A Military Ball, 161 Years Ago

Today, February 22, the real birthday of George Washington, a Military Ball was held in 1861 at Knoxville’s Lamar House sponsored by and for the benefit of the Knoxville Guards. They were raising money for the organization to buy uniforms and weapons. The Guards had a recent influx of new members; no doubt brought about by the prevailing war fever. The Lamar House was the premier hotel in the city and had been for many years. “The best of music is engaged” read the invitation which was in the form of a dance card. The four page card was embossed and the lettering was in gold, topped by a standing figure of a soldier in a dress uniform. The ball was to commence at 8:00 PM with no end time being specified.

The only known existing invitation was one addressed to Miss A.P. Shields of Grainger County by an unknown hand. Amanda Priscilla Shields was 16 years old and may have been a student at the Knoxville Female Academy. This could be how she came to be invited to the ball. Priscilla, the name by which she was known throughout her life, lived with her family on a farm northeast of Morristown. Whether she attended the ball is not known. However, the ball was important to her as she kept the dance card throughout her life and the card was passed on to family members for over 150 years.

The Knoxville Guards membership, which totaled at least 100 men, came from all ages and walks of life within the Knoxville community. The membership contained both professional and non-professional men. Attorneys, doctors, and wealthy merchants were counted among their membership as were clerks, bookkeepers and railroad workers. Certainly members must have been conflicted because of the events of the past few months. By Washington’s birthday, seven southern states had declared themselves succeeded from the Union. Certainly not all members of the Guards were secessionists. One can only wonder about the political discussions which must have taken place in the days before, and on the evening of the ball. Nonetheless, the ball went on and was apparently a success. Later, in April, after the attack on Fort Sumter, the Guards voted to offer their services to Governor Isham Harris in support of the Confederate cause. Their services were accepted and the Guards became Company E of the 19th Tennessee Infantry. They immediately went into training at the fairgrounds east of town.

Thus ended the short history of the Knoxvile Guards which began in 1859. If Priscilla Shields attended the ball, it was no doubt a highlight of her life for many years to come.


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.       

November 1863/1864 – Significant in Knoxville and Tennessee Civil War History

The second half of November 158 years ago in 1863 and in 1864 was significant in the Civil War history of Knoxville and in the state of Tennessee. The events that occurred would change the complexion of Knoxville and other areas in the state forever. Such events deserve to be remembered.

November 17: The Siege of Knoxville by Confederate forces begins.

                         Union General William P. Sanders is mortally wounded.

November 18: General Sanders dies at the Lamar House.

Significant during the siege was the mortal wounding of newly promoted U.S. cavalry General William P. Sanders on November 18 and the Battle of Fort Sanders on the early morning of November 29. General Sanders died of his wounds on November 19 at the Lamar House hospital (today the Bijou Theatre). His low key funeral was held that night so as not to arouse suspicion among the Confederate troops. Sanders was interred in the churchyard cemetery of the Second Presbyterian Church which surrounded the church building. Not wanting to upset the troops, General Burnside did not make a general announcement of the death of the very popular general until a day later. However, by that time, many of the troops were aware of his death.

Later, when the Second Presbyterian Church relocated to west Knoxville along Kingston Pike, General Sanders was moved to the national cemetery in Chattanooga, where he rests today.

Six years ago, the KCWRT dedicated a plaque near the front entrance of the Bijou Theatre commemorating the death of General Sanders in this historic building.

November 19: The new unfinished cemetery at Gettysburg is dedicated with a memorable short oration by President Abraham Lincoln.

Tennessee had 775 soldiers in three regiments present at Gettysburg. Of those, 16 were KIA, 118 wounded, 37 wounded and missing, and 245 initially missing. This total of 416 men is equal to a 54% casualty rate against those present. Some of the 245 missing likely found their way back to their regiments within a few days.  

November 23: Battle of Orchard Knob in Chattanooga.

November 24: Battle of Lookout Mountain at Chattanooga.

November 29: Battle of Fort Sanders: Confederate casualties 813; Union casualties 13.  

November 30, 1864: Battle of Franklin

From November 1863 the war would drag on for another 17 months inflicting further hardship on the citizens of Knoxville and all of Tennessee.

Suggested Reading: Dr. Earl J. Hess, The Knoxville Campaign, Burnside and Longstreet in East Tennessee

Fort Dickerson Living History Weekend

Everyone is invited to attend weekend of November 13 and 14, 2021. Fort Dickerson, the Civil War earthworks atop a hill on Knoxville’s southern riverfront, will once again be populated with soldiers in Blue and Gray as the Knoxville Civil War Roundtable and the City of Knoxville present a Living History weekend on November 13 and 14 , 2021. Local reenacting units, historians, and authors will commemorate the Siege of Knoxville that took place in November 1863. The free event is sponsored by the City of Knoxville’s Parks and Recreation Department and hosted by the Knoxville Civil War Roundtable.

