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Introduction to the Meek Family Correspondence
By George Rugg
The Meek correspondence consists mostly of letters written by the East Tennessee Unionist James Monroe Meek (1821-after 1899) and by his wife, Elizabeth Walker Meek (1839-1921), during the Civil War. J. Monroe Meek was born and raised on a farm situated on the Holston River, near Strawberry Plains in Jefferson County in East Tennessee. His paternal grandfather was one of the area's first settlers, arriving from North Carolina in 1785. Meek was the oldest of eleven children born to Adam Kennedy Meek (1796-1890) and Elizabeth Childress Meek (1798-1885). The Meek farm was, in antebellum times, among the county's more substantial; the 1860 Federal census indicates that Adam Meek held 20 slaves. After graduating from Maryville College Monroe Meek read law under Robert Anderson of New Market, and practiced law in that town from 1852. Two years later the voters of Jefferson County elected Meek to the lower house of the state legislature; he represented the county in the 31st Tennessee General Assembly (1855-1857), as a Whig. In 1859 he married Elizabeth (Lizzie) Walker, a graduate of Rogersville Female College; two of the couple's three children, James K. Meek (b. 1860) and Ada Burnside Meek (b. 1863), are mentioned repeatedly in the letters.
Like the majority of East Tennesseeans, Meek did not favor secession, and was a delegate at both the Knoxville and Greeneville meetings of the Unionist Convention, held in May and June of 1861 (the second of these meetings petitioned the Tennessee legislature to allow East Tennessee and adjoining areas to form a separate, loyalist state). In the elections held that Augustthe first elections under Confederate ruleMeek won a second term in the state legislature, voted in by a Jefferson County constituency that had rejected secession by more than 3 to 1 in the referendum of the previous June. But continued resistance to Confederate authority in East Tennessee led to the prosecution of prominent Unionists. In April 1862 Meek was arrested, and sent (without benefit of trial) to the Confederate military prison at Camp Oglethorpe in Macon, Georgia, where he remained for several months before being released. He was arrested again in mid-1863, for treason; the cause and consequences of this arrest are unclear. By December 1863 Meek was in Cincinnati, with many another Unionist exile; his wife and children almost certainly remained in Jefferson County. Meek returned home sometime in the first half of 1864, by which time the Union army had moved into East Tennessee and established a powerful presence there. In January 1865 he and other Unionists met at Nashville to initiate the formation of a new state government; though themselves unelected, they repealed the ordinance of secession, drew up an amendment ending slavery, and scheduled statewide elections. Meek prospered within the new regime, serving at various times as a director of the East Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia Railroad, and of the East Tennessee National Bank. In the 1880s he was commissioned U. S. District Attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee. He died one of the wealthiest men in Knoxville.
The 27 letters in the Meek correspondence fall into three distinct groups. Seventeen letters date from the months between October 1861 and June 1862: eight of these were occasioned by Monroe Meek's absence in Nashville, where he was serving in the state legislature, and nine were occasioned by his April arrest and subsequent imprisonment. The earlier, Nashville letters were written between Monroe and Lizzie Meek, each having authored four. The letters relating to the arrest are more various. There are two copies of a letter written by Lizzie Meek to William G. Swan of Knoxville (1821-1869), then a member of the Confederate House of Representatives, seeking Swan's influence in securing her husband's release. These letters date from the apparent day of the arrest, 28 April 1862. Another letter seeking political intervention was written five days later over the joint signatures of Lizzie Meek and Eliza Galbraith, and was sent directly to Jefferson Davis. On 23 May Lizzie received a letter from M. J. Parrott of Knoxville, assuring her of Swan's (and the President's) interest, and begging her patience. There follows a sequence of five letters (5 to 28 June 1862) written between Monroe and Lizzie while the former was being held at Macon. None of these describes the particulars of the affair's resolution. We next hear from Meek in the summer of 1864, inaugurating a sequence of seven letters directed by him to Lizzie. Most of these date from the period December 1864 to February 1865, when Meek was at Nashville helping to establish a new state government. Finally, there are two letters written by Monroe Meek to Lizzie in March 1869, describing the presidential inauguration of Ulysses S. Grant.
