I often encountered that marble slab beside the sidewalk. On my way home from a a night in the bars and nightclubs of Cumberland Avenue, I would shift my route for fun, and to confuse whatever gumshoes were on my trail. One of my routes often took me up 17th Street, to the top.
By yellow streetlamp light, I could read the poetry on it:
Nor wreck, nor change, nor winter’s blight
Nor time’s remorseless doom
Shall dim one ray of glory’s light
That gilds your glorious tomb.
Even without reading it, the stone looked mournful. Part of the carving was the image of a flag, imperfectly draped over the oblong stone like a shroud.
On my solo stumbles home, it was almost jarring, an antidote to a night of too much beer and music. Whatever New Wave or disco tune was in my mind evaporated. I walked home in a quieter mood.
Until this week, I thought our ancestors had helped Knoxville dodge a national bullet. Unlike most Southern cities, Knoxville didn’t make a big a deal of the Confederate cause. We never installed a Civil War monument downtown. Especially in the half-century after the war, a monument to either side, in a public place, might have been subject of resentment and abuse. We never put out Confederate or Union cannons on the courthouse lawn. When folks thought we needed cannons of some sort there, it being a courthouse, we put out a couple of captured Spanish cannons from the Spanish-American War.
When we finally installed monuments—never to specific individuals or iconic generals, but to generic enlisted men—we placed them in quiet nooks well outside the well-trafficked areas of downtown, behind fences in military cemeteries. When the tall markers at Bethel and National Cemeteries went up we still had an even larger reminder, and that was the old earthwork on the west side of town, Fort Sanders itself. In the late Victorian era, it was one of Knoxville’s attractions, and the site of the extraordinary Blue-Gray Reunion of 1890.
Later, as we became aware that old Fort Sanders was vanishing to development, by 1914 a barely discernible ruin, Knoxville permitted the installation of a couple of pink-marble monuments, one to the gray, and one to the blue. The Confederate monument on 17th Street was the one nearest to the site of the short, deadly battle, and it was the smallest of all of them.
The first time I saw it, I was about 6. I was fascinated with war, and after a family trip to Chattanooga, whose battlefields and monuments fascinated me, I asked my dad why didn’t we have a battlefield in town, and he said, well, we do. He drove me up the hill in his Opel. It didn’t look like a battlefield. There were houses all around. And that slab was nothing at all like the big, fancy monuments in Chattanooga. It was more like a gravestone. It was there to remember 129 men who died on this spot.
I don’t think I paid much attention to the poem then. But the verses that stopped me years later were, I learned, the last half of the last stanza of a poem called “Bivouac of the Dead,” by Theodore O’Hara. It wasn’t written about the Civil War, but about U.S. soldiers dying in the Mexican War. The adventurous Kentucky-born poet fought in that war, and later enlisted in a Cuban revolutionary movement, where he was badly wounded fighting the colonial Spanish. He later became a prominent journalist in Louisville, and later still enlisted as an officer with the Confederates, but after the early death of his commanding officer, A.S. Johnston, he drank heavily and didn’t get along with Lee, Bragg, and Jefferson Davis. He had no luck after the war, and died at age 47.
There’s a little error, or amendment, in the poem. In O’Hara’s original text, it’s “deathless tomb,” not “glorious tomb.” That sounds better to me. Still, time’s doom is just as remorseless as it ever was. We just don’t like to talk about it anymore.
The slab, pretty different from the big heroic statues, marks the spot where 129 Confederate soldiers died, many of them trapped in a deep ditch. Almost 500 more were wounded there. All that happened in about 20 minutes. Attacking Fort Sanders that morning was a terrible mistake, but most of them didn’t have anything to say about it. It’s hard to argue that they died for a worthwhile cause. They died anyway.
A panicked defense of slavery, a reaction to our first Republican president, had launched secession, almost three years earlier. Secessionists might have guessed their political recklessness would lead to war.
