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Tennessee and Secession – Slavery, Equality, and the Degradation of the White Race

When the slave states of the Deep South seceded, most gave reasons why they were making this move. In their various “Declaration of Causes,” South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas all listed slavery as the reason. The state of Tennessee, however, appears to be an interesting exception. Rather than drawing up an Ordinance of Secession, they issued a Declaration of Independence. Within that Declaration, Tennessee mentioned nothing at all about slavery. In fact, they gave no reasons at all why they were seceding. 1Official Records Series 4, Vol. 1, 290. Approved by the state legislature on May 6, 1861, and voted upon by the public on June 8, 1861. Actually, if you want a great overview of the secessionists’ reasons for leaving or wanting to leave the Union, just read this volume.

There was, of course, a reason – and one not too far under the surface of their declaration. To discover it doesn’t even take all that much digging. As it turns out, the Tennessee secessionists responsible were incredibly upfront about why they wanted to leave the Union.

There Is No Hope of Peace

Following the election of Abraham Lincoln on November 6, 1860, most of the Deep South states began making moves to secede. Immediately, cries went out for disunion, and two weeks later, South Carolina had set the date for their secession convention – December 17th. On the 20th, they voted to leave the United States. Over the next month or so, all of the Gulf States would do the same. 2William W. Freehling The Road to Disunion, Vol. 2 (Oxford University Press, 2007) 417-425. If you’re interested in the long build up to secession, these two volumes are exactly what you need.

Governor of Tennessee, Isham Harris
Governor of Tennessee, Isham Harris

Meanwhile, in Tennessee, Governor Isham Harris was incredibly vexed. During the election, he didn’t care who won, just so that it wasn’t Lincoln. He campaigned for John Breckinridge, but was fine with voting for Stephen Douglas if it helped defeat the Illinois Rail Splitter. Following Lincoln’s election, Tennessee’s pro-secessionists were holding rallies and parades, and demanding that Governor Harris call a secession convention. On December 8th, Harris announced that on January 7, 1861, the state legislature would meet to discuss this issue.

Harris had been a fire-eater for years, but exactly when he concluded that his state needed to secede is less simple to figure out. To be sure, however, by the January meeting of the state legislature, he was all for secession, and was hardly shy about his reasoning. 3Sam David Elliot Isham G. Harris of Tennessee: Confederate Governor and United States Senator (Louisiana State University Press, 2010) 57-60.

In the opening speech of this session, Harris explained, in long, overwrought ebullations, just why Tennessee needed to sever all ties with the United States.

The systematic, wanton, and long continued agitation of the slavery question, with the actual and threatened aggressions of the Northern States and a portion of their people, upon the well-defined constitutional rights of the Southern citizen; the rapid growth and increase, in all the elements of power, of a purely sectional party, whose bond of union is uncompromising hostility to the rights and institutions of the fifteen Southern States, have produced a crisis in the affairs of the country, unparalleled in the history of the past, resulting already in the withdrawal from the Confederacy of one of the sovereignties which composed it, while others are rapidly preparing to move in the same direction.

Throughout, he condemned “the anti-slavery cloud, which now overshadows the nation.” He complained that the abolitionist movement, cemented to the Federal government by Lincoln’s election, sought to “exclude the slaveholder from the territories,” and “asserted the equality of the black with the white race.” During his speech, he listed twenty-three “wrongs against which we have remonstrated for more than a quarter of a century.” Of those, all but two were specifically about slavery. 4Both of the two not mentioning slavery had to do with other states denying “extradition of murderers and marauders.” Likely, these are also about runaway slaves accused of crimes, but since he didn’t specifically reference slavery, I’m not perfectly sure.

Matt Gardener, Tennessee slave.
Matt Gardener, Tennessee slave.

In addition to his complaints, he also suggested no less than five amendments for the United States Constitution. All five were specifically about slavery – its boundaries, fugitives, and legality. It was only through the adoption for the protection of slavery that Harris felt “that our rights were reasonably secure, not only in theory, but in fact, and should indulge the hope of living in the Union in peace.” Without them, “there is no hope of peace or security in the government.”

Harris warned that if his state failed to seceded, it would be “fatal to the institution of slavery forever.” It was time, he said, for the people of the South to either abandon slavery or “fortify and maintain it.” Since they could not abandon it, as it was “interwoven.. with our wealth, prosperity, and domestic happiness,” it was essential to save it. 5Senate Journal of the Extra Session of the Thirty-Third General Assembly of the State of Tennessee (Nashville, TN: J.O. Griffith, 1861), 6-18. Here. The list begins on page 8.

