Black Union soldiers to be honored at Emancipation Day event
By Linda Braden Albert | (email@example.com)
With all the emphasis on the sesquicentennial observances of the Civil War, one group of soldiers has been largely ignored — the black troops, known at the time of the war as “colored troops,” who served with the Union Army.
Blount County historians Becky Blankenship Darrell, George Lane, Shirley Carr Clowney and Ronald Coffin are working to rectify that oversight by planning an Emancipation Day Celebration Aug. 10 at Mt. Gilead Cemetery, Hannum and Rankin streets, Alcoa. The celebration will honor all of Blount County’s black Civil War soldiers and Sgt. Thomas B. Lillard, who is buried at Mt. Gilead, in specific. Darrell originally had the idea of honoring Lillard by having his tombstone reset after discovering it had been knocked off its base. The Emancipation Day Celebration grew from that and from Darrell’s research on the black soldiers from Blount County.
Lane said, “Most people don’t realize that 80 percent of our soldiers from Blount County were Union, and a lot of people from here had both Union and Confederate ancestors. Nationally, 10 percent of all Union soldiers were ‘colored’ troops, using the terminology from then. We thought there should be recognition of what they did. They were active in Knoxville. The First Colored Heavy Artillery was formed in Knoxville, and there were labor battalions, infantry battalions, artillery battalions. So we wanted to recognize the contributions of all the soldiers who in many cases get left out.”
On the planning committee, Darrell represents the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War; Lane, Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and the East Tennessee Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission; Carr, AAABC (African Americans of Appalachia and Blount County); and Coffin, AAABC and St. Paul A.M.E. Zion Church. The committee also includes Ken Cornett, Blount County Genealogical and Historical Society.
Darrell said, “What’s unusual about Blount County is, I have been able to identify so many soldiers. I started off with a quick list for the Blount County Historical Museum, basically going on those who had military headstones. Over the years, I’ve expanded it and got about 70. Most is from written work, where they’ve been referenced as being soldiers.”
Darrell said she compared her list to the full roster of the First Colored Heavy Artillery formed in Knoxville and came up with more soldiers. The majority of the black soldiers she identified are buried in Mt. Gilead Cemetery, including Lillard.
“He was a prominent businessman,” Darrell explained. “After the war, in the 1870 census, his occupation was listed as hunter and trapper, but he began buying property. He owned a confectionery store, expanded into groceries. All of his children were very well educated.”
Clowney said the date of the celebration is especially significant.
“The date Aug. 10 follows the date of Aug. 8, 150 years to the day that the slaves were freed by Gov. Andrew Johnson,” Clowney said. On that day in 1863, Andrew Johnson, then military governor in Tennessee, freed his personal slaves in Greeneville.
Clowney prepared a written history of Aug. 8, which was seven months after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on Jan. 1, 1863. Johnson still had his slaves, persuading President Abraham Lincoln that “Tennessee wasn’t really all that rebellious — that Tennessee was, in fact, full of innocent Unionists who owned slaves and would be inconvenienced by losing them. So Tennessee was excluded — the only state that was wholly exempt. Johnson and Lincoln believed that saving the Union was more important than the issue of slavery.” In 1865, when the entire state was more securely in Union hands, Johnson issued the order granting all Tennessee slaves their freedom.
The 8th of August was celebrated in Blount County until the 1950s, and then in 2005 a newly organized community group, Hall Oldfield Maryville Empowerment Inc. (H.O.M.E. Inc.) revived the celebration at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Alcoa.
“This year, it is combined with the celebration of the Civil War soldiers,” Clowney said.
The celebration includes black re-enactors, an address by Dr. Aaron Astor, associate professor of history at Maryville College, and the reading of the names of Blount’s black soldiers, in many cases, by descendants.
Art and essay competitions
An art competition for children from kindergarten through 12th grade, broken down into categories per age group, is now underway. The theme must be the Emancipation Proclamation and/or black Union soldiers, and the young artists may use any medium, including paint, crayon, markers, colored pencils or charcoal (no sculpture) on paper no larger than 11 by 14 inches. Entries will be displayed at the Blount County Public Library.
An essay competition with the same theme is being held for students in grades 5-8 and 9-12. References must be cited. Essays from the younger category should be at least 700 words, and for the older group, at least 1,500 words. All must be typed.
The art and essays should be submitted July 10-15 at the Martin Luther King Center in Alcoa, St. Paul Church in Maryville, or, on July 12 and 13, in Study Room A at the Blount County Public Library. First, second and third place winners will receive a ribbon and a cash award, which will be presented at the Emancipation Day event.
The purpose of the competitions is education.
Coffin said, “A lot of young kids don’t really know their history. They hear about George Washington Carver, Frederick Douglas or Martin Luther King, but the history of Blount County is so significant. Many of these Civil War veterans belonged to St. Paul Church. A lot of those who became leaders in the community, like William B. Scott, David Hannum, William Garner and Thomas Lillard were all members of St. Paul Church in Maryville. In fact, Thomas Lillard was the first to attend a Sunday school at St. Paul, and that was in 1868.”
No photographs of the black soldiers, either in uniform or in civilian clothing, have been found. A photograph of St. Paul’s congregation, taken circa 1886, likely includes several of the soldiers, although they are not identified.