Civil War-Era Fairs: Tennessee Connections

By Antoinette G. van Zelm, Assistant Director, Center for Historic Preservation

During and after the Civil War, civilians held fairs and bazaars to raise funds for relief efforts. These events ranged from small, local affairs to extravagant festivals held in large urban areas. Most of these relief efforts took place in the North, but some were held in the South. As a battleground state, Tennessee did not host any fairs of significant size but its civilians and soldiers benefited from them.

Organizers of relief efforts for wounded soldiers and displaced civilians found fairs to be extremely lucrative. Large fairs held in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and St. Louis brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars for the U.S. Sanitary Commission and its regional branches (the commission was a private charitable organization sanctioned by the U.S. government to distribute medical supplies and to run military hospitals). These grand fairs were modeled after the 1851 London World’s Fair and basically constituted mini cities with their own restaurants, police and fire forces, post offices, daily newspapers, and even skating rinks.

Great Central Fair Image

Buildings of the Great Central Fair, in aid of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, Logan Square, Philadelphia, June 1864. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Mississippi Valley Sanitary Fair held in St. Louis in 1864 was specifically geared toward assisting Union soldiers engaged in the Western Theater. In addition, the fair included a Freedmen and Union Refugees’ Department. Contributions were solicited for the department so that assistance could be provided to the formerly enslaved who were making the transition to freedom and to Unionists who had left their homes within the Confederacy, including Tennessee.

Women played a prominent role in Civil War-era fairs and bazaars, which featured the sale of crafts and other handmade goods; the display of artworks, historical objects, manufactured goods, and relics from the front; the staging of musical and dramatic performances; and the sale of fruit, flowers, and confections. Many of these events were organized and executed primarily by women. Even the large fairs under the auspices of the male-run U.S. Sanitary Commission included committees of female managers who, like the Midwestern women promoting the 1863 Northwestern Fair in Chicago, exhorted their fellow citizens (and particularly ladies’ aid societies) to get involved and “DO SOMETHING.”

Ladies Flower and Fruit Festival Image

Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Fair organizers actively solicited contributions from famous people, including those with Tennessee connections. Shortly after his victories in and around Chattanooga, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant responded to a request from the Rochester Ladies’ Hospital Relief Association for a lock of his hair for their Christmas Bazaar. From Chattanooga on December 13, 1863, he facetiously wrote, “The object for which this little request is made is so praiseworthy that I cannot refuse it, even though I do, by granting it, expose the fact to the ladies of Rochester, that I am no longer a boy.” In a somewhat similar fashion, Elvira Powers, a Northern nurse working in Nashville, visited former First Lady Sarah Childress Polk at Polk Place in October 1864 “to obtain some leaves and flowers for souvenirs of the place, to arrange on paper for a Sanitary Fair.” Mrs. Polk cut the greenery herself and threw in a photograph of Polk Place that showed the tomb of the president.

Merged Polks

Sarah Childress Polk, wife of President James K. Polk (photo of portrait by George Dury), left, and burial place of James K. Polk, Nashville, Tenn., right. Both courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The 1866 Baltimore Fair was organized by women in Maryland to assist people within the former Confederacy, including Tennesseans. The final report of the relief association is particularly interesting with respect to Tennessee and demonstrates an East Coast obliviousness regarding the Western Theater that is still sometimes apparent today. At first, Tennessee was only appropriated $6,000 “from an impression that the State had suffered very little in the late war.” This “very great mistake” was soon rectified and additional money funneled to Tennessee, including $500 for an orphan asylum in Clarksville.

The detailed reports kept by organizers of Civil War-era fairs and bazaars provide a treasure trove of information for historians of the war, particularly those interested in material culture and the role of civilians on the home front.

See Also:

Report of the Christmas Bazaar: Held Under the Auspices of the Ladies’ Hospital Relief Association, from December 14 to December 22, inclusive at Corinthian Hall, Rochester, N.Y. (Rochester, Benton & Andrews, 1863).

