Archive for the ‘Civil War’ Category

Much of the confusion surrounding Sarah Blair’s connection to the Gammon family stems from her relationship to one of Nathan Gammon’s former slaves, Isaac.

Documentary evidence has not yet shown exactly when and where Nathan Gammon came to own Isaac, but newspaper reports verify that Isaac lived in the Gammon household in Jonesborough during the 1840s and 1850s. When Nathan relocated his family from Jonesborough to Knoxville in 1851, he brought Isaac with him to the new city.

In Knoxville, Isaac lived in common-law marriage with Nancy Jones, a free black woman whom he later married. In testimony delivered to the Southern Claims Commission in the decade following the Civil War, Nancy, who was born free, stated that she had known Isaac since they both lived in Jonesborough. When Nathan Gammon moved his family to Knoxville taking Isaac along, Nancy followed.

In Knoxville, Isaac Gammon was allowed to raise a small herd of hogs. Though it was unusual for slaves to own property (and illegal in some cases), Nancy later testified that Nathan Gammon was in many ways a “kind and benevolent master” who allowed Isaac this courtesy. When the war arrived in Knoxville, some of Isaac’s hogs were slaughtered by the Union Army, desperately short of food and supplies. Isaac filed a claimfor reimbursement, which Nancy continued to press following Isaac’s death. It was settled in her favor in 1876.

Isaac Gammon was a respected member of the Knoxville community, and became the first elected black alderman shortly after the Civil War. During this time period, Sarah Blair was sent to live with Isaac and Nancy, and she changed her last name to theirs. Sarah was living with the Gammons when she left for Montana Territory late in 1870.

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When the Civil War erupted in 1861 and Tennessee ultimately chose cession, Gammon became Clerk of the Court of the Confederate States – a position for which he would later be charged with treason and ultimately pardoned by President Andrew Johnson. Knoxville in particular and eastern Tennessee in general were uniquely affected by the Civil War, as we’ll discuss in another post.

All three of Gammon’s sons enlisted in the Confederate cause. William was wounded and ultimately discharged before the war ended; he then traveled to the north, where he disappeared shortly before the end of the war. His whereabouts were never discovered, but many in the Gammon family suspected he had become a victim of murder. Joseph survived the war, but died just ten years later. George was captured by Union forces and imprisoned at Camp Morton, Indiana, for more than nine months, but survived the war and went on to carry the family name for future generations.

Jennie Gammon also met with danger during the course of the war, evidently being hit by a stray minnie ball in the upper leg. Family legend holds that she refused treatment by any “Yankee” doctor, instead seeking treatment from “the valiant Confederates [who] raised in early each morning so their doctor could treat her wounds!” She also volunteered at the local Confederate hospital in Knoxville, rolled bandages, took food to wounded soldiers, and accompanied her father steadfastly through his trial for treason.

During the hard times of the war, family sources say that Nathan and Mary Gammon turned increasingly to their faith – both were devout members of the First Presbyterian Church of Knoxville – as comfort. Though they remained steadfast in their Confederate sympathies, when smallpox broke out among Federal troops quartered on the Gammon property during the war, sources say that Mary Gammon “treated them all kindly and brought fresh milk to the sick.”

Nathan Gammon’s health declined following the war, but he still managed to assist his son, Joseph, and other ex-Confederate soldiers in leaving Knoxville, where local opinion was decidedly hostile in the aftermath of war. He died on June 14, 1869 at the age of 66. Mary survived him for nearly three decades, passing away on January 6, 1895 at age 89. Jennie survived both her parents, but died tragically in Knoxville on Christmas day, 1925 in an automobile accident. She was 91 years old.

For more information see:

Margaret Gammon Pritchett, “The Gammons of East Tennessee,” McC56750, McClung Collection, East Tennessee Historical Center, July 4, 1992.

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  Nathan Gammon was born on May 19, 1803, at Mount Pleasant, Sullivan County, Tennessee in the far northeastern corner of the state. He grew up in the midst of a prestigious social circle that included close friends and future Presidents Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, and James Knox Polk, and both his father and grandfather were active in Tennessee politics.

As a young man, Nathan Gammon studied law and did practice it, but he also apparently had no political ambitions, and declined to run for public office on more than one occasion, despite the urging of close friends such as Polk. He went into business instead, becoming a very successful merchant, first in Jonesboro, and later in Knoxville.