But it’s also hard to make blanket statements about young men who fight on any side. Some, believing secessionist propaganda, enlisted to defend their homes from rape and plunder; an infamous recruitment poster printed in Morristown in 1861 popularized the provocative claim that the “Yankee War” was being fought “for beauty and booty.” Some Confederate soldiers had been drafted or even kidnapped. Some were more loyal to their states than to their federal government which, after secession, was portrayed as the invading enemy. Some fought out of some inchoate sense of dignity. In battle and bar fights, the insult that sparked the trouble is often forgotten in the thick of it. You may have to read a lot of Confederate diaries or letters home before you find much mention of political or constitutional issues, or theories about race. Of the thousands of men who obeyed orders and charged toward that frozen dirt rampart that late-November morning, many of them to be blown apart by grenades, were any of them thinking about racial superiority or preserving slavery?
Maybe you can answer that, but I can’t. What we do know is that the charge on Fort Sanders constitutes, to this day, the greatest loss of life in one day in Knoxville history. No train wreck, plane crash, riot, fire, or storm in this city has ever been so costly
For more than half a century, no one put a monument on the site, because the earthen fort was still there, like a big corpse on the west side of town, fascinating to some, avoided by others. Ultimately we just built over it.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy, back when that organization was still composed mostly of actual daughters of Confederate soldiers, marked the spot. Among them were daughters of slain soldiers, women who were raised by widows, and wanted to think the best of fathers they never got a chance to know well.
Donating the money for the Tennessee marble marker was John Kern. In 1914, he was best known to Knoxvillians as the proprietor of the second-floor corner ice-cream parlor in the Kern’s Bakery building on Market Square. He mentioned that he was the son of a Confederate soldier, a fact a lot of Knoxvillians didn’t know. Peter Kern was a young German immigrant, a refugee from wars at home, when he served briefly as an enlisted man in the Confederate army. Early in the war, he was badly wounded, and by happenstance landed in Knoxville. Here he became known more as an entrepreneur, maker of bread and candy, seller of toys and fireworks, leading celebrations of patriotic holidays like the Fourth of July and Lincoln’s Birthday. He was our last immigrant mayor.
Several attendees were old ladies. One, Mary Mellen, remarked, “Too long have we delayed this recognition of the valor of those who lost their lives in the storming of the heights of Fort Sanders,” she declared, “a charge so brave that it can be likened only to that at Balaklava.”
The wife of beloved UT language professor George Mellen, she was well-educated herself, having studied in Paris and Leipzig. Chances are, no one attending needed an explanation, that she was referring to the suicidal Charge of the Light Brigade, in Crimea. She would give lectures about the assault on Fort Sanders for the rest of her life.
Some Union veterans, including Parson Brownlow’s own son, Col. John Bell Brownlow, then in his mid-70s, attended the ceremony. He reportedly told a story that the ladies enjoyed.
It’s been useful to me to point out the different sizes of the memorials, as an indication of Knoxville’s memory of the war. For every Union man lost at Fort Sanders, the Confederates lost almost 20. But here’s the Confederate memorial, not much bigger than a single coffin. A block and a half away is the Union monument, also of Tennessee marble but more than twice as large and much more elaborate, like a castle tower, with an unusual bas relief of Union and Confederate soldiers shaking hands.
Specifically a memorial to the New York Highlanders who defended Fort Sanders, it was erected in 1918, about four years after the Confederate monument. By that time, American soldiers were dying rapidly in another meat-grinder of a war. This monument also came with a poem:
The hands that once were raised in strife
Now clasp a brother’s hand
And long as flows the tide of life–
In peace, in toil, when war is rife
We shall as brothers stand
One heart, one soul, for our fine land.
That poet was Joseph Ignatious Constantine Clarke, an Irish-born New York newspaperman who was still alive at the time of the erection, and probably knew about it. This inscription seems to be the best-known usage of his poem.
The crowd who attended the dedication seemed to reflect its truth. Rev. W.R. Barrett, a Confederate combat veteran, attended and, asked to speak, admitted that he saw “a Divine purpose in the preservation of the Union.”
William Rule, newspaper editor and Union veteran, who lived within sight of the monument, made an optimistic remark: “There has never been a time in the history of the nation when so little sectional jealousy existed as at present.”
Neither of the ceremonies directly addressed race, civil rights, or the larger causes and consequences of the war. Maybe they should have. But on both occasions, men and women who had had different sympathies half a century earlier seemed content to honor the dead, and the living who had suffered in this weird hillside battle. Maybe, they seemed to want to believe that horror was finally over. Here, at least, the actual veterans, the ones who were young when they had witnessed their friends blown apart beside them, the ones who were wounded themselves, got along, in common cause to remember.
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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