Civil War
Capture of Fort Donelson.

Civil War

In 1861, as the nation divided, so did Tennessee. In the state’s three grand divisions, Confederates and Unionists fought their own political war to determine which way Tennessee would go as the Confederate States of America took form in neighboring Alabama. West Tennesseans, led by Governor Isham G. Harris, overwhelmingly wished connection with the Confederacy, while in East Tennessee most residents remained fervidly loyal to the Union. In the state’s middle section, the counties in the Central Basin leaned heavily toward secession, but those on the basin’s rim were more ambivalent in their support, a discrepancy which led to divided communities and divided families and prepared the way for vicious neighbor-against-neighbor guerrilla conflict when the Civil War commenced.

In 1861 Governor Harris summoned the legislature into a special session to consider secession. To obtain a better view of the voters’ sentiments, the legislature called for a February referendum to decide whether a secession convention should be held. At this point the secession fever that had gripped the Deep South remained much more muted in Tennessee and the other border states. By a vote of 69,000 to 58,000, a majority of Tennesseans rejected the call for a secession convention, with West Tennessee supporting the convention, East Tennessee rejecting it overwhelmingly, and Middle Tennessee almost equally divided. Secessionists continued to agitate, and Franklin Countians even threatened to secede from the state and join Alabama.

The firing on Fort Sumter in April and President Lincoln’s subsequent call for seventy-five thousand state militiamen to put down the Southern rebellion forced many Tennesseans to reevaluate their secession stand. Even many of those who had been staunch Unionists in February could not abide the use of force against fellow Southerners. Others, however, seeing the swelling secession tide, began to contemplate taking their counties–or even all of East Tennessee–out of the state in order to remain part of the Union.

In May, seizing the new momentum, Governor Harris and the legislature declared the state’s independence, made a military alliance with the Confederacy, and began raising an army to defend the state from Union invasion. To validate their actions, the legislators called another referendum for June 8. On that date, approximately 105,000 Tennesseans voted for secession, while only 47,000 voted against, but East Tennesseans voted more than two-to-one (33,000 to 14,000) to stay with the Union, indicating an enormous anti-secession and anti-Confederacy pocket east of the Cumberland Plateau. Even as the state proceeded to join the Confederacy, Scott County announced that it was declaring independence from the state, and delegates from several East Tennessee counties met in Greeneville to draw up a petition to the legislature to allow East Tennessee to form a separate state. Secessionists viewed these county and regional secessionists as traitors and soon sent the state army to “occupy” the hostile counties.

For Confederates the summer and autumn of 1861 was a time of celebration and optimism. Young men rushed to join the army units forming in their counties and towns. The soldiers elected their company officers and after being feted and cheered by their neighbors and families set off to Confederate training camps such as Camp Trousdale in Sumner County. For Union sympathizers the same months brought harassment from local Confederates, arrests, and violence. Many Unionist men fled the state to Kentucky and other points north, where hundreds enlisted in the armies forming to invade the South. Ultimately, some 31,000 Tennesseans joined the Federal forces, more soldiers than all the other Confederate states together provided to the Union side.

In September 1861 General Albert Sidney Johnston arrived to take charge of Tennessee’s defenses. Governor Harris had already ordered the construction of forts to guard the Mississippi River, but Johnston saw the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers as more likely routes for Union troops. Johnston accelerated work on Fort Henry on the Tennessee and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland and built a defensive front that ran from the Cumberland Gap in the east along a rather ill-defined line through southern Kentucky to Bowling Green and on to Columbus, Kentucky, on the Mississippi River. Johnston himself took up headquarters in Bowling Green.

The first crack in the line came on January 19, 1862, at the battle of Mill Springs (or Fishing Creek) near Somerset, Kentucky. There a Union army commanded by General George H. Thomas defeated a Confederate force under Generals George Crittenden and Felix Zollicoffer. Thomas compelled the Confederates to abandon their eastern defenses and retreat into Middle Tennessee.

To the west, a combined Union army and navy force under General Ulysses S. Grant’s command assaulted Fort Henry on the Tennessee River. Poorly designed and unfinished, the fort quickly fell after a barrage of cannon shells by the Union gunboats on February 6. Grant then marched his army overland to Fort Donelson, twelve miles to the east, and laid siege to it as gunboats came up the Cumberland to attack the fort from the other side. On February 16, after a vigorous, but confused, defense of the fort, the Confederates surrendered the fort and some 13,000 soldiers. In less than two weeks, the Confederate defensive line had collapsed, the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers were under Union control, and Nashville lay at the mercy of the Union armies. On February 23 Union troops entered Nashville, making it the first Confederate state capital to fall.

Having retreated from Bowling Green to Murfreesboro, General Johnston and what was left of his army continued southward to Corinth, Mississippi. There Johnston and his second-in-command, General P. G. T. Beauregard, reorganized and called upon fellow Confederates for reinforcements and supplies. Meanwhile, Grant’s army was encamped on the Tennessee River near Pittsburg Landing, waiting for another Union force under General Don Carlos Buell to join it. Hoping to surprise the overly complacent foe, Johnston and Beauregard decided to march back into Tennessee and strike before the two Union armies combined.

