who 16 when the census taker came in 1850. He was followed by James who was two years older than Alvis. Will, James, Alvis, and younger sister Mary had attended school the previous year. There weren’t many schoolhouses in the area. Perhaps the school they attended held its sessions in a church house. Those who sent their children had to contribute money or goods to keep it going. Adry was a literate man, and it must have been important to him to see that his children also had the rudiments of an education. There were three other children in the family, including one brother who was not older than 14 when the war broke out.

Adry died in 1855 at the young age of 41. We don’t know whether it was from illness or injury. Alvis was only 15. According to his own testimony, living at home was a hardship for the boy, but we have no details of the conflicts he experienced. He left home soon afterward and worked at farming and carpentry. In 1859 at age 19 he married 17-year-old Nancy Perry, the daughter of widow Polly Perry. Nancy had two older twin brothers, two older sisters, and a younger sister. Nancy’s brothers would join the Confederate army.

 According to his enlistment record Will’s home was Roane County, Tennessee,[ii] and we may assume Alvis was living there as well, although the clerk failed to write down the information, or perhaps Alvis failed to put it down on his card. Most if not all of the men in that group were from Roane County. Moreover, they came to Camp Dick Robinson accompanied by other kinfolk. Their brother James (23) and some cousins had already arrived a day earlier with the group from Kingston led by Robert K. Byrd and had joined the 1st Regiment that mustered under Byrd’s command. Besides these, five other Hicks men enlisted in the 2nd  Tennessee, all but one of them on August 20 and 21. They included Winfield Hicks from Roane County, age 40 (or maybe 50!—there are two different records), who was given a medical discharge less than a year later. The fact that all but two of the Hicks men were assigned to A Company along with Alvis and Will is a strong indication that all these men were related. It was the common policy of the U. S. Army (and the C. S. A. also for that matter) to assign troops to the same unit who were from the same town and family.

Also, there that day was 20-year-old Andrew Jackson Snow. Everybody called him “Jack.” One of the Roane County men, he was personally acquainted with the Hicks brothers and was a comrade of theirs in A Company. Jack was reared on one of the many small family farms in the region, a stout lad of 6 feet in height—tall, but not towering over the other Tennesseans, whose average height was a full inch taller than soldiers from other states. He passed though the same adventures and privations as Alvis Hicks, including internment in Andersonville, yet lived to the age of 99. In 1935 he was interviewed by a journalist, and his story so closely follows the track of Alvis Hicks that reading it is about as close as we can get to a written war memoir of my ancestor— a wonderful and rare (virtual) first-person account that provides many precious details for this history.[iii]

If the family’s oral history is correct, at the time Alvis enlisted his wife Nancy was pregnant or had recently given birth to a baby daughter. Will was also married and had a young son only a few months old. Why would a young man with a newly growing family freely enlist in the army? Three possible reasons come quickly to mind to us who are so far removed from that time: domestic unhappiness, dire financial need, or both. 

We must remember that in the summer of 1861 it was still thought by most on both sides that the war would be of short duration. Practically all the men who signed up for the 2nd Tennessee (like the rest of their fellow Americans on both sides of the conflict) were expecting that their military career would last several months at the most. Maybe the struggling young farmer, probably a hired hand living not much above a subsistence level, felt that a U. S. Army paycheck would compensate for his absence from home. He may also have felt the need to move his young family north for safety’s sake, since the atmosphere in East Tennessee was rapidly turning hostile.

But these are the pragmatic concerns of those who are living in a time of peace trying to imagine the motivations of those who are going to war. Less tangible but far more powerful is the motivating power of heartfelt patriotism and national loyalty in a time when people feel their home and security are threatened. A man’s own conscience and sense of honor are fundamental things. These East Tennesseans who gathered at Camp Dick Robinson may have been mostly simple, poor farmers, but they were also men with deep convictions and well-defined beliefs.

Though their pro-Confederate neighbors derisively called them “Lincolnites,” it was not for Lincoln that they signed up to fight. They had no personal loyalty to him. (Indeed, Lincoln’s name and party were not even on the Tennessee ballot in 1860.) Neither were they interested in the abolition of slavery—some in fact were adamantly opposed to that, and some even owned slaves. The Union was their cause.

The Union was not an abstract concept to them, but the embodiment and protector of their way of life, an extension of their own selves. Seeing that their way of life was endangered, the same sense of honor that spurred their fellow Southerners to seek independence from the United States likewise spurred these men to make the opposite choice. As a population, these were true non-conformists who stood against the tide, who left behind their homes in order to defend them. Without question it was this mix of patriotism, conviction, and honor that led Alvis, along with his brothers and kin and neighbors, to leave home and family in order to join a cause greater than any private interest.

We can get some insight into the thoughts and feelings of many of these men through the words of Paul Grogger, who joined the 2nd Tennessee in early fall. In his memoir he describes the terrible mixture of excitement, resolution, and dread he experienced as he signed up at Camp Robinson. Back in the spring of that year, while the State of Tennessee was still debating secession, Paul’s mother died. Still grieving over the loss and struggling to maintain the family farm, he and his younger brother were also in a quandary as to what to do now.

We remained that summer by ourselves and made a small crop, although we felt very much lost and alone. Besides, we felt in trouble. What would become of us as the war commenced to rage over our country and the rebels began to imprison the union men and conscript and force the people into the rebellion? In this part of the country, all the young men that felt unsafe by staying at home and wished to give their assistance to the union cause left for Kentucky to join the union or federal army. I was from all my heart a union man and felt myself under as much obligation as any other loyal men protected by our government to go and fight for it, instead of cowardly laying back to hide in the rock houses. So consequently, I made up my mind to leave my old beloved home and my dear little brother. I also left my property in the hands of other people, trusting everything to their care and management. I gave my farewell to little Adam, who I left with one of my neighbors, not knowing whether it would be the last farewell in this world. I departed from him, trusting that heaven would look down upon us with mercy and guide us through all the perils and dangers that seemed to await our destiny.[iv]

“I was with all my heart a Union man.” There is something profoundly American in Paul Grogger’s self-description beyond the obvious—and it is something that characterized men on both sides of the great controversy. It is the conviction of free men that their beliefs are important, regardless of whether they have wealth, power, education, or pedigree. Their beliefs are important because they are free men; and at the same time, their beliefs put them under obligation because they are free men. Here is a young man, barely out of adolescence, but though no once forces him, he has chosen in his heart to be a Union man. No one outside of God, his family, and his neighborhood may know who he is or know his name, but what he believes matters, because he is free.

Next: Tennessee vs. East Tennessee


 [i] Earlier censuses record his birth state as Tennessee, but later ones Kentucky—after he had moved to Kentucky,  married a Kentucky wife, and had children born in Kentucky. Perhaps he was making it easier on the census taker.  

[ii] Until 1870 Roane County encompassed much of what is now Loudon County, including the town of Loudon.

[iii] All references to “Jack Snow” are from “Adventures of Jack Snow” [transcribed from Civil War Centennial 1861-   1961—which itself contains a transcription of a newspaper article from decades earlier—by Dave Mathews at, --a website that, unfortunately, is now extinct. I am indebted to Mr. Mathews and his valuable website for much of the source material in this book that I was able to copy.]

[iv] “Memoirs of Paul Grogger,” hereafter designated in the text as “Paul Grogger,” sic, without revision for spelling and punctuation. Copied from Mathews.