Tennessee Unionists in the Civil War 3 - The Sunday Morning Meeting

Aug 22, 2019 12:00 AM

Brig. Gen. Robert Anderson

“Hero of Ft. Sumter” appointed commander of a new Federal Army of the Ohio

It took a few months, but the swelling tide of secession eventually reached the Southern state of Tennessee, pressing the minds and consciences of those whose conviction was to remain as citizens of the United States. Soon a decision had to be made.

From Jack Snow we find out that for many of these men the day of decision was Sunday, August 11, 1861. Appropriately it was a decision they made at church, the old Union Baptist Church[1] of Stockton Valley, about half a dozen miles as the crow flies southwest of Loudon and northwest from Philadelphia (both cities in present day Loudon County).

The weather was typical for August—sunny, hazy, hot, but not as dry as usual. That year late summer was almost as rainy as May, and the countryside was unusually and comfortingly green and lush, if uncomfortably humid. All around as the temperature rose was the loud whirring of the cicadas (“locusts,” as they called them), the familiar song of summer. Farmers and their families from miles around had gathered for preaching, maybe around 150 in attendance. After the preaching the women stood in the shade, watched the children play, and conversed with unusual seriousness, some forming a prayer circle, while inside the meetinghouse the men engaged in a fateful discussion.

Jack Snow’s memoir specifically names 34 men who were present, along with capsule memories of what became of them (such as who survived imprisonment and who did not). The youngest in the group was 16 years old. Included in the list is “Will Hicks, who with Jack Carroll survived 13 months in Confederate prison camps.” Also named is J. B. (Joe) Hicks, “who was captured but escaped from the Richmond prison hospital.” It is remarkable how many names Jack Snow accurately recalled and related to a reporter 70 years after the war. Alvis Hicks is not mentioned by name, though he certainly did join the regiment along with this group. It is possible that Alvis was picked up along the way, or else he was in fact at the meeting though not specifically named.

There were no Secessionists here. Yet though these men were not slave owners, neither were they Republican abolitionists.[2] To a man they had in voted the November election for Tennessean John Bell and his running mate, former Harvard president and famed orator Edward Everett.[3] Originally Whigs, they liked the platform of the new Constitutional Union Party and they embraced its slogan: "The Union as it is, and the Constitution as it is." When they read a newspaper, it was William Brownlow’s Knoxville Whig, and they were surely influenced by his passionate editorials opposing secession.

They were disappointed in the outcome of the presidential election but did not see it as cause for terminating the Union. They were disturbed about the peeling away of the Southern states and bitterly disappointed in the vote of their own state two months ago to join them. The clouds were gathering and the drums beating, yet these men had farms and families, and not many were eager to take up arms against their fellow Tennesseans. Imbued with an independent spirit, most had probably hoped to remain neutral. They wished to be let alone and not drawn into the hostilities.

That wish was becoming increasingly unlikely. There were reports that Confederate officials were sending soldiers throughout the pro-Union region to compel men to prove their loyalty to a Confederate Tennessee by fighting for it. Some were rumors, but many of the stories were verified and involved people they knew or were related to. 

A 29-year-old farmer named John Bowman stood to call the meeting to order. Bowman had represented Roane County at the Greenville convention. He informed the meeting that Lieutenant S. P. Carter, USN of the well-known family from Carter County had been authorized by the President of the United States to organize a brigade of volunteers from his home state for the defense of the Union. The gathering place was across the Cumberland in Kentucky, almost 200 miles away. It would be part of an army led by a Kentuckian, Brigadier General Robert Anderson, the hero of Ft. Sumter. For his part, Bowman had already signed the papers yesterday  in Kingston, and was authorized to enroll others with him. Mr. Byrd up in Kingston had already left with a large group, many of whom were men those present knew. Alvis and Will Hicks’s brother James was one of them. 

The proposal was not immediately well received by all. As the Declaration of Independence says, men ought not to change their governance “for light and transient causes.” Most of them had not personally felt any persecution. Many were not sure it was necessary to make this decision right now. Maybe the problem was just being exaggerated by high emotions and would not seem so bad after everyone cooled down. The discussion became vigorous, the dispute heated. The inclination of some was to wait and see. 

Certain ones, however, passionately insisted that the time for decision was at hand and that delay would be fatal. The Secessionists were constantly condemning the federal government for a “train of abuses and usurpations.” Yet with stunning hypocrisy they were now turning around and inflicting those very abuses on fellow Southerners who did not share their belief that the election of Lincoln was the breaking point.

One man objected that they were being asked to leave their homes and families defenseless. What would their loved ones do if the Rebels came after them? The answer: What will they do if the Rebels come after them now? Even if all the men present should join with every other man in this part of the county, they had not the numbers to resist the Confederates—and they certainly didn’t have the guns. But if they few joined with the thousands of others already gathering across the state line, soon they would be an army strong enough to march right back in and set things straight.

At this point someone must have stood to play the role of a Patrick Henry. Perhaps it was John Bowman, standing up to his full six-foot height, dark eyes flashing. Or perhaps it was the swarthy, raven-haired James Melton. Whoever it was, he argued persuasively that there would be no escape from war, and that the only choice they had was whether to serve their own conscience or the Confederacy. He also pointed out that the window for making that choice was rapidly closing, for soon the Rebels would be making the choice for them. So prominent a man as Mr. Thomas A. R. Nelson, who had presided over the Knoxville and Greeneville Conventions and had been elected to Congress after the secession vote, had been intercepted and arrested on his way to Washington. He now sat in jail in Knoxville awaiting an unknown fate. Zollicoffer was in Knoxville, practically had the city under martial law right now, and his troops were spreading out from there to quash dissent and close the border. It would not be a matter of months or even weeks, but days—and then there must be a reckoning. The Unionists were already isolated, and if they did not act now they would soon be cut off. 

The meeting lasted probably an hour. At last the congregation of valley farmers, craftsmen, and mountaineers determined that they must serve conscience. Almost all of these Southern men made the decision to go to join a band of their fellow Southerners in defense of the United States and its Constitution. They elected John Bowman to be their leader and spokesman. The meeting adjourned and the men dispersed to their homes. They shared a last Sunday dinner at home, bid farewell to their families and sweethearts, and began gathering for their trek to Kentucky.

Next: A Hazardous Journey


[1] The name “Union Baptist Church” has no political implications.  There were several varieties of Baptists—East Tennessee was thick with them—and the “Union” designation for a church indicates a group of Baptists willing to put their sectarian differences aside in order to have enough members to form a congregation and have regular services.

[2] All the line officers of the 2nd Tennessee owned slaves at one time or another.  At the time of the war’s outbreak probably the leading slaveholder was Maj. Eli Mathus “Matt” Cleveland of Hamilton County. A prosperous man owning a $25,000 estate with eight slaves, Cleveland enlisted with the 2nd Tennessee at Camp Dick Robinson on September 28, 1861 at the age of 39. He mustered with Company F but was immediately promoted to Major of the regiment. However, in a letter dated February 7, 1862, soon after the winter battle of Mill Springs/Logans Crossroads, he resigned due to poor health. His resignation was effective February 22, 1862.

[3] Everett would later deliver the two-hour keynote speech to dedicate the national cemetery at Gettysburg—the “Gettysburg Address” no one remembers.