Tazwell is a town in Claiborne County, Tennessee, about 45 minutes northeast of Knoxville on Highway 33, just south of the Kentucky border. On the muggy Saturday morning of June 3, 2000—the 192nd anniversary of the birth of Jefferson Davis and Confederate Memorial Day in Tennessee — some 200 people gathered in Tazwell’s Irish Cemetery to rededicate a Confederate monument. After reading about this forthcoming event in the Knoxville New Sentinel, I decided to brave die rolling hills and winding roads of Union County, which lies between Knoxville and Claiborne Counties. By the time I crossed Norris Lake (an FDR creation), my head was spinning. But since I was almost to Tazwell, I decided to continue.
Irish Cemetery sits on a hill a couple of blocks off Highway 33. Looking south, you can see the four-lane highway and the golden arches of McDonald’s; otherwise, the green, rolling hills of Tennessee visible through the light haze that morning formed an appropriately premodern vista for a ceremony that was out of tune with the times. At the top of the hill, past a wrought-iron gate, stands the Confederate monument, an 18-foot-tall stone obelisk capped with an artillery shell. An inscription reads: “SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF UNKNOWN CONFEDERATE DEAD WHO LAID DOWN THEIR LIVES AMONG STRANGERS FOR THE LOST CAUSE.” Details of the monument’s origin are unknown, but a notice in a 1915 issue of Confederate Veteran mentioned that, “in the Irish Cemetery at the place, near Cumberland Cap, there are about thirty graves of Confederate Soldiers who died in the hospital there, with nothing to show who they were except that on one rough limestone headstone is cut ‘C.D.S.'” Over the years, the monument fell into disrepair; eventually, it collapsed during a 1998 ice storm. Last year, members of the Knoxville-based Longstreet-Zollicoffer and the Morristown Bradford-Rose camps of the Sons of Confederate Veterans began restoring the structure.
Confederate monuments are not the norm in East Tennessee; the area was strongly Unionist during the war. When the state left the Union in 1861, many in the east wanted to break with Tennessee. But the Encyclopedia of East Tennessee states that a “sufficient number of East Tennesseans supported the Confederacy to create a civil war within a civil war.” Our Union County Heritage features several photographs of Union County Confederates and a tombstone displaying the sort of sectional bitterness that warms the hearts of the unreconstructed:
MAJOR ALLEN HURST
SON OF JOHN & ELIZABETH
MARCH 4, 1810 TAZWELL CO. VA.
MAY 26 1873.
FIRST CIRCUIT COURT CLERK
OF UNION CO.
DURING RECONSTRUCTION DAYS
ROBBED BY THE CARPET
BAGGERS OF 4000 ACRES OF LAND.
60 ODD YEARS LATER T.V.A.
THOUSAND ACRES OF MINERAL
LAND LEFT TO HIS
GONE WITH THE WIND
Southerners began commemorating their dead almost immediately after the war. Over the years, Southern states created various official holidays; several eventually adopted June 3 as Confederate Memorial Day. (Tennessee chose this date in 1902.) In Dixie After the War, reconstruction chronicler Myrta Lockett Avary recounted the first such observance to take place in Richmond in 1866:
The young men of Richmond, the flower of the city, marched to Hollywood [cemetery], armed with picks and spades, and numbering in their long line, . . . remnants of famous companies, whose gallantry had made them shining marks on many a desperate battlefield . . . As the soldier-citizens marched along, people old and young, by ones and twos and threes, or in organised bodies, fell into the ever-lengthening line . . . Federal soldiers walking the quiet streets would pause and study these symbols of grief and reverence. Carloads of flowers poured into the city . . . maids, matrons and children met there early to weave blossoms and greenery into stars, crosses, crowns and flags—their beloved Southern cross . . .
Thousands visited the green hillside where General Jeb Stuart lay, a simple wooden board marking the spot; his grave was a mound of flowers. From an improvised niche of evergreens, Valentine’s life-like bust of the gay chevalier smiled upon old friends. No Hero, great or lowly, was forgotten. What a tale of broken hearts and desolate homes far away the many graves told! Here had the Texas Ranger ended his march; here had brave lads from the Land of Flowers and all the states intervening bivouacked for a long, long night, from whose slumbers no bugle might wake them.
