Thomas A. R. Nelson

Thomas Amos Rogers Nelson (1812-1873) is an attorney and politician in Northeast Tennessee during the American Civil War era. He represents the 1st Congressional District in the 36th U.S. Congress (1859–1861), where he gains a reputation as a Southern Unionist—white Southerners living in the Confederate States who are opposed to secession. 

During the 1860-1861 secession crisis, T. A. R. Nelson canvasses the region, giving dozens of speeches, trying to keep East Tennessee in the Union. He also serves as president of both meetings of East Tennessee Convention; the first session met in Knoxville on 30 May 1861; the second in Greeneville on 17 June 1861. The Unionists petition the Tennessee General Assembly, asking that East Tennessee be allowed to form its own state and remain in the Union. The legislature denies their request.

25 MARCH 1861: A Meeting with the President
Northeast Tennessee Congressman Thomas A. R. NELSON writes about a meeting he has with President Abraham Lincoln: “[I] had it from his own lips … that he was for peace, and would use every exertion in his power to maintain it …. He expressed a strong hope that, after a little time is allowed for reflection, [the Confederate states] will secede from the position they have taken …. [I was] well pleased with the President’s frankness.” 


4 AUGUST 1861: Congressman Thomas A. R. Nelson arrested by Confederates
During the secession crisis of 1860-61, Northeast Tennessee Unionist Thomas Amos Rogers Nelson actively campaigns to keep Tennessee in the Union. Even after Tennessee joins the Confederacy on 8 June 1861, voters in Nelson’s district reelect him as a Unionist [the name used by a coalition of Republicans, northern Democrats and anti-Confederate Southern Democrats] to the U.S. Congress in 1861. On his way to Washington DC to take his seat, Nelson is arrested and carried to Richmond VA as a prisoner.

United States Congressman from Tennessee Thomas A. R. Nelson


6 AUGUST 1861: Arrest of prominent East Tennessee Unionist Thomas A. R. Nelson
Knoxville, August 6, 1861.
Adjt. Gen. S. COOPER, Richmond, Va.
SIR: Thomas A. R. Nelson, with an escort of three men, supposed to be on his way to take his seat in the Federal Congress at Washington, was arrested about midnight night before last in Lee County, Virginia, by a company of Home Guards of that county. He was brought to a camp under my command at Cumberland Gap, and was from there sent, under a guard of 60 men, to Abingdon, VA. The knowledge of the event has apparently produced much excitement among Nelson’s adherents here, giving rise to menacing language. … F. K. ZOLLICOFFER, Brig.-Gen.

Published in the New York Times, 31 August 1861
The Knoxville Whig, of the 24th, contains the promised address of Hon. THOMAS A.R. NELSON to the people of East Tennessee. It occupies two columns of the Whig. After stating the causes which led to his light, the mode of his arrest, the reasons for his Unionism, with which the reader is already familiar, he says:
While on the way to Richmond, I had some conversation with a portion of the Tennessee delegation to the Southern Congress, and during my stay there was visited by various members of Congress and other public men connected with the Southern Confederacy. The intense solicitude which was expressed, especially by the most prominent and distinguished of the original Secessionists, who, without any request on my part, volunteered their kind offices with generous liberality, in regard to the conciliation of the people of East Tennessee, and the unusual kindness and consideration with which I was treated as a prisoner, convinced me that I was in error in supposing that the military power would be exerted for any other purpose than that of retaining the Railroad and of resisting aggressive acts on our part. Acting under this changed conviction, believing that, if I were retained as a prisoner, or punished with death, under any strained construction of the treason laws, my friends in East Tennessee would in either event retaliate by arresting public men of the opposite party here; that this would lead to counter arrests, and that the horrors of civil war would immediately exist among us, I felt that it was due to you and to myself that I should obtain my release as soon as possible, on the best, terms I could effect without dishonor; and, after various informal propositions and consultations, I finally addressed to President DAVIS the following letter.

