The East Tennessee Convention consisted of a series of meetings held in 1861 on the eve of the American Civil War in which 29 counties in East Tennessee and one county in Middle Tennessee denounced secessionist activities within the state of Tennessee and resolved to break away and form an independent state aligned with the Union. The first round of meetings was held on May 30 and May 31 in Knoxville and the second round was held June 17 through June 20 in Greeneville. The conventions consisted of delegates from every county in East Tennessee with the exception of Rhea County.
The election of Abraham Lincoln to the U.S. presidency in 1860 sparked a wave of secessionist sentiment across the Southern United States. In February 1861, secessionists in Tennessee's state government— led by Governor Isham Harris— sought voter approval for a convention to sever ties with the United States, but Tennessee voters rejected the referendum by a 54-46% margin (roughly 82% of East Tennesseans voted against it). Secessionists gained momentum in April, however, when federal forces attempted to resupply Fort Sumter in South Carolina, and sentiments in Tennessee began to shift in favor of joining the Confederacy. A second referendum calling for secession, held on June 8, was approved by voters, although roughly 70% of East Tennesseans still voted against it. At the convention meetings in Greeneville, delegates drafted a Memorial asking that the Tennessee state government allow pro-Union East Tennessee counties to form a separate state that would remain a part of the United States. The Tennessee state legislature, however, rejected the request, and Governor Harris dispatched Confederate forces to occupy East Tennessee.
Disunity between Tennessee's three Grand Divisions— East, Middle, and West— had grown steadily since the state's establishment. In the 1830s, Whig sentiment in East Tennessee solidified around opposition to President Andrew Jackson, especially following Jackson's snub of Knoxvillian Hugh Lawson White in the 1836 presidential election. In the early 1840s, then-state senator Andrew Johnson introduced legislation in the Tennessee state senate calling for East Tennessee to separate from the rest of Tennessee and form a separate state, although the initiative eventually failed in spite of strong support from East Tennessee Whigs. While the Whig Party disintegrated in the 1850s, opposition to Southern Democrats remained strong in East Tennessee, especially in Knox County and surrounding counties, throughout the Civil War. In the 1860 presidential election, East Tennesseans rallied around Constitutional Union candidate John Bell, helping Bell capture the state's electoral votes.
After Lincoln's election in 1860, several Southern states made plans to leave the United States and form the Confederate States of America. Unionist leaders in Knoxville began an anti-secession campaign, and spent much of the latter part of 1860 holding meetings and speaking at rallies. In February of the following year, the state government called for a referendum on whether or not to hold a convention that would sever ties with the Union. On February 25, Tennessee voters rejected the convention by about a 69,000 to 58,000 margin. In East Tennessee, the margin against the secession convention was 33,000 to 7,000. Majorities in every East Tennessee county opposed the convention with the exception of Sullivan and (by a slight majority) Meigs.
In the weeks following the initial defeat of secessionism in the state, both secessionists and Unionists launched an intensive public speaking campaign. The threat of violence underscored many of the rallies, and both sides were warned not to enter certain areas where their opponents held a strong majority. In April 1861, Lincoln's decision to resupply Fort Sumter in South Carolina (which had already seceded) intensified the debate in Tennessee. Governor Harris called for a second referendum, this time to approve outright an "Ordinance of Secession" and skipping the burdensome step of holding a convention. On June 8, 1861, Tennessee voted in favor of this ordinance, effectively giving the state government power to sever ties with the United States and join the Confederate States. East Tennessee voters opposed the ordinance by a 32,000 to 14,000 margin, although along with Sullivan and Meigs, four other counties— Monroe, Rhea, Sequatchie, and Polk— had majorities in favor of secession. The percentage voting against secession was most lopsided in counties where Whigs were traditionally strong, such as Sevier (96% against), Carter (94% against), Campbell (94% against), and Anderson (93% against). The five counties that voted in favor of secession were all traditionally Democratic counties. Dramatic shifts occurred in Rhea (88% against secession in February, 64% for secession in June), Washington (94% against secession in February, but only 52% against in June), Knox (89% against in February, only 72% against in June), and Roane (96% against in February, only 77% against in June).
Origins of Union support in East Tennessee
East Tennessee's support of the Union should not necessarily be interpreted as a rejection of slavery. While East Tennessee was home to a substantial manumission movement in the first half of the 19th century, abolitionists still constituted a radical minority within the region. Several delegates at the Unionist conventions were themselves slave owners who believed the U.S. Constitution protected the practice. William Brownlow, one of the convention's most prominent members, had defended the practice of slavery in a well-received speech just four years prior to the convention. Convention co-organizer Oliver Perry Temple later recalled that when speaking during the period, he defended slavery, but said he would do away with the practice if that's what it would take to preserve the Union. East Tennessee had just 10% of the state's slave population, and overall there was widespread ambivalence in the region regarding the abolition issue.