To visit Fort Dickerson drive toward Sevierville on Chapman Highway (US-441). After crossing the Henley Street Bridge, proceed about 7/10 mile south of the Tennessee River, and turn right at the 3rd light signal. The entrance to the park is clearly marked.

Fort Dickerson was one of sixteen earthen forts and battery positions surrounding Knoxville that were built by the United States Army during the Civil War. It was one of three constructed upon the heights across the Holston (now Tennessee) River from Knoxville, the other two being Fort Stanley and Fort Higley. The middle fort was named for Captain Jonathan C. Dickerson, 112th Illinois Mounted Infantry, who was killed in action near Cleveland, Tennessee.

The Living History Weekend runs from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. on Saturday November 13, 2021, and from 11 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. on Sunday November 14 , 2021. Activities will include living history campsites, infantry drilling with rifle firing demonstrations, a Civil War medical and surgical exhibit, ladies fashions, battle reenactments, cannon firings, and a salute to all veterans including an American flag retirement ceremony. Visitors are invited to park for free at “Wee Care Shoppe” parking lot at 2537 Chapman Highway, across from Shoney’s, where they can board a free shuttle to Fort Dickerson courtesy of the Knoxville Department of Parks and Recreation.

Program Schedule: 158th Anniversary of the Battle of Chickamauga            September 18-20, 2021

Last Tuesday the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park (NMP) posted to the NMP’s website the schedule of programs planned to recognize the 158th Anniversary of the Battle of Chickamauga on Saturday through Monday, September 18-20, 2021.  Since many KCWRT members live close enough to make a day trip of at least one of the days, if the deadline hasn’t already passed, you all might want to review the schedule and attend one or more of the events.

The complete program schedule, including times and descriptions, is available online at the following web address: https://www.nps.gov/chch/chickamauga158.htm

For more information about programs at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, contact the Chickamauga Battlefield Visitor Center at 706-866-9241, the Lookout Mountain Battlefield Visitor Center at 423-821-7786, or visit the park website at http://www.nps.gov/chch.

Below is a version of the schedule.   I would make one note………given the unfortunate new rise in COVID-19 cases and therefore increasing event cancellations, anyone who is considering attending should probably call on Friday or Thursday before to make sure some directive hasn’t been issued that forces the NMP to cancel the programs. 

Saturday, September 18

9:30 am – “Occupied after a Brief Skirmish: ” Buckner Seizes Thedford’s and Dalton’s Fords

Braxton Bragg’s designated crossing of the steep-banked Chickamauga on September 18, 1863, included Thedford’s and Dalton’s Fords. Alexander Stewart’s and William Preston’s divisions of Buckner’s Confederate Corps were to cross there. National Military Park Historian Jim Ogden will lead this 2 ½ hour, three mile hike to the creek and back and will examine the action at these two key but often overlooked crossings on the “River of Death.” This program will begin on Alexander-Viniard Road. Follow the “Special Program” signs from the Chickamauga Battlefield Visitor Center to Alexander-Viniard Road via Alexander’s Bridge Road.

9:30 am – Chickamauga Battlefield Bicycle Tour

The national military park and Outdoor Chattanooga will offer a free, historical bike tour through Chickamauga Battlefield. Ride length is approximately 3 to 4 miles on flat to moderately hilly terrain and lasts about 2.5 hours. The ride is appropriate for adults and children ages 8 years and older, when accompanied by an adult. Children must be able to ride confidently, without training wheels. All participants are required to wear helmets. Loaner bicycles will be available for riders 5 feet and over at no charge, thanks to sponsorship from the National Park Partners and the Chattanooga Bicycle Club. The number of loaner bicycles are limited and reservations for them are required by visiting http://bit.ly/outdoorchatt or by calling 423-643-6888. If you bring your own equipment, no reservation is necessary.

10 am – Ranger-led Car Caravan Tour of Chickamauga Battlefield

Meet a park ranger at the Chickamauga Battlefield Visitor Center to begin a caravan tour of the battlefield exploring various sites associated with the Battle of Chickamauga. This tour lasts approximately 2 hours.

10:30 am, 11:30 am, 1:30 pm, 2:30 pm, and 3:30 pm – Artillery Demonstrations

Living historians, portraying members of the 11th Indiana Battery, will conduct demonstrations at Lytle Hill, in Chickamauga Battlefield. Please follow the “Special Program” signs to the parking area at the Recreation Field.

