Tuesday, May 3 is Election Day, and in commemoration of that fact, the following story is a blast from the past from the annals of Hawkins County history regarding a highly contentious election that occurred 155 years ago. years.
One of the most memorable and notorious election years in Tennessee history was 1867.
Anger and bitterness ran rampant among all parties, including conservative Republicans, Democrats and radicals. There was also deep hatred fueled by the long national nightmare known as the Civil War.
Most of Hawkins County’s returning veterans, both Union and Confederate, and their families generally voted for how their loved ones fought in the war. Sometimes voting and debates caused quarrels and petty wars, especially in the eastern part of the state. One of the bloodiest and deadliest election riots in Tennessee history occurred in Rogersville in July 1867.
As a result, the town would temporarily get the nickname “Cutthroat”.
The following account of the incident appeared in a July 29, 1867, issue of The New York Times:
“On a branch of the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad, starting at Rogersville Junction (Bulls Gap), is the small village of Rogersville. It is the capital of Hawkins County with approximately 700 residents and approximately 64 miles from Knoxville, the home of Governor Brownlow. Like many other places in Tennessee, there is a clique of radical Time Servers, who are as bitter and relentless in their hatred of all things conservative as Satan is in his hatred of all things good.
It had been announced in the newspapers that on Tuesday this week, Emerson Etheridge, the Conservative candidate for governor against William Brownlow, would address the people of Rogersville, and when the announcement reached the village, the Radicals swore that he would never take the stand. talk to the crowds while reliable weapons and men capable of using them could be found. These repeated threats of indignation did not move the great conservative leader one iota, however, and he decided that he would speak no matter what.
Everybody expected trouble, and when the day came people poured in from all sides, armed with muskets, shotguns, revolvers and pitchforks, the radicals eager to riot and blood and the conservatives determined to defend themselves to the last man, should they be attacked.
At one o’clock Etheridge arrived and a mass of no less than 500 townspeople, half of them colored, gathered around the courthouse in the square to listen to his speech. As he proceeded, his terrible exposure and thorough exploitation of the corruption of his opponent Brownlow inflamed the radical heart to such a degree that he had only spoken for an hour when one of his sentences was echoed by Tom King, a notorious Democrat, who shouted back “That’s a lie!”
Unsure who threw the cowardly insult, Mr Etheridge threw another insult back at Brownlow which he had barely uttered when a whizzing bullet cut the air dangerously close to where Etheridge was standing. This blow was quickly followed by others in all points of the crowd. As soon as the crowd erupted, the radicals quickly marched to one side of the town square, shouting and screaming like demons from the lower pit.
The Conservatives went in an opposite direction, with both parties firing on the way. Volley after volley of Minnie balls, big and small shots and the contents of countless revolvers were fired in quick succession. Each round brought wounds and death to the ranks of the crowd until they began to waver, retreat and slowly retreat maintaining a scattered fire. Mr. Etheridge stood firm with a gun in his hand.
The battle lasted about twenty minutes, by which time the square was cleared and only random shots were fired in other parts of the village. The first man to fall was a white Tory, a bullet went through his brain and killed him instantly. A radical black man was next, a bullet entered his side and went through him.
He died a few minutes after his fall. Seven other people were fatally injured and later died. 25 to 30 others were less seriously injured. The injured were transported to the Powell Hotel and cared for. It is said that the radicals suffered the most, but we have nothing reliable as to their loss. As soon as the shooting stopped, Mr Etheridge left the courthouse and went to his hotel. He left town on the overnight train for Sneedville to fulfill an appointment there.
Rumor had it that Governor Brownlow had instigated the Rogersville Riot against his opponent Etheridge. Brownlow’s uncompromisingly radical views and relentless revenge against his enemies made him one of the most controversial figures in Tennessee political history and one of the most controversial politicians of Reconstruction.
Early on, Brownlow published a newspaper and was a persistent opponent of Tennessee’s secession from the union. As a result, he was imprisoned in December 1861 and forced to flee north. He returned to the state in 1865 and became governor. Brownlow publicly hated and tormented ex-Confederates whom he considered traitors.
This earned him the nickname “Bloody Bill Brownlow”. Brownlow’s one-sided views against Confederates and his petition to give former slaves the right to vote led to the founding of the Ku Klux Klan. The Rogersville Riot story has appeared in numerous newspapers, including the Nashville and Union Dispatch and the Chattanooga American Union.
Each told a different story.
The Nashville newspaper called it the “Brownlow-Maynard Riot.” Many journalists of the time claimed that Maynard was a radical representative of Brownlow. He was discussing Etheridge that day. He also incited the black men in the crowd to riot.
Many of the men involved in the bloody fighting that day left the county and never returned. The show was one of the biggest post-Civil War battles ever fought in East Tennessee and it all took place in Rogersville where anything could and usually did happen.
Rodney Ferrell is the former historian of Hawkins County and the author of three books on local history and culture. He has also written numerous journal articles and can be reached at [email protected]