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‘Common People in Uncommon Times’

Jan Hearne • Jul 9, 2012 at 11:20 AM

Gettysburg, Shiloh, Antietam Creek, Bull Run — so goes the litany of the Civil War, its beginning now 150 years in our past. The names of the generals, we know them by heart, but what of the common folk who struggled to survive in the midst of almost unendurable strife? They are the subject of “Common People in Uncommon Times” an exhibit at the Jonesborough/Washington County History Museum in the Historic Jonesborough Visitors Center up through Aug. 26.

On loan from the Tennessee State Museum, the exhibit and its companion piece on Confederate Gen. A.E. Jackson of Jonesborough bring the war home, clearing up long-held misconceptions about Northeast Tennessee’s role in the conflict.

“There’s the perception in Jonesborough that because Washington County did not vote for secession and because we’re the home of ‘The Emancipator’ (Elihu Embree’s abolitionist newspaper), this area has always been a hotbed of Union sentiment. I think this area was as divided as any other,” said Deborah Montanti, executive director of the Heritage Alliance, which is responsible for bringing the exhibit to Jonesborough and for putting together the A.E. Jackson exhibit.

“During the early days of the war, the only militias raised were Confederate,” she explained. “It’s wrong to say Jonesborough was strictly Unionist. It’s right to say we were deeply divided.”

That deep divide tore the country, counties and families apart. These narratives of personal struggle are presented on 10 graphic panels taken from the State Museum’s collection of photographs and artifacts from the era, as well as from other collections across the state. Each panel portrays a different theme: Confederate leaders, Union leaders, African-Americans, the civilian home front, common soldiers, war on the water, reconstruction and commemoration.

“The exhibit begins with how Tennessee’s general location played into the role it would play in the war,” Montanti said. “It has a great introductory video that discusses the fact Tennessee was the dead center of the nation at the time, and it says the war would be fought in Tennessee.”

Tennessee, the last state to secede from the Union and the first to be readmitted after the war, sent about 180,000 men and boys to fight for the Confederacy and about 52,000 to the Union army.

When the war began, there were 275,000 slaves and 7,300 free blacks in Tennessee.

In 1860, 25 percent of Jonesborough households owned slaves, among them A.E. Jackson, an “arch Confederate,” Montanti said.

“As with any issue, you have got people who could be swayed and on the fence. They just wanted to live their lives. Others were vehement; they were not going to change their minds. A.E. was not going to be swayed. He supported the Confederate cause with the lives of his own children, his property and his own welfare.”

Jackson lost his sons Nathaniel and Eugene in the war. A letter to his wife, Lizzie, which is part of the exhibit, bringing one visitor to tears.

“It could be any son, any war,” Montanti said.

Among the artifacts in the exhibit is a receipt a Confederate soldier left to a store owner: “Recd. of Jno. S. Fielder one rifle gun for the State of Tennessee valued at twenty dollars this June 23rd 1862.”

It’s not likely the federal government reimbursed the store owner after the war, Montanti said.

“One of my favorite artifacts — they sold tickets to the impeachment of Andrew Johnson,” she said. “Isn’t that bizarre?”

There is also a ticket to a lecture by Parson Brownlow, another arch Confederate, who used his speaking engagements to raise money for the cause. And, a century and a half later, there is a ration of coffee beans saved by a CSA soldier as a souvenir.

While the exhibit deals briefly with Jonesborough’s George Edgar Grisham, who served as a captain in the 8th Tennessee Calvary in the Union Army, Montanti hopes to find letters and family artifacts that will tell his story in detail.

And there is a photo of Samuel P. Carter, born in Elizabethton. Carter is the only man in American history to hold the rank of general and admiral. He served in the Union Army.

The divided loyalties in Northeast Tennessee are evident, but “Common People” also talks about unification and how we remember the Civil War.

In 1867, the federal government ordered A.E. Jackson to pay $390,000 in damages for the destruction caused by his troops. It would take him 10 years to settle his debts and reclaim his land. In 1869, he was pardoned. By 1875, he was chairman of Jonesborough’s Centennial Planning Committee.

The exhibit is not a paean to the Confederacy, however. As its title implies, “Common People” is about the home front, especially the rural areas, which suffered immensely. Jonesborough changed hands repeatedly throughout the war; the uncertainty touched on every aspect of life.

Photographs and archival materials help highlight several different African Americans and their experience at home and in the war. Some 20,000 African Americans from Tennessee served in the Union Army. Profiled individuals include Allen James Walker, who escaped slavery and joined the 7th U.S. Heavy Artillery; Samuel Lowry, a free black man who returned to Nashville to serve as a chaplain; and Laura Ann Cansler, who worked to educate former slaves in Knoxville.

Admission is a suggested donation of $2, which the museum will use to bring in other traveling exhibits. The museum is open Monday-Friday 8 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. For more information, call 753-9580.

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