On April 6, 1862, Johnston’s Rebels smashed into Grant’s soldiers near Shiloh Church, initiating the bloodiest battle yet fought on North American soil. At the end of the day, Confederates had driven the Federals almost into the Tennessee River, but among the many dead was Johnston himself. During the night Grant regrouped his forces and welcomed the units arriving from Buell’s army. On April 7, the Union soldiers took the offensive and reversed the battle’s flow. Beauregard’s defeated army retreated once more into Mississippi.

The Shiloh victory not only solidified the Union hold on Middle Tennessee but made Confederate control of West Tennessee extremely tenuous. Memphis, the temporary home of the state government after Nashville’s fall, became even more vulnerable as the Union gunboats attacked and seized the river forts to the north. On June 6, after defeating the Confederate fleet protecting the city, Union forces took Memphis, forcing Governor Harris and state officials to flee once again.

Regrouping in the spring and summer, Confederates in Mississippi created the Army of Tennessee and placed General Braxton Bragg in command. Bragg and the East Tennessee commander, Kirby Smith, decided to launch a northern campaign by their two armies which, if successful, would regain Tennessee and bring Kentucky into the Confederacy. Screened by cavalry raids into Middle Tennessee led by Nathan Bedford Forrest and John Hunt Morgan, Bragg moved his forces to Chattanooga. In August General Smith left Knoxville for Kentucky by way of the Cumberland Gap, while Bragg took the Army of Tennessee through Carthage and Gainesboro to central Kentucky. After the battle of Perryville in October, the Kentucky campaign ended in failure. Having been unable to elicit much support from Kentuckians, Bragg retreated into East Tennessee and then moved westward to Murfreesboro. Union forces, now under General William Rosecrans, consolidated at Nashville.

In December, Forrest’s cavalry launched spectacular raids into West Tennessee, defeating Union cavalry units and taking garrisons at Trenton, Dyer, Union City, and several other towns. Meanwhile, the Union Army of the Cumberland under the command of Rosecrans left Nashville to engage the Army of Tennessee to the southeast. On December 31 Bragg’s forces made a surprise attack on Rosecrans’s army, initiating the battle of Stones River. After a lull on January 1 the battle resumed the next day, ending with the repulsion of the Confederate attack. Unable to achieve a victory, Bragg abandoned Murfreesboro and retreated toward Tullahoma to winter quarters.

In June 1863 Rosecrans resumed his campaign against the Army of Tennessee. In a series of flanking maneuvers, his Union army forced Bragg to abandon Tullahoma and retreat toward Chattanooga. By July 7 Bragg had entered the city itself, leaving most of Middle Tennessee under Union occupation. In August General Ambrose Burnside completed a pincers movement against the Confederates and descended from Kentucky into East Tennessee with his Army of the Ohio to capture Knoxville and bring deliverance to the East Tennessee Unionists. The Confederates abandoned Knoxville, and in early September Burnside’s soldiers entered the city to the welcome of cheering crowds.

On September 8 the outflanked Army of Tennessee evacuated Chattanooga and pulled back into northern Georgia. Here Bragg regrouped and began to receive reinforcements from other Confederate commands, including General James Longstreet’s troops from Robert E. Lee’s command in Virginia. On September 19, about twelve miles south of Chattanooga, the battle of Chickamauga erupted as the Confederates attacked Rosecrans’s forces. On the battle’s second day, General Longstreet’s soldiers broke through on the Union right, causing a large portion of Rosecrans’s army–including the general–to retreat in panic to Chattanooga. Only valiant resistance from the troops commanded by George H. Thomas kept this from being a Union disaster. With the Union army once more in Chattanooga, Bragg decided that the best plan was to seal the city off and starve it into submission. By early October soldiers and civilians alike in Chattanooga were suffering from food shortages.

To avoid disaster, President Lincoln named Ulysses S. Grant the overall commander in the region. General Thomas, the “Rock of Chickamauga,” replaced Rosecrans as commander of the Chattanooga army. Acting swiftly, Grant sent reinforcements to the beleaguered city and forced open a new supply line. When he arrived in Chattanooga, he laid plans to assault the Confederates occupying Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain. Meanwhile, Bragg quarreled with his generals and weakened his position even more by sending Longstreet and about one-third of the army on an expedition to retake Knoxville.

On November 23-25 Grant’s forces struck Bragg’s army. First, the Union army took control of Lookout Mountain in the famous “Battle Above the Clouds.” On November 25 Thomas’s troops attacked the middle of the Confederate line on Missionary Ridge, routed the defenders, and sent them reeling back into Georgia. Bragg’s siege collapsed, and the Army of Tennessee straggled in defeat all the way to Dalton. Longstreet’s attack on Knoxville fared no better. On November 29 he launched an assault against Fort Sanders, the city’s northwestern bastion. In just twenty minutes Longstreet’s units suffered over 800 casualties, while the fort withstood the attack and lost only 13 men. The Confederates soon withdrew to Russellville and made winter headquarters; the following spring they returned to Virginia. All of Tennessee was technically under Union control.