Even in the late antebellum period mountainous East Tennessee was a relatively isolated region, populated, for the most part, by small farmers, tenants, and laborers. The great staples of Southern agriculture were grown on only a limited basis here; the planter class was very small, and but 10 per cent of households held slaves. For these reasons and others, East Tennesseans rejected secession in the 1861 statewide referendum by a vote of around 33,000 to 15,000. But the measure was overwhelmingly approved by voters in the middle and western reaches of the state, and on 22 July Tennessee formally joined the Confederacy. The eventual result was not just political and social turmoil but partisan war, waged by East Tennessee Unionists against local secessionists and occupying Confederate troops. Moreover, thousands of East Tennesseans left for Kentucky and points north, to seek service in the Union armies. As it happened, the longed-for invasion of East Tennessee by those armies was delayed until September of 1863, and many loyalists suffered the consequences of their defiance of Confederate rule. Still, the Confederates never succeeded in checking Unionist resistance, or in enforcing the government's political or social authority on the local level. The historian Noel C. Fisher has summarized the situation: ". . . it is clear that throughout the war Unionists succeeded in retaining control of two-thirds to three-fourths of East Tennessee's thirty-one counties." (Fisher 1999, p. 100).
The letters between Monroe and Lizzie Meek are personal in content, written, first and foremost, as assurances of well-being in uncertain times. Political references are largely incidental, and indeed, the letters shed little light on the particulars of Meek's Unionism: what he believed, how his beliefs altered over time, how he acted on those beliefs. From the beginning East Tennessee Unionism incorporated a broad spectrum of political ideologies, conservative to radical, and Meek's position within that spectrum is unknown. Much loyalist activity was of course clandestine, and would have been communicated only with the greatest discretion. There can be little doubt, however, that Meek was a figure of some weight within Unionist circles, certainly on the county level, and perhaps beyond (he was chosen assistant secretary at the second, Greeneville, meeting of the Unionist Convention, in June 1861). His subsequent election to the Tennessee legislaturewhich would have obliged him to take an oath of loyalty to the Confederate governmentwould scarcely have precluded the maintenance of his Unionist ideals; many East Tennessee Unionists were voted into the legislature, since the Confederate authorities chose not to interfere with the August 1861 elections, and many more Unionists took Confederate loyalty oaths, for expediency's sake. Nor do Meek's arrestswhat we know of themtell us anything conclusive about his involvement in the Unionist cause, as will be discussed below.
The letters of October 1861 to February 1862 do, however, communicate the extraordinary tension of the times, and the delicacy of Monroe and Lizzie Meek's situation. Monroe's hurried note of 18 November, for example, was written in the wake of the first great Unionist uprising of the war. On 8 November, with the knowledge and approval of the U. S. government, teams of loyalist partisans attempted to burn nine major railroad bridges between Chattanooga and Bristol, to facilitate a Federal invasion of East Tennessee which was, in the end, called off. Five of the bridges were destroyed, and Unionist mobs turned out across the region to support the supposed invasion. Ultimately, the insurgents were dispersed; a few were executed, and over one thousand arrested. Among these was James Britton (1798-1865), a Greeneville (Greene County) lawyer and legislator whom Meek encountered on 18 November, under arrest, on the train to Knoxville; he was detained, Meek says, because on the night of the bridge burnings he was heard to say "'that the Federal army would be in E[a]st Tennessee that n[ight] or go to Hell.'" Lizzie's letter of 23 November 1861 describes the aftermath of the uprising in Jefferson County (where some 400 Unionists had gathered to threaten the railroad bridge across the Holston River at Strawberry Plains, which the original saboteurs had failed to burn):
Things appear to be getting quiet in this direction The mob still go through the country taking up Union me[n], but they are released as soon as taken to Knoxville without having a question asked. They discharge Lyle. They took old Duffel Rankin down I suppose you have heard about them arresting Judge Patterson. most all the prisoners they had at the plains have been released.