12 AUGUST 1861: T. A. R. Nelson petitions Jefferson Davis for his release and the release of his son from prison
RICHMOND, Aug. 12, 1861.
To His Excellency Jeff. Davis, President of the Confederate States.
SIR: I have been arrested, and, as I learned since my arrival in this city, upon the charge of treason, but whether against the State of Tennessee or the Confederate State, I am not advised. I am conscious of no act, either against the State or the Confederacy, that will support or sustain such an accusation. I am sincerely anxious to preserve the peace and quiet of East Tennessee, the section of the State in which I reside, as best promotion of the peace and interest of the entire State.
I ask to be discharged from a vexatious prosecution, that I may return home peacefully, to follow my private interests and pursuits, assuring your Excellency that I will not, either directly or indirectly, by counsel, advice or action encourage aid or assist the United States Government to invade or attain success in the present struggle with the Confederate States, nor will I counsel or advise others to thwart or cripple the Confederate States in the pending contest with the United States, nor will I do so by my own acts.
In view of the increased majority in the election which has just taken place in Tennessee, I shall feel it my duty, as a citizen of that State, to submit to her late action, and shall religiously abstain from any further words or acts of condemnation or opposition to her Government.
The parties arrested with me, with the exception of my son, who acted by my command, were mere guides and conductors through the mountain passes, on my way to my place of destination, and whatever view may be taken of my own course, they are innocent; in no way responsible, legally or morally, and have committed no offence against the laws of the Confederacy or the State of Tennessee, and I ask that they also be discharged from custody by Your Excellency.
Very respectfully,
Your obedient servant,

13 AUGUST 1861: President Jefferson Davis orders Nelson’s release after he agrees not to oppose the Confederate government.
RICHMOND, Aug. 13, 1861.
SIR: I have received your letter of the 12th inst., in which you ask to be discharged from arrest and prosecution, and make promise that you will, as a citizen of Tennessee, submit to her late action, and religiously abstain from any further words or acts of condemnation whatever, or opposition to her Government.
The desire of this Government being to maintain the dependence it has asserted by the united feeling and action of all its citizens, it has been its policy not to enter into questions of differences of political opinions heretofore existing.
I am, therefore, pleased to be spared the necessity of inquiring whether the accusation against you be well founded or not, vexatious or not, and to rest content with your submission as a loyal citizen of your State to her recent action in adhering to this Confederacy and adopting its permanent Constitution by an increased majority. I have ordered your discharge and that of your companions from custody.
I am, &c.,

President of the Confederate States of America Jefferson Davis

17 AUGUST 1861: Nelson returns to his home in Jonesborough and resumes his law practice.
Since my return home, I am content with my own course in the promises. But whether it was right or wrong, wise or unwise, I feel bound, as an honorable man, to act up to the spirit and letter of the obligation I assumed. I shall offer no plea of duress, because neither the Southern Confederacy nor any earthly power could have compelled me to make an agreement that my judgment and conscience did not approve in the situation in which I was placed.
No terms or conditions, expressed or implied, public or private, attended my release other than those plainly expressed in the two above-quoted; but I have thought it due to our past relations and the painful solicitude many of you have felt in my behalf, that I should thus briefly address you.
While I did not promise allegiance or active support to the Southern Confederacy … I feel perfectly free to say that the failure of the Government of the United States for four long months to sustain us in our position; its apparent inability to do so … within any reasonable time; … the mutual hatred which has grown up between the antagonist sections of the Union, … as well as other causes, have painfully impressed my own mind with the belief that, unless some wonderful and improbable change is effected, our beloved Union is gone forever, and it is our policy and duty to submit to a result which, however we may deplore it, seems to be inevitable.
Aware that my advice as well as my motives may be liable to misconstruction, I would still most respectfully recommend to my friends the propriety of abstaining from all further opposition or resistance to the Confederate authorities, … although I have no authority to speak for them, I am satisfied that no military power will be exerted among us, except such as may be indispensably necessary to retain military possession of East Tennessee. And to those of our citizens who have gone beyond the limits of the State … I think I can safely say, without arrogance, that from the course which was adopted towards me, they would risk nothing returning to the State …
KNOXVILLE, Tenn., Aug. 17, 1861.

I found no evidence that Mr. Nelson ever attempts to take his seat in the U.S. Congress again.

26 AUGUST 1861: Official Confederate correspondence relative to East Tennessee Unionist T. A. R. Nelson’s expected public support for the Confederacy
KNOXVILLE, TENN., August 26, 1861.
Hon. A. T. BLEDSOE, Bureau of War, Richmond, Va.
DEAR SIR: I have with others labored hard and with some success to allay the spirit of disaffection in this region … I stopped at Jonesborough one day to confer with Col. T. A. R. Nelson and through him to learn what the Unionists design, and the result of a long interview has strongly impressed me with the belief that he will not only abstain from doing anything hostile to the Confederacy but that in due time … he will come out openly for the Southern cause and he has given me aid already in getting up volunteers.
At my instance Union leaders now here from different counties are to-night engaged in preparing an address … and advising their friends in Kentucky and elsewhere to return to their homes and submit to “the powers that be.” I propose publishing a handbill containing a sort appeal to my friends and relatives … this indorsement of it by his friends and Gen. Zollicoffer’s general order holding out the olive branch. This may lead to such mutual confidence that both sides may deem their rifles useless here …
Very respectfully and truly, yours,
A. M. LEA, Brigade Commissary.


