Monument Battle Lines Drawn in Knoxville – But Are the Lines Really That Clear?

Battle of Fort Sanders Memorial to the Confederate Dead, 17th Street, Knoxville, August 2017

It’s not a new issue, by any means, and Charlottesville was not the first place it played out. New Orleans recently removed many of the statues commemorating the Confederacy. One constituted a memorial to the white citizens who re-established white control of the city in 1874 in a bloody battle leaving 100 injured or dead. Erected in 1891, an inscription was added in 1932 which read, “United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.”

Charlottesville is the most recent spot where the debate reignited and violence ensued when white nationalists and neo-Nazis staged a march in support of the Robert E. Lee statue there. A young woman, Heather Heyer, was killed when a young man with white supremacist views drove his car into a crowd of counter protesters.

It is also not as a simple issue, as many of us would like to believe. Most of you have already decided your opinion the issue and very few will read this entire, very lengthy, article with an open mind. We prefer tweets and memes. Everything we need to know can be placed on a bumper sticker.

In a Knoxville rally a week ago Sunday, the declaration was made that these groups would not be allowed to come to Knoxville. The challenge was accepted and a rally was planned to “protect” free speech and one of the few monuments in Knoxville related to the war, which remembers the Confederate soldiers who died in the Battle of Fort Sanders. This followed the vandalism of the marker in question and an online petition to remove the monument.

In the days that have followed, there is some indication that the original group which “planned,” the rally has dropped out, saying local citizens would carry it through. There’s a gathering of white supremacists in the mountains which roughly coincides with the protest, so, who knows if they’ll show? They also have a much larger “summit” planned for the Smoky Mountains on September 30, so we could hear from them, again. Meanwhile, several counter protests or actions are also planned for this weekend.

Additionally, there has been a proliferation of online petitions. My search yielded five different petitions, four requesting the monument be kept and one requesting it be removed. The “remain” petitions ranged from 55 supporters to just over 6,000, while the original “remove” petition has a bit over 2,200. The statements on the various petitions include a good bit of incorrect information. The pro-remove petition claims east Tennessee was, “mostly unionist,” and I’m not sure that’s accurate. I think we were pretty evenly divided.

Battle of Fort Sanders Historic Marker, 17th Street, Knoxville, August 2017

Joan Markel, Curator of Civil War History at the UTK McClung Museum, writing in 2003 of east Tennessee’s post-war attitude, stated:

East Tennessee itself lacks cultural recognition of this traumatic time. After the war, regional attitudes dictated leaving the past alone. It was much too divisive to memorialize and commemorate. The very fact that all elements of a civil war played out on Knoxville’s stage —a divided civilian population, fighting-age men enlisted for armies on both sides, social institutions tested to the limit, human nature versus social control — made it too dangerous a memory. After the surrender, the citizens felt they could not live peaceably together if the past continued to play an active role. Thus, no true battlefield park was ever established or downtown monuments erected. No avenues* or buildings were named for wartime heroes. While a wealth of family and personal stories still exists, the larger cultural identification with that part of the past is gone.

One of the “remain,” petitions inexplicably brings up the allegations of MLK, Jr.’s anti-gay views suggesting, I’m guessing, that therefore we should remove his likeness wherever it is displayed, equating homophobia in the 1960s to treason in the 1860s. One anti-remove petition claims that “1000 Confederate soldiers died in fifteen minutes,” in the battle of Fort Sanders. In fact, while there were over 800 casualties, that includes the wounded and 129 Confederate soldiers were actually killed in the twenty minute battle. The remains of 105 of them now rest in Bethel Cemetery, while the remains of the other fourteen are very possibly still interred near the current monument, the precise locations lost to history. Another claims that Confederate soldiers are recognized as U.S. veterans, which isn’t true.

