Mid-nineteenth-century Tennessee was an overwhelmingly rural and agricultural state. Cities like Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville showed signs of industrial growth and commercial prosperity, but the state’s population remained closely connected to the land. The decade before the Civil War, in fact, brought high crop prices that reinforced Tennesseans’ ties to plantations and farms. The state’s rural economy was far from homogenous, though. While farmers in mountainous East Tennessee practiced a subsistence agriculture, Middle and West Tennesseans relied on cash crops like tobacco and cotton and increasingly turned to slaves to cultivate their fields. These regional economic divisions were reflected in the state’s political divisions, particularly over the growing debate over secession.
During these years, citizens within Tennessee’s three distinctive regions debated whether the state should secede or remain part of the United States. The predominant views of the residents of each region varied, based largely on the particular agricultural economy that had developed. In West Tennessee, where the vast flatlands facilitated the growing of cotton and the use of slave labor, many white residents embraced secession. With farm size varying according to the mixed topography of the region, Middle Tennessee became almost equally divided on the question of secession. The citizens of mountainous East Tennessee proved primarily loyal to the Union, as many residents remained linked to their Revolutionary War legacy, and slavery played a relatively minor role in the economy.
Despite the majority opinion represented in each of the grand divisions, dissenters existed within each region. This contributed to the turmoil and sometimes escalated into neighbor-against-neighbor violence. Community conflict would prove to be one of the defining characteristics of the Civil War and Reconstruction in Tennessee.
In the years leading up to the war, Tennesseans protested or defended the status quo in various ways. Both sides promoted their cause through songs, posters, and political cartoons. Across the state, citizens staged rallies and parades both in support of and against secession. At the same time, the almost 240,000 enslaved people in Tennessee gathered information and exchanged news about the possibility of war, foreseeing that war might provide them with the opportunity to gain their freedom. Some did not wait for war in their quest for freedom. The biracial cooperation that existed in the operation of the Underground Railroad brought many slaves to freedom through abolitionist safe havens.
When it seceded on May 7, 1861, Tennessee was the last of eleven states to leave the Union and join the Confederacy. It is fair to say that few Tennesseans fully envisioned the devastation and social upheaval that would visit their state over the next several years.
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♦ Underground Railroad