4 OCTOBER 1862: Confederate authorities attempt to insure loyalty of East Tennesseans with indorsement of T. A. R. Nelson and Nelson’s “Address to the People of East Tennessee.”
Knoxville, Tenn., October 4, 1862.
SIR: An address to the people of East Tennessee, by Thomas A. R. Nelson, will appear in the Knoxville Register to-morrow. I desire that you copy it in your paper, which I presume you will do without any request from me, and give it a wide circulation; and I shall be pleased if you will give it a complimentary editorial notice in a way that will be agreeable to Mr. Nelson and calculated to encourage others to follow his example. This is no time to permit party feelings to drive from our support any who are able to serve our cause by bringing about a more loyal and better feeling in East Tennessee. Of course I do not want my name to appear in connection with it.
Very respectfully,
Maj.-Gen., Cmdg.

4 OCTOBER 1862: Meet CSA Gen. SAM. JONES
Knoxville, Tenn., October 4, 1862.
Hon. GEORGE W. RANDOLPH, Secretary of War, Richmond, Va.:
SIR: After being a few days in command here … I became satisfied that much good might result to our cause by putting myself in communication with … the most influential Union men. Without knowing any of them personally I selected Hon. Thomas A. R. Nelson … and invited him to meet me here. … he came very promptly, and after a private interview he, on my suggestion, wrote and placed in my hands, to be used as I thought proper, an address to the people of East Tennessee. …
I will have it published and widely circulated and hope it will be productive of good. I expect in a day or two to converse with a few other influential men whom I have invited to meet me, and I hope they may be brought to see the propriety of following Mr. Nelson’s example. I believe there are Southern men in East Tennessee … who have heretofore been strong Union men should change their course and come out in support of the Government. …
I regret to believe that much hostility and treachery exists in this department. I have a detachment out now in an adjoining county to kill, capture, or disperse a party of some 200 or 300 armed men collected together in the mountains to join the enemy in Kentucky; and I hear there are other such bands. …
I have received no instructions from you and am not informed as to the policy … I should pursue. I send with this a short proclamation to the people of East Tennessee. They … will indicate somewhat of the policy I propose to pursue, and I have respectfully to ask that you will submit them to the President and inform me if they meet his approval.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

3 OCTOBER 1862: Address of Hon. T. A. R. Nelson to the People of East Tennessee.
KNOXVILLE, TENN., October 3, 1862.
In all the speeches which I made to you in the spring and summer of 1861, as well as in a printed address to the people of the State on or about May 30, 1861, I declared in substance that if I had believed it was the object of the North to subjugate the South and to emancipate our slaves in violation of the Constitution, I would have gone as far as the farthest in advocating resistance to the utmost extent. My attention has just been called to a proclamation issued by the President of the United States on 22 September 1862 [Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation], in which he declares that—
“On the 1st day of January, A. D. 1863, all persons held as slaves within any State, or any designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be thenceforward and forever free, and the executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they make for their actual freedom.”
I need scarcely remind you that one of the evils which I dreaded and predicted as the results of which were made to dissolve the Union was, that in the progress of war they might open the way for servile insurrection and the overthrow of the institution of slavery. My opinions as to the unconstitutionally and impolicy of secession remain unchanged …  
The paramount causes which have controlled and influenced my conduct and opinions were love for the Union and an unshaken confidence that we had the best Constitution and Government in the world; but of all the acts of despotism of which the civil war in which we are now engaged has been the prolific source there is not one which in the slightest degree equals the atrocity and barbarism of Mr. Lincoln’s proclamation. At one blow it deprives all the citizens of the slave States without distinction of the right to hold slaves, a right guaranteed by the very Constitution he pretends to uphold. …
We are in the midst of a sea of difficulties. Many acts have been done in the South to which we were bitterly opposed as a people, and which we who have adhered to the Union in spite of perils and dangers could not justify or palliate; but the Union men of East Tennessee are not now and never were Abolitionists. …
I am aware, my countrymen, that you will find difficulties in bringing your minds to the same conclusion at which my own has arrived. Many wanton and unauthorized acts of cruelty and oppression have been perpetrated among you, which, instead of changing your opinions, have only been calculated to aggravate and intensify a heroic principle of endurance.
Many of these acts have been committed in remote places, without the knowledge or approbation of the authorities at Richmond or of those who have held the supreme command in East Tennessee, and under such circumstances that you have felt it dangerous to complain. …
Gradually and slowly these outrages have at last become known, and in the very recent proclamation issued by Maj.-Gen. Jones you have the assurance that your complaints will be heard and the most energetic measures adopted to remedy the evils to which you have been subjected. Let not then a sense of private and present wrongs blind you against the enormities already perpetrated and still more seriously contemplated by Mr. Lincoln’s administration. …
But if, through fear or any other cause, Mr. Lincoln’s infamous proclamation is sustained, then we have no Union to hope for, no Constitution to struggle for, no magnificent and unbroken heritage to maintain, no peace to expect, save such as with the blessing of Providence we may conquer. The armies which have been sent near you to tantalize you with hope have been withdrawn, and with cool audacity Mr. Lincoln virtually tells you that you have no rights. No alternative remains but to choose the destiny which an arrogant and unprincipled administration forces upon us.
It is almost unnecessary to declare to you that I adhered to the Union amidst good report and evil report, suffering and danger, while it was in my power to support it, and that, when my efforts were paralyzed and my voice silenced by causes beyond my control, I have cherished the hope that all might yet be well; but “the last link is broken” that bound me to a Government for which my ancestors fought, and what ever may be the course of others, I shall feel it my duty to encourage the most persevering and determined resistance against the tyrants and usurpers of the Federal administration, who have blasted our hopes and are cruelly seeking to destroy the last vestige of freedom among us. … He [Lincoln] has called armies into the field without authority, according to his own acknowledgment, and has become a military dictator.