During these days, pro-secessionist commissioners from both Alabama and Mississippi were given voices to speak to the legislative body. Thomas Wharton of Mississippi was allowed to give his pitch on January 9th, two days after Harris. He cautioned that Republicans and their acts against slavery “will drench the country in blood, and extirpate one or other of the races.” 6Nashville Union and American, January 10, 1861. As quoted in Charles B. Dew Apostles of Disunion (University of Virginia Press, 2001) 79.

When Harris made his speech, opening the session, the only state to have seceded thus far was South Carolina. But on the same day that Wharton spoke, Mississippi announced its decision to leave the Union. This excited the pro-secessionists into immediately introducing resolutions that would bring Tennessee out of the Union and to raise their own army. Cooler heads – pro-Unionists – prevailed, voting down the measures.

The majority of Tennessee politicians were not yet in favor of leaving the Union. The secessionists knew that they would have a difficult time even bringing the proposition to a vote. With this veritable Unionist landslide in the legislative session, many believed the secessionists cause dead in the water.

That’s fairly understandable since every pro-secession resolution proposed was firmly voted down. So as to not seem so unwilling to discuss the topic, the Unionists agreed to allow a popular referendum in which the population would vote upon two things. First, whether there should be a secession convention at all, and second, which delegates they would send if a convention was approved. The date was set – on February 9th, the voters from across Tennessee would decide the fate of their government. 7Derek W. Frisby “West Tennessee and the Rush to War” Sister States Enemy States (University Press of Kentucky, 2001) 51-52.

Regardless, L.P. Walker, Alabama’s secession commissioner, was certain of Tennessee’s ultimate fate. The Volunteer State, in Walker’s opinion, “will unite with the Gulf States in forming a Southern Confederacy.” 8Official Records, Series 4, Vol. 1, 56.

In between the legislative session and the vote, Governor Harris took extra steps to drive his state from the Union. Transpiring at the same time, a peace conference was held in Washington and the first meeting of the Confederate states was taking place in Montgomery. Harris wished to withhold delegates from Washington and send them to the South instead. Unfortunately for him, the legislature would have none of it, and Tennessee made an appearance at the Washington peace conference – which ended up doing very little.

The (First) Vote

Though L.P. Walker had been incredibly optimistic, he seemed to be mistaken. Come the day of the vote, the results were staggeringly pro-Union. Even though it took place after seven states had seceded and formed a new nation in Montgomery, Alabama, with Jefferson Davis at the helm, the people voted “No Convention”. It was a narrow margin, being defeated by but 12,000 out of 146,000.

The landslide came in the votes for the delegates that would have been selected had the convention been approved by the voters. More than 64,000 votes were cast for Unionist delegates – a margin of nearly four to one – and nearly half of all votes from Democrats were pro-Union. 9Elliott, 64.


While a single state, Tennessee was essentially divided into three sections – eastern, middle, and western. The east was, if not anti-slavery, anti-slaveowner. The west, where most of the state’s enslavers lived, was naturally pro-slavery, but generally opposed to secession, not yet believing that the fate of slavery and the fate of the Union were intertwined. The middle was more or less a mixture of both east and west.

The results of a the vote being decidedly pro-Union convinced the Unionists that they would remain as part of the United States. Believing the question already answered, they rested upon their laurels and hoped for the best.

Only a Question of Time

The same could not be said for the secessionists, who were now realizing just how much of a minority they were. They tailored their speeches, targeting slaveowning Unionists. They realized that their Unionists were actually more anti-Confederates than anything. With this in mind, they decided to approach them not as representatives from the Confederacy, but as harbingers of independence.

What they wanted was for the Federal government to make the first strike against the fledgling Confederacy. This would, in their minds, mean that Washington was trying to coerce the seceded states back into the Union – an act that the new independance-ists would certainly denounce. In this way, they would get their secession.

During this period, even more secession commissioners visited Tennessee. According to H.P. Bell one of the commissioners from Georgia, Governor Harris had already assured Jefferson Davis that “the withdrawal of Tennessee from the Government of the United States and its union with the Confederate States of America was only a question of time….” 10Official Records, Series 4, Vol. 1, 180. March 20, 1861.

This question seemed to be perpetually on hold. While Unionists did little in the way of organizing, secessionists watched and waited. The state’s Unionist newspapers urged sobriety and caution, while their secessionist counterparts daily printed calls to arms.

Tennessee and Fort Sumter

When the South fired upon the Federal troops at Fort Sumter, like the rest of the nation, Tennessee was frozen, waiting for whatever news from Charleston or Washington. This word came three days later when Abraham Lincoln called for troops to put down the insurrection. From Tennessee, Lincoln required 50,000.

In his reply to Secretary of War Simon Cameron, Governor Harris said that “Tennessee will not furnish a single man for purpose of coercion, but 50,000, if necessary, for the defense of our rights and those of our Southern brethren.” 11Official Records, Series 3, Vol. 1, 81.

