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Tennessee State Museum Presents Common People in Uncommon Times: The Civil War Experience in Tennessee

A Civil War Exhibition Commemorating the 150th anniversary opens at the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center in September

The official traveling exhibition of the Tennessee Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission, Common People in Uncommon Times: The Civil War Experience in Tennessee, has been organized by the Tennessee State Museum.

The exhibition, which opens at the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center in Townsend, Tennessee in September, focuses on how the war impacted the lives of Tennesseans through personal stories of some of the participants. Their tales represent a diverse array of personalities — Confederate soldiers, Union sympathizers, African-Americans, gallant women — whose sagas illustrate a land divided.

This pictorial narrative of personal struggle and endurance during the Civil War is presented on 10 graphic panels taken from the State Museum’s collection of photographs and artifacts from the era, as well as from other collections across the state. Each panel portrays a different theme: Confederate leaders, Union leaders, African-Americans, civilian home front, common soldiers, war on the water, reconstruction and commemoration.

“Our goal is to educate the public, promote the commemoration, and highlight the legacies of the Civil War by engaging individuals and communities in an accurate and inclusive portrayal of Tennessee’s involvement in the Civil War,” said Lois Riggins-Ezzell, executive director of the Tennessee State Museum.

“Tennessee, being geographically centered between the North and the Deep South, was destined to be the focal point of the Civil War,” explained Myers Brown, the exhibition curator and the museum’s curator of extension services. “The state became a major battlefield, supply center, transportation hub, and invasion route for both Union and Confederate armies. The war disrupted and impacted the people of Tennessee in ways that are almost unimaginable.”

Visitors will learn about the lives of the common soldier. Almost 187,000 Tennesseans served in the Confederate armed forces, while more than 50,000 served in the Union army, including some 20,000 African-Americans. Confederate Tennesseans fought in every major battle east of the Mississippi River, from Gettysburg to New Orleans, forming the backbone of the largest army in the western theater, the Army of Tennessee. Whether Union or Confederate, the soldiers’ stories are individual and varied, including boys from the mountains and from the Delta. Aristocrats, farm boys, or former slaves were all impacted by the Civil War.

The Tennessee home front, especially the rural areas, suffered immensely during the war. Crops and farms were destroyed and livestock confiscated. Towns and cities faced the uneasy and unfamiliar aspect of occupation by Union or Confederate armies. The exhibition explores the home front through the stories of people like John Fielder, a store keeper in Henderson County; Kate Carney a defiant secessionist in Murfreesboro, and C.A. Haun, a noted potter from Greene County.

Photographs and archival materials help highlight several different African-Americans and their experience both on the home front and the battle front. Profiled individuals include Allen James Walker, who escaped slavery and joined the 7th U.S. Heavy Artillery; Samuel Lowry, a free black who returned to Nashville to serve as a chaplain, and Laura Ann Cansler, who worked to educate former slaves in Knoxville.
The exhibit will present Tennessee’s unique story among former Confederate states during Reconstruction and illuminate the Volunteer State’s significant role in the manner in which the Civil War was remembered by post-war generations.

Common People in Uncommon Times: The Civil War in Tennessee will continue to travel to museums and historic sites during the state’s five-year commemoration of the war. For information about the exhibition, visit /Exhibits/Traveling_Exhibitions/.

About the Tennessee State Museum:
In 1937, the Tennessee General Assembly created a state museum to care for World War I artifacts and other collections from the state and other groups. The museum was located in the lower level of the War Memorial Building until it was moved into the new James K. Polk Cultural Center in 1981. The Tennessee State Museum currently occupies three floors, covering approximately 120,000 square feet with more than 60,000 square feet devoted to exhibits. The museum’s Civil War holdings of uniforms, battle flags and weapons are among the finest in the nation. For more information please visit:

Image: Civil War Camp Tennessee State Museum

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