Northern Civil War Surgeon in Middle Tennessee: The ... Civil War...آ  Eames correspondence from Nashville

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  • Northern Civil War Surgeon in Middle Tennessee: The William Eames Papers and Understanding Local History

    Sarah Williams


  • The historiography of the Civil War is more than a sixteen-week course could cover. Not

    only are there countless texts written on the topic, but the wealth of sources collected in archives

    is also overwhelming. This essay began as I was working on a separate project and I stumbled

    across a collection that caught my attention. The William M. Eames papers at the Tennessee

    State Library and Archives is a small, seventy five piece set of papers that tells Eames’ story as a

    Union soldier in the south during the Civil War.i He worked as a Federal surgeon in occupied

    Murfreesboro during 1862, and saved some of his correspondence to his family during that time.

    I was drawn to this collection because at the time, I lived directly across the street from where he

    was stationed, and I grew up about thirty-five miles from where he and his family lived in

    Ashtabula, Ohio. While I am only scratching the surface, it is my hope that this paper will help

    shed light on a unique collection of papers found at the Tennessee State Library and Archives,

    and that future researchers can pick up where this left off to better understand how occupation

    impacted soldiers and communities during the Civil War.

    “The Civil War Diaries of William Lawrence and Kate Carney: A Research Note on

    Under-Utilized Sources,” by Brenda Jackson-Abernathy states, “Middle Tennessee’s Civil War

    experience is complicated by the fact that Union troops occupied the region soon after secession

    and remained throughout the war. Southern newspapers in Nashville and its environs were

    silenced, and communications beyond city limits were censored. As such, private musings of

    individuals become all the more important to historians.”ii While this paper will draw from

    perspectives and Union newspapers, particularly the Nashville Daily Union, the focus of the

    source base is the remaining letters of William Eames who was stationed in Murfreesboro at the

    Union Baptist College, where Central Magnet School stands today. Hs papers describe daily

    events in the town and focus on his role as head surgeon in the hospital. The letters from his wife

  • and sons are not included in the collection, silencing their voices, but he often writes what appear

    to be direct responses to their concerns and questions. In this paper I will discuss how a northern

    soldier perceived the occupation of Murfreesboro, Tennessee during the Civil War. With his, he

    carries with him prejudice of the time about the region and race; and, he provides insight into he

    role of a surgeon in occupied territory.

    William Eames Background

    According to his autobiography William Eames struggled to find his calling as a young

    man in Massachusetts.iii After trying his hand at farming and teaching, he eventually found his

    passion as a surgeon. According to his same autobiography, he intended to settle just west of

    Chicago and establish a practice in a small village. On his journey, “[He] chanced to see an old

    acquaintance from a town adjoining my boyhood home, and was so glad to meet him that I

    changed my immediate route from Chicago to Cleveland so as to bear him company as far as I

    could. As he was about to visit northern Ohio to buy wool I thought I would stop off with his and

    spend a few days among my father’s relatives on the Western Reserve.” A simple encounter with

    an old friend ended up changing the course of his future, for after he arrived in Ohio he met his

    wife, Mary. Of his falling for her, he wrote, “Thus easily was my whole future turned and my

    destiny changed from being a resident from the great state of Illinois to one of Ohio… I ventured

    into company that enamored my too sensitive heart, and made me change all my carefully

    arranged schemes, and come down a humble plodder in Ohio mud. The innocent author of all

    this change and the ensnarer of my heart was a blithe and thoughtless blooming lass of seventeen

    summers by the name of Mary.” The couple married in less than a year. His affection toward his

    wife is obvious as an older man reflecting on his past in the autobiography, but this is also

    evident throughout his collection of letters written to his wife. Though none are verbose in

  • affectionate language, he expresses missing her and his children, and is careful to send money

    home and encourages her to use the money to ease her work and anxieties. Mary and William

    had three children together, one born shortly after Eames was stationed in Murfreesboro. Most of

    the collection includes letters written to his wife, though there are some undated letters addressed

    to his two eldest sons.