Report of the Ladies’ Southern Relief Association of Maryland, September 1st, 1866 (Baltimore: Kelly & Piet, 1866).

Teaching with Primary Sources–MTSU Lesson Plan: “Help Is on the Way: Civil War Women and Relief Work.”

Antoinette G. van Zelm, “Fairs and Bazaars,” in Lisa Tendrich Frank, ed., The World of the Civil War: A Daily Life Encyclopedia (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 2015).

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Secret Stories No More: The Hidden Civil War Past at the Historic Franklin Masonic Hall

By Rachael A. Finch, Research Historian, Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area

In the public mind, myths and mystery continue to characterize the fraternal organization of Freemasonry, steeped in centuries of politics and power. Hollywood’s National Treasure (2004) portrays members of the Knights Templar (a sect of Freemasonry) as protectors of an immense treasure and follows one family determined to unlock its “secrets.”

While there is not a “treasure” at the Historic Franklin Masonic Hall, the building and its collection are a treasured historic resource. The hall was constructed between about 1823 and 1826, and it cleverly blends Gothic architecture and country craftsmanship. Today, the Hall continues to serve as the location of Hiram Lodge No. 7, the oldest continuing lodge to exist in its original location in Tennessee.

Historic Franklin Masonic Lodge.

Historic Franklin Masonic Lodge.

Recognized as a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service in 1973 for its role in the Treaty of Franklin (1830) between President Andrew Jackson and the Chiefs of the Chickasaw Nations, it served as Franklin’s first public meeting space; all of the major religious denominations started on the first floor and numerous organizations, such as the Grange (an agricultural fraternity), met there too.

My role this past year has been to expand upon the hall’s known Civil War history and locate its unknown wartime stories. Known Civil War facts include the hall’s use as an observation post by both the South and the North and its role as a field hospital for Federal soldiers following the devastating Battle of Franklin in 1864. Yet, the hall’s collection of historic ledgers and artifacts tell a fuller story. From a Civil War Federal officer’s dress sword to the names of men etched on the second-floor walls, the building and its collection speak to the tensions of Union occupation, the relationship between the Lodge’s members and the war, and early efforts to preserve the building.

Signatures of Union soldiers from the 14th Michigan Infantry and 2nd Michigan Cavalry, on an interior wall in the Historic Franklin Masonic Lodge.

Signatures of Union soldiers from the 14th Michigan Infantry and 2nd Michigan Cavalry, on an interior wall in the Historic Franklin Masonic Lodge.

On the eve of the Civil War, Masons across the United States urged peace. James McCullum, Grand Master of Tennessee stated, “if every appeal for peace shall be thrust aside–if the sword must still be the last resort, and accepted as the final arbiter–we beseech the brethren engaged in the lawful contest to remember that a fallen foe is a brother, and as such is entitled to warmest sympathies and kindliest attention.”

In the spring of 1861, local women, including Carrie McGavock of Carnton Plantation and her enslaved servant Mariah, gathered at the hall to sew Confederate uniforms. About the same time, Dr. Samuel Henderson wrote, “The first company of volunteers under Hanner and House to go into camp left Franklin May 18. Capt. Waggoner’s company of Irishmen left Franklin about midnight. Company under the command Capt. (Moscow) Carter left June 3 at noon. Capt. Rucker’s company left the same day.” Moscow Carter returned to the Lodge after the war, but his brother Tod died from wounds sustained during the Battle of Franklin.

The 2nd floor, where the Blue Lodge has met since 1826.

The second floor, where the Blue Lodge has met since 1826.