The events in Tazwell in the year 2000 could not match those in the fallen Confederate capital in 1866. That ceremony involved the whole community, which had yet to recover from the devastation of war. There were living Confederate veterans and occupying federal soldiers participating and observing. Irish Cemetery inters no one as celebrated as Jeb Stuart or any of the other Confederate generals who, in later years, would be buried at Hollywood. Nor did Irish Cemetery host thousands of mourners on this Saturday morning. Presumably, the great majority of people munching on Egg McMuffins at McDonald’s or biscuits and gravy at the nearby Hardees, both just a stone’s throw away from the cemetery, had no clue what was occurring there.
The ceremony was scheduled for 11:00 A.M., rain or shine. I arrived shortly after ten, and there were already several dozen people on hand, including a ragtag but well-fed squad of Confederate reenactors who would form an honor guard and march up to the monument to begin the ceremony, some black-veiled ladies, and the Men From Dixie singing group (also in gray uniforms). Aside from those in costume, the crowd looked normal. A few were dressed up, but most were casual and as comfortable as they could make themselves in the early June heat and humidity.
Members of a Boy Scout troop milled about, passing out programs and tiny Confederate Battle Flags and directing traffic. I went on a brief walking tour of the cemetery in search of relatives (I found none) and marked Confederate graves. While I was examining the tombstone of Shadrack Pressnell of Company D, 3rd Corps of Engineers, CSA, one of his descendants told me that the grave had just been discovered by another family member, and a Confederate marker only recently placed there below the tombstone. Just below his grave was one for William D. Thomas of I Company, Virginia Cavalry. His Confederate marker appeared to be decades old. For the ceremony, the SCV cleaned and decorated die graves of veterans of both the United States and the Confederate States.
After my tour, one of the Boy Scout leaders introduced me to Randall Lee Bailey, who has visited the monument since his boyhood and spearheaded its restoration. While I stood beside his truck, an elderly gentleman sitting in the passenger seat eyed me suspiciously and asked, “Who you with?” I told him that I was unaffiliated (not my exact words). I then requested a media kit and said that I planned to write an article about the event. Again, the passenger interjected, “Who for?” I briefly described Chronicles, which they had not heard of, and its editor’s affiliation with the League of the South, which they had.
The ceremony began promptly at 11:00 with a procession of the honor guard followed by a presentation and explanation of Confederate flags—the Bonnie Blue Flag, the First National Flag (Stars and Bars), Second National (Stainless Banner), and the Third National, along with various Saint Andrew’s Cross battle flags, including a blue one with a white cross—the Battle Flag of the Department of East Tennessee.
The keynote speaker was Lowell Lynch, a retired teacher from Tazwell. Lynch promised not to go on for too long, telling his former students in the audience that he only talked about history for an hour at a time when he was paid to do so. Nonetheless, his ability to talk outpaced my desire to listen, so I cut class in order to seek refreshment and check out the cars for interesting bumper stickers and license plates. I saw nothing racist or inflammatory, so I presumed that there were no FBI or Southern Poverty Law Center spies on hand. When I returned. Lynch was reflecting on the NAACP’s campaign against the Confederate Battle Flag, which once flew above the South Carolina Capitol. He attributed the organization’s campaign to its desire to remain relevant after having achieved most of its goals and repeatedly being mired in scandal.
Other highlights of the rededication service included the Men From Dixie performing the hymn “Uncloudy Day” and, of course, “Dixie.” If the crowd failed to sing loudly enough that our voices could be heard in the nearby homes (as the group’s leader had exhorted us to do), the Confederate Honor Guard made up for it later with their rifle salute. The volleys surely caused a couple of the neighbors to spill coffee on the Saturday paper.
The commanders of the two camps recognized a handful of visiting dignitaries and read congratulations and proclamations sent by such luminaries as Gov. Don Sundquist and Sen. Fred Thompson. At the end of the service, attendees were encouraged to place wildflowers at the approximate site of the Confederate graves, some feet behind the monument, and several people did.
For about 90 minutes, I was transported decades back in time. Except for the obvious reminders of modernity—camcorders, casual clothing—this event would have been more at home in the year 1900 than in Y2K. But all good anachronisms must come to an end, especially when it is so hot outside. I found Mr. Bailey, the man who saw to the monument’s restoration, and gave him the copy of Chronicles that I had promised him. After exchanging a bit of family background with the gentleman who had earlier interrogated me—he surmised that we were probably about 300th cousins—I decided to return to the modern world. I climbed in my truck and quickly turned on the air conditioning. Driving past the Golden Arches, I knew I had arrived.