17 OCTOBER 1862: Confederate authorities deny incarcerating T. A. R. Nelson’s son to force Nelson’s “Address To The People of Tennessee”
Knoxville, Tenn., October 17, 1862.
Hon. THOMAS. A. R. NELSON, Jonesborough, Tenn.
DEAR SIR: I regret to hear that some persons, incapable it seems of appreciating the manly and patriotic motives which prompted your address to the people of East Tennessee, have attributed it to a desire to procure thereby the release of your son. It is due to you that I should state that neither you nor any one else ever intimated to me that you desired the release of your son, nor did I intimate any promise of intention of releasing him. I took it for granted that you did desire it, but I had too just an appreciation of your character to suppose for one moment that your action on so important a matter would be influenced by that motive. I had heard that your son was young and indiscreet, and had committed the offense for which he was arrested in violation of your expressed wishes and while you were absent from home. I have released a number of prisoners besides your son, and I released him because I supposed that it would be gratifying to you, and because I judge that the boy would be more likely to become a loyal and useful citizen if brought within your influence than if left in prison with persons older and more culpable than himself. If you think the insinuations against your motives worthy of notice you are at liberty to make such use of this note as you may think proper.
Very respectfully and truly,
SAM. JONES, Maj.-Gen., Cmdg.

17 OCTOBER 1862:   
Knoxville, Tenn., October 17, 1862.
Hon. THOMAS A. R. NELSON, Jonesborough, Tenn.
DEAR SIR: … You may remember that I mentioned to you that I thought it highly probable that many people in East Tennessee would deny that President Lincoln had issued his proclamation of the 22nd ultimo and denounce it as a secession forgery unless some one in whom they had confidence would come forward and assure them it was genuine.
I am sorry to hear that many persons not only deny the authenticity of Mr. Lincoln’s proclamation but of your address also. They say the whole thing is a secession forgery, gotten up by the Knoxville Register.
I am convinced that your address has already been productive of much good, and I am equally well convinced that you can render far more effective service to the country and especially to the people of East Tennessee by going among them and addressing them in public meeting. It is of the first importance that the Union men should now come out and give cordial support to the Government. If the present opportunity is lost it is impossible to see what other can offer for bringing them to the support of the Government under which they now live. I know that other gentleman of influence are willing to join you and canvass East Tennessee, and I venture to urge you to lose no time, but enter on the work now.
I would not make the suggestion if I were not convinced of your earnest desire to promote the peace and harmony of East Tennessee now and for the future. I am satisfied that you and others can soon biting about such a state of feeling in this section of the country that the troops now in service in this particular section may with safety be withdrawn. The depredations so long and justly complained of will cease and that cause of imitation be removed. It is surely worth an effort to produce even that benefit to the community. I believe you can accomplish that and much more.
In haste, yours, very respectfully and truly,
SAM. JONES, Maj.-Gen., Cmdg.