During Union occupation, the Hall became quartermaster offices and barracks for several regiments, including the 14th Michigan Infantry and the 2nd Michigan Cavalry. Their presence encouraged Franklin’s Unionists, including several Masons, to call for the war’s end. Masons Dr. Daniel Cliffe, Dr. Samuel Henderson, and Frank Hardeman and non-Masons A.J. Pinkston and W.S. Campbell met at the hall to prepare their “Unionist Manifesto” in August 1863.The first Unionist rally in Franklin was held with much fanfare on August 22, 1863, and was attended by Military Governor Andrew Johnson and fiery minister and editor William G. Brownlow.

After the war, newly freed African Americans settled nearby along present-day 2nd Avenue. On July 6, 1867, the primarily African American Union League drew the ire of former Confederate sympathizers during a political rally prior to the August 1867 gubernatorial election, the first statewide contest in which African American men would be able to vote. The violence shuttered the Masonic meeting that night due to a “street disturbance.”

In 1913, the Lodge received reparations from damages to the hall incurred during the Civil War. The past nine months, I have worked with the board members of Hiram Lodge No. 7 and their non-profit, Hiram Lodge Preservation, Inc., to unearth and interpret the “hidden secrets” of the hall’s Civil War past. Possessing a deeper understanding of their history, the Masons are becoming part of the heritage tourism landscape. With the installation of a Civil War Trails marker in the next few months, visibility of the site will increase and engage the community with an amazing historic resource.

The 3rd floor, where the Knights Templar and the York Rite have met since 1826.

The third floor, where the Knights Templar and the York Rite have met since 1826.

For more information on upcoming events, please consider viewing the Web site or follow the hall on Facebook at Historic Franklin Masonic Hall and on Twitter @HFMHall.

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Revisiting the Voting Rights Act of 1965

By Abigail Gautreau, Center for Historic Preservation

Thursday, August 6, 2015, was the fiftieth anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This landmark legislation is often hailed as the most important piece of civil rights legislation, extending full citizenship to African Americans routinely disenfranchised by so-called literacy tests and other Jim Crow laws designed to protect white supremacy. That afternoon, I joined hands with civil rights activists and scholars to sing “We Shall Overcome” in the Alabama State Capitol. Given recent challenges to voting rights, the moment was bittersweet for me.

I was in the capitol that afternoon for the closing ceremony of Alabama State University’s “Give Us the Ballot” conference commemorating the voting rights campaign that culminated in the March from Selma to Montgomery. Unlike most academic conferences, this one was dominated by the voices of activists from the movement, from the well-known, like the Reverend C.T. Vivian, to those largely unknown outside of activist or scholarly circles, like Bettie Mae Fikes, one of the pivotal student leaders in Selma.

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Dr. Tara White moderating our panel at the “Give Us the Ballot” conference.

I was asked to participate in the conference based on my work on the Selma movement for both my dissertation and my graduate research assistantship at the Center for Historic Preservation (CHP). My panel focused on the voting rights movement in Dallas and Lowndes counties and included Charles Mauldin, who was another key student leader in Selma, and Catherine Flowers, a historian from Lowndes County. Our moderator was Tara White, professor of history at Wallace State Community College in Selma and a fellow graduate of mine from the MTSU Public History Doctoral Program. Like most of the sessions, ours included both panel and audience members who told stories about their experiences in the movement.

Hearing these stories is a profoundly moving experience, not only because of the stories themselves, but because these voices are so often silenced in the larger narrative of the civil rights movement. Most citizens, particularly white Americans, think of the movement as a triumphant moment that happened fifty years ago, and while the movement had its triumphs, ignoring the personal costs of those victories does a disservice to those who gave their lives or childhoods to the freedom struggle. It also leads to complacency, as though the victories of the past are secure and do not require constant vigilance.

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Sitting on the left, I joined Charles Mauldin and Catherine Flowers for a panel at the “Give Us the Ballot” conference.

“Give Us the Ballot,” then, was as much about the present as the past. In talking about the work of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Ruby Sales and Mukasa Dada (aka Willie Ricks) also discussed Black Lives Matter and police brutality. Rev. Vivian’s opening remarks reminded us not only of how far we have come, but how far we still have to go.