Most of us find it very satisfying to use words like “history,” “heritage,” “hate,” “home,” “pride,” “equality” and others while feeling a certainty we, personally, are on the correct side of those words. Our tendency to revel in our self-righteousness is abetted on social media to the point that the rush that comes from making morally superior proclamations must rival opioid abuse in this country for our drug of choice. We have an instant audience, we are certain we are correct and it feels good!

But while many of us have already formulated opinions on the removal of statues such as Robert E. Lee or Nathan Bedford Forrest, is the marker in question in Fort Sanders analogous? The statues of specific larger-than-life generals from the war seem designed to glorify and immortalize a person and a cause, debate, if you will, the nature of the cause. Similarly, the intent of statues of “Johnny Reb,” defiantly facing north on many small southern town court squares seems clear in intent. What exactly was the purpose of the marker in Fort Sanders and does it matter?

A couple of months ago the National Trust for Historic Preservation President and CEO Stephanie Meeks issued a statement on the broader topic. She said:

At the National Trust, we believe that historic preservation requires taking our history seriously. We have an obligation to confront the complex and difficult chapters of our past . . .

That goes for the Civil War, our nation’s bloodiest and most divisive conflict, as well . . .

While some of these monuments were erected shortly after the war by grieving Southern families to honor the valor of fallen leaders and loved ones, many more were put in place for a more troubling purpose. Decades after the war, advocates of the Lost Cause erected these monuments all over the country to vindicate the Confederacy at the bar of history, erase the central issues of slavery and emancipation from our understanding of the war, and reaffirm a system of state-sanctioned white supremacy . . .

These Confederate monuments are historically significant and essential to understanding a critical period of our nation’s history. Just as many of them do not reflect, and are in fact abhorrent to, our values as a diverse and inclusive nation. We cannot and should not erase our history. But we also want our public monuments, on public land and supported by public funding, to uphold our public values . . .

We should always remember the past, but we do not necessarily need to revere it . . .

The marker in Fort Sanders was erected in 1914, a few years prior to (this has been edited to reflect they were not raised the same year) the marker commemorating the 79th New York Infantry who fought on the Union side. The marker states, “To the Memory of the Confederate Soldiers who fell in the assault on Fort Sanders, November 29, 1863.” A contemporary newspaper account at the time (Putnam County Herald) stated:

The purpose of the Daughters of the the Confederacy is to leave a tangible reminder of a bit of interesting, history in the Civil war, and any survivor of the battle in either of the armies who may see this may feel an interest in being present when the marker is to take its place on the grounds that marked one of the interesting events of a war which is a part of the country’s history, the rancor of which has been forgotten. And those of us yet living who lived in those eventful days of the sixties of the last century, congratulate ourselves that while we were once called enemies we are now firm friends, all of us standing by and doing honor to the flag of our fathers of the Revolutionary period, the founders of a glorious republic.

Battle of Fort Sanders Memorial to the Union Troops, 16th Street, Knoxville, August 2017

I spoke to my friend Calvin Chappelle, who has been Executive Director at the Mabry Hazen house for the last decade. Noting the complexity of history generally, and the civil war specifically, he pointed to what may be a different way forward. He suggested the battlefield monuments should stay, but he’d love to see a statue to the 1st United States Colored Heavy Artillery regiment erected in Knoxville. He feels it would be better solution than simply, “taking down a monument.”

So, a protest and a counter-protest will be held on Saturday. There is a counter-protest meet-up at 11:30 on the World’s Fair Park. I found one counter-protest Facebook Page here and another here. For those wanting to share a positive message, but avoid the epicenter of potential conflict, a Kindness Rally will be held on Krutch Park at 1:00 PM. The city, attempting to take precautions to avoid a volatile and potentially dangerous situation issued the following decisions and guidelines:

