Civil War Refugees of Northeast Tennessee

A refugee is a person who flees for refuge or safety, especially in time of political upheaval or war. The Union men of Northeast Tennessee who crossed Cumberland Mountain into Kentucky—whether or not they joined the Union Army there—are considered refugees.

Union Refugees by George W. Pettit, 1865


30 AUGUST 1861
Confederate Sequestration Act.
The Confederate Congress passes the Sequestration Act authorizing the seizure of enemy estates and effects.  Confederate Senator Landon Carter Haynes is appointed to dispose of all property in this category. Haynes interprets this act as pertaining to any Unionists who have escaped from Northeast Tennessee or who have aided the United States in any way. Many will never see their possessions again.
The Confederates begin arresting Union sympathizers on one pretext or another. Life is made miserable for Unionists; some of them are so uncomfortable they just want to leave. Many do not consider the hardships their families will endure in their absence.

Jacob Montgomery Thornburgh
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Thornburgh fled to Kentucky and enlisted as a private in a brigade commanded by Gen. George W. Morgan. In 1862, Thornburgh joined what would eventually become the 4th Regiment Tennessee Volunteer Cavalry USA with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Suspected leaders in the Unionist resistance in East Tennessee—among them John M. Thornburgh, Charles L. Barton, and Joel W. Jarvis—are arrested. At a preliminary hearing in Knoxville, the judge rules that they should stand trial for treason before the Confederate District Court at the October term. He sends them by rail to Nashville where they are marched through town as traitors to the Confederacy.
Thornburgh gains his release through a friend of Jefferson Davis and returns to his home. Barton jumps out of the window of the train’s water closet and eventually joins the 1st Tennessee Regiment USA. Jarvis joins the First Tennessee Cavalry USA on 16 March 1862, but dies of measles soon after.
The Papers of Andrew Johnson. Vol. 5, p. 150.

During the autumn of 1861 thousands of Union men cross the mountains between Northeast Tennessee and Kentucky. They are organized into six regiments for the Federal Army. Frustrated Confederates increase their efforts to stop the flow by guarding every pass, but it continues. Though some cross the mountains alone, many refugees depend upon local citizens—called guides or pilots—to aid them in their perilous journey. These men know the terrain and are well aware of Confederate activities in the region.


11 OCTOBER 1861
Confederate Sequestration Act in action.
On October 11, 1861, a Richmond Enquirer article reports that a Confederate court has confiscated Monticello. Weeks before, the Confederate Congress passed the Sequestration Act, authorizing the seizure of Northern property …
A captain in the U.S. Navy, Uriah P. Levy of Pennsylvania, owns Thomas Jefferson’s former estate.
As a U.S. citizen, Levy has been designated an alien enemy to the Confederacy. Consequently, all of his property located within the borders of the Confederate States is subject to permanent, uncompensated seizure and sale for the benefit of Confederate citizens who had lost property to the Union.

Though thousands are escaping into Union territory, every refugee in Kentucky fully expects to be back in Northeast Tennessee in a few days or weeks. When the advance movement of the Union Army into Northeast Tennessee is countermanded, and the exiles, now in the Union army, are ordered to turn toward Ohio, their hearts were crushed within them. They shed bitter tears of anguish. This was not childish weakness. It was the sad condition of their families at home that filled their minds with trouble. …
Page 464

Confederate Army uniforms

The majority of enlistees in the Confederate Army are young men from poor rural areas. A key motivating factor is the fear of a Northern invasion of their homeland. Confederate recruitment posters contain dire warnings of Yankee confiscation of property and the violation of Southern families. Anxiety was especially acute in border states such as Virginia and Tennessee.

15 DECEMBER 1861
A Change of Sentiment in East Tennessee
A correspondent of the Knoxville Register writing from Bradley County [in Southeast Tennessee] under date of the 11th inst. informs that paper, that … scarcely a Union man can be found – all declare themselves for the South. One or two hundred of them have joined the Southern army in the last forty eight hours. There is a much better feeling than has ever prevailed in the community before.
The people say they have been misled by their leaders in regard to the policy of the Northern government. Our correspondent’s account of the good work says the Register … will carry joy to every true Southern heart in the State. May we not hope to hear similar accounts from every county in East Tennessee. God grant that we may yet be a band of brothers in defence of rights against the encroachments of Northern despotism and abolition fanaticism.
Nashville Daily Gazette.


APRIL 1862
Instructions to attack and disperse Unionists leaving East Tennessee.
Knoxville, April 18, 1862.
Cmdg., &c., Kingston, Tenn.
COL.: The major-general commanding directs me to inform you that large numbers of Union men are leaving this and adjoining counties, intending to go through the passes of the Cumberland into Kentucky. He directs that all the disposable cavalry of your command be sent with the utmost dispatch to operate between Clinton and the north valley of Powell’s River and intercept them in their attempt. Few of them are armed. You will give the officer commanding the cavalry instructions to attack and disperse these men wherever they may be found.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
H. L. CLAY, Assistant Adjutant-Gen.
OR, Ser. I, Vol. 10, pt. II, p. 429.