In 2013, the Supreme Court overturned part of the Voting Rights Act, and since then obstacles to voter registration have proliferated. Voter ID laws are now in effect in states originally covered by the act, like Alabama. Since the conference, Alabama has announced the impending closure of all but four driver licensing offices across the state, which will make it much more difficult for low-income and rural voters to obtain the necessary identification. Bills to restore aspects of the Voting Rights Act have been introduced in the U.S. Congress but have been slow to progress.

In the majority opinion in Shelby v. Holder, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the election of black officials in cities like Selma indicated that the Voting Rights Act had achieved its aims and was no longer necessary. The consequences of that decision have been swift and profound. As I listened to people who were there fifty years ago describe their experiences in the struggle, I was once again reminded of the responsibility of historians to bring these largely forgotten stories of sacrifice to our audiences.

Students and community members will have the opportunity to hear Rev. Vivian and Rev. James M. Lawson discuss voting rights at MTSU on Constitution Day, September 17. A panel organized by the American Democracy Project, “No Voice, No Choice: The Voting Rights Act at 50,” will take place at 2:30 p.m. at Tucker Theatre on the MTSU campus and will be moderated by Aleia Brown, a CHP graduate research assistant.

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The Value of Collaboration

By Ethan Morris, CHP Graduate Research Assistant

 Each summer, graduate students pursuing a Master of Arts in History with an emphasis on Public History at Middle Tennessee State University complete an internship at an institution of their choice. Many students go up the road to Nashville, some go out of state, and a few stay in Murfreesboro. I chose to stay in Murfreesboro and intern at the Bradley Academy Museum and Cultural Center to get hands-on experience at a small nonprofit.

The Bradley Academy Museum is housed in a former African American school building built in 1917. After desegregation, the city converted the school into storage space, and the building soon needed attention. In the early 1990s, Bradley Academy’s alumni organization worked with the city and local partners, including the Center for Historic Preservation, to restore the building and transform it into a museum and community center serving Murfreesboro as a whole and reaching out to nearby African American residents in particular. Bradley is operated by a volunteer board of dedicated locals, and one of these volunteers, Katie Wilson, agreed to serve as my mentor.

Community volunteer and artist Dominique Coleman asked area children to talk about their artwork during an art camp in July.

Community volunteer and artist Dominique Coleman asked area children to talk about their artwork during an art camp in July.

During my first month at Bradley, I tried to do as much as I could and started writing a proposal for a federal grant for a public program that would draw attention to the history of Rutherford County’s former African American school buildings. Additionally, I digitized photographs in Bradley Academy’s collection and started plans for two summer children’s camps. I hoped to update Bradley Academy’s Web site as well. Yet, the complexities of the federal grant, combined with my other responsibilities, and the fact that I worked largely alone soon overwhelmed me. I tried to do too much on my own. I learned the hard way that a career in a small nonprofit is a career in collaboration.

A small informational exhibit on Bradley Academy that I put together for an MTSU and Murfreesboro Parks and Recreation event in August.

A small informational exhibit on Bradley Academy that I put together for an event.

I made collaboration my goal moving into June and asked Bradley board members and community members for help. Ms. Wilson and I put together two week-long arts camps, one in June and the other in July. With the help of the community, we not only met but exceeded our goals. Local businesses, churches, and lodges donated the needed funds. The city agreed to provide free lunches, snacks, and dinners. Nearby churches advertised the camps during their Vacation Bible Schools. Artists, teachers, musicians, and poets in the community volunteered to take time out of their work weeks to come and talk with our campers. The campers, ranging in age from four to seventeen, thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Collaborative ventures spread the workload among a variety of individuals and groups. Thanks to additional help, the burden I placed on my shoulders in early May disappeared by the end of June. Yet, the most fulfilling part of collaboration is not the reduced workload, it is forming lasting relationships with your colleagues. I became friends with community volunteers, went out to eat with board members, and now continue to keep in touch with the people I met over the summer. I plan to work with Bradley Academy again this fall on a project for one of my classes. This summer, I learned the value of collaboration, and it will never be lost on me again.

