Tennessee Unionists in the Civil War 2 - Tennessee vs. East Tennessee

Aug 21, 2019 12:00 AM

Brig. Gen. Samuel P. Carter

Organizer of Tennessee Unionist volunteer regiments

East Tennessee was an island of Unionism surrounded by a sea of secession. Two months had gone by since Tennessee voted to secede when these young Tennesseans left home to go to war. The Unionists were fired up. Their allegiance was being challenged and their fervor was stoked by pressure from fellow Tennesseans whom they regarded to be stricken with a collective madness. There was but a narrow window of opportunity to escape forced conscription into what they considered to be an illegal and illegitimate cause.

Harris convened a special session of the state legislature, which on May 6 passed a bill declaring Tennessee’s independence. The governor immediately used his executive powers to enter a military alliance with the new Confederate States of America. With his enthusiastic approval upwards of 20,000 Confederate troops, mostly from other states, were deployed throughout Tennessee. Their very presence was meant to intimidate any Unionist opposition, and it did that very well. Secession was well-accomplished at this point, but the legislature issued a referendum so it could be ratified by popular vote.

The Knoxville Convention

Prior to the plebiscite a number of prominent men, including former governor and current U. S. Senator Andrew Johnson, had met in Knoxville in May to rally the Unionists in the state. They regaled one another with hours of speeches and passed numerous resolutions, fervently condemning the actions of the governor and legislature—nothing that would change anything. They did, however, issue two calls that had some consequence.

First, the Knoxville Convention called for the recruitment of a force from Tennessee to answer President Lincoln’s call for volunteer troops. As part of the resolution they appointed Lt. Samuel Carter, USN, to command the volunteers and assigned to him the rank of brigadier general.

Samuel Parry Carter[1] was a scion of the prominent ironworks family of Carter County (for whose grandfather the county was named). At a young age he had left behind the family business in order to enter the U. S. Navy. In 1861 he was in service on a ship stationed in Brazil. He came to the notice of the anti-secession movement through a passionately pro-Union letter he had written, recently published in “Parson” William Brownlow’s Knoxville Whig. Denouncing secession as treason, he implored Tennessee to adhere “to the Constitution & [sic] the Union, even if she has to stand alone among the slave-holding states.” Carter’s military appointment by the Knoxville Unionists was purely symbolic—they had no authority to appoint anyone—but it would have effects, one of which was to call him in from Naval duty. Carter applied for and received leave from the Navy and returned home to see what he must do next.

The second measure of consequence was a call for another convention to be held in Greeneville on a date after the results of the secession vote would be known, so that a suitable response could be formulated.

On June 5, 1861 the statewide ballot on the matter brought out 156,632 voters—including some of the soldiers from other states—who went two to one for Secession.[2]

In East Tennessee, however, the vote was two to one against. The thought of the breaking of the Union was as abhorrent to these people as the thought of the abolition of slavery was to their neighbors in the plantation areas of Middle and Western Tennessee.

The Greeneville Convention

The Greeneville Convention did convene on June 17. There it was proposed that East Tennessee (in effect) secede from the rest of the state and forcibly resist any compulsion to join the Confederacy. The conventioneers realized, however, that such a declaration would bring a swift and harsh response from the governor and chose instead to make a more moderate appeal.

The resolution that actually passed was a conciliatory request that this region be left alone to abide in the Union. No one realistically thought the offer would be accepted, but the delegates felt it necessary to express their convictions without provoking further hostilities. They also hoped to buy a little time for the people of East Tennessee to make up their own minds as individuals what they should do. At least they could say that they held out an olive branch.

During the convention a company of colorfully dressed Zouaves who called themselves “Louisiana Tigers” rode through Greeneville on their way to Virginia.[3] Incensed by the Stars and Stripes flying over the convention, they struck down the flag, threatened the conventioneers, and committed some vandalism before leaving town. Those present regarded it as a herald of hostilities that would soon become much more serious.

Governor Harris of course declined the offer to let East Tennessee sit out the impending war. For a few weeks there was an uneasy calm before the storm. Scott County sued in state court for the right to secede from the state and was denied (although the court also mootly decreed that the state itself had no right to secede from the Union). In Washington County a certain community that became known as “Bricker’s Republic” also tried to declare independence from the state—a movement that simply fell apart before anyone got seriously hurt.[4]


In mid-July Harris sent Gen. Felix Zollicoffer with 4,000 raw troops to Knoxville to contain the unrest. Zollicoffer was not a trained military man, but a newspaper editor in Nashville—one who had editorialized against secession. After it had become a fait accompli he accepted the situation and presented himself for service to his state and was consequently appointed to a command position. He was actually sympathetic toward the Unionists and tried to practice restraint, but the very presence of these soldiers implied a threat that offended the dissidents of East Tennessee. The Unionists saw him as an oppressor not an ally, and his responses to their resistance confirmed to them their opinion. The immoderate zeal of the inexperienced Confederate patrols only aggravated the situation and increased resistance. 

In his memoir, Lincoln’s Secretary of State and Fentress County native Cordell Hull describes the spirit of the time: "I remember old soldiers telling me that everybody of military capability was expected to go to war. It really did not make so much difference which side he fought. He had the privilege of selecting his own side, but he could not lie around the community, shirking and dodging. He had to go out and fight." Many a young farmer like Alvis Hicks found himself caught up in a tide of events that compelled him to make a decision.

Next: The Sunday Morning Meeting


[1] Some records—including some official citations and otherwise competent histories—have incorrectly attributed his middle name as “Powhatan” according to an alleged family connection to the famed Indian chief. However, it has been conclusively demonstrated that the initial “P” stands for “Parry” or “Perry,” after his mother’s maiden name. Actually, Powhatan may have been a nickname, and apparently Carter did use Powhatan as a code name during a covert mission. For his own part, Carter seems never to have announced his middle name and always used only the initial. See William Garrett Piston, Carter’s Raid: An Episode of the Civil War in East Tennessee (Johnson City, TN: The Overmountain Press, 1989), 2.

[2] Technically, Tennessee did not secede, but rather declared itself an independent state and later aligned itself with the Confederate States of America.  In other words, it seceded.

[3] Whether these troops can be identified with the original “Louisiana Tiger” brigade formed in New Orleans by Major Chatham Roberdeau Wheat, en route at this time to Manassas, VA, is possible but not specifically known.

[4] “Bricker’s Republic” was actually Bricker’s District in Washington County.  Only fragmentary records remain.  Following the logic of secession, certain leaders of this district proposed that if a state could secede from the Union, then a county could secede from a state, and a district from a county.  They proceeded to do so, and even elected a President, Jacob Hill, along with a Congress to govern them.  They then published an appeal for others to join them.  It was a short-lived, whistling-in-the-dark movement, more of a demonstration than a rebellion, something that seemingly would be grist for a Mark Twain satire rather than a serious political move. It remained a lively memory for those who lived through it, however, and members of that generation continued for decades to call that section of the county “Bricker’s Republic,” much to the puzzlement of the younger folk.  See Paul M. Fink, Jonesboro: The First Century of Tennessee’s First Town, 1776-1876, 2nd ed. The Overmountain Press (2002).