While slavery alone may not have been a primary issue in East Tennessee's pro-Union stance, the practice may have indirectly contributed to it. Many people in the mountainous region (what is now called Southern Appalachia) viewed the Southern slaveholding planter class as a de facto aristocracy with excessive and sometimes autocratic powers. Convention delegate Oliver Perry Temple later wrote:
Seven-tenths of the Union men [in East Tennessee] were non-slaveholders. They cared little about that institution. Some of them were opposed to it on moral grounds. With some it was no special, because associated with an aristocracy of wealth. Many, perhaps nearly every one of the Union men who were slaveholders, preferred the government to slavery.
The strength of East Tennessee's Whigs, who had long stood in opposition to Southern Democrats (who were pro-secession), was another key reason for the region's pro-Union sentiment. The results of the February and June referendums showed that support for the Union was strongest in counties that had traditionally voted Whig. One of the convention's speakers, Thomas D. Arnold, had been among the Whigs who were vehemently opposed to Andrew Jackson in the 1830s. Convention delegate William Brownlow was publisher of the Knoxville Whig, in which he espoused radical Whig views. Convention co-organizer Oliver Perry Temple once called the Democratic party "antichrist", and later wrote that East Tennesseans were "disciples of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, both as to the theory and the administrative policy of the government". The Whigs of East Tennessee were very well organized, and were able to mount aggressive pro-Union political campaigns in the first months of 1861.
Knoxville, May 30-31
In early May 1861, Governor Isham Harris and the Tennessee General Assembly formed a military league with the Confederate States of America and initiated other moves to align the state with the Confederacy. In response, Knoxville's Unionists called for a convention to be held at the end of the month to address the state's pro-secession actions. The convention was held at Temperance Hall in Knoxville, and was attended by 462 delegates from 28 counties (Scott County didn't send a delegate to the Knoxville meetings, but did appoint a proxy for the Greeneville meetings). On the first day (May 30), the convention appointed Congressman Thomas A. R. Nelson (of Washington County) president and Colonel James G. Spears of Bledsoe County vice-president. Nelson spoke for approximately one hour, mostly to recap recent events and blast the state government's recent actions as unconstitutional. After Nelson's speech, a committee was appointed to prepare business for the convention (namely to list grievances and adopt resolutions). This committee consisted of 28 delegates— at least one from each county present— with Connally F. Trigg of Knox County as chairman. Long-time Whig Thomas D. Arnold spoke in the afternoon, attacking the governor and legislature, and calling secession "ruinous and unwarranted".
On the second day of the Knoxville convention, Andrew Johnson (at that time a U.S. senator) spoke for nearly three hours in favor of keeping ties to the Union. The business committee also issued its report, condemning the state government's disregard for the U.S. Constitution and stating that law and order had yielded to "fanaticism" and "passion". The committee resolved that East Tennessee was still opposed to secession and that the General Assembly lacked the authority (under the U.S. Constitution's Contract Clause) to form leagues with the Confederacy. The committee also resolved to meet again at a place and date to be determined by the convention president.
Greeneville, June 17-20
After Tennessee voters approved the Ordinance of Secession on June 8, 1861, the East Tennessee Convention's president, Thomas A. R. Nelson, called for a second round of meetings to be held in Greeneville on June 17. Along with delegates from 29 East Tennessee counties, a delegate from Fentress County (which is legally part of Middle Tennessee) was also admitted. On the first day, Congressman Horace Maynard (one of the Knox County delegates) suggested a system of alotting one vote to each county per 1,000 votes cast in the previous election, which the convention agreed upon. Most of the first two days were spent on convention organization.
On the third day (June 19), the committee on business (still chaired by Trigg) delivered its report, resolving that 1. East Tennessee was not required to attach itself to the Confederate States; 2. East Tennessee and any willing Middle Tennessee counties would continue as part of the Union; 3. East Tennessee desired to maintain a neutral position in any coming war; 4. East Tennessee would defend itself if occupied by Confederate forces; 5. Convention delegates would retaliate if any convention members were harmed; and 6. East Tennessee would form military companies. Shortly after the committee delivered its report, Knox County delegate Oliver Perry Temple submitted an alternate set of resolutions less "violent" in tone. Temple's resolutions resolved that 1. East Tennessee had no desire to be involved in any impending civil war; 2. East Tennessee was not bound to support the Confederacy because secession was unconstitutional; 3. a Memorial would be submitted to the General Assembly seeking its consent for East Tennessee to form a separate state; 4. a third round of meetings would be held in Kingston whenever the convention president deemed necessary. The 5th and 6th resolutions established modes of elections.
Most of the third day of the convention and part of the fourth day were spent debating which of the two resolutions to adopt. Horace Maynard, John Baxter, and John Fleming (all of Knox County) supported Temple's proposals. Nelson, Arnold, Robert Johnson (son of Andrew Johnson, who was unable to attend), William Clift (of Hamilton County), and William Blount Carter (of Carter County) were among those who supported the original, more aggressive stance. By the afternoon of June 20, however, the convention had adopted Temple's alternate set. A "Declaration of Grievances" (written primarily by Nelson) was attached to the resolutions, proclaiming that the June 8 election was fraudulent in the Middle and West divisions, that East Tennessee would remain with the Union, and that the Lincoln Administration had given them no cause for secession. Before adjorning, an executive committee was appointed to act in the interests of the convention should it be unable to meet.