Between four and five hundred young men and boys from New Market and its vicinity, [in] Jefferson county, [Northeast Tennessee] started as refugees to Kentucky. … In crossing Powell’s Valley, when in sight of the Cumberland Mountains, where there was safety, nearly forty miles from home, … they were intercepted and captured … by a regiment of East Tennessee Confederate cavalry.


15 MAY 1862
Knoxville, Tenn.
Deputy Provost-Marshal, Blountville
… It would be well to see that all men [refugees] that have attempted to stampede to Kentucky will take the oath before they shall be recognized as citizens; and if they refuse to do so and you are convinced that they have attempted to join the enemy then it is your duty to arrest them and report the same to these headquarters.
Colonel and Provost-Marshal.
OR, Ser. I, Vol. 1, p. 888.

5 JUNE 1862
Governor Andrew Johnson to Major General Henry W. Halleck
Relative to the refugee problem in Middle Tennessee
and Unionists in East Tennessee
Nashville, June 5th, 1862
Genl. Halleck USA, Corinth Miss.
… There are many refugees from the Confederate Army all through this part of the State. Large numbers of them are coming forward voluntarily & renewing their allegiance, and seem gratified of the opportunity of doing so. There is a great reaction taking place here in favor of the Union & restoration of the State.
If poor East Tennessee could be relieved, it would produce a thrill throughout the nation. They are being treated worse than beasts of the forest and are appealing to the Government for relief & protection. God grant that it may be in your power ere long to extend it to them.
If there could have been more forces left in the middle part of the state it would have convinced the Rebels that there was no chance of a successful rising up and by this time the Disunionists would have been put completely down, and the forces could have entered East Tennessee by way of Chattanooga, while general Morgan would have entered by way of Cumberland Gap, and the whole army in East Tennessee would have been bagged and the people relieved.
God grant that all your efforts in the noble work in which you are engaged may be crowned with success; and the hearts of the people made glad.
Papers of Andrew Johnson, Vol. 5, fn 1, p. 442.

9 AUGUST 1862
Editorial from the Cleveland Banner; “In a Nice Fix”
In the breaking out of the present difficulties a good many East Tennesseeans with treason in their hearts, left and went over to the bosom of King Abraham, thinking, no doubt, that they would return to their homes in a very short time with a sufficient army to protect them in their treason.
Sixteen months have gone by and these poor deluded fools are no nearer the object they set out to accomplish than they were the day they started. They cannot get back to their homes, and never will.
If the war was ended, and arrangements made for their return they could not live here. They would be looked upon and treated as tories, loathed and despised – forsaken even by the cowardly wretches who persuaded them to leave their homes and dear ones, for a situation in the Federal army.
Those of them that have left property behind have forfeited it to their government, and their families will be bereft of it. Who is responsible for this state of things? Such men as Andy Johnson, Horace Mayfield Maynard, Bill Brownlow, and the smaller lights of toryism who are suffered to run over the country and preach treason to the people.
In this [group are] such pettifoggers as Mitch Edward [Richard Mitchell Edwards] and Mr. Brownlow were applauded for their [truth?] while men who were older and wiser, were scoffed and hooted at for their loyalty. These vile miscreants are now [receiving?] their just reward at the hands of an often indignant people. There never was a more just retribution visited upon a corrupt set of men.
They sowed the storm – let them receive the fury of the whirlwind. They deserve it. They have no home and are entitled to none in the Southern Confederacy. They deserted her in infancy; when she needed help the cowardly scoundrels shrunk from the task and went over to the enemy-in her manhood she will never receive to her bosom [these same?] traitors. …
~ Cleveland Tennessee Banner

Southeast Tennessee Railroad Map
Showing the location of Cleveland Tennessee

The Cleveland Banner, a Democratic newspaper by editor Robert McNelley, published its first edition on 1 May 1854. McNelley, a Confederate supporter, was arrested by Federal troops in the fall of 1863, and the paper ceased publication. The Banner returned on 16 September 1865 under McNelley’s leadership.

23 AUGUST 1862 – 21 OCTOBER 1863
U. S. N. rescues 60 to 70 Union refugee families on Tennessee River
Excerpt from the Report of Lieutenant-Commander Fitch, regarding naval operations in the Ohio, Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers, 23 August 23, 1862 – 21 October 1863:
During my trips up and down the Tennessee, I brought out on the gunboats some 60 or 70 refugee families, with their effects, punished as much as I could all rebels and disloyal persons, and gave all the protection I could to loyal citizens.
Navy OR, Ser. I, Vol. 23. p. 318.


Belle Boyd: Confederate spy in Knoxville
Belle Boyd was a daring and notorious Confederate spy. After being captured and imprisoned by the Union on two separate occasions, she is exiled to the South. She comes to Knoxville to visit the Boyd family, who live in Blount Mansion, former home of Tennessee first territorial governor, William Blount. Her cousin, Dr. John Boyd is away serving as a surgeon in the Confederate army. Belle describes her time in Knoxville as filled with parties and fun.

Confederate spy Belle Boyd

Since the departure of the important personages that have enlivened all Knoxville for the past ten days, the denizens have lapsed into their usual ways. However, the attractive, “dashing” Belle Boyd, once an inmate of Fortress Monroe upon the charge of being a Confederate spy, perambulates Gay Street in all her glory … ~ Columbus [Georgia] Enquirer.