  • Seventeenth Street will be closed to vehicle traffic beginning at 6 a.m. Saturday from Cumberland Avenue to Highland Avenue, and side streets connecting in that stretch of 17th will also be blocked. These closures will provide room for designated demonstration areas for those planning to come to the rally. That section of 17th Street has narrow sidewalks.
  • Mayor Rogero asked that all participants on any side respect each other’s rights, and that they respect the role of law enforcement in maintaining peace and discouraging aggressive behavior.
  • As a security precaution, guns, other weapons and masks will not be allowed for people entering the designated demonstration areas near the Confederate soldier memorial. In compliance with state law, the areas will be subject to wanded security checks.
  • Beginning at 6 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 26, no vehicles will be allowed to park on the street in a six-block area, bounded by Highland Avenue to the north, White Avenue to the south, 16th Street to the east and 18th Street to the west. Vehicles left parked in this area will be towed.
  • Those planning to enter the established demonstration zones will be scanned with a metal detector.
  • No masks or shields of any type or coverings of the face will be allowed in the demonstration zones.
  • No weapons of any type, including knives and handguns, will be allowed in the demonstration zones.
  • No poles or sticks or any other objects that can be used as a weapon will be allowed into the demonstration zones. Signs or flags or any other material will not be allowed into the designated demonstration areas if they are attached to a pole or stick or any other object that could be utilized as a weapon.
  • No water bottles, drink containers, coolers, liquid beverages or food items will be allowed in the demonstration zones. Water will be provided to participants on site.

So what do you believe and what will you do? Some may choose to defend the monument as it is historic and honors war dead on the site where they died and some may still be buried. Does that make them racist? Some will defend the monuments based on, “heritage,” and, perhaps others present, like the group originally planning the march, believe white people are superior to all others.

And what does counter-demonstrating mean? You want the monument removed? Is it really the same as a statue of Robert E. Lee? What if you want it to stay, but don’t want neo-Nazis in our home, which side do you choose?

Battle of Fort Sanders Historic Marker and Memorial to the Confederate Dead, 17th Street, Knoxville, August 2017

Are the people who stay home cowards unwilling to make a stand or, perhaps, people who believe we shouldn’t give attention to neo-Nazis. Maybe, after the events in Charlottesville, they simply feel it isn’t safe to attend.

It’s complicated. Maybe if we could simply admit that, back off from our tribal memes, tweets and bumper stickers for a while and actually talk to our neighbors, we might recognize some point of connection. No, not necessarily with neo-Nazis or white nationalists, but most of our neighbors aren’t that and they aren’t badly intentioned, we simply disagree. Maybe it would help if we disagreed a bit more quietly, more introspectively and actually listened to each other with a true interest in building bridges to heal our bitter divisions, rather than with a simple desire to be morally superior.

* While the quote above is accurate, the information appears not to be regarding the non-naming of Avenues. We have several in the Beaumont area that appear to be named after generals including, for example, Pickett. The error was pointed out by a commenter on Facebook.


  1. Steven Peterson says

    I think you have both monuments – and one for the colored artillery – or you have no monuments at all. These are simple markers that actually help define a battlefield; they give actual context to what “Fort Sanders” was.

    And if anyone wants to bypass any of the demonstrations pro or con and have a good time supporting a good cause, First Lutheran on Broadway is having German Fest on Saturday from 11 am to 8 pm to support their school. There will be a beer garden with Fanatic, Schulz Brau, and a couple others there along with several different food vendors.

  2. This is the first reasonable voice I have heard in weeks. Our country is angry. I have to say do we really understand what were angry about. The violence makes no sense and I have to ask is it violence for violence sake. There are many perspectives around us. Many I do not agree with. But I am still willing to listen. Isn’t that what diversity is about? Many people from many backgrounds with many differing opinions. I am encouraged by someone who is willing to meet at the ‘middle’ of this discussion and hopefully make us think more deeply and embrace the values this country was founded on.

  3. Personally I originally didn’t care if the statue stayed or left, simply because it wasn’t glorifying the confederacy, however at this point I want whatever it takes to keep the Neo Nazis and KKK out of our city, so if taking it down will accomplish that, take it down so they’ll have nothing to rally for. Speech about ethnic cleansing is not protected speech, and me and my friends going to the rally will not let their voices be heard. They don’t deserve the chance to speak.

    • Taking it down will not prevent idiots from speaking. In fact, I’d think that taking it down would invite many to come and demonstrate. I also think its telling that even here, people are conflating the sane voices that simply seek to protect history (lest when we never learn from it) and those who want to preach hate. Let’s not allow those on the extremes curtail what is the legitimate exercise of constitutional rights.

  4. Nancy Roberts says

    Thank you for the providing a thoughtful, reasoned, and annotated article. Your contributions are always informative and helpful.

  5. Wallie Stewart says

    “Today, with our nation beset by subversive groups and propaganda which seeks to destroy our national unity, we can look for inspiration to the lives of Lee and Jackson to remind us to be resolute and determined in preserving our sacred institutions…“
    In these days of uncertainty and turmoil, Americans must emulate Jackson’s example and stand like a stone wall against aggression in any form that would seek to destroy the liberty of the world.” 

    Thomas D’Allesandro, Jr, mayor of Baltimore and father of Nancy Pelosi in his remarks dedicating the monuments in Baltimore of Lee and Jackson, May 1948

    I am saddened and disgusted at the removal and defacing of our historical monuments—especially since it only a vocal minority who wants to defy the will of the majority.
    There is one argument, perhaps too sensitive, for everyone honoring these statues. Slavery is wrong. We all agree. Slavery has always (and unfortunately still does) exist. However, events do have to be placed in historical context. I would hope we all have the optimism that something good can come from evil or bad events. Unfortunately, those who would destroy our history do not have that view. What they are saying is that they, because of slavery, are not good. However, that tormented past gave way to their very existence in the greatest country, with unlimited individual opportunity. But for their great, great grandaddies being sold by their chieftains, they would not exist… Or if they did, they would be living in Africa in mud huts with little opportunity to reach their full opportunity. perhaps they should value their worth, and how they received so many opportunities just a little bit differently.Sometimes good does come from bad.

    • Allen McBride says

      Are you saying black Americans should be grateful for slavery? Is “mud huts” your view of African society? Personally, I’d rather live in a mud hut than wish slavery on my ancestors.

      • Allen, you should go read an accurate history of Liberia ( or just Wikipedia if that works). Interestingly you would find that the freed slaves who returned there prospered and engaged in civilization-building. But they outpaced the natives and effectively created a caste system of their own. Food for thought: it’s not about skin color, it’s about power and control…and weaker people have been enslaved by stronger people (do we dare say “superior”?) throughout mankind’s history.

        • Allen McBride says

          Am I hearing this right? Are you suggesting that white Americans enslaving black Africans is evidence that the former were superior to the latter?

  6. Well said, both Urban Guy and Hella. Amen! Thank you Urban Guy for posting this. We can only hope cooler heads prevail and ears will learn to listen with an open mind.

    • Nazis, KKK, and their sympathizers do not deserve to be listened to. If sane, non-racist and non-murderous people whose only concern is preserving history would like to join the protest and distance themselves from the hate groups, they will be happily listened to.

  7. Well stated, Alan. I appreciated your “tweets, memes & bumper stickers” comment and smiled wryly at your apt equating of social media with opioid use. I personally feel that any monument extolling the values of the Confederacy, other than those like the innocuous Fort Sanders historical placement marker, should be removed.

    Now, how about throwing in an anti-Trump rally, as well….given that he emboldened and enabled the modern era of all “this?”

  8. I read every well written word. I am a bit ashamed that during my fifty something years in Knoxville I never took a serious look at either monument. I did read the historical marker once.

    My family walked and drove past both quite often but neither was pointed out. My grandmother was a DAC member but didn’t speak about the Civil War. I’m sure we had ancestors who fought on both sides and Granny was a serious genealogist but the division was never mentioned.

    Maybe we should learn about both sides of the war and the deep meanings within and ignore the concrete, marble, and metal it left behind.

  9. David Denton says

    What needs to come down is Donald Trump!

  10. Allen McBride says

    Thanks for this post, Alan. You ask, what will be the message of the people at the rally, and what will be the message of the counter-protesters? These questions seem to me to have clear answers: Based on all news reports and Facebook pages I’ve seen, the protesters are self-identified white supremacists and white nationalists, and the counter-protesters are opposing their message.

    I could imagine a different scenario where the rally is a broader group of people who don’t necessarily identify with white nationalism but who don’t want the monument removed, and where the counter-protests are focused on removing the monument. But as best I can tell, that just doesn’t seem to be who’s planning to show up.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      That may be. I’m not sure. Several of the petitions seem to be from local people who don’t want the monument removed. I can’t assume they are white supremacists and they don’t identify that way. I also know people who feel a battlefield monument should remain, but they despise neo-Nazis and may even support the removal of other kinds of monuments. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them are there, as well.

      • Allen McBride says

        I think you’re right about the petitions, but I don’t see anything connecting the petitioners to the rally, so I’m assuming the rally people are the white supremacist groups identified in the press.

  11. Sue Beanland says

    I have family in Knoxville and see myself as a friend of the town. I live in Yorkshire, England and recently visited the grave of my great grandfather, killed in action in France in 1917. I also visited a German cemetery and the Wall of Peace at Notre Dame de Lorette, where every soldier buried on the Western Front is commemorated, regardless of rank or on which side they fought. The point being the tragedy of lives lost through the folly of leaders who take their people down these paths. I hope that this commemoration of ordinary men who died in war can be kept. I visited it when I was last in Knoxville and saw it, not as a glorification of a war or action , but as a memorial to lives lost. The graves of German soldiers in France are not reviled, even though the French lost so much through their invasion. They are just men who went to war and lost their lives. At such times the most ordinary people are dragged down into terrible acts. We can only learn through our mistakes of the past.

  12. Julie Gautreau says

    I begin by acknowledging that I support the planned counter protest tomorrow, but for reasons only tangentially connected to the war monument. I actually don’t think the monument should be removed. When I first saw the petitions circulating that called for removal, I saw it was a knee-jerk reaction to Charlottesville, a premature notion to glom on to the wave of statue-toppling coursing through the South. I knew the petitions wouldn’t go anywhere, not just because of the statute protecting them (I’m a lawyer), but also because I believed that once everybody’s pulses were back to normal, and critical minds had examined the history of the monument, folks would rest assured this was a different kind of thing. It’s a memorial to the dead, on a battlefield of smaller scale than Gettysburg to be sure, but no less significant to the fallen who died there, or were buried there. The monument isn’t going anywhere.

    But this is what happened after those premature petitions started circulating. A white supremacist group posted a call to action on Stormfront, a forum listed as a hate site by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), and plans were laid out to rally around the monument on August 26, 2017. This was going to be their gig, an event headed up by avowed racists, anti-Semites, and xenophobes to honor (or desecrate, depending on how you look at it), this monument to fallen soldiers. They see themselves as standard bearers of those fallen men, which should hurt the stomachs of anybody with any real sense of empathy for those dead Confederate soldiers. In the true spirit of white supremacist usurpers, they rallied around a “symbol of heritage” to give voice to their hostility, and to deny the humanity of so many people

    There may be people who don’t identify as white supremacist who intend on showing up to support the monument tomorrow. If so, their timing is bad, because they are joining an event that was planned and sponsored by a known hate group. It is almost as ill-conceived an idea as, say, launching a petition campaign against something you haven’t really read up on yet. The thing is, they know that by now. There are ways to support the monument other than by showing up to rally with Nazis.

    Meanwhile, a lot of people whose eyes are open to the fast-spreading poison of white supremacy – a freakish phenomenon that has picked up a lot of steam in the past year or so, for some reason – have decided to show up and take a stand against it. Their decision to do so is being ridiculed as some daft display of moral superiority, as attention-seeking, as provoking violence or creating danger where none existed before. Why don’t they just ignore the problem? It will go away by itself, history has (not, not at all) shown.

    In the middle of a university community full of impressionable and vulnerable young people with still-forming minds, for some people the choice is, let the racists have their say, because you know free speech and all that and gosh resistance is so noisy; or stand up to them and tell them loud and clear to STFU already. There are more of us than there are of them, and some of us would like them to be reminded of that, in person.

    There’s no moral obligation to join the counter protest. Nobody’s a coward for not coming, and nobody’s a hero for showing up.

    No offense intended to the dead who are buried there, I for one am actually considering their dignity in the equation. I know a lot of people on my side are not; they’re after that monument. But I suspect that, to most of the counter protesters showing up tomorrow, it’s about more than stone, just like the Civil War was about more than just states’ rights.

    It’s about respecting the dignity of the living, all of us.

  13. Jessee Bundy says

    This is the best article I’ve read in a long time. Your final suggestion is basically my mentality regarding most things in life. Even still, I constantly struggle to rise above my own competitive nature and desire to be right. Sometimes I fail. Too often, I find that I’ve won the battle, but lost the war.

    There’s always an ongoing inner-conflict between standing up for my rights and beliefs and supporting freedom of expression to the fullest extent possible and the pragmatic side of me that questions whether some of the means people use are really an effective way to accomplish anyone’s goals. However, one of the toughest lessons in life I’ve had to learn is that some people just cannot be reasoned with or convinced to engage in rational discussion.

    I don’t have the answers, but what I appreciated most about this article was that it highlighted how social media has bred a culture of reactionary responses often motivated by self-validation from people who are too busy to be bothered by actual details and facts or forage human connection and seek to understand one another.

    “Most of us find it very satisfying to use words like “history,” “heritage,” “hate,” “home,” “pride,” “equality” and others while feeling a certainty we, personally, are on the correct side of those words. Our tendency to revel in our self-righteousness is abetted on social media to the point that the rush that comes from making morally superior proclamations must rival opioid abuse in this country for our drug of choice. We have an instant audience, we are certain we are correct and it feels good!”

    Just…wow. This is a harsh truth that’s difficult to face in ourselves, but something we’re all guilty of to a degree. A friend of mine in Memphis calls this “real talk”. Indeed.

    Thanks for always bringing your knowledgeable and reflective insights to the table, Alan.

  14. A monument is erected because people want something remembered. This one is murky because it might commemorate a battle, or soldiers who fell, or it might have been erected by people who wished the economic system which used slaves could have continued. Most southerners have long known that slavery and a belief in black inferiority is wrong, and have chosen to talk around those issues as a way of avoiding admitting that their ancestors were caught up in defending slavery, even if those individuals believed they were defending their homeland from northern invaders. Our Confederate ancestors came down on the wrong side of history, probably from listening to rhetoric that sought to influence individuals with the primary goal of allowing the promoters to keep the wealth and power that requires slaves. They weren’t necessarily bad people and they fought bravely, but the cause they fought for was evil whether they knew it or not. That we should remember.

  15. Kenneth M. Moffett says

    Often the best response to protesters of an alt-right stripe would be to completely ignore them. Giving them attention gives them importance they don’t deserve.

  16. Great piece. Jack Neely has more background on both monuments:

  17. Thank you, Alan, for this thoughtful perspective. We see the heat from the extremes on both sides. Most of us who try to look at the subjects involved from a more reserved position are not heard, yet I believe we are the vast majority.

    Your words and the comments of your reasoned readers are refreshing, and oh, that I wish were more broadly expressed.

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