Museum Uses Rare, Important Documents to Connect Us to Our Civil War Past

By Adam H. Alfrey, curator and operations manager for the East Tennessee History Center

On view through October 13, 2013, the Museum of East Tennessee History’s feature exhibition, Of Sword and Pen, uses rare, original Civil War documents and artifacts to connect East Tennesseans to their past.

Small, leather-bound journals and loose-leaf letters lined alternately with words of fear and courage, questionings and beliefs.

Official documents forged by the hands of politicians and the will of their constituents, which forever change Tennessee’s course in history. 

A quick sketch capturing the likeness of a fellow soldier, polished drawings made from memories of home, an album of autographs collected from the era’s leading heroes and socialites—all unique, beautiful works created amid the horrors of war.

These original documents and other rare Civil War artifacts are part of the landmark exhibition Of Sword and Pen: Pivotal Moments in Civil War East Tennessee, on view through October 13, 2013, at the Museum of East Tennessee History in downtown Knoxville.

Of Sword and Pen peels back 150 years of accumulated analysis and interpretation,” says Dr. William E. Hardy, co-curator of the exhibition and East Tennessee Historical Society educator, “to take a fresh look at several pivotal moments in East Tennessee’s Civil War experience through little-known stories, seldom-seen documents, and unusual perspectives.”

Large graphic panels not only introduce museum visitors to key turning points but also ask them to evaluate the impact of these critical moments in East Tennessee history. How did Tennessee’s governor react to the June 17-20, 1861, Greeneville Convention, during which Unionists voted in favor of East Tennessee becoming its own independent state? What consequences did Unionists face after launching a November 8, 1861, plot to burn railroad bridges in an attempt to cut off Confederate supply lines?

Of Sword and Pen answers such questions through the words of original letters, governmental records, journals, and drawings, some on public display for the first time. “These documents are more than old paper and faded ink; they have the power of history behind them,” notes Cherel Henderson, director of the East Tennessee Historical Society. “These documents set in motion significant historical events.”

On April 17, 1861, Tennessee Governor Isham Harris wrote this letter to U.S. Secretary of War Simon Cameron in response to President Abraham Lincoln’s call for troops, effectively placing Tennessee in a state of rebellion.
Collection of Tennessee State Library and Archives, Nashville

A letter from Governor Isham Harris to Simon Cameron, U.S. secretary of war, on loan from the Tennessee State Library and Archives, illustrates the effect a single correspondence can have on history. Unwilling to cave to President Abraham Lincoln’s call for troops to suppress Confederate rebellion following the attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, Harris sent a curt response: “Tennessee will not furnish a Single Man for purposes of Coercion but 50,000 if necessary for the defence of our rights and those of our Southern brothers.” With those few strokes of the pen, Tennessee was effectively in a state of rebellion, ready to take up the sword.

While a prisoner of war at Camp Douglas, Samuel Bell Palmer drew this iconic view of dual rallies occurring on Gay Street from an April 27, 1861, memory. Palmer gave the drawing to a kind prison guard, Samuel King Williams, Jr., whose great-grandson loaned the original drawing to Of Sword and Pen. This marks the drawing’s debut display in Knoxville.

A favorite of museum goers is a remarkable graphite drawing rendered by Knoxville-native Samuel Bell Palmer while a prisoner of war at Camp Douglas in Chicago, Illinois. Recalling events he witnessed on Gay Street, April 27, 1861, Palmer captures the happenstance of simultaneous Union and Confederate rallies. In the foreground, at the southwest corner of Gay and Main (now the site of the Knox County Courthouse), a crowd gathers to listen to Senator Andrew Johnson, speaking from a stand in front Samuel Morrow’s bank. Nearby, the U.S. flag flies atop the “Liberty Pole,” a touch point for this group of Unionists’ patriotism. Further down at the corner of Gay and Church, a Confederate banner blows in the wind, as troops from Monroe County march south toward the Union rally. The tense scene is, perhaps, best described by contemporary observer William McAdoo: “We are but a step removed from civil war amongst ourselves in East Tennessee.”

In all, more than 90 original documents and artifacts from 15 public and private lenders are on display in Of Sword and Pen. “For the Civil War’s sesquicentennial to be meaningful, we have to find ways to connect to our local Civil War past from researching our ancestors who served to understanding the region’s strategic importance throughout the war,” adds Henderson. “The East Tennessee Historical Society hopes that through this exhibition, East Tennesseans have the opportunity to stand in the presence of items that made history here at home.”

The Museum of East Tennessee History is located on the first floor of the East Tennessee History Center at 601 South Gay Street and is open seven days a week with free admission on Sundays. The East Tennessee Historical Society administers additional Civil War programs, such as Civil War Families of Tennessee and Civil War Graves of Tennessee.