4 JUNE 1863
General Orders, No. 19, relative to refugees from Union lines
HDQRS. DEPARTMENT No. 2, Tullahoma, Tenn., June 4, 1863.
I. All helpless people expelled from the lines of the enemy will report to the general commanding the army, department, or district nearest the place first reached by them. Upon their request, the inspector-general of such army, department, or district nearest the place first reached by them. Upon their request, the inspector-general of such army, department, or district will furnish, at Government expense, to those who come with certificates of expulsion, transportation to some convenient point in the rear near the line of a leading railroad, and subsistence in kind until they reach their destination. Such inspectors-general will make out and send to these headquarters a list of the persons so sent, the points to which they are sent, and such other information as they may deem important.
By command of Gen. [Braxton] Bragg.
OR, Ser. I, Vol. 23, pt. II, p. 861.

4 JUNE 1863
Editorial urging voter participation in the Confederate State elections
To the People of Tennessee.
The time is rapidly approaching when by the constitution and laws of Tennessee, we are to be called upon to elect a Governor, Congressmen, and Members to the Legislature.
It is more important that this duty should be performed now than at any other previous period in our history. … In the present condition of the country, this can only be done by securing a meeting of the largest number of citizens possible, from every part of the State, for the purpose of consulting and determining who shall be our candidates. …
Regiments are requested to hold primary meetings, and to appoint delegates. Exiles and refugees from counties within the enemy’s lines, are requested to attend as delegates from their respective counties.
~ Fayetteville Observer.

5 AUGUST 1863
“What Tennessee Loyalists Have Done.”
The State of Tennessee has in the service ten regiments of infantry, ten of cavalry and two batteries of artillery. Organized as many of them were of refugees beyond the limits of their own State, and at a time when there was no competent State authority to recognize their existence, they rushed into the fight regardless of the forms taken in such cases. The result is that six “First Tennessee” regiments appeared in the field from the East, Middle and West grand divisions of the State.
Col. Alvin C. Gillem, of the 2st West Tennessee infantry, has lately been appointed Adjutant General under Governor Andrew Johnson, and general order “No. 2” from his office reads: “In order to present confusion in adjusting the future claims of the Tennesseans in the service of the United States, as well as to remove a misunderstanding at the Adjutant General’s office in Washington, it is ordered that the regiments from Tennessee be designated as follows:

  • 1st Tennessee infantry. Colonel Byrd, late 1st Tennessee.
  • 2nd Tennessee infantry, Colonel Carter, late 2nd East Tennessee infantry.
  • 3rd Tennessee infantry, Col. Cross, late 3rd East Tennessee.
  • 4th Tennessee infantry, Col. Stover, late 4th East Tennessee.
  • 5th Tennessee infantry, Col. Shelby, late 5th East Tennessee.
  • 6th Tennessee infantry, Col. Cooper, late 6th East Tennessee
  • 7th East Tennessee infantry, Col. Cliff, late 7th East Tennessee.
  • 8th Tennessee infantry, Col. Reese, late 8th East Tennessee.
  • 1st Tennessee cavalry, Col. Johnson, late 1st East Tennessee.
  • 2nd Tennessee cavalry, Col. Ray, late 2nd East Tennessee.
  • 3rd Tennessee cavalry, Col. Perkins, late 3rd East Tennessee.
  • 4th Tennessee cavalry, Major Stevenson, late 4th Tennessee.

With twenty regiments of loyalists becoming refugees from their own State to volunteer in the service of the Nation, Tennessee well maintains in this struggle, as she has in all the past, her right to the proud title of “Volunteer State.” Is it not time that the redemption of her soil should be made complete by the liberation of long suffering East Tennessee?
~ Memphis Bulletin.

2nd Tennessee Volunteer Cavalry.
Company D of the 2nd Tennessee Volunteer Cavalry (USA).
Organized at Maryville, Blount County, September 1, 1862.

We yesterday morning saw several women surrounded by large families of children; these persons were fugitives from the tyranny of “Dixie.” … One of the women had five small children, and was driven from her home because she had a brother in the 6th Tennessee (Union) cavalry. This is liberty, with a vengeance.
~ Memphis Bulletin.

It was love of the Union which made them refugees and exiles.
Whatever the world may think of the conduct of the Union men of East Tennessee in refusing to join their Southern brethren, there can be no difference of opinion as to the honesty of the intentions of the Union soldiers.

What possible selfish motive could have induced them to expatriate themselves, and become exiles and wanderers for two, three, or even four years? What evil motive could have induced them to quit their families and homes, and undergo the perils and sufferings of a long journey through the mountains in search of the Federal army?

Men do not do such things without powerful impelling incentives. … They fled from a government they disliked. They sought protection under one they loved as dearly as life itself. … In all the land … was there so conspicuous an example of suffering and sacrifice for the sake of principle as was manifested by these refugees of East Tennessee?
Page 533-534.

Stoneman’s Switch, Virginia,
11 December 1862
John Paul Strain, Artist

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: