Thursday, January 04, 2007

McKenzie: "Lincolnites and Rebels: A Divided Town in the American Civil War"

[Lincolnites and Rebels: A Divided Town in the American Civil War by Robert Tracy McKenzie (Oxford University Press, New York, NY. 2006) Hardback, photos, illustrations, bibliography, notes, appendices. pp. 320 $35.00 ISBN10: 0-19-518294-4 ISBN13: 978-0-19-518294-1]

Although the city of Knoxville, Tennessee is generally thought of as a bastion of Unionism during the Civil War years, the vote to determine whether or not the state would sever its bonds with the U.S. was actually split down the middle there. In his book Lincolnites and Rebels, historian Robert McKenzie provides us with the first modern book-length scholarly study that focuses exclusively on the divided citizenry of Knoxville. The author's carefully nuanced approach to the subject, combined with excellent research and balanced analysis, makes it a very welcome addition to the literature.

McKenzie's discussion of the mindset of East Tennesseans and what it really meant for them to be a Unionist is the most enlightening I've come across. Both the North and Deep South had stereotypical images of the East Tennessee citizen. Radical secessionists viewed them as uncouth, ignorant of their own self-interest, unable to perceive northern slights (i.e. lacking the traditional southern honor code), and even abolitionist in nature. Northerners, on the other hand, were presented with the image of East Tennesseans as fiercely independent, rugged unconditional Unionists who were ultra-loyal beyond all self interest. According to McKenzie, neither view is accurate. Far from having any widespread abolitionist or Republican sentiments, East Tennessee Unionists were proslavery, but rather believed the best way to preserve the institution was by remaining within the union. Conservative, old-line Whig opposition to the increasingly radical Southern Democrats was an important factor as any in the region's opposition to Deep South agitation for separation.

The reader of McKenzie's book often sees the region's Unionism through the lens of the vitriolic, controversial (and quite frankly unbalanced) William G. "Parson" Brownlow. That he was the most famous and influential East Tennessee Unionist is beyond dispute, but the fact that his virulent hatred dominates so many narrative threads can be distracting at times. On the other hand, in his calm moments, Brownlow could also frame his editorial points in a very eloquent and rational manner. To the author's credit, McKenzie does bring forward contrary Unionist viewpoints and doesn't allow the Parson to speak for all. Acknowledging his innumerable character flaws, McKenzie does a balanced job of presenting Brownlow at his best and worst.

Perhaps as expected, a study of the factors that might determine which citizens became 'Lincolnites' or 'Rebels' does not lead to clear, black-and-white conclusions. Although his research shows that secessionists were more likely to have white collar occupations and be wealthier, McKenzie maintains that the typical East Tennesseean of either stripe was remarkably similar--"a southern-born, nonslaveholding male of modest means" (pg. 126). You might add proslavery as well. Although class differences certainly play a role, the author argues against its primacy. Other identifiable factors include familial and religious bonds. Pre-war political partisanship was a clear determining factor for loyalty, at least for Democrats (virtually all of whom came around to supporting the Confederacy after Sumter; for Whigs it was around 50/50). The slaveholding disparity is perhaps less than expected, 17.2% among Unionist families and 24.7% among Confederates. McKenzie's study of the several hundred Knoxville families from which loyalty information could be gleaned is an important expansion of the work of previous scholars, such as Noel Fisher's broader East Tennessee work.

In Lincolnites and Rebels, the experiences of Knoxville residents as they struggled to cope with first Confederate then Federal military occupation are related in great detail. Additionally, a short but useful summary of the siege of Knoxville and assault on Fort Sanders is provided. The town itself was almost continuously garrisoned throughout the war and was greatly harmed both economically and socially by the harsh wartime measures employed by the occupiers. The town struggled mightily with the newly imposed social order. On the issue of slavery, many East Tennessee Unionists were radicalized by their stint in the Federal army and no longer marched in step with the much more conservative Unionist civilians that remained in Knoxville. The book closes with a thoughtful discussion of racial issues and the violence that occurred during the waning moments of the war and in its aftermath.

Lincolnites and Rebels is a must read for those wishing to gain a deeper socio-political understanding of wartime East Tennessee. We now have a great triumvirate of modern scholarly studies (this one together with Todd Groce's Mountain Rebels: East Tennessee Confederates and the Civil War, 1860-1870 and Noel Fisher's War at Every Door: Partisan Politics and Guerrilla Violence in East Tennessee, 1860-1869), which, if read together, will provide the reader with an up to date and fairly complete introductory education on the subject.

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