The greater number of those arrested in the wake of the bridge burnings, and brought before civilian courts, were in fact released, by sympathetic justices. But over 200 other loyalistsinfluential men, many of themwere accused by military tribunal of involvement in the conspiracy, and sent to prisons in the Deep South. Among these was David T. Patterson of Greeneville (1818-1891), judge of the first circuit court and son-in-law of then U. S. senator Andrew Johnson.
On 19 January 1862 the Confederate war department sent Maj. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith to Knoxville, with the thankless task of bringing order to the Department of East Tennessee. Believing that broad popular resistance to Confederate rule stemmed first and foremost from Unionist leaders who misrepresented the intentions of the government, Kirby Smith resolved to curb their influence: "The arrest of the leading men in every county," he wrote Adjutant General Samuel Cooper on 2 April, "and their incarceration South, may bring these people right. They are an ignorant, primitive people, completely in the hands of, and under the guidance of, their leaders . . . . Remove these men, and a draft might soon be made, to which a portion of the population would respond." (Fisher 1997, p. 105). To circumvent civil interference with such arrests, Kirby Smith pressed Richmond for a declaration of martial law. On 8 April President Davis complied, and suspended the writ of habeas corpus in the Department of East Tennessee. Meek's arrest took place in the immediate aftermath of these developments, apparently on 28 April, to judge from Lizzie's letter to William Swan. Also arrested at this time were several other prominent Jefferson County Unionists, including Montgomery Thornburgh (1817-1862, a three-time state senator and former attorney general for Tennessee's Twelfth Judicial District); Samuel A. Rodgers (c1798-1866, a former state senator); William Galbraith (1815-1892, a former state representative whose wife, Eliza, was joint author of Lizzie's letter to Jefferson Davis); and Samuel P. Johnson. All these men were incarcerated at Macon, and are mentioned in the letters Meek wrote to Lizzie from that place. (Also mentioned, as part of Meek's "circle" at Macon, is DeWitt Clinton Senter (1832-1898) of Grainger County, then a member of the Tennessee house of representatives and a future governor of the state).
In the aforementioned letter to Jefferson Davis Lizzie and Eliza Galbraith assert that their husbands were never formally charged, but that "outside rumor" has it that the two were arrested because they "aided and encouraged" loyalists to leave East Tennessee for Kentucky. The establishment of networks to move potential Federal recruits out of the state was in fact a fundamental goal of the Unionists, and one that was successfully realized, but Meek's culpability in this regard cannot be proved or disproved, and must remain an open question. In any case, his arrest need not have been predicated on the government's knowledge or suspicion of specific treasonous acts; it was, very possibly, purely political, part of Kirby Smith's concerted effort to deprive the Unionists of their county leadership.
Nor do the letters dating from Meek's time at Macon shed much light on the arrestnot least because they were read by the Confederate military. In his letter to Lizzie of 20 June, Meek writes that "[a]s this letter has to under go an inspection my elocution and rhetoric are somewhat circumscribed Some of the rhetoric of your letter has been eliminated before it reached me. But only a few sentences. No political topics are to be touched and as I know you are no politician it will not require any effort on your part to avoid it." Meek thus reminds his wife to avoid making comments that might be incriminating, or revealing. Lizzie's censored letter, dated 5 June, has survived, and does in fact show several "eliminated" passages. In a subsequent letter, of 28 June, Lizzie refrains from communicating all she knows of efforts to secure the prisoners' release: "I know a great deal if I could see you . . . to tell you that I can not write, but trust we will meet soon and then reveal all." Despite her best efforts at reassurance, her highly anxious state of mind is quite evident in this letter. Meek, for his part, sometimes seeks to allay his wife's fears by describing his predicament with humor:
I am not quite old enough to have been at the building of Bable; but I can conceive of nothing nearer the confusion, hurry, running to and fro with every body's proboscis in your face than this. If Bable was as bad as this I dont wonder it tottered to its Fall.