On July 20, 1824, he married Mary Erwin Hamilton, also a native of Sullivan County, Tennessee. They initially made their home in Jonesboro, where their six children were born: Elizabeth Hamilton Looney, William Hamilton, Jane Leticia (“Jennie”), Joseph Hamilton, George Alexander, and Mary Imogene. With the exception of Mary, all the children survived into adulthood.

In November of 1851, Nathan Gammon moved his family from Jonesboro to Knoxville, which was rapidly becoming a terminus for seamboat navigation and a center of trade for eastern Tennessee. Steamboats were the primary method of transport until the railroad arrived in 1854, and Gammon proved adept at the occupation of commission merchant. He developed a large freighting business that operated out of a warehouse on the Tennessee River at the foot of Gay Street. His eldest son, William, eventually went into business with him as an assistant.

Gammon anticipated the changes railroad transportation would bring, and became the first Passenger and Freight Agent for the East Tennessee, Virginia & Georgia Railroad when it arrived in the city. Skills acquired in that position, and experience as a stenographer, later earned him an appointment as Clerk of the District Court of the United States.

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There has been some confusion as to the role of the Nathan Gammon family in Sarah’s life. Some sources have attempted to assign ownership of a young Sarah to the Gammons, based solely on the idea that it would have made sense given the fact that following the Civil War, Sarah did indeed change her last name from Blair to Gammon. Some researchers are eager to name Nathan Gammon’s second daughter, Jane Leticia (“Jennie”) as Sarah’s owner based on the fact that Sarah had some education when she arrived in the west, and Jennie was a devoted school teacher.

Jennie Gammon did in fact own a young slave girl at the time of the Civil War…her name was Lucy.

Another theory we encountered was that Sarah passed between the Blair and Gammon families through marriage. The connection between the Blair and Gammon families is not in question: Nathan Gammon’s oldest daughter, Elizabeth Hamilton Looney Gammon (b. 23 August 1825, d. 14 April 1898) married William Patterson Blair, son of John Blair III, on October 19, 1820, in Jonesboro, Tennessee, where both families were living at the time.

Following the marriage, William and Elizabeth Blair moved to Warm Springs (later renamed Hot Springs) near Ashville, North Carolina, where William operated a stage line. There is some evidence that the couple owned slaves while residing in North Carolina; however, none appear to be the correct age to be Sarah.

A brief history of what we know about Nathan Gammon and his immediate family will be helpful as we begin to unravel the complexities of Sarah’s late childhood and teenage years. Nathan Gammon was a close friend of the Blair family, and there are many connections between them that hold some bearing on our story.

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Located in Knox County, on the eastern side of the state, Knoxville was founded on June 11, 1792 and named in honor of General Henry Knox, Secretary of War in General George Washington’s cabinet. Knoxville, the county seat, had been founded, named and laid out the year before, in 1791, when the area was still a part of Greene and Hawkins Counties. It had formerly been called White’s Fort, named after a frontier stronghold.

When Tennessee entered the Union as the sixteenth state in 1796, Knoxville officially became the state capital, and remained so until 1813, when it was moved to Nashville for the first time. Knoxville was subsequently again the capital for a brief period in 1817, however, when the state Legislature met there.

The Civil War uniquely impacted Tennessee. The last state to secede from the Union, it was also the first readmitted to statehood. Internally, it was deeply divided before, during and after the conflict.

Tennessee generally aligned with the southern cause, but slaveholding was far more prominent in Middle Tennessee than East Tennessee due to geographic differences that made cash crops such as cotton and tobacco lucrative in the former region, and almost impossible in the latter. The most widely recognized division was the Cumberland Gap, a strip of elevated tableland that divided the early counties of Washington and Mero.

Change occurred rapidly. While eastern Tennessee was more heavily populated in 1790, by the turn of the century the population had shifted dramatically with the west overtaking the east.  The population of slaves in each section was even more dramatically uneven; by 1830, the region west of the Cumberland Plateau held almost seven times as many slaves as did eastern Tennessee. The 1830 cencus lists less than 18,000 total slaves in East Tennessee, and nearly 124,000 in the western district.

