On June 8, 1861, Tennessee seceded from the Union, the 11th and final state to join the Confederacy.
But over six month, as all the Deep South states seceded, Tennessee’s course had not always been certain. At one point, secession seemed unlikely.
Tennessee was geographically divided on the issue. The planter-dominated west supported secession. Middle Tennessee was about 50/50. Mountain yeomen in the east with little allegiance to or use of slavery, supported Washington.
That winter, Tennessee’s Gov. Isham Harris, a western Tennesseean, strongly supported secession and pushed for a state referendum. The state legislature agreed and pushed the issue to the people on whether the state should hold a secession convention.
But one of the state’s most prominent politicians, John Bell, a former speaker of the House and presidential candidate who carried Tennessee in the 1860 election, campaigned vigorously against secession. The people roundly defeated the proposal on Feb. 9, “and chose an overwhelmingly unionist slate of hypothetical delegates to the convention they decided not to call,” the Civil War historian Emory Thomas noted in his 1979 book “The Confederate Nation.”
“Secession has run its course,” the New York diarist George Templeton Strong wrote, reflecting a widely held Northern optimism. But things settled only briefly.
Throughout the Fort Sumter crisis, secessionist sentiments in Tennessee stayed at bay because Lincoln’s careful posturing came off as nonthreatening. But in the aftermath of the siege, affairs spiraled out of control.
On April 15, Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for 75,000 volunteers for the defense of Washington. Gov. Harris quickly responded:
“Tennessee will not furnish a single man for coercion,” he wrote to Secretary of War Simon Cameron, “but fifty thousand if necessary for the defense of our rights, and those of our Southern Brethren”
Harris called the legislature to session and asked them to again pass the issue to the people. The state would hold another referendum. In the meantime, the legislature approved a military alliance with the Confederacy.
Less than a month later, the people voted 104,913 to 47,238 to abandon the Constitution. In East Tennessee, voters chose 2 to 1 against secession, exhibiting the strong hatred for secession as it did in the previous referendum. But unlike in western Virginia (see an upcoming blog post this Friday), another strong Union bastion in a seceded state, the U.S. Army could not mobilize soldiers to aid sympathizers, as it would do in western Virginia. Eastern Tennessee maintained Union sympathies through the war, which would cause great difficulties to the Confederacy up until the final Rebel soldiers were pushed out.