(Editor's note: First in a series)
Whenever society seems to be in a period of upheaval, we imagine that the current situation is the most difficult ever encountered. History, however, reminds us that each generation has faced difficulties and feared that its best days were in the past. For Tennessee residents, the fall of 1864 was one of those periods of uncertainty.
Historians consider the end of the U.S. Civil War to have occurred at the Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865, when Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was forced to surrender to Union commander Gen. U.S. Grant. The story of Grant's magnanimous gesture in returning Lee's sword and allowing the Southern soldiers to keep their horses for spring planting has been told so often that most of us can picture the scene in Wilbur McLean's parlor. However, the conflict that ripped the nation asunder would continue.
Reconstruction, an ironic name for the postwar period, would continue officially until the Compromise of 1877 would end a controversial presidential campaign that would seem right at home in the 21st century. When there was no clear winner between Democrat Samuel Tilden and his rival, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, and the final decision for the election of 1876 seemed to rest on disputed electoral votes in South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida, party leaders met and negotiated a compromise. Democratic leaders agreed that the votes in question would be tallied in Hayes' column if Hayes would end the military occupation of the South. Handshakes "inked" the deal, and Hayes became president.
In the days between Lee's surrender at Appomattox and the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes, what was life like in Chattanooga and across the state?
Abraham Lincoln's plan for the South's return to the Union required only 10% of a state's voters to take the oath of allegiance, then allowed the state to form a Unionist government and apply for readmission. His ultimate goal was the restoration of the Union.
Tennessee was a pivotal state in those plans. In 1864, the president, in an action designed to reassure Southern states in rebellion, had selected Tennessee Unionist Democrat Andrew Johnson as his vice-presidential running mate for a grueling campaign against former Union commander George McClellan. The president was victorious and, in January 1865, Johnson left Tennessee to join the president in Washington, D.C.
Within days, Tennessee Unionists met in Nashville to begin the process for Tennessee's readmission, beginning with the nomination of William G. Brownlow of Knoxville for governor and following with an official rejection of the earlier act of secession. An amendment to the Tennessee Constitution was drafted abolishing slavery. When almost 25,000 voters approved the amendment and elected "Parson" Brownlow, the plan for readmission seemed final. (In an interesting historical footnote, Tennessee became the only former Confederate state to voluntarily abolish slavery by its own action.)
The timetable for Tennessee's action is fascinating. Civil War scholars will recall that Gen. William T. Sherman in December 1864 presented Lincoln with Savannah as a "Christmas present" and then celebrated the 1865 new year by turning northward toward Charleston. Charleston fell in February and, by March, his forces took Fayetteville and then pushed Gens. Hardee, Hill and Stewart from Bentonville, North Carolina. As the new Tennessee leadership finalized their plans for readmission, the war continued to the East.
And then everything changed. Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox was followed within days by Lincoln's assassination on April 15, propelling an untested and temperamental Andrew Johnson, the Southern Democrat, into the presidency. When Johnson attempted to enforce Lincoln's plan for Reconstruction, the Radical Republicans in Congress labeled his amnesty plan for former Confederate military leadership as too lenient. In a struggle for control of the process that would lead to Johnson's impeachment, congressional leadership drafted their own plan, designed to punish the South for its "treason."
Legislation required states to extend full citizenship along with legal protection to freedmen while simultaneously revoking voting rights for former Confederates officers and governmental officials. Ratification of the 14th Amendment was mandatory for readmission.
Gov. Brownlow was able to persuade the Tennessee General Assembly to ratify the amendment on July 18, 1866. Tennessee was poised for readmission and had, by its action, become the third state to ratify the 14th Amendment, before any other Southern state and before the approval of most Northern states.
How did Tennessee's early readmission to the Union affect Chattanooga? Next week, we'll explore that question.
Linda Moss Mines, the Chattanooga and Hamilton County historian, is a member of the Tennessee Historical Commission and regent, Chief John Ross Chapter, NSDAR.