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Sunday, March 22, 2020

Damning Wartime Knoxville


Private Harry Comer of the 1st Ohio Volunteer Infantry gained a reputation for wielding a spicy pen, but after three months of occupation duty in and around Knoxville, he was fit to be tied. “Of all the places I have ever seen, this Knoxville certainly the most uncouth and vile,” he began his regular missive to the Lancaster Gazette on April 4, 1864 “The majority of the people here are camp followers, knucks, cracksmen, shoulder hitters, confidence men, etc., who, blended together with the army play offs who possumed sick when their commands left for the front constitute one of the most God-forsaken, law-defying, conglomerated masses of vice and immorality that Heaven in its mercy ever permitted to exist.”

          Southern cities occupied during the Civil War became playgrounds for criminal activity and hubs of illicit trade. Knoxville was no different in this regard. The city had been bitterly divided over the question of secession, and two local editors, William G. “Parson” Brownlow of the Knoxville Whig and J. Austin Sperry of the Knoxville Register, hurled personal invectives at one another during the debates over secession. In June 1861, a special election was held in which Tennessee voted to leave the Union and join the Confederate States of America. Eastern Tennessee had by and large been opposed to secession and an acrimonious period of Confederate occupation soon began.

          In September 1863, Union forces under General Ambrose E. Burnside occupied the city and were later joined by a contingent sent from the Army of the Cumberland which included the 1st Ohio Volunteer Infantry. The 4th Corps commanded by General Gordon Granger drew this assignment, and the 1st Ohio was assigned to Second Brigade (General William B. Hazen) of the Third Division (General Thomas J. Wood) along with the 6th Indiana, 5th, 6th, and 23rd Kentucky, along with the 6th, 41st, 93rd, and 124th Ohio regiments. The 1st Ohio spent the winter months of 1864 encamped around Knoxville; Burnside’s 9th Corps had returned to the east by April 1864 which, in Comer’s opinion, left the 4th Corps with little to do but guard the 23rd Corps! And with that shot across the bow, here is the rest of Comer’s incendiary missive…
Knoxville, Tennessee in 1860



Knoxville, Tennessee
April 4, 1864
          Of all the places I have ever seen, this Knoxville-grand citadel of the Switzerland of America- is certainly the most uncouth and vile. Here can be seen, in all their pristine glory and loveliness, the bogus refugee who had fled from his mountain home to escape Secession steel and lead but who in all likelihood never saw ‘oppression’ except from a northern dungeon. Here, too, is the crippled soldier with an empty coat sleeve, and arm lost in the service; your heart goes out in sympathy with him until you discover the ‘sell’ and ascertain that the lost arm is strapped closely to his side. Here can be seen soldiers dressed in citizens’ clothes’ citizens in soldiers’ clothes; baudy women in men’s clothes; drunken Negroes arm in arm with drunken white loafers, gay and gallant lieutenants and captains promenading in the sparkling brilliance of the noonday sun with America’s daughters of African descent, with the aces, duces, and trays (privates, corporals, and sergeants) follow in the wake with longing eyes. Here, too, are gambling hells, where ‘three pluck one’ is the motto and where four kings and an ace are beaten by two knaves and a sling shot; whiskey shops, where 50 cents per drink, a person can get the delirium tremens, the small pox, and a black eye, all in the course of a half day.
"Brothels, such as might become the bottomless pit, are here in
thick profusion," Comer wrote.

Brothels, such as might become the ‘bottomless pit,’ are here in thick profusion, where night is turned into day and day into night, where black and white, male and female, mingle together in one loathsome, saddening, heart sickening, chaotic mass of filth and decomposition. Eating houses also abound, where the kitchen, slop barrel, dining room, and ticket office are all in the same room, and an epicurean’s eye and tooth can always tell which domestic cooked his meal by the color of the hair in his bean soup. To sum up, Knoxville’s insides are in a state of decomposition, and the scums thrown to the surface by internal festerings find a safe lodgment in the many guard houses, bull pens, jails, and prisons with which the city is supplied, where, although grub and bedding are scarce, the lack is more than compensated for by the plentitude of filth and uncleanliness, by rags and tatters, by the most hideous yells and whoopings, by unlimited quantities of the old Egyptian plague-army graybacks of the largest size and caliber.

          You wish to know why all this is? Why ‘these things pass us like a summer cloud without’ the Provost Marshal ‘special wonder?’ I’ll tell you. The majority of the people here are camp followers, knucks, cracksmen, shoulder hitters, confidence men, etc., who, blended together with the army play offs who possumed sick when their commands left for the front constitute one of the most God-forsaken, law-defying, conglomerated masses of vice and immorality that Heaven in its mercy ever permitted to exist.

          Brownlow’s Whig and Rebel Ventilator still spreads the gospel according to the sainted Parson’s doctrine, viz; that the road to hell is paved with Rebel bones and that none can enter heaven except Union men. The rooms of the Christian Commission and Sanitary Store are doing their work of love in an appropriate manner and many a hearty ‘God bless you’ goes up for the unknown donor, who in the distant north knows not the full merit of the charitable donation. Religious exercises are conducted by four different denominations- Methodists, Baptists, Episcopalians, and Roman Catholics. Their influence is at last being felt, and a better grade of morals will shortly supersede the present deplorable state of affairs.
Masthead from Brownlow's Knoxville Whig and Rebel Ventilator from April 2, 1864

          I have never seen but two streets in the city- Gay and Main-although there is a dozen other avenues, footpaths, traces, trails, and what-nots. All these are jammed and crammed with hardware, dry goods, sutler and military stores- no artisan’s or mechanic’s shops, none of the true-blue Yankee thrift and enterprise which competition engenders. Every person seems to have converted himself into a miniature merchant, and the many placards which meet one’s gaze inscribed ‘pize and cakes heer’ or ‘good beer fur sail’ show that our old friend Hardy, the sign and ornamental painter, has not imparted his skill to operators here. Photographic galleries in pavilion tents have made their appearance lately in order to supply the demand of soldier boys for semblances to send to ‘fair correspondents.’ Prices- $6.00 per dozen. In this connection I may mention that George Myers of Lancaster is here with his instrument waiting for suckers. I saw him yesterday looking for a boarding house or hotel with a fair prospect of finding one or the other by the time the war closes.
East Tennessee "merchants"
"Every person seems to have converted himself into a miniature merchant, and the many placards which meet one’s gaze inscribed ‘pize and cakes heer’ or ‘good beer fur sail’ show that our old friend Hardy, the sign and ornamental painter, has not imparted his skill to operators here," grumped Comer. 

          The Union Serenaders regale the denizens nightly (Sundays excepted) with their Ethiopic delineations, comical burlesques, witty sayings, conundrums, etc. But this may possibly come to a close soon as the incompetent surgeon of the post seems to think that persons who can stay up nearly all night giving concerts are well enough to go to the front to their commands. [General William B.] Hazen’s Brigade is near Rutledge and the rest of the army is scattered from there to Strawberry Plains. I do not anticipate a big fight in this department soon as General Hazen and myself are both absent from the brigade which, in my opinion, will have nothing to do just now but guard the 23rd Corps from harm. Granger’s 4th Corps has much less to do since the 9th Corps left for the east.

          We are all veterans now, having been in the service nearly three years-active field duty all the time. If that don’t make a veteran, what will? Four months from this date, at farthest, and those living will receive their furloughs. Until then, good bye, farewell, adieu, au revoir!

The Lancaster Gazette, April 21, 1864, pg. 1

To read more about Comer's at times irreverent take on life in the Civil War, check out my book Bull Run to Atlanta available here

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