1:30 pm – The Fight at Alexander’s

The West Chickamauga Creek Bridge at John P. Alexander’s was supposed to be one of the key crossing points for Confederate General Braxton Bragg on September 18, 1863. As Confederates approached, however, they found that they were going to be in for a fight. In this 90-minute program, National Military Park Historian Jim Ogden will relate the events that unfolded on what was the largest farm on the battlefield and how those events shaped the developing battle. This program will begin on Alexander-Viniard Road. Follow the “Special Program” signs from the Chickamauga Battlefield Visitor Center to Alexander-Viniard Road via LaFayette Road.

2 pm – Ranger-led Car Caravan Tour of Chickamauga Battlefield

Meet a park ranger at the Chickamauga Battlefield Visitor Center to begin a caravan tour of the battlefield exploring various sites associated with the Battle of Chickamauga. This tour lasts approximately 2 hours.

4 pm – Hood Sweeps up the Chickamauga

“…on crossing at or near Reed’s Bridge, will turn to the left by the most practicable route and sweep up the Chickamauga.” Those were about the only instructions Confederate General John B. Hood received when, on the afternoon of September 18, 1863, fresh off the train from Virginia, he joined a Confederate column crossing at Reed’s Bridge. Join National Military Park Historian Jim Ogden for the part car caravan, part walking tour exploring the role of Hood and his column west of the Chickamauga on the afternoon of the 18th. This program will begin at Jay’s Mill. Follow the “Special Program” signs from the Chickamauga Battlefield Visitor Center.

Sunday, September 19

10 am – Walthall vs. the Regulars

The growing fight in the woods west of Jay’s Steam Sawmill drew troops from both sides, sent by superiors who could offer little more direction than to move to the sound of the firing. In this two hour, roughly two mile walking tour, National Military Park Historian Jim Ogden will relate the action that primarily unfolded in the woods northeast of Winfrey Field. This program will begin at the intersection of Alexander’s Bridge Road and Brotherton Road. Follow the “Special Program” signs from the Chickamauga Battlefield Visitor Center.

10 am – Ranger-led Car Caravan Tour of Chickamauga Battlefield

Meet a park ranger at the Chickamauga Battlefield Visitor Center to begin a caravan tour of the battlefield exploring various sites associated with the Battle of Chickamauga. This tour lasts approximately 2 hours.

10:30 am, 11:30 am, 1:30 pm, and 2:30 pm – Artillery Demonstrations

Living historians, portraying members of the 11th Indiana Battery, will conduct demonstrations at Lytle Hill, in Chickamauga Battlefield. Please follow the “Special Program” signs to the parking area at the Recreation Field.

1:30 pm – William Carnes’ Troubles

The woods of the valley of the “River of Death” were proving to be a problem for the artillery. The youthful Captain William Carnes’ ordered his Confederate batterymen to unstrap the axes from the limbers to cut some trees in order to get the carriages through the forest. He was determined to support the Tennessee infantry brigade to which he was attached, but then, the situation began to turn south for the young officer and his men. National Military Park Historian Jim Ogden will relate Carnes’ fight of the afternoon of September 19, 1863, in this two hour, two mile walking tour. This program will begin on Brotherton Road near Brock Field. Follow the “Special Program” signs from the Chickamauga Battlefield Visitor Center to Brotherton Road via Alexander’s Bridge Road.

2 pm – Ranger-led Car Caravan Tour of Chickamauga Battlefield

Meet a park ranger at the Chickamauga Battlefield Visitor Center to begin a caravan tour of the battlefield exploring various sites associated with the Battle of Chickamauga. This tour lasts approximately 2 hours.

For events of Monday, September 20, please consult park website.


Recently, while doing some of my seemingly never ending Civil War research (quite by choice), I was using the book, A Very Violent Rebel, The Civil War Diary of Ellen Renshaw House, and came across an interesting footnote. Footnote #8 on page 81 referred to a book which contained a description, spaced over fifteen pages, of “Castle Fox” and its inmates. Curious to read this description, I had to order the mentioned book, Ancestry of Williams Sperry Beinecke (1974) on an Inter Library Loan. After a reasonable wait, the book arrived. I was not disappointed.  

The jail descriptions were extracted from the diary of Jacob Austin Sperry (1823 – 1896) as published in Appendix J of the above referenced book. Sperry was the editor and publisher of the pro-Confederate Knoxville Register from 1861 -1864. He was arrested in Bristol, East Tennessee in mid-December 1864 and jailed in Knoxville’s infamous Castle Fox beginning December 22, 1864. Castle Fox was named after Confederate jailer Robert F. Fox. This jail was also known as the Knoxville County jail and also as the Confederate prison. During the Union occupation of Knoxville the jail housed Confederate prisoners, of which Confederate editor Jacob Sperry was one. His description of the interior of Castle Fox and the Temperance Hall jail is the only such description that I have ever read. His vivid description of both buildings is copied below.   

