As I walked through Krutch Park last Saturday on my way to a delightful discussion of downtown with a small group of parishioners at the First Presbyterian Church, I passed a friend among the gathering groups of civil war reenactors and other interested parties. With a smile he asked, “Are we ever going to get over this war?”
It’s not a bad question. It ended a hundred-fifty years ago and yet, we continue to discuss it, debate it and commemorate it in various ways. We’ve had numerous wars since, but it does stand out in several regards. Roughly 750,000 Americans died in that war, which dwarfs all others in our history. The nearest comparable war was World War II in which just over 400,000 died. Also, the scars of divided families, communities and states cuts deeply and is intrinsically different psychologically than a war in which all of the country is united against a common foe.
I heard a great discussion once regarding the difference in intensity with which the war is viewed in the north and the south. Passions run deeper south of the old Mason-Dixon line regarding the war. A person in a panel discussion I attended suggested that the difference – and many other differences between the regions today – may be traced to the fact that the United States has never lost a war – but the southern half of it has. The north has never been occupied, but the south has. In some cases the anger from reconstruction ran as deeply as the anger from the war itself.
It is in reconstruction that Tennessee and east Tennessee, specifically, played a significant role. Tennessee was the last of the southern states to secede and east Tennesseans responded by attempting to secede from Tennessee. The state was the first to be readmitted to the union and “Parson” Brownlow from Knoxville became the first governor after the war. With the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, an east Tennessean, Andrew Johnson became president.
Perhaps for some of these reasons, Knoxville was selected to be the city for the final sesquicentennial commemoration, remembering reconstruction and reconciliation. An event that occurred thirty-five years after the war – the gathering of veterans from both sides in the battle of Fort Sanders joined together for a parade, speeches, fireworks and to reconcile with former enemies. The event was repeated five years later. The events of that day were echoed this past weekend in addition to many other related activities.
As always, I focused my attention on the center city, but there were great activities scattered all about the area. Mabry Hazen, various cemeteries, sites of former forts and Morning Side Park all hosted events. Buses offered tours from the downtown areas to some of these celebrations. I would have enjoyed more of it if it hadn’t hit on the same weekend as the City People Home Tour and the opening of the Market Square Farmers’ Market. Ben Vereen made an appearance at the Alex Haley statue, which would have been fun to attend.
I did get to photograph some of the reenactors and Urban Girl joined in some of the children’s activities. The uniforms and other displays in Krutch Park extension were very interesting. I’m not sure there are many guys my age who aren’t fascinated to some degree with firearms from that era – we watched them in movies and television shows about the Civil War and the “wild west” when we were younger. The participants were also very knowledgeable and much of the event was tilted toward the educational. I missed the activities in the East Tennessee History Center, but they sounded good as well.
I did attend the unveiling of the new plaque commemorating the death of General Sanders, for whom Fort Sanders was named. Shot to the west of downtown, he died in the Lamar House, which is now the site of the Bijou Theatre. Both local mayors were on hand to speak as well as other dignitaries and people behind the plaque and the larger commemoration events. In the midst of all the people who were thanked, I silently thanked Knox Heritage without whom there would have been no building to which a plaque might be attached.
I was able to attend the concluding activities on the World’s Fair Park. I’d dropped by earlier and enjoyed a bit of 1890 version base ball, but the evening focused on re-creating portions of the 1890 experience with speakers such as Calvin Chappelle, executive director of the Mabry-Hazen House and who was instrumental in making this event happen. Black Atticus also spoke and several of the speeches given in 1890 were recounted, as well as newspaper accounts of the event.
Period music, such as Stephen Foster songs, Dixie and others were performed by various groups. An arrangement of “The Blue and the Gray” by Knoxville’s John Purifoy was particularly poignant. A candlelight observance followed in which people were encouraged to light a candle for someone who fought in the war. As did the 1890 event, the Blue and Gray Reunion and Freedom Jubilee ended Saturday night with a display of fireworks.