A Set of Aristocrats and Overbearing Tyrants

In May, the Tennessee legislature, supported by Governor Isham G. Harris, had voted to secede from the Union. This was contingent on the results of a popular vote, which was held on June 8. Tennesseans approved the legislature’s measure by a count of 104,913 to 47,238. In western Tennessee, where the slave population was 30 percent, the vote for secession was 7-to-1. In mountainous eastern Tennessee, where the slave population was eight percent, the vote was 2-to-1 against secession. But this could not overcome the majority, and Tennessee became the 11th Confederate state.

Eastern Tennesseans assembled at a convention in Greeneville to protest the secession. Former political enemies joined forces in a common Unionist cause, championing the small farmers and business owners who resented the slaveholding aristocracy. Among these new friends were Democratic Senator Andrew Johnson and William “Parson” Brownlow.

Andrew Johnson and William “Parson” Brownlow | Image Credit: Wikipedia

Johnson called the slaveholders a “cheap purse-proud set they are, not half as good as the man who earns his bread by the sweat of his brow.” Brownlow, a former Methodist clergyman and current editor of the Knoxville Whig, viciously attacked secessionists and declared that eastern Tennesseans “can never live in a Southern Confederacy and be made hewers of wood and drawers of water for a set of aristocrats and overbearing tyrants.”

Convention delegates issued a declaration of protest against Tennessee’s “disunion government.” They accused secessionists of violating their voting rights and using “a merciless soldiery” to harass and intimidate Unionists, including women and children. The troops had allegedly robbed homes, foraged their horses on private lands, and subjected “the people, male and female,” to “every indignity that ruffian bands are capable of.”

The delegates proclaimed their allegiance to the United States and formed a committee to petition the state to let them form a separate state of East Tennessee. But these moves would need the backing of the Federal military to be truly taken seriously.


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  • Lindsey, David (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
  • McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press (Kindle Edition), 1988.

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