The last state to join the Confederacy, Tennessee was also the first state to return to the Union. However, the Volunteer State hosted perhaps as many as 1,700 military encounters within its borders, a total number of engagements second only to Virginia. The unprotected city of Nashville was the first of any Confederate capitals to fall to Union forces, propelling many residents to flee for points further south. Other residents were forced by occupying forces to leave their homes.
Many manuscript items held by the Tennessee State Library and Archives contain first-hand accounts of everyday life in Middle Tennessee during this time. Reading the journals of non-combatant Southerners can provide modern-day researchers with rich insights into the daily lives of the men and women who remained on the homefront during the war. Historical journals show that civilians kept abreast of wartime news and were usually quite opinionated about events of the day, but somehow managed to continue their day-to-day activities in the face of wartime turmoil.
The diary of William Luther Bigelow Lawrence offers the perspective of a Nashvillian who remained at his home in the city during the war. The lawyer’s journal entries reflect an acute awareness of events throughout the North and South, including troop movements when battles took place in the South. More significantly, Lawrence’s diary depicts daily life in a major Southern city between the years 1861 and 1865. While surrounded by fighting and death, civilians like Lawrence faced the challenge of providing food and shelter for their families.
Even in the midst of a bloody civil war, Lawrence and a business partner tried to eke out a living in the grocery business. (The two were ultimately unable to succeed at this enterprise.) Meanwhile, Lawrence’s Nashville property was devastated by troops, and the departure of most of his slaves threw his lifestyle into uncharted territory. A diary entry of Christmas Eve 1864 reveals that Lawrence appreciates that, at least, his house has been spared: “It might have been worse,” he writes. Lawrence was ultimately grateful for the war's end, in spite of the South’s loss; indeed, he almost seems ambivalent about being on the losing end of the war. His July 4, 1865, entry says, “Peace, glorious peace once more smiles on our country.”
Another diarist, the Rev. Jesse Cox of Williamson County, filled his journal—before and after the war—with decidedly anti-Union thoughts. Cox’s final entry, like most of the previous ones, depicted anything but a conciliatory spirit:
"The war being over this year the south being overpowered have to submit to every thing, they lost their cause by being divided among them selves [sic] and many going over to the north…Lee surrendered to Grant on the 9th of April 65 which they never would have done if they had been united …By such men we have lost our property and liberty."
The events Cox relates in his Civil War diary help explain his extreme bitterness toward the North. Union foragers repeatedly scoured his farm for livestock and provisions. It must have been frustrating for the minister to plant corn—as he details in his entries of April 1862 and 1863—that he knew would inevitably be taken to feed enemy troops. The Rev. Cox was also none too pleased about the loss of his slaves. But even Cox’s prewar diary entries and sermons reflected virulently anti-Union sentiments.
Cox’s vitriol toward the North and role as slave master, coupled with his profession as a man of the cloth, may seem paradoxical. Many Southern ministers owned slaves and defended the right of all Southerners to do so. The practice of owning slaves did not present a moral quandary to many preachers throughout the South, though their Northern colleagues were often engaged in the abolitionist movement. Even at the height of the war, Cox attempted as often as possible to hold services and defend the South’s position.
Both William Pitt Lawrence and the Rev. Jesse Cox, even as minor slaveholders, were entrenched in the culture of the antebellum South. Lawrence's 1859 diary mentions the John Brown raid at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, an event that terrified slaveholders across the South. Earlier, in 1831, a massacre led by the slave Nat Turner resulted in the death of sixty whites in Southampton County, Virginia.
These and other instances of slave insurrections terrified Southern slaveholders; many slave owners lived in constant fear that such occurrences would visit their neighborhoods. Another diarist, Robert Cartmell of Madison County, Tennessee, was particularly fearful of such an event. One of his October 1860 entries laments the “wickedness” of the nation, naming civil war and “servile insurrection” as two equally tragic fates for the United States and the South in particular.