This contrast created marked sectionalism, as eastern Tennesseeans watched their western neighbors surge past them in affluence based on the economics of slave labor and cash crops. As W.A. Walker, Jr. writes:

“There is little evidence to show that a better or wrose breed of masters lived in Tennessee than elsewhere. We can assume that the moral and humane qualities of Tennessee slaveholders made slavery neither more nor less acceptable as an institution in Tennessee than it was elsewhere in the South. The peculiar geographical characteristics of the state served, however, to modify the economic circumstances in which slavery was applied, and both public opinion in regard to the slave institution and the lot of the slave no doubt varied according to these circumstances.”

East Tennessee, therefore, became more sympathetic to abolitionist principles, and it was in Jonesboro that the first explicitly abolitionist publication, Elihu Embree’s “The Emancipator” was published. Both the Blair and Gammon families had strong ties, both business and personal, to the Embree family.

Knoxville in particular was torn by the Civil War. In 1861, the City of Knoxville voted in favor of scession, while the county at large overwhelmingly favored remaining with the Union. The conflict among residents with divided loyalties characterized both the war years and the Reconstruction period.

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Our search began in Knoxville for several reasons that have already been mentioned elsewhere: both the Blair and Gammon families had extensive roots there, and the family that brought Sarah west departed from that city in 1870. It seemed logical to start with what we knew – that at some point prior to departing for Montana with John Luttrell Murphy, Sarah was living in Knoxville – and work our way backward from there.

That researching slaves and former slaves can be tricky business goes without saying. Few researchers are lucky enough to stumble across first-hand sources that empirically pin down the whereabouts of a specific individual, especially in the tumultuous years surrounding the Civil War. But we had to start somewhere.

Through some primary research on Knox County, Tennessee, we learned that some of our suspects, the Blairs, had sunk roots in Tennessee a few counties to the east, in Washington County; there were also Blairs in Knoxville, and just across the state line, in South Carolina. All of them warranted further investigation, as did the Gammon family, which we believed owned some of Sarah’s relatives.

So our search began with Knoxville as a home base, and branched out from there to include Jonesborough, in nearby Washington County. We believe that to understand a person, you must understand where they come from -the things they saw, the places they went, the environment that shaped them. So first up: some Tennessee history.

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When we started this project, we were painfully aware of several competing versions of Sarah’s early life. Some sources said Tennessee. Others said South Carolina. Some said…well, almost nothing, to be honest. We believe that if you’re going to tell a story, you have to start at the beginning, and Sarah most certainly has a beginning to be uncovered. That became the primary mission of a recent research trip to Tennessee.

To narrow down our area of focus and define a clear starting point, we chose to start in Knoxville, Tennessee. We had good reason to believe that doing so was at least based on an educated guess, based on information that came from Sarah herself: on multiple Montana census records, she unwaveringly listed her place of birth as Tennessee, and we trust her recollection.

There is some logic behind the confusion, but the deeper we dug, the more it became clear that such confusion was a more recent phenomenon, stemming from the family that owned Sarah’s parents. We’ll discuss them in some detail in upcoming posts. For now, suffice it to say that before we dug into the Tennessee archives, there were several viable possibilities for the position of Sarah’s owner: John A. Blair was our primary suspect, but his brother, William Blair, his son, William Patterson Blair, and close friend Nathan Gammon were also potential candidates. The Blair and Gammon families shared closely intertiwned personal and business relationships, and it was not unreasonable to think that slaves might have changed hands between them prior to the Civil War.

We chose to start in Knoxville for several reasons:

1. There were Blairs living in Knoxville following the Civil War, in the period when Sarah would have left to come west.

2. Nathan Gammon was a resident of Knoxville in this period, and one often repeated story is that Sarah went to Knoxville following the Civil War to live with an aunt who was married to a Gammon slave.

3. John Luttrell Murphy, who brought Sarah west with his family in 1871, departed from Knoxville.

4. Most importantly, Sarah always maintained that she was from Tennessee, and we trust her! 

As a beginning, we’ll say that for the first time, we uncovered documentary evidence that allows us to make, at the very least, a good educated guess as to where Sarah was born and raised. We have tracked down family members and scoured records that make a strong case for an interpretation supporting Sarah’s statements that this is where she came from. Coming up, we lay out our case!

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