    Shortly after the war broke out, Eames saw a newspaper advertisement, “call[ing] for

    Surgeons for five new [Ohio] regiments. Only five Surgeons were needed and Six Assistants.”iv

    Eames and a friend went to Columbus, Ohio to take an examination, during which he describes

    feeling insecure compared to the other men in the room, so much so that he avoided telling his

    friends and neighbors he went.v Then, “Nearly a week had passed before I heard aught from

    Columbus, and then came the brief Dispatch signed by the Adjutant General- ‘You are assigned

    to the 21st Reg. O.V.M. as Surgeon. Report at once to Cleveland.”vi Thus began Eames

    movements southward as a surgeon in the Federal army.

    Perspectives on Tennessee in the Civil War

    The introduction to James B. Jones Jr.’s Tennessee in the Civil War: Selected

    Contemporary Accounts of Military and Other Events, Month by Month concisely sums up the

    state leading up to the Civil War. “Tennessee, at the end of the 1850s, had prospered from the

    agricultural wealth that dominated economic life. Most of this prosperity was created by

    producing cotton and made possible by slave labor.”vii In contrast, Eames, grew up in

    Massachusetts, and settled as a young adult in Ohio, two states where abolitionism was a

    powerful force. Tennessee’s position as an upper south state, and its varied geography delayed its

    journey to secession, but upon the second vote in June 1861, Tennesseans chose to leave the

    United States of America and join the Confederacy.

  • In early 1862, the Federal army moved south from Kentucky on an invasion of the

    Confederacy on the Western front of the war. Tennessee was a vital state to the Union’s plans as

    it had railroads, taking Memphis would give control to the Mississippi River, and eventually,

    having a strong hold over Union-supporting East Tennessee. After a crushing win at Fort Henry

    and Fort Donelson, Union troops moved to relatively unprotected Nashville. James B. Jones, Jr.

    summarizes the taking of the city as follows, “Nashville fell on February 25, but there was no

    sacking of the city, only an orderly and subdued occupation.” This calm explanation does not

    account for the “Great Panic” that took hold as civilians learned about the Confederate defeat at

    Fort Donelson.


  • This map of Tennessee shows roads and steamboat routes from 1841. In the intervening twenty years, the abundance of railroads added to the travel routes. Tennessee was vital to both sides on the western front of the war as it

    provided so much access to transportation.

    Eames wrote his wife following the Union victory in gaining control over Nashville,

    emphasizing that this city was taken, “without firing a gun.”ix After briefly describing this

    significance for the Union in taking a southern state capitol, Eames mentions his eagerness to

    stay near the city where mail can reach him as his wife has “important” news for him, in

    reference to the birth of his third child, using elusive language natural for someone who grew up

    in the Victorian era.x

    Eames’ wartime correspondence captures his experiences in Middle Tennessee,

    specifically Nashville and Murfreesboro. Nashville, the capitol of the state, and nearly the capitol

    of the Confederacy, was a wealthy urban center. The population of the city held mixed views of

    the Civil War. For example, Eames describes the famous Captain William Driver, who was a

    supporter of the Union whose flag “Old Glory” was hoisted up the flag pole upon the surrender

    of the city on February 25, 1862.xi It should be noted that during the Great Panic, when

    Nashvillians became aware of imminent Union occupation, the most loyal to the Confederacy

    fled south or to Memphis. Regardless, not all could leave, and those who supported the United

    States of America showed up in support as the Federal army arrived. In the same letter, he

    expounds on the pro-Union sentiment to Mary, “I have not been in Nashville much except to

    pass through it on our way out here [four miles south of the city]- but I saw enough of it to

    conclude that it was at least half union in sentiment & that very many heartily glad to see us

    come to relieve them from the southern tyranny which has so long ruled over t