I have written thus far and I have counted one dozen men who have approached me and said "who are you writting to Meek". I tell them my wife and write on. And now every thing and every body is around me. An infamous fool is now looking over my shoulder. I guess he will quit if he can read. (27 June 1862)
The lines quoted toward the beginning of this letter are from William Cowper's "The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk"Selkirk being the model for Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.
Still, the dangers faced by Meek and the others at hastily improvised Camp Oglethorpe were very real. Meek mentions that "100 or 115 Tennesseans" all political prisoners, presumablywere held at the camp, alongside over 1000 Yankee prisoners of war, many of them captured at Shiloh. Among those victimized by the conditions was Montgomery Thornburgh, certainly the most distinguished of the Jefferson County prisoners, who fell sick and died in mid-June; back home, his death was held up as a symbol of Confederate repression. Meek was apparently released from Camp Oglethorpe in July, though not all his fellows were as fortunate; Senter, at least, remained imprisoned into the fall.
The seven letters written by Meek after his return south in 1864 suggest how unsettled East Tennessee remained, even after Union occupation. Sometime in late July Meek and seven other Unionistsincluding such stalwarts as T. A. R. Nelson and John Netherland traveled to Nashville to meet with military governor Andrew Johnson: the Rebels were "running off" East Tennessee's livestock and forage to Virginia, and troops were needed to stop the depredations. Johnson regretted that he could send no troops, but gave each man an English rifle and 40 rounds of ammunition, to defend his home (Graf and Haskins, vol. 7, pp. 52-3). Given its strategic location, Jefferson County had been the scene of much fighting in the winter of 1863-64, and continued to change hands until late the following year, when remaining Confederate troops withdrew to Virginia. Also in late 1864, Middle Tennessee was invaded by the Confederate army of John Bell Hood, though Union victories at Franklin and at Nashville (described by Meek in his letters of 5 and 22 December) effectively drove the Rebels from the state. In early January Meek returned to Nashville for a Unionist gathering held to initiate the process of creating a new, loyal government. As he writes to Lizzie, in his letter of 11 January 1865:
The convention has done nothing of importance yet. It will make a general ticket of delegates and order an election is my best impression. A portion of the delegates want to make amendments to the constitution now and submit them to the people. This is too radical and I cannot support it.
Meek is saying that he believes the gathering will simply organize elections for delegates to a constitutional convention, which would then possess the authority to reorganize the state government. But in fact the radicals carried the day, assuming constitutional powers for which the delegation lacked a mandate. Tennessee's ordinance of secession was repealed, an amendment ending slavery was passed, and elections were scheduled for 4 March. The radical William G. Brownlow won the governor's seat unopposed, and the majority of the newly elected legislators sympathized with his views. Meek himself did not run for the General Assembly; as he states in his letter of 2 February, "I have my commission as Attorney Gen. for our Judicial Circuit," and he also had his eye on becoming U. S. District Attorneyan ambition not to be realized until 1883.
Provenance note: The Meek Family Correspondence was acquired by the University Libraries from Historical Collectible Auctions of Burlington NC (auction of March 2007, lot 105).