Castle Fox: “With the appearance of its exterior I was familiar, having lived for a year in the neat frame house down by the riverside only a few hundred yards distant. Of the repulsiveness of its interior, even as a place of temporary abode, I had heard much during Fox’s administration, but was not prepared for the horrible reality of its present management. The upper story, where I found myself this morning, consists of three apartments – a large one on the west side, extending the whole length of the building, containing three massive iron cages, about eight feet square, leaving passage ways around and between them of three or four feet. In front, bisected by the stairway, are two smaller apartments, each containing a similar cage. The filthiness of these rooms and their general forbidding aspect is indescribable” At this point, Sperry names several of the military and civilian prisoners on this floor. 

Note: One room on each floor was set apart for county prisoners other than Confederates, and these were designated Federal rooms.

Next Sperry mentions the jail yard and that several visitors were admitted from the outside. “In the morning we had attended roll-call in the jail yard, in which occasion a number of visitors had been admitted from without (meaning outside the jail).” 

“In the afternoon we were ordered to form messes of fifteen to draw rations. These consisted simply of a few ounces of blue beef and bread. The beef was raw, and the little fires in the small hearths of the jail were monopolized by a few of the more selfish of the prisoners, and as we had no utensils to cook in, even if we had access to the fires, we should have fared badly but for the fact that the prisoners in the federal rooms, up and down stairs, had for sale hot coffee, bread and meat, pies, cakes, etc., so that the few of us that were fortunate enough to be provided with currency were able to avoid suffering from hunger. I was invited to join the mess of paroled officers in the middle cage, where it was much more comfortable than in the Babel-like confusion of the crown outside. There were nine of us in the cage, and our united stock of blankets enabled us to sleep in comparative comfort at night.”

Temperance Hall Jail: There was also a military prison in East Knoxville (just east of First Creek) that had originally been Temperance Hall. It was used as a place of duress for Federal soldiers guilty of crimes of misdemeanors. It was now known as the Federal prison, in contradistinction to the county jail, which was called the Confederate prison.

“The (two-story brick) building, located at the intersection of Clinch and Temperance Streets  (modern Hall of Fame Drive and Howard Baker Avenue), was surrounded by a high fence with scaffolding promenaded by sentries. Iron bars had been added to the windows. The room in which men were received was large and clean, with a cheerful fire blazing on the hearth, and seventy or eighty sleeping bunks commodiously arranged. The upper room had formerly been the lodge room of the Sons of Temperance, a small anteroom opening into a large hall.” The room also contained sleeping bunks and a large wood fireplace in one end of the room.

Conditions in both of these facilities were less than ideal, but seemingly far worse at Castle Fox. After two days at Castle Fox, Sperry was transferred to Temperance Hall. On December 27th Sperry was assigned to work on the fortifications on Temperance Hill, overlooking the railroad. A ball attached to a short eighteen inch chain was attached to his ankle. The short chain caused him much discomfort as he could do nothing to relieve the weight of the ball. The ball chain was too short to place the ball in his wheelbarrow or throw it over his shoulder as did other prisoners. “The painful progress to the scene of our labors defies description…I plied my allotted task for two hours with dogged resolution, determined that neither the black guards who were taskmasters, nor the white black guards who were spectators, should have the chance to gloat over my sufferings.”  Sperry was to remain a prisoner in his own town until the end of the war.

Remembering Memorial Day, 2020 and 2021

by Norman C. Shaw

Even though there has not been an official Memorial Day ceremony at Knoxville’s National Cemetery for 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19, four Knoxville CWRT members banded together to give a ceremony to anyone visiting the cemetery at 11 a.m. on Memorial Day Monday! These four RT members are: Norman Shaw (RT founder and 3-term president), Dennis Urban (president for 3 consecutive years), Dewey Beard (well-known Civil War reenactor, historian and musician) and Randy North (bagpipes player, member of Knoxville Pipes and Drums). For 2020, during the early days of the pandemic, about 40 people observed our efforts, but this year the crowd was larger at around 150!

