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A voice of reason from Hawkins County likely spared area from more Civil War carnage

Ned Jilton II • Nov 28, 2018 at 11:20 AM

In late May and early June of 1861, the railroads in our region were jammed with traffic.

Even though Tennessee had not yet seceded, Gov. Isham Harris allowed troops from other states to pass through our state on the way to join the Confederate army in Richmond.

Cars carrying thousands of soldiers passed through the area, stopping in Bristol where the rail gauge changed size. The city was packed with soldiers as they got off in Tennessee and reboarded in Virginia to continue their trip.

Back in Greeneville, a group of Louisiana soldiers, unhappy at seeing the United States flag still flying over buildings, got off the train and tore down flags all over town before continuing on to Bristol.

Had those soldiers known what was happening in Greeneville at that time, they might have done far more damage.

Delegates opposed to secession from 30 East Tennessee counties had gathered for a convention at the Greene County courthouse. Their task was to decide what action should be taken as Tennessee left the Union to join the Confederacy.

First District Congressman Thomas A.R. Nelson, from Jonesborough, was elected president of the convention and wasted little time in pushing his agenda. He wanted to fight.

Among the many resolutions Congressman Nelson put forward were:

— “If any attempt should be made to station or quarter troops among us from either of the other divisions of the state, or from the Confederate States, we will instantly call upon the government of the United States for aid, and will use every means in our own power for our common defense.”

— “Resolved, that if any member of this convention, or any other citizen of East Tennessee, shall be killed in consequence of his Union sentiments, or shall be arrested under any pretended law of treason, then we earnestly advise and recommend the most prompt and decided acts of retaliation by our people, leaving it to them to judge, in the circumstances by which they may be surrounded, of the nature and extent of such acts of retaliation.”

— “The formation of military companies with proper officers in every county and civil district in East Tennessee and that such companies shall hold themselves in readiness at a moment’s warning.”

The convention grew more brash with each resolution, ready to go out in the streets and fight, essentially starting a civil war in the middle of a civil war.

It was at this time that Hawkins County Delegate John Netherland stepped forward to be the voice of calm and reason.

Netherland had run for governor in 1859 against Harris, who acknowledged during the campaign that “knowing his (Netherland’s) reputation as a man of ability and his skill as a public debater, he felt a little uneasy as to whether he should be able successfully to meet him on the stump.”

While Congressman Nelson had spent hours making his point, Netherland’s speech was short, to the point and effective.

“Our deliberations and acts will become historic. We should act calmly,” Netherland said. “We are in a revolution and a fearful one. As a Union man, I say for myself that we have acted right in East Tennessee.

“But we must look at things practically,” he said. “In February, we triumphed in the state by a 60,000 majority; that majority has melted away and now the majority against us is 50,000. East Tennessee has stood firm. Now, before taking steps, let us feel the ground firm under us. Do not hurry through the convention.”

Oliver P. Temple, who would be part of the committee to write the finial version of the resolutions produced by the convention, would later said that Netherland’s speech on the first day “no doubt helped to prevent hasty action.”

Temple noted that Netherland’s speech was the only one preserved, even in brief, by the secretary of the convention and deserved reproduction.

Years later Temple would write, “If Mr. Nelson’s resolution had been adopted, it would have brought on the people of East Tennessee at once all the horrors of civil war. These resolutions constituted a bold defiance of the state and of the Confederate authorities such as no government could have tolerated.”

Temple also noted, “A prevalent idea in the convention was that the Federal Government would protect the loyal people of East Tennessee. And yet, at that time, there was not a federal soldier south of the River Ohio, a distance of nearly three hundred miles. It was more than two years after this time before a relieving army reached Knoxville.”

Temple added, “There could have been but one result to such a mad and unequal contest — the utter destruction and overthrow of the Union people. They had no arms, no ammunition, no military organization. In vain they would have looked to the Federal Government for help and protection. At that time it was as powerless to help them as they would have been to protect themselves.

“Blood would have flowed like water,” Temple said.

But thanks to Hawkins County Delegate John Netherland, East Tennessee was spared some, but not all, of the bloodshed of what might have been all-out guerrilla warfare in the region during the Civil War.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at [email protected]

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