How Chattanooga got its groove back (after the war)

How Chattanooga got its groove back (after the war)

May 18th, 2014 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

Chattanooga is praised today for reinventing itself in the last quarter century, but a University of Tennessee at Knoxville political science researcher and lecturer says in a new book the city did the same thing in order to remain vital after the Civil War.

Dr. Tim Ezzell, an East Ridge native and graduate of East Ridge High School, says the city grew and thrived in the period from 1865 to 1900 because, more so than other Southern cities affected by the war, it received an influx of Northern families with Northern capital and Northern industrial values.

His book, "Chattanooga, 1865-1900: A City Set Down in Dixie," details that period, the city's aim to rival the manufacturing centers of the North and its wider than expected black influence during the era.

Even today, as the city attempts to resurrect some of its manufacturing past to add to its present service economy, it's instructive to know how the seeds of manufacturing came to be.

"Chattanooga really became a city after the war -- it's economy was formed," Ezzell said in a phone interview. "It's a fascinating period. I'm interested [generally] in that period in looking at urban environments, in people, ideas and values in one place, and how people said, 'Let's build something together.'

"Chattanooga is even more interesting," he said. In addition to traditional stops and starts, "it had all these other conflicts -- North, South, black, white. It's a very positive story."

Ezzell said many Southern cities had some degree of Northern influence after the war since the cities had no capital with which to rebuild, but northerners in Chattanooga "were really the ruling elite who built the city. Many [Northern men] fought in this area and returned."

Where Atlanta had "fewer than one-fourth of the city's business leaders" from the North and Nashville had northerners as 6 percent "of the local elite," Chattanooga had a majority, he said.

That influence may surprise some, but even as sparks flew before the war, the area had a bit of a Unionist streak. While the city of Chattanooga voted for secession, Hamilton County as a whole voted against it, joining much of East Tennessee on the Union side.

Once the war was over, Ezzell said, the resettled Northern industrialists here set about to create somewhat of a rivalry with their compatriots back home.

"The traditional view is [of Southern cities having] a colonial economy with rough goods and raw materials finished in the North," he said. "In Chattanooga, that was not the case. The vision was to be a peer and an equal."

So, instead of just shipping the raw materials north, "cutting-edge stuff" such as steel, farm implements and railroad cars were made here, Ezzell said. "These were finished products."

Blacks in Chattanooga enjoyed more political influence, and for a longer time, than blacks elsewhere in the South, the author said, because the northern businessmen needed their votes to remain in power.

Yet, it was "an uneasy alliance," Ezzell said.

"The conventional wisdom," he said, "is that [blacks] after Reconstruction had no power. But in Chattanooga they had considerable power well into the 1890s."

Several factors combined to bring the city's go-go era to a close.

Chattanooga fell as Birmingham, Ala., rose as an iron and steel power, among other things, Ezzell said. The city did not have the raw materials to compete, and steel rather than iron was becoming the metal of choice nationally. Further, he said, the post-war ruling elite was getting older, and a younger generation had different priorities and different goals.

Black political power also waned, he said, because the state was passing laws that would effectively pare them from the electorate. And as older Republicans moved into the city's first non-annexed suburbs like St. Elmo and Highland Park, more Democrats took their place within the city limits.

Though times changed, Ezzell said, northerners "left a powerful legacy for the city." Part of that legacy, was their "need to be philanthropic. They recognized in this sort of conquered environment that they could do good through good deeds."

And while the Northern influence remained, Chattanooga, like many cities in the South and elsewhere, became a place where "people from different environments, interests, roles, stratas had to reach some consensus," he said, "to get together and solve problems."

Disparate groups do that in cities like Chattanooga, Ezell said, better than they do in state and national governments. Indeed, he said, a city can be "very resilient" and become "very good at redefining itself." Chattanooga, as the Dynamo of Dixie, the Scenic Center of the South, the Renaissance City, Boulder of the East, Gig City, has done that, he said.

"There's a really good story there of different groups who work together for a common good," he said, "to get the right thing done."