In 1864 the main action in the western theater shifted to Georgia, but violence in Tennessee became more widespread. Dozens of Confederate guerrilla bands, which had arisen earlier in West and Middle Tennessee to belabor Union patrols and harass Unionist civilians, continued to operate. Forrest and other Confederate cavalry commanders attacked Union garrisons, disrupted railroad operations, destroyed or confiscated supplies, and took hundreds of prisoners.

Civilian woes also continued to increase. In many counties government collapsed, and institutions such as churches and schools ceased operations. As law and order declined, outlaw bands formed and terrorized communities, stealing livestock and food, burning houses, and murdering their owners. With ordinary commerce disrupted, commodities such as flour, sugar, salt, and coffee became so difficult to obtain that people searched for substitutes. Honey and sorghum molasses replaced sugar, while ground-up okra seeds and dried sassafras made do for coffee.

In Nashville and Memphis authorities had to cope with an influx of new residents, including numerous prostitutes, thieves, and gamblers. Andrew Johnson, former U.S. senator, now the military governor of Tennessee, relied more on the Union army to keep the peace than on Nashville’s pro-Confederate government. To suppress Confederate support, Johnson ultimately locked up the mayor and city council, closed four newspapers, and shut down the presses of the Methodist and Baptist churches.

A major impact of the Union occupation of the state was the de facto end of slavery. Thousands of blacks fled plantations and farms and made for the Union army camps. In August 1862 General Grant ordered the building of camps for the refugees, known as contraband camps, and by 1864 Clarksville, Pulaski, Hendersonville, and several other Tennessee cities had facilities where fugitives from slavery received shelter, army rations, clothing, medicines, and jobs. In Nashville some 2,700 black laborers, for example, helped build Fort Negley and other facilities to protect the city. Thousands more worked on similar projects around Memphis. In 1863 those who wished to fight for the Union were allowed to enlist in the army and navy. Of the 179,000 African Americans who fought for the United States in the war, some 20,000 came from Tennessee.

In September 1864 General William T. Sherman’s Union army forced the Army of Tennessee to abandon Atlanta. In desperation, its commander, John Bell Hood, devised a grandiose plan to invade Tennessee, take Nashville, and conquer Kentucky, before passing through the mountains to relieve Lee’s besieged army in Virginia. Rather than follow Hood, though, Sherman dispatched Thomas to Nashville to await Hood with an army of 60,000 soldiers, a force nearly twice the size of Hood’s.

The Army of Tennessee’s flanking maneuvers at Pulaski and Columbia against General John Schofield’s smaller Union force compelled the Union soldiers to withdraw toward Nashville. At Spring Hill, the Confederates almost trapped their enemy before miscommunications among the Confederate commanders allowed Schofield to escape to Franklin. An irate Hood ordered an ill-advised and ill-conceived attack on Schofield’s entrenched forces. In the battle of Franklin on November 30 the Army of Tennessee suffered some 6,300 casualties including 12 generals (six killed) and 54 regimental commanders. During the night Schofield withdrew to Nashville to join Thomas’s larger force, while Hood’s army–too weak to threaten Nashville and too damaged to retreat–could do no more than follow and take up defensive positions south of the city.

The last major Civil War battle in Tennessee began on December 15, 1864, when Thomas’s army smashed into Hood’s Confederates in the battle of Nashville. On the following day, Thomas resumed his attack, and the out-manned Confederates finally broke and retreated. The remnants of the once-proud Army of Tennessee did not stop until they had reached Mississippi. Although sporadic cavalry raids and guerrilla attacks would continue until the spring of 1865, for all meaningful purposes the war had ended in Tennessee.

The war left much of Middle Tennessee in ruins, with the other two sections bearing deep scars as well, but it also brought enormous changes. Many Tennessee women, for example, had assumed new roles during the war, running plantations and farms, managing businesses, serving as nurses, and spying on the enemy. The war ended slavery, and with its demise came a new era of race relations and a future for the state’s African Americans that, despite the promise of freedom, contained much uncertainty and hardship. Economically, it would take the state years to achieve the level of prosperity that it had enjoyed before the war. Tennessee sent over 120,000 soldiers to fight for the Confederacy and over 31,000 to aid the Union and had had more battles fought within its borders than any other state except Virginia. Civilian violence had taken a heavy toll as well. Families across the state had lost husbands, fathers, and sons. Nothing before and nothing afterwards would have such an impact on the state as did the Civil War.

Suggested Reading

Stephen V. Ash, Middle Tennessee Society Transformed, 1860-1870: War and Peace in the Upper South (1988);
Thomas L. Connelly, Army of the Heartland: The Army of Tennessee, 1861-1862 (1967) and Civil War Tennessee: Battles and Leaders (1979);
James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (1988);
Digby G. Seymour, Divided Loyalties: Fort Sanders and the Civil War in East Tennessee (1982)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Civil War
  • Author
  • Keywords Civil War
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date July 25, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018