Bibliographic note: A short biography of James Monroe Meek appears in William S. Speer, Sketches of Prominent Tennesseans, Nashville, 1888, pp. 568-70. The best recent account of the Civil War and Reconstruction in East Tennessee is Noel C. Fisher, War at Every Door: Partisan Politics and Guerilla Violence in East Tennessee, 1860-1869, Chapel Hill NC, 1997; for a condensed account, see his "Definitions of Victory: East Tennessee Unionists in the Civil War and Reconstruction" in Daniel E. Sutherland, ed., Guerillas, Unionists, and Violence on the Confederate Home Front, Fayetteville AR, 1999. Earlier, partisan accounts of East Tennessee Unionism and Unionists include Thomas William Humes, The Loyal Mountaineers of Tennessee, Knoxville, 1888, and Oliver P. Temple, Notable Men of Tennessee from 1833 to 1875, New York, 1912. Many secondary figures associated with East Tennessee Unionism are mentioned in the notes in Leroy P. Graf and Ralph W. Haskins, eds., The Papers of Andrew Johnson, 16 vols., Knoxville, 1967-. For Jefferson County during the war see Sandra S. Wilson and Dennis L. Snapp, eds., Broken Hearts, Broken Lives: Jeffrerson County Tennessee 1860-1868, Jefferson City TN, 1986.
Index of Letters
|MSN/CW 5053-1||Letter||October 5, 1861||New Market, Tennessee||Elizabeth Walker Meek|
|MSN/CW 5053-2||Letter||November 18-19, 1861||Knoxville, Tennessee||James Monroe Meek|
|MSN/CW 5053-3||Letter||November 23, 1861||New Market, Tennessee||Elizabeth Walker Meek|
|MSN/CW 5053-4||Letter||November 25, 1861||Nashville, Tennessee||James Monroe Meek|
|MSN/CW 5053-5||Letter||January 22, 1862||Nashville, Tennessee||James Monroe Meek|
|MSN/CW 5053-6||Letter||January 22, 1862||New Market, Tennessee ||Elizabeth Walker Meek|
|MSN/CW 5053-7||Letter||February 1, 1862||Nashville, Tennessee||James Monroe Meek|
|MSN/CW 5053-8||Letter||February 9, 1862||Nashville, Tennessee||James Monroe Meek|
|MSN/CW 5053-9||Letter||April 28, 1862||New Market, Tennessee||Elizabeth Walker Meek|
|MSN/CW 5053-10||Letter||April 28, 1862||New Market, Tennessee||Elizabeth Walker Meek|
|MSN/CW 5053-11||Letter||May 3, 1862||New Market, Tennessee||Elizabeth Walker Meek and Eliza C. Galbreath|
|MSN/CW 5053-12||Letter||May 23, 1862||Knoxville, Tennessee||M. J. Parrott|
|MSN/CW 5053-13||Letter||June 5, 1862||New Market, Tennessee||Elizabeth Walker Meek |
|MSN/CW 5053-14||Letter||June 13, 1862||Macon, Georgia||James Monroe Meek|
|MSN/CW 5053-15||Letter||June 20, 1862||Macon, Georgia||James Monroe Meek|
|MSN/CW 5053-16||Letter||June 27, 1862||Macon, Georgia||James Monroe Meek|
|MSN/CW 5053-17||Letter||June 28, 1862||Strawberry Plains, Tennessee||Elizabeth Walker Meek|
|MSN/CW 5053-18||Letter||April 8, 1864||Danville, Indiana||Sallie F. Cash|
|MSN/CW 5053-19||Letter||July 12, 1864||Strawberry Plains, Tennessee||James Monroe Meek|
|MSN/CW 5053-20||Letter||December 5, 1864||Knoxville, Tennessee||James Monroe Meek|
|MSN/CW 5053-21||Letter||December 22, 1864||Strawberry Plains, Tennessee||James Monroe Meek|
|MSN/CW 5053-22||Letter||December 30, 1864||Knoxville, Tennessee||James Monroe Meek|
|MSN/CW 5053-23||Letter||January 11, 1865||Nashville, Tennessee||James Monroe Meek|
|MSN/CW 5053-24||Letter||February 2, 1865||Knoxville, Tennessee||James Monroe Meek|
|MSN/CW 5053-25||Letter||February 21, 1865||Knoxville, Tennessee||James Monroe Meek|
|MSN/CW 5053-26||Letter||March 4, 1869||Washington, DC||James Monroe Meek|
|MSN/CW 5053-27||Letter||March 5, 1869||Washington, DC||James Monroe Meek|