Lincoln’s call for troops changed the conversion for many Unionists. Where once they were for remaining, they were now for independence, if not outright allegiance with the Confederate States. For Harris and the secessionists, nothing at all had changed – they had already been convinced that to save the institution of slavery, secession was necessary.

Strangely enough, those against coercion by the Federal government to keep the seceded states within the Union employed coercion against the Unionists. “Those who are not for us are against us,” they warned in a proclamation posted in Memphis. “Let every citizen remember that ‘Eternal vigilance is the price of Liberty.'”

That is not to say that slavery was forgotten. On the contrary, the same proclamation was clear on this:

“Our safety requires that those living in our midst, who do not wish to abandon their allegiance to Lincoln’s Government, who are in favor of negro equality and the degradation of the white race, should leave this city as soon as possible.”

They worried that if Unionists were left behind when they went to war, they would “incite our negroes to insurrection, and bring the worst calamities upon our wives, our mothers, and our daughters.” 12“True Men of the South to the Rescue” as printed in Rebellion Record, Vol. 2, edited by Frank Moore (G.P. Putnmam, 1864) 58. Another newspaper, the Memphis Appeal, called for the organization of “Committees of Safety” specifically “for the purpose of hanging or getting rid of all abolitionists.” 13Memphis Appeal, April 14-17, 1861. As quoted in Frisby, 59.

Still another paper, the Memphis Avalanche implored loyal citizens to keep a close watch on their neighbors, lest they display some anti-Southern sentiments. Curiously, the same paper reported the lynching of a white man who expressed such views. Still another “Lincolnite” was critically injured by an axe for speaking in favor of the President. Pro-secessionists, not quite sated, planned to hang him shortly after. The same paper stated that “the Northern spies and pimps in our midst should be burnt at the stake, nailed to the street doors and public lamp-posts.” Many northern-born citizens of Memphis took these threats seriously. Approximately 3,000 of such people fled the city. 14Memphis Daily Avalanche, April 26, 1861. As quoted in Charles Lufkin, “The Northern Exodus From Memphis During the Secession Crisis” 12-13. This can be found here, and is well worth the read.

In Virginia, so in Tennessee.
In Virginia, so in Tennessee.

Opportunity and a New Vote

Sensing his moment, Governor Harris agreed to allow the Confederate War Department to erect artillery positions along the Mississippi, near Memphis. Officers were elected, troops were raised, and on April 25th, the legislature once more met in a secret session, and once more Harris opened the proceedings. 15Elliot, 70.

He urged them to declare Tennessee as independent and wanted them to align themselves with the Confederacy for defensive purposes, and to ultimately and officially join the new Southern government. To ensure that they did not forget who their enemies were, Harris referred to the Lincoln administration as the “Abolition power.” 16Robert White, ed. Messages of the Governors of Tennessee, Vol. 5 (Tennessee Historical Commission, 1959) 286. The speech was delivered April 25,1861.

But Harris could still not get them to act. On May 6th, rather than voting upon it themselves in a secession convention, they decided to allow the people to vote once again.

The day after receiving the news that a vote would be held in a month’s time, Harris took it upon himself to form a military alliance with the Confederacy. In Montgomery, though it still had to be voted upon by the people of Tennessee, the Confederate War Department declared: “In honor of the official announcement of the secession of the States of Arkansas and Tennessee, and their adherence to this Confederacy, a salute of ten guns for each will be immediately fired in front of the Government building.” 17Official Records, Series 4, Vol. 1, 292. Arkansas did actually secede on May 6, 1861.

The rhetoric and mob violence continued up until the June 8th election date. With Harris’ alliance with the Confederacy, the vote was empty and pointless. The Unionists understood this, and many of their persuasion who had not fled north didn’t even bother voting. Because of this, newspapers such as the Appeal insisted that “anyone failing to vote” should be the “object of suspicion in the community.”


To that end, many Unionists’ lives were threatened if they did not vote for secession. Death threats flew thick in the days leading up to the vote, with mounted patrols of pro-secessionists making sure everyone was falling into line. Because of this, many who had voted for the Union in the previous election, voted for secession in June.

In the end, Tennessee voted two to one for secession. Most of these votes came from west Tennessee, while east Tennessee had the fewest. Seemingly, over 104,000 Unionists in Tennessee simply changed their minds.

While slavery had gone unmentioned in Tennessee’s Declaration of Independence, that wasn’t the point of the document. In the lead up to the first vote, slavery was all that was upon the lips of Governor Harris and the secessionists. After the South fired upon Sumter, that rhetoric remained, now enjoined with a cry for blood. The fear of Abolitionists and racial equality, along with mob rule, intimidation and murder eventually won Tennessee for the Confederacy.

Capital building in Nashville.
Capital building in Nashville.

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Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.