“Sons of East Tennessee: Civil War Veterans Divided and Reconciled” by Jack Brubaker. Foreword by Jack Neely. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2022. 237 pages, $35 (softcover), $21.99 (ebook). McFarlandBooks.com.
“Sons of East Tennessee” is a book about two Civil War veteran officers, one Union and one Confederate from east Tennessee, whose sons were both killed at almost the same instant on July 1, 1898, in an American assault on El Caney near Santiago, Cuba, in the Spanish-American War. On Easter Sunday in 1899, the veterans met and shook hands at the graves of their sons, who were buried alongside one another in Knoxville’s National Cemetery. In his Foreword, Jack Neely admits that, despite his 30 years as a Knoxville historian, he had not heard about the newspaper accounts citing this meeting as a sign of national reconciliation or the elaborate memorial service conducted by the University of Tennessee for these two fellow alumni. The region of east Tennessee was sharply divided between Union and Confederate supporters and its families often split their allegiances, much as it was in Kentucky, with, for example, two sons fighting for the Blue and three for the Gray, or the other way around. Although this description may sound like the book is just all about a local story, readers will learn a lot about the Civil War, about its cemeteries, memorials and monuments, about the Indian Wars and about “the splendid little war” that was fought by the next generation. Although I had read many books about the Spanish-American War, and incidentally had a great-great-uncle killed in the explosion of the battleship Maine, author Jack Brubaker’s focus on these two soldiers in the assault brought that conflict to life in a way that I had never seen before.
Brubaker is a journalist who has published several books, including “The Last Capital: Danville, Virginia and the Final Days of the Confederacy,” “Massacre of the Conestogas: On the Trail of the Paxton Boys in Lancaster County” and “Down the Susquehanna to the Chesapeake.”
The two Civil War veterans he focuses on were Reuben Bernard (Union) and William McCorkle (Confederate). Bernard was born in 1832 and after trying out farming and blacksmithing an Army recruiter convinced him to become a horse soldier. A biography of Bernard published in 1936 claimed in its title that he was a veteran of 103 “fights and scrimmages.” His earliest battlefield experiences took place in New Mexico and Arizona against Apaches. In 1860, Bernard went on furlough and visited friends in Knoxville. He donned a stovepipe hat, similar to President Abraham Lincoln’s, and on a dare even wore it to a meeting of Democrats. An inebriated man smashed the hat down around Bernard’s eyes and ears. Bernard returned to Arizona to engage Cochise and in 1862 wrote a letter to future President Andrew Johnson, who was governing federally-occupied Tennessee, requesting transfer to a Tennessee regiment. Bernard said New Mexico was “a place of slow operations and is Filled with Traitors and Cowards.” In the summer of 1863, Bernard was commissioned as first lieutenant and was sent to the eastern theater. His unit arrived a few days after Gettysburg, but from this point until the end of the war Bernard participated in 65 actions. He was soon brevetted up to the rank of colonel.
McCorkle was born in 1830 and earned his medical degree from the University of Virginia Medical School in 1853. He also studied at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in 1855 and was among a small minority of physicians with advanced training beyond just being tutored by older doctors. He joined the Army of Tennessee in the summer of 1861 as a private/surgeon in the First Tennessee Cavalry and served for most of the war in Tennessee and farther south. In his pension application, McCorkle said he was engaged in the battles of Fishing Creek in Kentucky and Murfreesboro in 1862. In 1863, McCorkle was captured while tending to the wounded after a Confederate raid into central Kentucky and held for about eight months until he was part of a POW surgeon exchange late in that year. McCorkle’s medical career causes the author to explore medical conditions and problems during the Civil War in significant detail. For example, of 17 men in McCorkle’s Company F of the Second (originally First) Tennessee who died during the war, all but one expired from disease. In addition, the Confederate 19th Infantry had mustered more than 1,000 men in the spring of 1861, but they assembled only 78 men when the unit surrendered four years later. Diseases account for a large percentage of the losses.
Reuben Bernard continued his military career after the Civil War by pursuing Indian units in California, Arizona, Oregon and some other states. He received his brevet as brigadier general in 1890 and retired in 1896 and was appointed deputy governor of the Soldiers’ Home in Washington and also as first president of The Order of Indian Wars of the United States. Unlike Bernard, McCorkle resumed his medical practice in east Tennessee following the war and delivered babies, as well as working as a family physician.
In areas like east Tennessee, Confederate veterans were pressured to move away, even though Tennessee was the first state to rejoin the Union in 1866. It may seem unusual now that Union dead were buried in national cemeteries, while Confederates were generally excluded and often women’s groups were responsible for raising funds to rebury Confederate dead, as the Ladies Memorial Association did in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. Decoration Day was initiated to memorialize Union war dead each spring, but Confederate groups held similar memorials for their war dead and some veterans attended both ceremonies in their area. In some states, reconciliation began to be part of the services. Memorial Day in 1898 was especially connected to reconciliation in many areas because a new generation of soldiers was fighting in the Spanish-American War.
The joint burial of Bernard’s and McCorkle’s sons is an excellent example of this. Although a few monuments honoring the war dead were erected in the late 1860s and 1870s, most of the monuments were put up in the 1890s and later. The first major reunions of veterans were held in connection with the American centennial celebrations in 1875-76. Tennessee’s GAR members began holding encampments in 1885. Knoxville staged one of the nation’s first blue-gray reunions in 1890.
In the next generation, Henry McCorkle and John Jay “Jack” Bernard both had military training at the University of Tennessee and both pursued military careers. They received commissions in the Army and after war was declared in April 1898 they made their way toward Tampa, Fla., to assemble for the invading force. As Leonard Wood, commander of the Rough Riders, made his way to Tampa he saw crowds of people waving flags and cheering his men on their way south. He wrote to his wife: “All the cost of this war is amply repaid by seeing the old flag as one sees it today in the south. … We are indeed once more a united country.” Almost 30,000 men camped in the Tampa area to prepare to sail to Cuba. Burke’s Fourth Regiment and McCorkle’s 25th Regiment both camped around Tampa. When arriving in Cuba, they were among a group of about 6,000 soldiers who landed “amid a multitude of land crabs and mosquitoes” at Daiquiri. Their regiments had to slog toward their first major battle “through ankle-deep black mud that sucked at their boots.” As the Americans slowly moved toward the fort that protected El Caney, Spanish sharpshooters picked off many of them, including Bernard and McCorkle. In this assault 81 Americans died and of the 360 wounded dozens would die subsequently. Although these casualties pale when compared to those from Civil War battles, as a percentage of soldiers engaged in combat these losses were high. Deaths from disease were also unusually high.
“Sons of East Tennessee” is packed with interesting and unfamiliar material. For example, I was not aware that Knoxville, Knox County and surrounding counties maintained a seat in Congress for the duration of the war despite the fact that Tennessee had seceded from the Union. If events had been a little different they could easily have seceded from Tennessee and rejoined the Union as a separate unit, as West Virginia did when leaving Virginia. In addition, Brubaker investigates burials and reburials, memorials, reunions, issues of reconciliation between Union and Confederacy in this very divided area of the south in a way that other authors simply do not. The book includes 54 photos, many of which came from archival collections, detailed notes, a bibliography and an index. It is very well written and interesting.
I recommend it very highly for anyone interested in the Civil War and the late 19th century.
– Reviewed by Richard Weigel, Western Kentucky University History Department.