A Sesquicentennial Stroll Downtown

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

A city as divided as Knoxville is obliged to be polite. Hence there’s never been a Civil War monument downtown. The monuments on the Knox County Courthouse lawn reflect only the pioneer era and the Spanish-American War. It’s a rare Southern courthouse lawn that never had a Civil War cannon or Confederate statue on it; here they would have caused problems. Knoxville did eventually establish both Union and Confederate monuments but tucked them away on the fringes of town, off beaten paths, in places you won’t see them unless you’re deliberately looking.

Knoxville is an old city, by Southern standards, but we didn’t save much of it. Of the hundreds of buildings that constituted downtown Knoxville in 1865, only five are still standing.

Of those five, at least three have authentic Civil War credentials. Blount Mansion was a place where Confederate spy Belle Boyd stayed in the middle part of 1863. While nearly every old house is claimed to be a “Civil War hospital,” the School for the Deaf building, now Lincoln Memorial University’s law school, was a bona-fide Union hospital, with surgeons and orderlies, for the region for many months after the siege of Knoxville.

And the Lamar House—the front part of the Bijou Theatre, including most of the Bistro, the lobby, and the upper floors—is full of stories. It was Knoxville’s finest hotel during the Civil War, and as such witnessed dozens of signal events. The Lamar House Saloon heard countless Civil War arguments, some of which ended violently. The first shot fired locally, in 1861, was from a window of the hotel, killing a Unionist demonstrator. During the Confederate occupation, Gen. Joseph Johnston stayed there for a bit, working on plans; there he reportedly had an unexpected encounter with the black servant who helped raise him. Most famously, the Lamar House was where Gen. William P. Sanders, age 30, died of wounds received on Kingston Pike. His commanding officer, Ambrose Burnside, procured for him the bridal suite, and there prayed for him as the young brigadier general accepted his fate. Burnside believed Sanders’ death would have such a ruinous effect on morale in the surrounded city that he ordered his death be kept secret for some days. Burnside concealed Sanders’ body in the hotel until they could bury him at midnight at a churchyard on Market Street.

Like most of the buildings of the era, even that churchyard has been removed. For reasons no one has been able to explain, Sanders ended up in the National Cemetery in Chattanooga.

And Confederate Gen. James Clanton died in the Lamar House, too, shot by a Union officer somewhat tardily, over a war-related insult, six years after the war was over.

Then there’s Market Square. Although it’s unproven whether any of its buildings are that old, it was at least a Place then, an institution. People voted there in 1861, for and against secession. Later in the war, it hosted a Union barracks and an ammunition magazine significant enough in size to worry the Unionist mayor.

Peter Kern, the German immigrant, built the 1876 landmark now known as the Kern Building that houses the Oliver Hotel and Tupelo Honey. A misfortune of war landed him in Knoxville. A Confederate soldier dutifully returning to the front after recovering from a wound, his train paused in Knoxville at exactly the wrong time, as Burnside seized the city and jailed Kern. Freed with the understanding he had to stay in the Union-occupied town for the duration of the war, he complied, married, prospered, and became one of the city’s most important business and cultural leaders, eventually elected mayor.

Many more buildings that are indeed standing do have associations with veterans of the war. Patrick Sullivan, the Irish immigrant who built the saloon at Jackson and Central in 1888, had been a Union officer and opened his first saloon near this spot soon after the war.

The Sanford, Chamberlain, and Albers building, most recently known as Tailor Lofts, was built by an alliance of pharmaceutical entrepreneurs who were all Union combat veterans who’d had very different experiences with the war. A former Navy man, Albers had done time in notorious Libby Prison. All were from up north, though Sanford had moved to Knoxville long before the war. It’s shorter than the other buildings on its block just because it’s a generation older; it was the sole survivor of the 1897 fire.

Nearby, William Wallace Woodruff, another Union man, opened his big hardware store that dominated the block for more than a century, and built the building that still bears his name. Although I’ve heard him called an opportunistic “carpetbagger,” he was from Bardstown, Ky., not quite as far away as Atlanta is. He served as a captain in the 13th Kentucky Infantry.

Former Union Capt. William Rule didn’t build anything—he was a newspaperman and, when the mood suited him on a couple of occasions, Knoxville mayor. Still sporting his now-white Civil War Van Dyke, he lived and worked into the era of radio and motion pictures. He remained editor of the Journal until his sudden death—of appendicitis—in 1928. His last headquarters was a 1920s building with some modern elements: the Arcade.

First Presbyterian, St. John’s Episcopal, and Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, were all about where they are now, but in smaller buildings. There’s no trace of any of the buildings, but almost all of the gravestones in First Presbyterian’s churchyard were there during the war. Perhaps the most remarkable of them is the broken obelisk of Abner Baker, the Confederate soldier who, soon after he returned from war, was lynched for murder of a former Unionist he’d been fighting with. His stone is inscribed, “His death is an honor to himself and an everlasting disgrace to his enemies.”

Down the street is a genuine rarity. The deteriorating three-story brick building marked “Calvin Johnson – 1898.” It’s a big industrial building built by a successful capitalist who was born and raised to be a slave. It’s rare evidence that things changed.

Jack Neely
Contributing Editor & Writer | jack@knoxhistoryproject.org |

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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