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Tennessee Documentary History, 1796-1850



The people of Tennessee have never shied away from a fight. It should not be

surprising then that warfare contributed much to the state’s history from the

Revolutionary era to the 1850s. The “Volunteer” spirit, for which Tennesseans

have become renowned, owes much of its mystique to a prevalent willingness,

even eagerness, to take up arms against such foes as the American Indians, the

British, and the Mexicans. The principal military organization in Tennessee

during these years was the volunteer militia. Under the state constitution,

all able-bodied males of age were subject to service in a common militia, one

designed for statewide defense and slave patrols. The volunteer militia,

however, was more select in its personnel (usually planters and yeoman

farmers), trained regularly, and often provided its own equipment. During the

colonial period, the militia typically acted as an extension of the British

Army in the Empire’s numerous conflicts with the French and their Indian

allies. The most significant engagements involving Tennessee volunteers—then

still part of North Carolina—took place during the so-called Cherokee War

(1759-1761), a savage contest whose fighting centered around Fort Loudon in

East Tennessee. With the coming of the Revolution, however, Tennesseans no

longer fought under British aegis but soon came into their own as a martial people.


Revolutionary/Early Statehood Period

In July 1776, the thirteen American colonies declared their independence from

Great Britain, thereby legitimating a rebellion that had already commenced the

year before. Far removed from the main theaters of conventional fighting,

Tennessee avoided most of the Revolution’s hardships. Everything changed in

1780, however, when British troops, in conjunction with their Tory allies,

attempted to subdue the southern colonies. Part of this ambitious British

undertaking involved the subjugation of the mountain communities in western

North Carolina and East Tennessee, a task assigned to Tory commander Patrick

Ferguson. Tennessee militiamen joined their Virginia and North Carolina

brethren in defeating this incursion. Leading the Tennesseans were colonels

Isaac Shelby and John Sevier. At the battle of Kings Mountain (7 October),

the Patriot coalition encircled and destroyed Ferguson’s command. The

Tennessee contingent engaged in the hardest fighting of the day, with Shelby

and Sevier emerging as their region’s first genuine military heroes.

Despite the glory of Kings Mountain, the Revolutionary War for most

Tennesseans witnessed a continuation of the ongoing struggle against the

Cherokees and Creeks. In such conflicts as Lord Dunmore’s War (1774), where

Shelby and Sevier first demonstrated their fighting prowess, and sporadic

engagements in the late 1770s with Dragging Canoe, leader of the combative

Chickamaugas, white Tennesseans strove to expand and pacify their homeland.

Beginning in 1787, John Sevier and other Tennessee leaders conducted what they

hoped would be the final campaign to suppress the Indians. But warfare

persisted until the mid-1790s, when a series of treaties, combined with the

U.S. Army’s military successes in the Ohio Territory, helped stabilize

Indian-white relations all along the American frontier. Under these peaceful

circumstances, Tennessee entered the Union in 1796.


War of 1812

In June 1812, Congress declared war on Great Britain, citing as principal

causes both the British disruption of U.S. maritime trade and their

interference with westward expansion. The war proved popular in Tennessee,

where so-called War Hawks, such as Felix Grundy, had been clamoring for a

showdown with Britain since 1807. Tennesseans embraced the war for three

closely related reasons: 1) it allowed them to display their militant sense of

patriotism; 2) it afforded them the opportunity to expand into what would

eventually become the states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida; 3) it

facilitated their efforts to eliminate what they considered to be an Indian

menace to the south, namely the Creek Nation, a tribe the British were

allegedly inciting to go on the war path.


In pursuing these goals, Governor William Blount instructed major generals

Andrew Jackson and John Cocke to raise militia forces from Middle and East

Tennessee respectively. For these two men, the war began in awkward fashion.