The Nannie Haskins diary offers a younger, feminine perspective on life in Tennessee during the Civil War period. Miss Haskins, a resident of Clarksville, kept a diary whose insight rivals that of more famous diarists such as Mary Chestnut. Haskins adroitly describes the relationship between residents of Montgomery County—the occupied people—and the Union soldiers who occupied their homes during the war. Perhaps inadvertently, the girl provides a bit of comic relief in her entry of February 25, 1863:
"That afternoon Ma and I went up to see her Mary I think she looks better than I ever seen her, she described her visit to us, she says that once while she was at her union uncles the Yankees came and ordered dinner her aunt being a warm southerner refused to give it, but her uncle of course [consented] and gave them the beefs, but her aunt, like all other southerners was determined they should not have it and stepped into the kitchen and poured soap suds into their victuals, as soon as they found out what she had done, they insulted and cursed her in every manner some wanted to shoot her others jerked loose her clothes. Mary said that they wanted to strip and tie her to a pole but that an officer stepped forward and made them behave, and merely placed a heavy guard around her. She (Mary) says that they did a great deal worse than that at some places; can it be possible that such brutal conduct will long be permitted to be carried out! No there is a just God in Heaven!!"
Alhough present-day readers may find it funny to imagine a fervent Southern girl slopping soap suds on the meal of her adversaries, this anecdote further illustrates the gulf of resentment and hate expressed between occupiers and the occupied.
Miss Haskins also used her diary to chronicle day-to-day events in the life of a young Clarksvillian. Her journal entries tell of ball games, sleepovers with cousins and friends, and attending Sunday School. But the life of young Haskins, like the lives of teenage Southerners in many places, was indelibly affected by the war. In March 1863, Haskins writes that the sound of cannons at nearby Fort Donelson (on the Cumberland River) has interrupted her studying. Nonetheless, Nannie Haskins continued her studies and recorded her impression of the war. The result, portions of which are included in this unit of the Tennessee Virtual Archive, provide a priceless window into civilian life during the Civil War.
Like the private diaries of the Tennesseans mentioned above, personal letters reveal much about life during the Civil War. Personal correspondence often illustrates the importance of familial relationships and the concern of husbands for wives, and vice versa, leading up to and during war.
The Rutledge Family Papers contain several important letters that chronicle the life of an East Tennessee family around the Civil War period. Letters between the Rutledge sons, engaged with Confederate regiments on the front lines, and their family members at home reveal a double anxiety: families worried for their soldier sons, while sons on the battlefield worried about families plagued by rogue teams of marauding guerillas. These groups of guerillas were often called “Bushwhackers” and “Tories” by the Rutledge family, and their actions were deplored by East Tennessee residents. Interestingly, however, Robert Rutledge (in an April 1864 letter) tells his father that his own Confederate army is “getting to be as much dreaded as the low down thieving Yankees.”
With so many of the country’s able-bodied men engaged on battlefields, families holding down farms and other enterprises were left virtually unprotected as the war progressed. Deserters, both Confederate and Union, became the bane of nearly helpless families, especially those in rural areas, across many parts of the South. The hundreds of thousands of soldiers paled in comparison to the millions of civilians affected by the war in much different ways.
As the nation recognizes the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the materials in this collection will provide insight into the lives of those millions of people who fought the war not on battlefields, but on a daily basis in their personal lives.
Berlin, Ira, Ed. Free at Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom, and the Civil War. New York: The New Press, 1992.
Cashin, Joan E. The War Was You and Me: Civilians in the American Civil War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.
Cisco, Walter Brian. War Crimes Against Southern Civilians. Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican, 2007.
Durham, Walter T. Nashville: The Occupied City: The First Seventeen Months, February 16, 1862 to June 30, 1863. Nashville, Tennessee Historical Society, 1985.
Eggleston, Larry G. Women in the Civil War: Extraordinary Stories of Soldiers, Spies, Nurses, Doctors, Crusaders, and Others. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2003.
Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.
Krug, Donna Rebecca Dondes. The Folks Back Home: The Confederate Homefront during the Civil War. Ph.D. diss., University of California at Irvine, 1990.
Massey, Mary Elizabeth. Refugee Life in the Confederacy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964.
Nelson, Scott Reynolds and Carol Sheriff. A People at War: Civilians and Soldiers in America’s Civil War, 1854-1877. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.