Maryville College President John J. Robinson announced on April 22, 1861 that the college would close “on account of a state of armed hostilities in the country.” As the ensuing Civil War engulfed the nation, Maryville’s students went their separate ways, joining both Union and Confederate armies.
The college’s recently built brick structure downtown would lay dormant, hosting occasional occupying armies and their horses. Its brick edifice stripped to make ovens and fireplaces for soldiers from each side. It barely survived occasional skirmishing in November 1863. It endured General William T. Sherman’s force sent to relieve besieged Union troops in Knoxville.
Sherman’s men encamped on the current campus site, but foragers picked away at the old Brick College edifice downtown. The final destruction of the old campus came in August 1864. Lt. James Dorton’s detachment of federal troops with the Second Tennessee Infantry Regiment vowed to defend the city of Maryville against all hazards.
Though hundreds of men from Blount and neighboring counties had joined companies in the Second Tennessee (USA), only 50 soldiers were available on the fateful day of Aug. 21, 1864, when more than 2,000 of Confederate Cavalry General Joseph Wheeler’s men came into town. Holed up in the Blount County Courthouse, the federal troops refused to surrender to Wheeler’s men.
What happened next changed the course of Maryville’s history forever. A squad of Kentuckians under Wheeler tried to dislodge the federals in the courthouse, first with muskets and then by setting fire to neighboring houses. Hoping the wind would carry the flames to the courthouse, the Confederates watched in horror as the wind carried the flames away from the courthouse and toward the remaining homes and businesses in town. As fire spread from building to building, panicked residents fled and carried whatever positions they could handle.
Ironically, the courthouse’s records were jeopardized, not because the courthouse itself was targeted for destruction, but because a store owned by James Toole, a prominent Maryville Confederate and merchant, was suddenly in the way of the blaze.
Though Toole had fled the town in late 1863, the county clerk, Washington L. Dearing, removed the court records to the store across the street when the federal troops occupied the courthouse. The repository of Blount County records included legal information affecting every citizen in the county, such as wills, marriage licenses, land sales, tax assessments and court minutes dating back to the 1790s.
Polly Toole, formerly a slave of James Toole, but staying in town with James’s mother, Elizabeth, rushed into the burning store and rescued as many of the records as she could carry. Most of the records were saved by her brave act, for which she received an annual pension for the remainder of her life.
Meanwhile, the fire continued to spread, and it enveloped the homes and businesses of many prominent Confederate-supporting citizens in the center of town. In the path of the destruction were the shops and homes of Maryville’s saddle makers, tailors, merchants, blacksmiths, millers and clerks. According to William Sloan, a soldier fighting with Wheeler, “nearly all the victims are people of southern sympathies, and many of their sons are away in the Confederate Army.”
Clearly disgusted with the carelessness of the Confederate Kentuckians, Sloan concluded, “Whoever is responsible for this amazing piece of cowardice and vandalism, be he Gen. Wheeler or a Kentucky colonel, ought to be court-martialed and dismissed from the service.”
The federals in the courthouse finally surrendered after Wheeler blasted the building with cannon late in the afternoon. By then, the entire town lay in ruins.The burning of Maryville has remained shrouded in mystery, mostly because of the timing.
Thousands of soldiers of both armies had traveled through Blount County in November and December of 1863 as part of the famous Fort Sanders campaign. But this raid happened in August 1864, when Blount County was safely in Union control.
In fact, the raid reveals something important about the county’s divided Civil War loyalties as well as a great deal about the nature of the Civil War in the final year. Blount County was, like much of East Tennessee, heavily pro-Union in sentiment. Local historian Becky Darrell has uncovered the records of more than 1,300 Blount Countians who fought in the Civil War, more than 80 percent of whom fought in Union regiments.
The Confederate exceptions, however, reveal some intriguing patterns. For one, Confederate supporters tended to live in communities that conducted an export-oriented trade in wheat along the East Tennessee and Georgia Railroad. Though the railroad did not actually go through Blount County, ferry traffic from Louisville connected grain millers from across the county to the wider Southern regional market.
In addition to the actual grain millers and commercial farmers were professionals—doctors, clerks, printers, hotel keepers and two professors at Maryville College—who participated in this same social network that connected them to the lower South. They comprised a small minority of the Blount County population, but an influential one nonetheless. Included among them were Maryvillians Dr. Samuel Pride, merchant James
Toole, and Maryville College President James Robinson as well as businessmen and commercial farmers elsewhere in the county like Daniel Foute of Montvale Springs and Williston Cox of Louisville.
In the first half of the Civil War, these Blount County Rebels aided Confederate recruitment and conscription efforts and confiscated arms held by Union sympathizers.
The tide turns:
In late 1863 the tide turned as Union General Ambrose Burnside took control of Knoxville and much of East Tennessee. Many Confederates fled southward, their hopes of returning home dashed in the icy ditch outside Fort Sanders in late November 1863.
With William “Parson” Brownlow’s encouragement, Blount Confederates were targeted for land confiscation and indictment for treason. After Wheeler’s raid in August 1864, Brownlow’s Knoxville Whig and Rebel Ventilator newspaper demanded that Confederate sympathizers be made to pay for the destruction of property owned by Maryville Unionists like John Goddard and Methodist Chaplain W. T. Dowel.
The defeat at Fort Sanders and the embarrassing destruction from Wheeler’s raid forced many demoralized Confederate sympathizers to lay low or simply leave for Georgia. Wheeler’s 1864 raid was supposed to relieve the pressure on General John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee, then defending Atlanta. Instead, it merely caused widespread property damage and did little to disturb federal supply lines or thwart Sherman’s march through Georgia.
For three weeks, Wheeler’s poorly disciplined troops attacked towns like Dalton, Ga., and Cleveland, Athens, Philadelphia and, of course, Maryville. Losing men to desertion and capture by the hundreds, Wheeler’s men were chased down by Union Generals James Steedman and Lovell Rousseau. By Sept. 10, the raid ended in failure, with less than a hundred of Wheeler’s men still in the ranks.
Maryville was rebuilt after the war, with much help coming from Union soldiers who returned after Appomattox. Many African-Americans, gaining their freedom as they served in the United States First Colored Heavy Artillery in Knoxville, settled in Maryville and became significant community leaders.
The Freedmen’s Bureau also helped with rebuilding of the town, including the construction of a school for freed slaves and the relocation and reconstruction of Maryville College to its current location under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson Lamar.
Memories of the raid faded quickly, but its marks can still be seen and felt. The city experienced a changing of the guard, with the older Confederate-supporting merchant elites replaced by a newer generation of staunch Unionists who formed a Union League during Reconstruction, selected a black mayor in 1869, and established Maryville as a bastion of the Republican Party. The relocated Maryville College would serve as an emblem of Reconstruction.
The new Anderson Hall was built in 1870. Its mission to provide education without regard to race or gender would define the college’s core values up to the present day. Out of the ashes of civil war came a renewed institution, noble, grand and true for 150 more years.