The Three States of Tennessee

This entry is part 11 of 14 in the series The Divided States of the South

Tennessee's Grand DivisionsOf all of the eleven states Tennessee matched Virginia for the number of battles fought on its soil. It was also unsurpassed for the number of soldiers that joined the Union Army with 42,000. Besides Virginia, Tennessee was the most conflicted state over the issue of slavery. The main reason was that there were three states of Tennessee and not one homogeneous whole.

Tennessee developed differently than many of the other states. The state has three distinct sections called Grand Divisions. The Grand Divisions are three geographic regions, each constituting roughly one-third of the state’s land area, that are geographically, culturally, legally, and economically distinct. The Grand Divisions are legally recognized in the state constitution and state law and are represented on the flag of Tennessee by the flag’s three prominent stars.

East, Middle, and West Tennessee, are sometimes referred to as “three states of Tennessee” or “the three Tennessees”. As such they are legally defined in the state constitution as the “eastern, middle, and western” grand divisions of the state. The law lists the counties in each region.

Tennessee monument at ShilohThe boundary between East Tennessee and Middle Tennessee is on the Cumberland Plateau, which was a major barrier to travel and commerce during much of the state’s early history. The boundary is close to the line between the Eastern and Central time zones. All but three counties of East Tennessee are in the Eastern Time Zone, while Middle and West Tennessee are entirely in the Central Time Zone. The reach of the Tennessee River that flows northward to Kentucky from Mississippi and Alabama demarcates the boundary between Middle and West Tennessee.

The three regions are geographically and culturally distinct.

  • East Tennessee’s landscape is dominated by the Appalachian mountain chain, including the Great Smoky Mountains on the eastern border of the state, the ridge-and-valley region where East Tennessee’s principal cities (Knoxville, Chattanooga, and the Tri-Cities) are located, and the rugged Cumberland Mountains.
  • East and Middle Tennessee are separated along the Cumberland Plateau. Middle Tennessee, which includes the state’s capital city of Nashville, is dominated by rolling hills and fertile stream valleys.
  • West Tennessee, located between the Tennessee and the Mississippi Rivers, is the lowest-lying of the three Grand Divisions. It is part of the Gulf Coastal Plain physiographic region, characterized by relatively flat topography. Except for the Memphis metropolitan area, land use in this region is mostly agricultural. Historically, cotton was West Tennessee’s dominant crop.

More than most other southern states, antebellum Tennessee was divided over the issue of slavery. Slaves had accompanied their owners into Tennessee in the 18th century, and by 1850, they constituted about one-fourth of the state’s population. Although slaveholders lived in all sections of the state, they predominated in the west, where cotton was grown profitably, as well as in Middle Tennessee. In East Tennessee, where blacks made up less than 10% of the population, antislavery sentiment thrived.

With the geographic divisions of the state came political divisions. The battle over secession highlights these divisions. In February 1861, Governor Isham Tennessee Union SoldierHarris, a West Tennessean, sought to lead Tennessee out of the Union by asking for a vote to hold a secession convention. However, his initiative was defeated by a margin of 54 to 46%.

The main opposition came from East Tennessee whose resident were pro-Union. Later that year, East Tennessee attempted to secede from Tennessee but were denied by Tennessee’s General Assembly. Although the Assembly rejected East Tennessee’s bid for statehood, it assured the region that the state would not pass any conscription laws.

Following the firing on Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers, the governor began military mobilization, submitted an ordinance of secession to the General Assembly, and made direct overtures to the Confederate government. The Tennessee legislature ratified an agreement to enter a military league with the Confederate States on May 7, 1861.

On June 8, 1861, voters approved a second referendum calling for secession, becoming the last state to do so. In the referendum, East Tennessee held firm against separation, while West Tennessee returned an equally heavy majority in favor. The deciding vote came in Middle Tennessee, which went from 51 percent against secession in February to 88 percent in favor in June.

Governor Isham Harris sent sent Confederate troops under General Felix Zollicoffer to occupy East Tennessee and prevent secession. Harris initially tried to sway eastern Tennessee’s pro-Union population with a lenient policy and the stationing of only fifteen companies of troops in the region.

On July 26, 1861, Harris, who was still in charge of the Tennessee state force, ordered Zollicoffer and 4,000 raw recruits to Knoxville to be in position to suppress resistance to secession in East Tennessee, appointing him to command the District of East Tennessee. On August 18, Harris ordered Zollicoffer to arrest and, if necessary, banish leaders of pro-Union factions from the State, changing his policy from leniency to force.

East Tennessee thus came under Confederate control from 1861 to 1863. Nevertheless East Tennessee supplied significant numbers of troops to the Federal army. (See also Nickajack). Many East Tennesseans engaged in guerrilla warfare against state authorities by burning bridges, cutting telegraph wires, and spying for the North. 

East Tennessee became an early base for the Republican Party in the South. Strong support for the Union challenged the Confederate commanders who controlled East Tennessee for most of the war. Generals Felix K. Zollicoffer, Edmund Kirby Smith, and Sam Jones oscillated between harsh measures and conciliatory gestures to gain support, but had little success whether they arrested hundreds of Unionist leaders or allowed men to escape the Confederate draft. Union forces finally captured the region in 1863. Many battles were fought in the state, most of them victories by the larger Union forces.

Here are the series links to the fighting in Tennessee:

The Fort Henry and Fort Donelson Campaign Series:

Partisan Warfare in Tennessee:

The Battle of Shiloh Series:

The Chattanooga Campaign:

The Franklin-Nashville Campaign Series:

Sam Watkins and “Company Aytch”:





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