Occupation and the Homefront, 1861-1865

The upheaval of war had a dramatic impact on the homefront throughout Tennessee. Because so many armed conflicts took place on Tennessee soil, many of the state’s residents saw their backyards, courthouse squares, and churchyards turned into battlefields. The opposing armies devastated the state’s farms and crops, destroying decades of investment as they moved through the state. Military occupation affected every aspect of civilian life, from food supplies to everyday travel about town. While early in the war residents lamented the absence of such luxuries as coffee and sugar, by the final two years of the war Tennesseans counted themselves lucky if they simply had access to the basic necessities of life. The threat of guerilla warfare, especially in East Tennessee, kept civilians in fear as marauders representing both sides used wartime chaos as an excuse to steal and intimidate.

In the absence of men who were at the front, women throughout the state successfully managed farms and businesses. While some found their new independence exhilarating, others grew weary of the numerous responsibilities added to their multiple domestic tasks. For slaveholding women, the full burden of slave management, which in many cases involved trying to control both field hands and house slaves, was the most intimidating and frustrating aspect of running a female-headed household.

As the war progressed, slaves in Tennessee became increasingly resistant to their owners’ authority. Many slaves eagerly fled to Union lines or Union-occupied cities, clearly demonstrating their strong desire to be free. In Union-occupied cities such as Nashville and Memphis, former slaves lived in contraband camps, where many began the transition to freedom by working for wages and learning to read and write. Other slaves remained where they lived but refused to do certain types of work or placed new demands on their owners for compensation or expanded privileges, slowly breaking down the bonds of slavery.

Women throughout Tennessee aided the war effort as nurses, weavers, and spies. Others formed sewing societies to produce flags and clothing for local regiments. Former slave women who had fled to Union lines worked as cooks and laundresses for the Union Army, making good use of the large iron pots they had carried with them when they escaped.

As the example of fleeing slaves illustrates so well, one of the defining characteristics of the Tennessee homefront was the movement of people, especially the movement of people from rural to urban areas. The population of cities and towns grew as refugees, ex-slaves, and starving residents sought food, safety, and new opportunities. This wartime migration, in addition to the scars left by battles and the development of new industrial and transportation infrastructures, greatly changed the Tennessee landscape in four short years.