Southern History Series: Memphis Torchlight Processions

The following excerpt comes from John Preston Young’s 1912 book Standard History of Memphis, Tennessee: From a Study of the Original Sources:

“Of course all this made the South and especially Memphis, a troubled hive and people were in a frenzy of excitement, enthusiasm and expectation. The city was much interested in the daily proceedings of the new Government at Montgomery and many Memphis men and women went to attend the inauguration of Jefferson Davis and Alexander H. Stephens. Both of these men had been strong advocates for the preservation of the Union but upon the secession of their respective states they had cast their lots with their homes. When the secession of Mississippi was pending, Jefferson Davis had plead before the United States Senate for a compromise to arrest the proceedings, had acknowledged himself ready to vote for the Crittenden Resolution and to stand by the Union; but when all hope for a compromise was over and Mississippi joined the Confederacy he withdrew from the United States Senate, making upon that occasion a calm and logical speech justifying his action.

February 6, 1861, the Unionists of Memphis had a big street demonstration, to witness which thousands of Memphis people gathered. Many stores and residences were brilliantly lighted and large and small United States flags floated all along the line of the torch-light procession. This procession was led by a double file of torch-bearers and following them was a band playing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” Then came transparaneies with mottoes for the Union and another band played “Star Spangled Banner.” More transparaneies followed and torch-bearers came, bearing flags as well as torches. One flag was so large that it took several bearers to keep it upright.

Some of the mottoes to be seen were: “Union is good for the Constitution.” “Our Rights in the Union.” “Tennessee’s Strength is in Union.” “Secession is Treason.” “Don’t Run Away from your Independence.” “Reason and Compromise.” “United We Stand, Divided We Fall.” There were many others, as well as cartoons bearing on subjects of the time.

One feature of this procession was a large skiff fitted up as a brig and profusely decorated with flags and lights. Carriages held business and professional men who bowed and waved their loyalty as they rode along.

Two nights after this manifestation the Secessionists had a parade and demonstration even greater than that of the Unionists had been. Their participators were, said the Appeal, “from the laborer and mechanic to the merchant and capitalist.” The illuminations of this night were elaborate, gas-jets in many places formed into beautiful designs, torches flaring, spitting and spilling in all directions, candles doing their modest part behind window-panes and huge bonfires roaring at street-crossings. This night’s parade was headed by six decorated marshals on spirited horses. Following them were many torch-bearers; big transparencies with secession mottoes; an immense decorated skiff ; color draped omnibuses filled with people, one of these containing seven young girls dressed to represent the seceded States; a train of carriages bearing ladies with flags and behind them was a long line of horsemen riding in column of twos. A band played “Dixie,” an air then becoming popular, and was wildly greeted. The Star of the West was represented ; “Bleeding Kansas” was pictured and South Carolina was represented by a palmetto flag and the words: “Southern Independence;” and there were many devices on wheels to attract the throng gathered along the streets. A few of the mottoes used in this procession and on the storefronts, were: “We have exhausted argument, we now stand by our arms.” “A United South will Prevent Civil War.” “Secession our Only Remedy.” “Anti-Coercion.” “Southern Rights and Southern Honor before Union.” “Appeal, Avalanche and Enquirer all go for Secession.” “People’s Candidates for the Convention: Marcus J. Wright, Ilumphery R. Bate, Solon Borland and D. M. Currin.” “Vote Tomorrow for White Man’s Rights.”

This wasn’t Nuremberg.

This is what it was like in Memphis at the beginning of the revolution in West Tennessee in 1861. Tennessee didn’t secede like the other Southern states. It invoked the right of revolution:

DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE AND ORDINANCE dissolving the federal relations between the State of Tennessee and the United States of America.

First. We, the people of the State of Tennessee, waiving any expression of opinion as to the abstract doctrine of secession, but asserting the right, as a free and independent people, to alter, reform, or abolish our form of government in such manner as we think proper, do ordain and declare that all the laws and ordinances by which the State of Tennessee became a member of the Federal Union of the United States of America are hereby abrogated and annulled, and that all the rights, functions, and powers which by any of said laws and ordinances were conveyed to the Government of the United States, and to absolve ourselves from all the obligations, restraints, and duties incurred thereto; and do hereby henceforth become a free, sovereign, and independent State. …”

In 1861, 56 percent of the people living in Memphis were either foreign born or Northern born. There were large numbers of Irish and German immigrants in Memphis who ultimately sided with the Confederacy. The Yankees in Memphis who continued to support the Union were literally hounded out of the city by secessionist mobs and driven up the Mississippi River to Cairo, IL.