With each RT member playing a part, the ceremony took about 45 minutes in this order: Dewey Beard–Since the early 1990s, reenactors for the 79th New York Highlanders have given a full ceremony for Memorial Day, including a color guard, 7 soldiers bearing muskets, and musicians to play the fife and drum! The last two years, Dewey led an abbreviated presentation, with only a sole drummer and him marching to the small memorial monument for the 79th, defenders of Ft. Sanders on Nov. 29, 1863. Dewey gave a brief history of the 79th and explained the origin and meaning of Memorial Day. Both men then laid thistles, the Scottish badge of honor, on the several headstones of the 79th and its unique memorial stone.

Randy North–played three tunes on the bagpipes, including the popular “Scotland the Brave” and the always moving “Amazing Grace.

 Norman Shaw, after explaining the presenters were members of the KCWRT, briefly pointed out some of the interesting historical aspects of the National Ceremony, such as the Union monument, the grave site of Gen. Neyland of UT football fame, the lone Confederate grave, some of the USCT (U.S. Colored Troops) headstones, and the six graves of “Sultana” survivors.

Dennis Urban— at the headstone of Union soldier George Messer, 107th Illinois, told the sad story of George’s death, who, afflicted with severe diarrhea, died on Dec. 30, 1863, at the Lamar House (present day Bijou Theater) in downtown Knoxville. Dennis has done extensive research on Messer and showed his wedding photo and one of his original letters.

Dewey Beard–played TAPS to conclude the ceremony. Note: Chad Rogers, Director of Wreaths Across America for Knoxville’s National Cemetery, gave information about the 2021 event scheduled for mid-December. Based on positive feedback from spectators in the two audiences, one year apart, we knew our efforts were effective in remembering Memorial Day!

Notes: Photos from the event are posted in the July 2021 KCWRT newsletter, The Scout.

Colonel John T. Wilder; His East Tennessee and Knoxville Connections

By Dennis D. Urban

For those of you who participated in National Park Service Historian Jim Ogden’s Saturday March 20 tour of Colonel John T. Wilder’s actions at the Battle of Chickamauga, you witnessed another superb history lesson from Jim. It was refreshing to see such excellent attendance and so many new faces to participate in Jim’s well-researched and entertaining presentation. He never disappoints.

What many of our membership probably did not know, and I certainly among them, was Wilder’s post-war life and business career which was centered in East Tennessee and in Knoxville. This was not mentioned on the tour, but whether you were on the tour or not, his personal and business dealings in our region should be of interest to you. This article should complete the loop on his post-war career.

Pre-war Wilder was trained as a draftsman and a millwright, a builder of several successful mills, a foundry owner, a patented inventor of hydraulic machines, an early industrialist, and an entrepreneur. He was certainly not your usual civilian turned military officer. These pre-war experiences guided his post-war career and steered him to East Tennessee and Knoxville.

The discovery of iron in Roane County led to extensive mining and milling operations in the area. John T. Wilder came to the area shortly after the war to establish a business. The town of Rockwood was founded as a company town serving the employees of the Roane Iron Company and its president, William O. Rockwood, from whom the town took its name. Wilder lived in Rockwood between 1867 and 1870. During this time, Colonel Wilder also established a business in the Chattanooga area manufacturing rails for the railroad industry. During his years in Chattanooga, circa 1870 – 1884, he was very active in civic affairs and local politics. Driven by business and moving around East Tennessee Wilder established iron manufacturing and commercial businesses in Johnson City where he lived from 1884 to 1892. By this time, Wilder became very wealthy. Unfortunately, his wife, Martha Jane (Stewart) Wilder, passed away in Johnson City at the young age of fifty-four. Wilder maintained several homes around East Tennessee where he had business interests. His principal residence from 1892 to 1897 is undetermined but it may have remained in Johnson City.      

Wilder’s residence in Knoxville began in 1897 when he was appointed a Federal pension agent by President William J. McKinley. Upon relocating to Knoxville, Wilder boarded with two of his daughters at the Oxford Hotel, 408 W. Clinch Avenue. His office was in the Customs House (now the East Tennessee Historical Society). His daughter, Mary, worked with him as a clerk in the office.  Soon the family moved to a single family residence at 931 9th Street in what was originally the City of West Knoxville. West Knoxville was annexed by the City of Knoxville circa 1897 and 9th Street became the current 17th Street in the Fort Sanders neighborhood. His home would have stood near the present intersection of 17th Street and Cumberland Avenue. He resided in this location until about 1904.

Wilder constructed another home, this time east of the city, beginning circa 1903. The single family home was located on Boyd’s Ferry Road (later Boyd’s Bridge Pike) along the river. He called this small farm Cherry Hill. This home may have been built as a summer residence. The home still stands today at 2027 Riverside Drive and is listed on the National Register.  About this same time, the seventy-four year old Wilder was hospitalized in Knoxville. He and his young nurse, twenty-nine year-old Dora Lee, an aspiring medical student, fell in love and were married in 1904. He certainly financed her education at the University of Tennessee from which she graduated with a medical degree in 1910. About this time, he resigned his position as the pension agent in Knoxville. The Wilders resided in their east side home until 1913 when the couple moved to Monterey, Tennessee where Wilder maintained a home since his Rockwood days. This became their main residence.  

