Remembering Civil War Historian Digby Seymour, 1923-2017

In The Daily Dumpster Blog by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

The author of one of the best and most enduringly beloved books about Knoxville history died on Thursday at age 93. Digby Seymour’s masterpiece, Divided Loyalties: Fort Sanders and the Civil War in East Tennessee, has been a standard text since 1963, a popular book that has gone through three editions.

I first encountered the book as a child just learning to read. I’m not sure I would have learned to read quite as quickly if it weren’t around. The original hardback copy was on a sturdy table in my grandparents’ sunroom, alongside a chipped whale’s tooth and some curios. My grandparents had hundreds of books, but they kept that one out, in case anyone needed to refer to it urgently. I couldn’t stay away from it, and often had to be coaxed to eat supper.

Few authors get to live to see their book remain in print for more than 50 years. (It was so long ago that the guy who wrote the foreword was George Dempster himself. Born in 1887, the former mayor and inventor of the Dumpster grew up in a city mostly run by Civil War veterans. Dempster referred to an author “whose scholarly approach is warmed by a longtime personal and family involvement in the subject.”)

He’s known among Civil War scholars, naturally, and that demographic can seem an exclusive coterie of porers over esoteric detail. However, it seemed natural, several years ago, that at a large bohemian gathering of young poets and artists, one featured performance—and perhaps the climax of the evening—was an impassioned reading of Digby’s account of the disastrous Confederate assault on Union Fort Sanders.

Born near the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Sanders, Digby Seymour grew up on Melrose Avenue, a tree-shaded neighborhood before it was part of the university’s campus, just down the hill from whatever remained of the fort. On Melrose, turning up minie balls with a hoe was still an ordinary thing, practically a regular springtime gardening ritual. His book’s title reflected his own family. One great-uncle died fighting for the Confederacy; another uncle was a cavalry commander under Sherman, and helped capture Jefferson Davis. His grandmother was active in the United Daughters of the Confederacy, back when they actually were daughters of soldiers, and tended to the needs of aging veterans. Little Digby often went along, and met the old men. He grew up hearing their stories. At length, he wanted to nail down the true ones.

He was a remarkable child, famous at the age of 5. The youngest of eight children of prominent attorney and civic leader Charles Seymour, Digby was generating newspaper headlines as early as 1929, when he astonished teachers with his ability to read almost anything. He entered second grade at age 5. Mrs. Thackston said she’d never encountered such a smart student.

At age 13, he was hailed as the city’s youngest publisher and editor. His newspaper was The Loafer, the official paper of downtown’s Boyd Junior High.

He went to Sewanee Military Academy, and was his senior class’s salutatorian. Those who attended commencment in 1940 were surely impressed and grateful that he gave his address in Latin. He returned to Knoxville, the papers remarked, “with more medals than a French general.”

He attended the University of Tennessee for a couple of years, but before graduating, he joined the Army and served supervising Italian war prisoners at Vaughn General Hospital in Illinois. (There he served alongside Buddy Clarke, the pop singer later killed in a plane crash.) While a private, he caused a stir at home by publicly criticizing UT’s athletic department for loading the football schedule with teams that weren’t national contenders.

He was tapped for further medical training. He may have surprised his famous family of lawyers by emerging from his wartime experience with a medical degree.

Usually when you see a historical author referred to with the honorific, “Dr.,” you can bet the term refers to a Ph.D., and that the guy’s probably a professor. Digby Seymour was actually a medical doctor, an anesthesiologist. He served as a medic during the Korean War. But in fact he didn’t call himself Dr. Seymour on the title page.

During the Korean War, he served as an Air Force surgeon. He practiced in Chicago for a while after the war, but married an Illinois girl and eventually circled back toward home. Here he found work here as an anesthesiologist.

As the Civil War’s centennial approached, the physician whose experience with war was on the Korean peninsula took on the project for which he would be best remembered. Knoxville, it turns out, is confusing to people who prefer to think of the war as “North” vs. “South.” Any mention of Knoxville is likely to require multiple extensive footnotes. Most authors, favoring their own sanity, prefer to skip it. Hence the city and its significant experience with war seems to have been neglected in many national accounts.

Digby Seymour, boy genius, was smart enough to take it on. Seymour was still a young physician in his 30s when he did the bulk of the work we remember him for today. He did his own research, not just in books, but studying artifacts, and tromping through the woods on the south side of the river to find the last remaining earthen remnants of the war. His combination of good scholarship, clear and personal narrative, and lots of pictures and diagrams most people had never seen before, brought the horrors of war alive in a 300-page book.

“With a rush and a yell the surging gray column advanced up the hill toward Fort Sanders,” he wrote of the climax. “As they neared the fort the leading lines crashed through the brush barriers and bowled them aside like tenpins, but in the darkness the men tripped and stumbled over the telegraph wires stretched between the stumps. As the lead troops began tearing at the wires, they were knocked over by the sheer weight of numbers of the rest of the onrushing troops…. The rapid advance in almost complete darkness over terrain filled with obstacles and converging furrows brought the attacking force together into a packed mass whose officers could no longer distinguish their own men.”

Divided Loyalties was the only thing to call it. Digby Seymour believed that war-era Knoxville might have been the single most evenly divided city in America.

Even people who never met him still refer to “Digby’s book.” Although it’s strictly focused on the Knoxville area in four years of the Civil War, that book, more than any other I know of, has consistently roused popular interest in Knoxville’s history.

I’ve long ago lost my copy of the first editon, but keep copies of both the second and third edition close at hand. They’re both falling apart from having been so thoroughly thumbed.

I’m sorry I never got to know Digby Seymour very personally, but we were in touch for years when I worked for Metro Pulse, talking on the phone and writing now and then. When I first spoke to him, a glimpse of the small earthwork known as Fort Higley was a pleasure reserved for the hardy and intrepid, a destination involving briers, poison ivy, snakes, and the further hazards of benign trespassing. Now it’s the easily accessible centerpiece of lovely High Ground Park.

He died in April, the most hallowed month of the Civil War, the month the war started, the month it ended, the month of Shiloh and the Sultana disaster and the assassination of Lincoln.

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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