Community volunteers and artists, Mary Watkins and Dominique Coleman, work with campers on their watercolor paintings during a summer camp in June.

Community volunteers and artists Mary Watkins and Dominique Coleman work with campers on their watercolor paintings during a summer camp in June.

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Tennessee as a “Desolated State”

By Antoinette G. van Zelm, Assistant Director, Center for Historic Preservation

Title PageWhile I was in graduate school, a fellow researcher gave me the gift of a nineteenth-century book that I continue to cherish (and use). A Picture of the Desolated States; and the Work of Restoration, 1865-1868, written by J.T. Trowbridge, is one of the most significant of the many travel narratives written about the South after the Civil War. Tennessee is well-covered in the book, so we’ve used some of the book’s illustrations for our Reconstruction-related exhibitions and other projects at the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area.

One of my favorite parts of the book is the faded inscription, “Presented by Francella to Father, Dec. 25, 1868.” The book that passed between Francella and her father on Christmas in 1868 is quite a tome, numbering more than 700 pages, including appendices. First published in 1866 to give northerners a sense of the devastating effects of the war on the South and the ongoing efforts to rebuild society, Trowbridge’s chronicle was reissued two years later. The update included chapters on Reconstruction politics and the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson.

J.T. Trowbridge was no fan of President Andrew Johnson, as suggested by the caption to the illustration above.

J.T. Trowbridge was no fan of President Andrew Johnson, as suggested by the caption above.

The author, John Townsend Trowbridge (1827-1916), was a native of New York who had settled in Boston as a young man and established himself as a writer, eventually specializing in juvenile literature. Influenced by the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, he spoke out against slavery and published two antislavery novels, Neighbor Jackwood (1857), considered his best work, and Cudjo’s Cave (1863), which takes place in East Tennessee.

Traveling through Tennessee by train, horse, and foot, Trowbridge described the landscape and the people, giving particular attention to how former Confederates were adapting to defeat and how former slaves were making the transition to freedom. Not surprisingly, Trowbridge’s Unionist and Republican sympathies are evident throughout the book, as are his northern prejudices—he lamented, for example, not finding New England village greens as he journeyed through Tennessee. A firm supporter of the Freedmen’s Bureau, Trowbridge praised its schools and temporary courts.

This map includes many of J.T. Trowbridge's stops in Tennessee.

This map of Kentucky and Tennessee includes many of J.T. Trowbridge’s stops in Tennessee.

In East Tennessee, Trowbridge found Greeneville “eminently disagreeable” on a rainy day, relayed that Knoxville had “received rough treatment during the war,” and described Chattanooga as “anything but a lovely town” despite the “strikingly bold and grand scenery” that surrounded it. He assessed East Tennesseans as “a plain, honest, industrious, old-fashioned people” and upheld the region’s unconditional Unionists as model men for the future of the South.

In the Midstate, Trowbridge stopped in Murfreesboro, toured the Stones River battlefield with General William B. Hazen, and noted the skeletal remains of horses still visible on the ground. He described the town and its surroundings as “laid desolate” by the war and occupation. In Nashville, Trowbridge found “the best system of roads I met with anywhere in the South.” He praised the city, using a rather unfortunate metaphor, as “a nostril through which the State has long breathed the Northern air of free institutions.” He took the opportunity to speak with legislators just dismissed for the holidays and made sure to meet Governor William G. Brownlow, “a tall, quiet individual of a nervous temperament, intellectual forehead, and a gift of language.”

Unlike the scene depicted in this illustration, most freedmen's schools had just one teacher, but this image does do a good job of showing the intergenerational nature of these schools.

Unlike the scene depicted in this illustration, most freedmen’s schools had just one teacher. This image does do a good job, however, of showing the intergenerational nature of these schools.