On October 20, 1917 while on his annual Florida vacation in Jacksonville with his wife and daughters, Colonel John T. Wilder died unexpectedly. His wife and daughters were at his bedside as he passed into eternity. While best known as Colonel, Wilder was promoted to brevet Brigadier General just two months before his resignation from the Federal service in August 1864 and well after his insightful and forward-thinking actions on the southern portion of the Chickamauga field September 19-20, 1863. His military legacy was intact from that point, while his many accomplishments in the business and entrepreneurial sphere, especially in East Tennessee and Knoxville, have been mostly forgotten. His life was remarkable in many ways and for his many accomplishments. It is well to recall both areas of achievement of this truly American success story.   

Sources: www.ajlambert.com, Ancestry.com, Wikipedia, and various internet sources      

Mr. Urban is a historian and former President of the KCWRT. His book, The Making of a Civilian Soldier in the Civil War, the First Diary of Private William J. McLean,was released in September 2019.

Field Trip with Jim Ogden, Saturday, March 20, 2021

The Battle of Chickamauga, which raged September 19th and 20th, 1863, is considered the bloodiest two-day battle of the Civil War, but in truth the battle opened a day earlier than most history books reflect. On the 18th, as the armies of Rosecrans and Bragg maneuvered for position, two bridges spanning Chickamauga Creek took on special significance. Reed’s Bridge was defended by a splendid Union cavalry brigade under the command of Col. Robert Minty, and Alexander’s Bridge above it was defended by the redoubtable Col. John T. Wilder and his vaunted Lightning Brigade of mounted infantry. The latter was one of the first units to arrive on the field and one of the last to leave it. Armed with their Spencer repeating rifles and ably led, the Lightning Brigade proved a major impediment to Confederate ambitions time and again in a battle that was ultimately lost but one that gained imperishable glory for Wilder and his men.       

On Saturday, March 20th, Historian Jim Ogden will meet us and lead us as we follow the movements of Wilder’s Lightning Brigade at Chickamauga. Please join us if you can. Here is what you need to know:

  • You are responsible for your own transportation. Due to COVID, we will not ask anyone to group up, though you are free to ride with whomever you feel comfortable. Whenever you are outside your vehicle you will be expected to mask up and maintain social distancing throughout the day.
  • We are meeting Jim at the Chickamauga Visitors Center (3370 Lafayette Road, Fort Oglethorpe, GA 30742) at 9:15 AM on the 20th come rain or shine. The restrooms there will be open. You may want to use them before we take the field. We will be departing the parking lot promptly at 9:30 AM and moving around the battlefield in a caravan.  
  • Bring clothing for all conditions, and comfortable walking shoes or hiking boots. Also, bring your lunch. We will have 45 minutes for lunch at the Visitors Center. Lunch will be in the parking lot either in your car or outside of it. Bring a camp chair if you want to eat outside. The only time we will be at the Visitors Center when the museum and bookstore are open is over lunch, so plan accordingly. There will not be time to go into town for food, so, again, bring food and drink with you.   
  • We will wrap up the day at approximately 4 PM.
  • To sign up, email Jim Doncaster at jdoncaster1@msn.com or call him at 412 908-2043.


Anyone who has studied the Civil War for any length of time knows that it abounds in controversies. Strategy, tactics, and the actions and inactions of leaders on both sides are perpetual grist for the military analysts’ mill.  Take the Battle of Knoxville for instance. A battle seemingly as simple and straightforward as the assault on Fort Sanders raises a raft of questions. Should Longstreet have attacked the federal defenses when he first arrived on the scene, or was he right to first reconnoiter the lines and wait for reinforcements? Was Fort Sanders truly the weakest point in Burnside’s defenses, and did an attack on it represent the best chance for Confederate success? Should the attack on November 29th have been preceded by an extensive artillery barrage as E.P. Alexander maintained? Should the first assault on the fort been immediately followed up by another? And was McLaws negligent in his preparations for the assault and did this negligence contribute to the Confederate defeat as Longstreet averred afterwards in preferring charges? These and many other questions were raised when the smoke first cleared at Fort Sanders, and they remain valid subjects of study today.