I found no evidence that Mr. Nelson ever canvassed East Tennessee for the Confederacy. It appears that he remained quiet and out of the public eye for some time. I did find the following correspondence with Provost-Marshal of East Tennessee S. P. Carter at Knoxville concerning mistreatment of East Tennessee Unionists by Union troops. Please note Mr. Nelson’s address. After USA Gen. Ambrose Burnside occupied Knoxville in early September 1863, Mr. Nelson moved from his home in Jonesborough to Knox County, near Knoxville.

26 DECEMBER 1863: Unionist civilians in dire straits
December 26, 1863.
Brig. Gen. S. P. Carter:
SIR: Unable to reach home, I have been staying for the last ten days at the house of Maj. Gaines McMillan, who will hand you this note. He goes to Knoxville in the hope of procuring a guard for his property. Having always been a Union man, he cheerfully furnished to the army all the corn and other articles he could spare; but soldiers, in defiance of your safeguard, came and took all his oats; others threatened to break open his smoke-house and insulted his family in his absence, and were with great difficulty restrained by my persuasions and entreaties from forcibly taking his provisions.
He has been and is daily annoyed in every conceivable way without the power of resistance. I sincerely hope that you may devise some plan to relieve him from further vexation and loss. Although I … understand that you are not in command of the army of East Tennessee, I hope that, as a native of the country, you will exert your influence to mitigate the horrors of war among us.
Supposing that Governor Johnson and Mr. Maynard had in charge the interests of our people, I, in common with others, cherished the hope that they would use their influence with the President to cause the army to be instructed before they came here that they were about to enter the country of friends and not of enemies, and that, by their good conduct, they should make the contrast broad and deep between the behavior of the hostile Armies, and especially that as the Union population had suffered greatly from the rebels, they should be promptly paid for everything that might be taken by the Federals …
I suppose that the exertions … our members of Congress made have been unavailing, as the Union Army is more destructive to Union men than the rebel army ever was. Our fences are burned, our horses are taken, our people are stripped in many instances of the very last vestige of subsistence, our means to make a crop next year are being rapidly destroyed, and when the best Union men in the country make appeals to the soldiers, they are heartlessly cursed as rebels; or when certificates are given as to property taken, they are generally for much less than the true amount, and a citizen in attempting to enforce a claim against his Government has to run the gauntlet of “the circumlocution office,” until, discouraged and disheartened, he turns away, feeling that the Government which he loved and honored and trusted, and which never did him any harm before the war, has at last become cruel and unjust, and cares nothing for his sorrows and sufferings.
In many instances soldiers take property without giving any certificates, and the result is a fearful and alarming state of robbery and plunder. Can you do nothing to remedy these evils? Can you not, in behalf of an outraged and disappointed people, urge Gen. [John G.] Foster [then in command of East Tennessee] to hold all officers to the strictest accountability for the conduct of their soldiers and compel them to listen to and redress the wrongs of the people?
If nothing is done and promptly done, starvation and ruin are before us, and there will be nothing here to support the army next summer. Let me urge you, as you love East Tennessee, and as you would preserve the Union party from ruin, to exert a prompt and energetic influence on the whole subject.
Very respectfully,

26 DECEMBER 1863: Gen. Carter requests aid for Unionists
Knoxville, December 26, 1863.
Brig. Gen. E. E. POTTER, Chief of Staff:
GEN.: I have the honor to forward, for information of the commanding general, a letter this day received from Hon. Thomas A. R. Nelson, in relation to the conduct of United States troops toward loyal citizens of East Tennessee. In doing so I respectfully renew my request that the most stringent measures be adopted to put an immediate check to acts which are alike unjust to our citizens and discreditable to the United States service.
I am, general, very respectfully, &c.,
S. P. Carter,
Brig. Gen. and Provost-Marshal-Gen. of East Tennessee.


“Confederate Policy of Repression in East Tennessee,” War of the Rebellion, Serial 114 Page 0823, Official Records of the Civil War, accessed 21 February 2021,

“Union Rebellion in East Tennessee,” War of the Rebellion, 1861, Serial 114 Page 0825, Official Records of the Civil War, accessed 21 February 2021,

“Prisoners of War, etc.,” War of the Rebellion: Serial 114 Page 0826, accessed 21 February 2021,

A Tennessee Unionist Arrested,” New York Times, 31 August 1861, accessed 27 February 2021,

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