J. G. M. Ramsey made an indelible mark on the political, economic, and social development of antebellum East Tennessee. He was a physician, public official, religious leader, banker, railroad advocate, scholar, and staunch secessionist, one of the most accomplished East Tennesseans of his era.
Ramsey’s father, Colonel Francis Alexander Ramsey, migrated to the North Carolina frontier from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in 1783. He married Peggy Alexander of Mecklenburg County shortly thereafter. Colonel Ramsey played an instrumental role in the establishment of Tennessee in 1796, having previously held official positions in the failed State of Franklin and the Territory South of the River Ohio.
J. G. M. Ramsey’s schooling began at Ebenezer Academy in Knox County and continued at Washington College. Ramsey read medicine under Dr. Joseph Strong of Knoxville and completed his education at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. In 1821 Ramsey married Margaret Barton Crozier. The union produced eleven children, all of whom were raised at Mecklenburg, the Ramsey home built at the confluence of the French Broad and Holston Rivers.
After his father’s death, Ramsey became the president of the Knoxville branch of the Bank of Tennessee. Economic development and railroad promotion occupied his attention thereafter. Ramsey had supported earlier efforts to build a canal system to bypass the navigational hazards on the Tennessee River south of Chattanooga and provide reliable transportation for Knoxville merchants and industrialists. By the 1830s his interest turned to railroad development, and he worked diligently to establish a railroad connection between Knoxville and Charleston. Early public enthusiasm for construction of the railroad gave way to delays caused by adverse economic conditions, but the East Tennessee and Georgia Railroad was established in 1848, and the first train entered Knoxville in 1855.
Ramsey’s most enduring contribution came as author and historian of the state’s early settlement history. In 1834 Ramsey supported the organization of the East Tennessee Historical and Antiquarian Society, which continues today as the East Tennessee Historical Society. As recording secretary, Ramsey assumed responsibility for cataloging and providing a home for the documents and relics owned by the Society. Mecklenburg served as the site for the library and museum for East Tennessee’s past, with Ramsey as its historian. In 1853 Ramsey published his time-honored history, The Annals of Tennessee to the End of the Eighteenth Century.
In 1861 Ramsey was a staunch states’ rights Democrat who publicly supported secession and served as a treasury agent and field surgeon for the Confederacy. The war proved to be disastrous to the Ramsey family: a son was killed, and Mecklenburg was burned during the Union occupation of Knoxville. The fire destroyed a library of four thousand volumes and the museum collection. Ramsey and his family spent the rest of the war in exile, moving from Atlanta to Savannah, and on to Augusta, before settling in Charlotte, North Carolina, in a home they called “Exile’s Retreat.”
After the war, Ramsey received amnesty from President Andrew Johnson. He continued to live in North Carolina, where he practiced medicine and worked on his autobiography; this volume was published in 1954 as Dr. J. G. M. Ramsey: Autobiography and Letters.
Ramsey returned to Knoxville in the early 1870s and to his life of public service. The Tennessee and East Tennessee Medical Societies, East Tennessee University (now the University of Tennessee), Tusculum College, and Washington College all benefited from his involvement and commitment. President of the Tennessee Historical Society between 1874 and 1884, he also continued his work with the East Tennessee Historical and Antiquarian Society until his death in 1884.
David L. Eubanks, “Dr. J. G. M. Ramsey of East Tennessee: A Career of Public Service” (Ph.D. diss., University of Tennessee, 1965)