One subject that was not at question until recently is the location of Fort Sanders itself. Now a new book by Professor Emeritus Charles H. Faulkner and his wife Terry, Rediscovering Fort Sanders: the American Civil War and Its Impact On Knoxville’s Cultural Landscape, has challenged conventional wisdom in positing that the fort was actually one block west of where it has been assumed to have been. What follows is a paper from Historian Earl Hess and the former Civil War Director of the McClung Museum at UT, Joan Markel, titled “Where was Fort Sanders? Where We Have Always Known It to Be”. The next post is a review of Rediscovering Fort Sanders by Dennis Urban, past president of the Knoxville Civil War Roundtable.

        Where was Fort Sanders? Where We Have Always Known It to Be       

By Dr. Earl J. Hess and Dr. Joan L. Markel

Knoxville’s Civil War heritage is a precious legacy and is taken seriously by concerned residents. That is why is it vastly important for us to understand fundamental facts of that heritage which have never changed. The location of the city’s most famous Civil War landmark, Fort Sanders, has been up for grabs recently, or so it seems. Terry and Charles Faulkner, in their book, Rediscovering Fort Sanders, argue for a change in that location. The traditionally known site, which is undoubtedly the true site of the fort, is embraced by the block defined by 17th Street, Laurel Avenue, 16th Street, and Clinch Avenue, with the Northwest Bastion at 17th and Laurel, exactly where the historical marker for the fort says it is. But the Faulkners want to move the fort one block west, to 18th Street. That claim is wrong, assert academically-trained Civil War historians, archaeologists, and Knoxvillians who have studied and read about the Civil War history of our city for decades.

In the last months of 1863, Knoxville experienced intense Civil War military activity. A Confederate army under the command of General James Longstreet was dispatched from Chattanooga to retake our Union held city. Defended by Federal troops since the September 3 arrival of Gen. Ambrose Burnside, a direct attack on the town had not been anticipated. Burnside’s troops were spread out along the railroad line; in a race back to town, Union and Confederate troops clashed at Campbell Station on November 16. After stalling Longstreet’s pursuit, the Federals marched 17 miles to defend Knoxville against a direct assault by the Confederate Army.

While Knoxville was a natural fortress, a defensive line had barely been constructed. Here is where the impact of individual excellence, top-notch training, and initiative came to the forefront. Union Captain Orlando Poe, graduate of West Point and Burnside’s chief engineer, had the plans for forts, batteries and connecting trenches already in his head. He organized the returning soldiers into construction units as they made their way back into town. “Dig for your lives” Poe told the exhausted troops using spades and shovels he had packed over the mountains from Kentucky. Civilians of all loyalties were also pressed into service. Poe praised the work of over 200 “contrabands” (African Americans who had been “nowhere to be found” for the CSA commander when the call went out earlier in the year for labor).

Burnside asked Poe’s good friend from West Point days, Gen. William P. Sanders, to hold back Longstreet’s army along Kingston Pike to buy more time for fortifications to be built. Sanders’ dismounted cavalry held the line for several hours, but Sanders himself was shot midday November 18 and died the next. In his honor and at the request of Captain Poe, the fort which would defend the blood-soaked attack on November 29 was named for him.

Today, Fort Sanders has been lost to urban development. But its legacy was ensured by the same fine soldier who built it and named it. Written reports and some of the earliest photographic documentation describe the fort in words and pictures. But engineer Poe did not stop there. Knowing the strength of the defenses of Knoxville, he requested the best survey/cartographic services of the US Government. Two top members of the US Coast Survey, Cleveland Rockwell and R.H. Talcott, arrived in December 1863 to create a precisely accurate topographical map (where contour lines create 3 dimensions) of Poe’s fort. The resulting map was published in the Official Military Atlas of the War of the Rebellion (1891-1895) along with panoramic photos of Knoxville defenses.

Recently in the archives of the US Coast Survey (now a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) the original survey maps produced by Rockwell, north of the river, and Talcott, south of the river, have been located. These maps contain sight lines for the survey instruments and distances between well-known landmarks such as Fort Sanders, the old Court House, Second Presbyterian Church steeple, and the high ground south of the river. Using modern technology and additional historic maps from the US Geological Survey and Sanborn Insurance, map expert Charles Reeves of Farragut has confirmed the accuracy of all these points on the landscape of 2020 Knoxville. (The map of Fort Sanders is available at http://www.reevesmaps.com/map_catalog_civil.htm#CAR-MAP-573 and an explanation of how the map was created is at http://www.reevesmaps.com/NOAA-map-creation.pdf.)

            The Poe map pinpoints the street grid of downtown Knoxville that is essentially unchanged since it was laid out in the 1790s. Poe’s street grid matches up perfectly with the street grid on modern maps as far as location of intersections, length and cardinal direction. Aligning the modern street grid over Poe’s map places the western wall of Fort Sanders along 17th Street. 

