The Tennessee Secession

The people of Tennessee had divided loyalties. Those in the middle and western parts of the state generally favored secession, while those in the mountainous east were largely Unionist. Tennesseans had followed a wait-and-see approach on whether to leave the Union, but President Abraham Lincoln’s call for Tennessee volunteers to invade the South pushed most Tennesseans into the secessionist camp.

Tennessee Governor Isham Harris had called the legislature into special session to consider secession, but he did not want to go through the long process of having an election for delegates to a secession convention. He therefore asked the legislators to approve a measure declaring Tennessee independent and then submitting the decision to a popular vote after the fact.

The legislature complied by approving an ordinance to “submit to the vote of the people a Declaration of Independence, and for other purposes.” This measure, which effectively withdrew Tennessee from the Union without going through the state convention process, passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 46 to 21, and the Senate, 20 to 4. The election was scheduled for June 8, but it was a foregone conclusion that the voters would opt to secede.

While the legislature debated, Harris had secretly appointed envoys to meet with Confederate officials and negotiate forming a military alliance between Tennessee and the Confederacy. Harris informed the legislature of this after it had declared Tennessee independent, and as such the body approved the alliance by a vote of 42 to 15 (18 not voting) in the House and 14 to 6 (4 not voting) in the Senate. This essentially made Tennessee a Confederate state before the popular referendum would be held next month. The Provisional Confederate Congress officially admitted Tennessee 10 days later.

Most Tennesseans supported leaving the Union, but those in the east were still opposed. When news of the legislature’s actions reached Knoxville, Unionists raised U.S. flags and delivered speeches denouncing the move. Secessionists took offense and rioting broke out in which shots were fired and one man was mortally wounded. Tennessee militia finally had to come in to restore order. Unlike the rest of the state, East Tennessee would remain largely Unionist despite being part of the Confederacy.


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