From Nashville, Trowbridge visited Corinth, Mississippi, and the battlefield at Shiloh. Near the battlefield, he stayed with a poor farm family and was overwhelmed by their generosity. In Memphis, Trowbridge discovered a spirit of enterprise similar to that he had observed in Nashville. He confessed that Memphis “surprised me by its beautiful situation and commercial activity.” He then drew for his northern audience a romanticized description of the work of mostly African American laborers loading cotton and other exports onto steamships headed up the Mississippi.

A Picture of the Desolated States is by no means an objective look at postwar Tennessee. It is, however, a fascinating primary source that presents a colorful perspective on the state’s emergence from the trauma of civil war.

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A Zeal for Education: The Story of Cora Bristol Nelson

By Leigh Ann Gardner, Interpretive Specialist, Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area

One of the missions of the Heritage Center is to tell the stories of Murfreesboro and Rutherford County. We are always discovering new stories from the past about our community and its residents. I recently stumbled across the story of a woman who believed that all children should be educated, regardless of their mental abilities. Cora Bristol Nelson opened a school for “feeble-minded children” (as they were then termed) in her Murfreesboro home in 1905.

1931 Sanborn Map (sheet 25) showing the location of the Bristol Nelson School.

1931 Sanborn Map (sheet 25) showing the location of the Bristol Nelson School.

Born in New York in 1870, Cora Bristol was remarkably well-educated and epitomized the Progressive women of her era. She attended the Boston School of Oratory and studied psychology at Columbia University in the early 1890s. Following her marriage to a man from Tennessee, she moved to Lebanon.

After the birth of her second child, Nelson searched for something additional to do. Full of the zeal for reform that characterized the period, she decided to open a school for children with intellectual disabilities. By 1908, Nelson, her family, and her school had all moved to Murfreesboro, where she remained until her death.

The Bristol Nelson School was housed in this building, which no longer stands. (Courtesy of the Rutherford County Archives.)

The Bristol Nelson School was housed in this building, which no longer stands. Courtesy of the Rutherford County Archives.

At that time, Tennessee had more than 7,000 children labeled as “feeble-minded,” and there was no school for them. Articles praising Nelson’s work appeared in the Atlanta Constitution in 1908 and 1911. The article published on October 11, 1911, called her school “the only school in the southern states for the care and training of backward, nervous and feeble-minded children.” Nelson was asked to address the Southern Medical Association in 1908 and the Southern Sociological Congress about her work with the children and her educational methods. She had what was considered a radical notion at the time–tailoring education to each individual student’s needs and abilities.

This was the story I originally came across in the Atlanta Constitution. It was a later article in the Volta Review, however, that deepened the story of this remarkable woman. The Volta Review was established in 1899 as the journal for the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

Photograph of Cora Bristol Nelson from the Volta Review article about her life.

Photograph of Cora Bristol Nelson from the Volta Review article about her life.

The piece on Cora Bristol Nelson, “Chronicle of a Successful Life,” published by Lucy Gray Kendall in January 1939, paints the portrait of a reform-minded woman with wide-ranging interests. Following her marriage, she taught oratory to law students at Cumberland University in Lebanon. Over the years at her Murfreesboro school, she educated children from 23 different states, as well as Canada. (The census records for 1930 and 1940 offer insight into Nelson’s school, as they list the names of her pupils and where they were from.) She was also instrumental in opening similar schools in Jackson, Mississippi, and Charleston, South Carolina. In addition, Nelson served as president of the Murfreesboro Garden Club, the Murfreesboro Woman’s Club, and the Ladies’ Hermitage Association. She was also a member of the Nashville League for the Hard of Hearing (now known as Bridges) and organized similar leagues in Murfreesboro and Chattanooga. She traveled extensively all over the world and was a collector of teapots and antiques. While it is not clear how long she continued teaching, Nelson died in November 1952 and is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Murfreesboro.

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