The compelling nature of new GIS technology applied to the abundance of US Army survey data and the fine topographical maps produced from that precise information, locate the fort exactly where the town has always said it was. The US Army knew where its fort was and recorded that location precisely, between modern 17th St., Laurel Ave., 16th St., and Clinch Ave. The signage and monuments are just where Knoxvillians installed them when living memory and earthen remnants of the fort were not in doubt. The United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a monument at 17th St. and Laurel Ave. in 1914 when remnants of the earthen fort were still in existence. It serves as a battlefield marker.

Another irrefutable basis for the fort’s location is provided by topography. Every fort has to be on the highest ground and Poe situated Fort Sanders exactly where it could do the most good, on the level top of the ridge which is today crossed by 17th Street. From here the fort commanded the area north and west, anchoring the northwest corner of the long line of earthworks protecting Knoxville on the north side of the river.

To locate Fort Sanders between 17th Street and 18th Street, as the Faulkners would have it, would have appalled Poe and every other soldier in the Union army. That block is not on top of the ridge, but instead encompasses the western slope of the ridge with 18th Street at least eight or more feet lower in elevation than 17th Street.  This would have rendered Fort Sanders indefensible because the high earth wall (the parapet) would not have protected the interior of the fort from enemy fire. To be defensible, a fort not only had to be on high ground, but on level ground, so the earthen walls provided maximum shielding power. If one side of the fort was considerably higher than the other, it would have been be largely useless because the enemy could have looked right into it, as well as shoot into it.

In fact, Fort Sanders was anything but useless. Early on the frosty morning of November 29, 1863, 2,430 Confederate troops attacked the fort from the northwest, aiming directly at the Northwest Bastion high on the ridge top. In a brief but bloody battle, the Union garrison of 500 men repelled this attack. The Confederates lost 813 men (killed, wounded, or captured) while the Federals lost only about 50 men. Built on the highest “level” ground, with high and broad earthen walls, and fronted by a deep ditch, Fort Sanders easily led to the Union victory. If the Northwest Bastion had been located at the much lower 18th Street, the Confederates would have had all the advantages; they could have easily fired into the sloping fort, overwhelmed the small garrison, and captured Fort Sanders.

Every good position had to be located at the military crest of a slope. That is defined as the point where soldiers can see and fire at any point along the slope in their front. The military crest often was a few feet toward the enemy compared to the natural crest of the slope, but it could never be an entire block away from it without becoming absolutely useless to the defending soldier. There is no crest at all, natural or military, anywhere near 18th Street, just small ripples in the land. But at 17th Street, on top of the ridge, the natural and military crests are only a few feet from each other. They both are on ground eight feet higher than any ground near 18th Street. The lowliest private in the Union army understood this simple and vital aspect of combat in the Civil War.

A third level of evidence arises from historic photographs. Several historic photographs of Fort Sanders were taken in 1864 and ca. 1880, and all of them show the entire fort to be located on the level flat top of the ridge, and not along the slope between 17th and 18th Streets. The photograph of the 1890 Blue and Gray Reunion at Fort Sanders clearly depicts the Southwest Bastion with a road crossing it where 17th Street is now located. The bastion does not extend west down the slope toward 18th Street but ends on top of the ridge at 17th Street.  

At the beginning of their work, the Faulkners had spoken with us about their theory. We did not agree with it then and still do not. We carefully explained to them all the arguments presented here, but they ignored these and moved forward with their dubious project. But it takes rigorous proof to overturn a well-established and fully supported historical fact, and their evidence is not at all convincing.

Everything points to keeping Fort Sanders where we have always known it to have been located. Poe’s reports and post-Civil War memoirs, the evidence provided by Civil War maps overlaid with modern-day street and topographical maps, fortification theory, doctrine, and practice, the nature of military operations in relation to the lay of the land, and several historic photographs all confirm that Fort Sanders was constructed on top of the ridge, with its western wall along 17th Street, and not 18th Street. Knoxvillians need to be aware of these facts and to cherish and preserve that history.

Earl J. Hess, Ph.D., Emeritus Professor, Lincoln Memorial University and author of The Knoxville Campaign: Burnside and Longstreet in East Tennessee (University of Tennessee Press, 2012), Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861-1864 (University of North Carolina Press, 2005), Trench Warfare under Grant & Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign (University of North Carolina Press, 2007), and In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat (University of North Carolina Press, 2009); Joan L. Markel, Ph.D. in Archaeology, recently retired from McClung Museum, University of Tennessee.