Toward the end of 1812, Jackson sought to capture New Orleans while Cocke

tried to organize a military expedition into Florida, a territory nominally

under Spanish control. The U.S. War Department, however, abruptly terminated

these operations, leaving Jackson especially irate at this instance of Federal



The year 1813, however, brought some real combat. After Creek Indians, at

the behest of British authorities, wiped out an American settlement at Fort

Mims in southern Alabama, Governor Blount, without asking permission from the

president, authorized General Jackson to invade the Creek Nation. Though

still recovering from a would received in a duel, Jackson immediately took to

the saddle determined to destroy the Creeks, whom white Tennesseans referred

to as “Red Sticks.” In the autumn of 1813, he marched into Alabama at the

head of 3,500 militiamen. The Tennesseans showed no quarter. On 3 November,

a contingent under General John Coffee surprised a Creek village at

Tallushatchee, killing nearly 200 Indians, including women and children.

Similarly, at Talladega on 9 November, Jackson himself attacked the Creeks,

inflicting more than 300 casualties. These two battles, combined with a

smaller, separate military success by John Cocke in eastern Alabama, left

Jackson poised to complete his destruction of the Creek Nation. Logistical

problems, however, plagued his advance south, a difficulty that gradually

undermined the morale of the militiamen, many of whom left as their

enlistments expired. For Jackson, decisive victory would not come until his

officers raised fresh volunteer militia companies with which to resume the

campaign against the Creek. The following year, at Horseshoe Bend (27 March),

a force of about 2,000 Tennessee militiamen virtually annihilated a Creek war

party of nine hundred “Red Sticks.


The battle of Horshoe Bend broke the Creek Nation. Jackson returned to

Tennessee a hero and soon received a commission in the U.S. Army as a major

general. Ordered to thwart British activities along the Gulf Coast, Jackson

and his capable Tennessee lieutenants, including Coffee and William Carroll,

first seized Pensacola (7 November 1814) and then bloodily repulsed a strong

British force at the much heralded battle of New Orleans (8 January 1815).

The victory was one with minimal strategic benefit—the war officially ended

two weeks before—but enormous symbolic power—Tennesseans had “saved” the young

American Republic.


Warfare with Mexico

During the ante-bellum years, the hard hand of war never touched the

Volunteer State, but Tennesseans did take their fighting ways to some unlikely

places. Many participated in the Seminole Wars in Florida in 1817-1819 and

again in 1830s. Some followed Davy Crockett to a romantic death at the Alamo

in 1836. But the most prominent combat arena for Tennessee volunteers was

Mexico. In 1846, the United States under President James K. Polk went to war

with Mexico over territorial disputes that stemmed in part from American

notions of Manifest Destiny. When Governor Aaron V. Brown asked for 2,500 men

to fill his state’s quota for national recruits, more than 30,000 volunteers

answered the call, an outpouring that earned Tennessee its proud nickname. In

all, Tennessee organized six regiments for service in the Mexican War: five

infantry and one cavalry. Interestingly, the units reflected the political

landscape of Tennessee during those years; Democrats and Whigs were more or

less equally represented in the ranks as individual companies.


The First and Second Tennessee Infantry Regiments and the cavalry regiment

saw the most action of any Tennessee unit during the war. As part of General

Zachary Taylor’s offensive into northern Mexico in 1846, they participated in

the capture of Monterrey in September. The First Tennessee under Colonel

William Campbell especially distinguished itself in a difficult assault on the

Mexican fortification known as “El Diablo.” In 1847, the Tennessee regiments

were reorganized into the Tennessee Brigade, a new formation under the command

of Major General Gideon J. Pillow, a planter from Maury County and friend of

President Polk. During the initial phases of General Winfield Scott’s advance

on Mexico City, this force helped secure Vera Cruz (mid-March) and then

performed gallantly at the battle of Cerro Gordo (18 April). Soon after, the

Tennessee Brigade returned home, having lost nearly 1,600 men to combat and


The Third, Fourth, and Fifth Tennessee Infantry Regiments arrived as

replacements following the capture of Mexico City in September 1847. Aside

from a few skirmishes with Mexican bandits, these units saw little military

action, and instead merely augmented the U.S. Army of occupation. With the

ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, the president withdrew all

U.S. forces from Mexico. Thus ended another phase of Tennessee’s martial

volunteerism. Going into the 1850s, the state enjoyed a well-earned

reputation for war fighting. It was a reputation that would soon face its

ultimate challenge with the Civil War.


Contributed by Ben H. Severance, Ph.D.