Very little is written about Knoxville Civil war damage claims yet there are some. Knoxville was an occupied city throughout the war, from the very beginning through the capitulation and into the Reconstruction era. Just after the succession of the state a military training ground and camp was established east of the city in what is now Chilhowee Park. The Knoxville Guards, a pre-war militia group was accepted in late April by the governor as a Confederate regiment and took up residence at this camp. Knoxville was occupied by Confederate troops prior to September 3, 1863 and by Federal troops afterwards. At times the troop levels were three and four times greater (15,000 – 20,000) than the civilian population of the town.
As a result, literally anything that could be used by soldiers for food, clothing, shelter, or animal forage was appropriated for use and without payment. Wooden fencing, buildings, barns, even privies were dismantled to create fires for cooking and warmth. Private homes and other buildings including brick homes in the field of fire of troops from both sides were taken down or burned so as not to provide a safe haven for sharpshooters. Warehouses and smokehouses were emptied to feed the hungry troops. The animal populations of private citizens (bovines, chickens, goats and other animals) rapidly ceased to be seen throughout the city. Wild animals such as rabbits and even rats became scare to non-existent. Even pets were not safe. While the enlisted men slept in the open air or in their shelter tents, officers of all ranks commandeered rooms in private homes and businesses for office and residential space. Floor rugs were cut up for blankets. It was in this environment that Knoxvillians lived and worked during the entire war.
One would expect a large number of war claims emanating from such conditions; however few are known to exist. Dr. Earl J. Hess, in his definitive 2012 book, The Knoxville Campaign, outlines a few on pages 273-274. There were no Confederate claims as the Confederacy no longer existed. Claims were made to the U.S. government for commodities used by Union troops; and their use must be proven to be eligible for compensation. The Southern Claims Commission was established by Congress on March 3, 1871, six years after the conflict ended, to consider claims by southerners. Prior to 1871, a few citizens filed claims directly with the Union high command as noted by Dr. Hess. However, such claims had no validity since no formal claims procedure had yet been established.
William Blount Turk was a 42 year-old blacksmith from Maryville, TN who moved his business to Knoxville sometime after 1850 but by 1859 he ran a grocery business in town. His business and residence was on the west side of town, just north of the railroad on Bellevue Street between Broad Street and Jacksboro Road. His wife, Nancy, was 11 years his junior. The couple had five children ranging in age from one year-old to 15. The family also had an 18 year-old student boarding with them. They were not wealthy by any means; their real estate was valued at $1,000 and personal property valued at $75. William served for eight months in the Mexican war as a musician with the rank of private in the 5th TN infantry. He mustered out July 20, 1848 as the chief musician of the regiment. At the outset of the Civil War William was 43 years old and chose not to serve either side. While his exact allegiance remains unknown, it is presumed to be Union as the family moved to Federal occupied Nashville in 1864 after the siege of Knoxville.
William Turk’s life took a tragic twist when he was stabbed to death in Nashville on November 16, 1864 by an employee of his “Bear Show”. Being a musician, William had a compulsion for performance as he acquired a large trained bear and entertained folks with performances of his music and his performing bear.
After the war and the establishment of the claims commission, his widow, Nancy J. Turk, filed a claim for “value of buildings destroyed at Knoxville, Tenn., by order of Major-General Burnside”. A report in the Senate of the United States August 15, 1876 stated the following;
“The claimant in her memorial states that for twenty years prior to and during the year 1863, she was a resident of the city of Knoxville, Tenn.; that she was the owner, in her own right, of a certain dwelling-house and out-houses in the Fifth ward of said city; that on the 18th day of November 1863, when Knoxville was occupied by the Union Army, under General Burnside, and was besieged by the rebels, under General Longstreet, it became a military necessity that said buildings should be burned, and the same were burned by order of General Burnside, for the following alleged reasons: 1st, that the same were an obstruction to the range of the guns of General Burnside’s batteries; and 2d, that they would be a shelter and would furnish a protection to the rebel sharp-shooters in the advance of the enemy upon the lines of the Union forces; that said buildings were consequently burned by the officer of the day after he had notified the claimant to vacate the same; that the same were of the value of $1,230, all which is due and unpaid, and that the claimant has always been loyal to the Government of the United States”
The report goes on to state that the evidence shows that the buildings were in fact burned but there is “no evidence of her loyalty nor of her ownership of the buildings, except the statement in her petition, to which she makes oath”. The report goes on to state that even if her loyalty was proven, the facts of the petition are not grounds for a claim against the United States.
“The evidence tends to show, and leaves little doubt, that the claimant’s buildings would have been destroyed in the shock of battle had they not been burned as they were. There is no principle upon which the United States can be held liable to pay for them, and the payment would be dangerous as a precedent.” (Italics added)
Consequently, the claim was not paid and Nancy Turk remained without compensation for her loss. She would also be out whatever attorney’s fees she paid to file her claim. The Turk case is not unusual in the findings of the United States government for Civil War claims. Of the 22,298 claims submitted to the Commission, only 7,092 (32%) met the stringent tests the Federal government used to prove both loyalty and the validity of the claim.