Petite Myra Inman was like many teenagers. She went to parties. Shopped. Loved music, clothing and hanging out with her friends. Within a few years, though, she took no pleasure in anything. “Sadness seems to be stamped on everything to me.”
What happened to Myra? Why would she write on August 17 that “the world looks dark to me? This is a sad journal for a girl of nineteen to write.”
Unlike young people today, Myra didn’t post her comments on social media.
Myra chronicled her thoughts and observations in a ledger about the size of a spiral-bound notebook. Eventually, in her dainty script, she would fill seven books detailing her day-to-day activities living in Cleveland, Tennessee, where her widowed mom ran a boarding house about 26 miles northeast of Chattanooga.
But on that day, a Wednesday, her family had just started eating dinner when the first cannon fired. They fled to the cellar, leaving the table just as it was, but soon joined hundreds of others fleeing their homes to find safety in the countryside.
The year was 1864.
And it wasn’t the first-time that armed conflict—this time a skirmish—had knocked on the Inman’s door.
It also wasn’t the first time that the avowed Confederate mentioned the darkness that had blanketed her world. She, along with thousands of others living in East Tennessee, endured unimaginable adversity during and after the Civil War.
No wonder Myra believed that sadness seems to be stamped on everything.
Perhaps We Should Take Note
Until a month or so ago, I’d never given much thought to the trauma that war-torn people experience. Wars, at least in my lifetime, have always happened elsewhere, remote, and distant.
A visit to the Museum of East Tennessee History in Knoxville a few months ago opened my eyes to the violence and mayhem that happened in East Tennessee, a strategically important region bordered by the Cumberland Plateau to the west, the Smoky Mountains to the east, and the relatively fertile valley in between—a gateway into the deep South.
I couldn’t imagine living in a time when sadness seems to be stamped on everything, as young Myra observed, and decided then to write about the hardship everyday people suffered nearly 160 years ago.
Historians have written reams about the political and socio-economic trends that contributed to Tennessee’s secession in 1861 and then the bitter rancor, the intractable divisions that soon pitted East Tennesseans against one another.
It made me think. We, too, live in a politically contentious time. Perhaps we should take note.
Unlike other parts of the South, including Middle and West Tennessee, most East Tennesseans vehemently opposed secession, not because of empathy toward slaves, but because they deeply resented and distrusted Southern aristocrats and big-money movers and shakers.
So distrustful of a future under Confederate rule, 31,000 Tennessee men slipped across the Kentucky border to join the Federal army. Most came from the eastern part of the state.
That’s not to say all held the same opinions. A better-educated, wealthier minority, like Myra’s slave-owning family, cast its fortunes with the Confederacy. Many lived along railroads, and their allegiances grew out of economic and cultural reasons.
“These people imagined East Tennessee as part of a larger social and regional Southern market,” Civil War historian and Maryville College Professor Aaron Astor told Knox News. “You get your news from Georgia and Virginia. Those are your people.”
These divided loyalties—fueled in part by vitriolic rhetoric from influencers of the day—created a civil war within a civil war. Neighbor turned against neighbor. Family against family. Myra made the point herself on February 26, 1862:
“Heard today that Aunt Fannie Lea (in Missouri) had gone North with all of Uncle Pleasant’s property. No confidence can be placed in a Yankee.” Given the passions of the day, Myra’s aunt probably felt likewise about her pro-Confederate kin.
See How These Christians Hate One Another
In the end, no institution escaped. Not even the churches. Minutes from the Holston Presbytery in 1866 drove that point home:
“The ravages of war have left many of our church buildings and schoolhouses in a dilapidated condition… But in some places there are ruins sadder than these. Sad divisions and bitter alienation among God’s people furnish the world an opportunity of taunting and reproaching by saying, ‘see how these Christians hate one another.’” (Emphasis is mine.)
Let that sink in.
A Region Scarred
Depredation drove the hate.
“East Tennesseans experienced extraordinary devastation and miseries…,” said historian Mark T. Butler in Appalachians All. “The strategic importance of the Tennessee Valley for both the Union and Confederacy led to countless skirmishes and several extended battle campaigns that bloodied East Tennessee soil.”
Hungry soldiers in both armies stole pigs, cows, corn, grain…whatever they could take, along with money, clothing, blankets, and other household items that civilians needed to survive. They left a land in economic ruin.
If conventional warfare hadn’t been destructive enough, bands of “Unionist and secessionist guerillas beat civilians holding the wrong political views, ambushed them on the road, shot them in their homes, and plundered and burned their houses, barns, and possessions,” wrote Noel C. Fisher in War at Every Door.
Roving gangs of bushwhackers added to the lawlessness, not out of loyalty to one cause or the other…just because they could.
“By 1865, the violence in East Tennessee had reached frightening heights, and it appalled not only outsiders but also many inhabitants of this region, Unionist and secessionist alike,” Fisher wrote.
By the time the Confederacy fell on April 9, 1865, reality and depression had set in, at least for Myra.
“‘Air Castles,’ which my imagination has erected for the last four years, are crushed…,” she wrote in her diary. “It seems to me a wild infatuation possessed the minds of the people of the Southland and rendered their reasoning faculties dormant…”
By mid-summer, most soldiers had returned home. But “because of four years of brutal internecine warfare and because they were the losers and in the minority, many ex-rebels found life in East Tennessee almost unbearable,” wrote Charles Faulkner Bryan Jr. in his dissertation, The Civil War in East Tennessee: A Social, Political, and Economic Study.
Revenge-minded Unionists sued them for damages or flatly told them to the leave the community because Union men and “hell-deserving” rebels couldn’t live together. Those attitudes permeated church congregations.
Did Myra experience the same backlash? Hard to say. She never said, except for this: “A great many families are going to South America. I would like to go.” Two weeks later, she commented, “I feel so sad and lonely this eve; do all the time…Cleveland has no charms for me.”
“They Had to Move On”
Slowly, life returned to normal. “They had to move on,” Professor Astor told me over coffee one morning. No one had the stomach to live in a world where sadness seems to be stamped on everything.
Perhaps Myra had reached the same conclusion. On January 24, 1866, she made her last diary entry.
She talked about the weather.