Shortly after the Greeneville meeting, the business committee of the East Tennessee Convention presented the Memorial to Tennessee's General Assembly calling for the formation of a new Union-aligned state in East Tennessee. Although the Assembly rejected East Tennessee's bid for statehood, it assured the region that the state would not pass any conscription laws. Governor Isham Harris dispatched Confederate forces to East Tennessee to protect secessionists in the region. Harris chose General Felix Zollicoffer— a former Whig and one-time Knoxville resident— to command the Confederate army in East Tennessee, hoping to pursue a reconciliatory path with the region. Nevertheless, many of the convention members fled to the north or went into hiding, although some agreed to support the Confederacy. Late in 1861, the county court of Scott County, which had voted against secession by a 521 to 19 margin (the highest percentage of any county), passed a resolution stating that it was breaking away from Tennessee and forming the "Free and Independent State of Scott".
In late 1861, Andrew Johnson and Horace Maynard, who had both retained their respective seats in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, urged President Lincoln to send forces into East Tennessee to drive out the Confederate army. In a letter to General Don Carlos Buell in Kentucky, General George B. McClellan wrote "Johnson, Maynard, etc., are again becoming frantic and have President Lincoln's sympathy excited. Political considerations would make it advisable to get arms and troops into East Tennessee at a very early date." Convention delegate William B. Carter went to Washington to meet with Lincoln and McClellan, and conceived a plan to burn several bridges along the East Tennessee & Georgia Railroad between Bristol and Bridgeport, while Buell would simultaneously march across the Cumberland Mountains from Kentucky to capture Knoxville. On November 8, 1861, Carter and his co-conspirators carried out their half of plan, burning nine bridges along the railroad. Buell, however, was unable to invade due to difficulties in crossing the Cumberlands. Zollicoffer's response to the bridge-burning was to institute martial law in East Tennessee, under which the region remained until the arrival of Union forces under Ambrose Burnside in September 1863.
While the initiatives of the East Tennessee Convention failed, its members would play important roles in the Civil War and Reconstruction. Lincoln selected Andrew Johnson as his running mate in 1864, and upon Lincoln's assassination the following year, Johnson became president. William Brownlow spent much of the first half of the war speaking at rallies in northern states before returning alongside Burnside's forces in 1863. Brownlow was elected governor in 1865, and his controversial and highly divisive policies helped Tennessee to become the first ex-Confederate state to be readmitted to the Union. Brownlow was succeeded by fellow convention delegate Dewitt Clinton Senter, who was on the Grainger County delegation. David T. Patterson, a member of the Greene County delegation, later served in the U.S. senate, and along with Maynard and Nelson, several convention delegates, including Leonidas Houk (representing Anderson County) and George Washington Bridges (representing McMinn County), were later elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. A number of delegates served as Union officers during the war, namely Joseph A. Cooper (who represented Campbell County), James G. Spears of Bledsoe County, and Andrew Johnson's son, Robert.
Whig strength in East Tennessee evolved into support for the Republican Party toward the end of the Civil War. After the war, East Tennessee remained a rare consistent pocket of Republican support in the former Confederacy, voting for the Republican candidate in nearly every presidential election from Reconstruction through the 2008 presidential election (the lone exception coming in 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt ran as a 3rd party candidate).
- Eric Lacy, Vanquished Volunteers: East Tennessee Sectionalism from Statehood to Secession (Johnson City, Tenn.: East Tennessee State University Press, 1965), pp. 122-126, 217-233.
- Larry Whiteaker, Civil War. Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, 2002. Retrieved: 10 February 2009.
- Phillip Langsdon, Tennessee: A Political History (Franklin, Tenn.: Hillsboro Press, 2000), pp. 87-89.
- Oliver Perry Temple, East Tennessee and the Civil War (Blountville, Tenn.: Burmar Books, 1972), pp. 80-90, 160-163, 180-185, 196-209. Originally published in 1899.
- Stanley Folmsbee, Robert Corlew, and Enoch Mitchell, History of Tennessee (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1960), pp. 34-35, 69-74.
- William Gannaway Brownlow, "Sermon on Slavery: A Vindication of the Methodist Church, South: Her Position Stated, Delivered in Temperance Hall, in Knoxville, on Sabbath, August 9th, 1857, to the Delegates and Others in Attendance at the Southern Commercial Convention." On file at Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Collection, Cornell University. Retrieved: 10 February 2009.
- Temple, East Tennessee and the Civil War, pp. 545-558.
- Temple, East Tennessee and the Civil War, pp. 340-355.
- Proceedings of the E.T. Convention: Held at Knoxville, May 30th and 31st, 1861 and at Greeneville, on the 17th day of June, 1861, and following days (Knoxville, Tenn.: H. Barry's Book and Job Office, 1861). Obtained via Microform at Volpe Library, Cookeville, Tennessee.
- Presidential election map by counties. Retrieved: 10 February 2009.