The following excerpt comes from Derek W. Frisby’s article “The Vortex of Secession: West Tennesseans and the Rush To War” in Kent T. Dollar, Larry H. Whiteaker and W. Calvin Dickinson’s book Sister States, Enemy States: The Civil War in Kentucky and Tennessee:

“Presenting a united front became such a priority that secessionists turned to intimidation and violence to suppress dissent. Warnings appeared all over the state or in the press stating: “You are either with us or against us. Let every citizen remember that ‘Eternal vigilance is the price of Liberty.” Throughout Tennessee, secessionists were determined to move against anyone with “Black Republican proclivities.” They organized “Committees of Safety” within communities “for the purpose of hanging or getting rid of all abolitionists … [and] Northern unsound men.” Secessionists warned any potential agitators in their midst “to be cautious as to how they conduct themselves in the South. This latitude, just at this time, is not healthful for such individuals.”

Sound familiar?

This is exactly how it played out with the loyalists in New England during the American Revolution. They were mobbed, driven out of the country and their property was confiscated after the war. In this case though, it was abolitionists, suspected “Black Republicans” and Unionists.

“Many Unionist residents witnessed the growing secessionist intolerance since the February election and the war hysteria in the wake of Fort Sumter and concluded that it would be impossible to remain neutral and left Tennessee. An estimated two to five thousand Northern or foreign born persons left Memphis in the week following the attack on Fort Sumter alone. Many residents fled in such haste that they left behind unpaid bills and houses full of furniture. Even in the interior of West Tennessee, mobs descended on Unionist citizens and demanded that they take an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy, enlist, or leave. Posted notices in Brownsville, Tennessee, gave Unionist residents, particularly those born in the North, just ten days to put their affairs in order and depart. After this grace period had expired, anyone still in the area was expected “to stand by and aid us in defending ourselves against invasion, and to all such we pledge the protection of this community.” One Northern-born Unionist who waited until the deadline discovered that many secessionists had already commenced searching trains and pulling off suspect passengers. Most West Tennessee Unionist refugees managed to get north to the area around Cairo, Illinois, soon dubbed by Unionist refugees as “Little Egypt,” before secessionists closed the last two transportation routes. Unionists who stayed behind found themselves “obliged to become secessionists whether they liked it or not,” claimed one Memphis Unionist refugee who reached St. Louis.”

The Yankees went home.

Memphis was taken back which is how Little Egypt got its name.

“The Memphis Appeal, a recent convert to secession, chastised Tennesseans for defeating secessionist measures and ridiculed the Unionists’ faith in the federal government’s ability to protect Southern rights. Those who hesitated about leaving the Union were now submissionists who maintained a “devotion to the dead glories of an expired nationality.” February’s “shameful verdict,” the editor continued, had revealed the “ignorance of the masses as to the true state of the country.” The Appeal urged “every true Southron” to attend an upcoming meeting of secession supporters: “the fires of the great revolution have but commenced to burn upon our prairies. They will continue to spread until all opposition to southern freedom shall be consumed amid its annihilating flames.” With increasingly militaristic rhetoric, secessionists instructed their supporters to “buckle on the armor, draw their swords, throw away the scabbards, and enter upon the contest with redoubled ardor.” Another speaker commanded them “to keep their flints in order and their powder dry for another contest, which must sooner or later come.”

Tennessee was the most bitterly divided Confederate state.

West Tennessee is culturally part of the Deep South. East Tennessee is culturally part of Greater Appalachia. Middle Tennessee was the swing region and was a mixture of both cultures. It was only Lincoln’s call for troops to invade the Confederacy that tipped the scales away from the Unionists in Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia and Arkansas and toward secession.

About Hunter Wallace 12387 Articles
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Occidental Dissent

1 Comment

  1. ” Secessionists warned any potential agitators in their midst “to be cautious as to how they conduct themselves in the South. This latitude, just at this time, is not healthful for such individuals.”

    Antifa and other foreign SJWs operating in Dixie in the present era, need a taste of this, too.

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