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Confederate and WWI vets changed the way Tennesseans remember war

Tennessee State Museum

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Matt Follett and Brady Watson)  --   One-hundred years ago, soldiers from Tennessee shipped out to fight in “The Great War,” World War I. Now, the State Museum is commemorating the service of some 80,000 Tennessee WWI veterans with an exhibit entitled “The Yanks are Coming.”

According to two mid-state historians, one of the more interesting aspects of the state’s war effort, was the way Tennessee chose to memorialize the sacrifices of it Great War heroes.

Dr. Lisa Budreau is Senior Curator of Military History at the State Museum. She’s also the author of Bodies of War: World War I and the Politics of Commemoration in America, 1919-1933. Budreau notes that two Tennesseans in particular brought national and even international renown to the Volunteer State. 

“Tennesseans have a very proud heritage in regard to World War I,” Dr. Budreau noted.  “For example, Alvin York I mean he was the most decorated soldier of World War I, for the nation.”

Dr. Robert Hunt teaches history at Middle Tennessee State University. He shares a true story about Colonel Luke Lea that sounds like the script of a Hollywood movie. 

“What he’s famous for is that after the Armistice concluded, he with some of his friends, his military unit tried to capture Kaiser Wilhelm the 2nd, who was in Holland at this point,” Dr. Hunt said.  “And bring him to Woodrow Wilson, essentially as a present, but also as a war criminal.”

After defeating the Axis powers, York, Lea, and all the other Tennessee Doughboys returned to heroes’ parades in the spring of 1919.  Dr. Budreau painted the picture of one Nashville greeting in particular. 

“There was a welcome arch built and you’ll see crowds turned out by the thousands to greet them,” she said.  “And I think this also led to the momentum to create the war memorial.”

A U.S. stamp commemorating Tennessee WWI hero Alvin C. York.

Dr. Budreau added that, while men physically fought the war in Europe, Nashville’s wealthy women were the field generals and foot soldiers of that memorial effort. 

“These were the women who most strongly promoted the construction of the war memorial,” Dr. Budreau remarked.  “And they in turn were able to use the agency of men, politicians, and developed the robust effort to raise money for the war memorial.”

The fruits of their labor paid off on September 21, 1925, when the War Memorial Building was dedicated just a stone’s throw from the State Capitol building.  According to Dr. Hunt, the memorial was designed to be used, rather than simply viewed. 

“It became very important to people at the time to make sure that their memorial whatever it was, served practical purposes as well as memorial purposes.  Some ways in part of, literal everyday movement of daily life,” she said. 

Dr. Budreau highlighted specific practical aspects of the memorial. 

“We also have the auditorium and offices for the legislators.  And part of the memory included a museum, which is the state’s war memorial branch museum,” she noted.  “And this was a place where the veterans could bring their souvenirs and where they could meet.”

Indeed, it was a very practical office building, auditorium, and a museum for honoring veterans.  However, it differed drastically from memorials enshrined for the previous major conflict that involved Tennesseans -- the Civil War. Dr. Hunt stated the way of honoring soldiers was too antiquated. 

“There is a temper to the times, and it’s not just in Tennessee, that the statues, the marble stuff, from the Civil War represented a decrepit old world way of how you remember a war,” he said. 

Women also were the main fundraisers and organizers for Confederate statues throughout Nashville and Middle Tennessee. In 1903, Kate Litton Hickman established the Nashville chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. But after World War I, Dr. Hunt said the group’s focus changed.

“With the United Daughters of the Confederacy in particular, it becomes much more of a heritage group and almost that alone,” he stated.  “What they’re meeting about is rehashing the old battles and the old commanders.  And the virtues of Robert E. Lee.  And they really do start retreating more into this past.”

Credit Tennessee State Museum
Photographs like this were taken all across America as thousands left their homes to serve. This image of Jesse Thomas of Smith County, with his wife and child, bears the inscription, “The day Grandpa Thomas left for the war. Aunt Margaret and parents.”

Interestingly, Dr. Hunt said the few surviving Confederate veterans focused more on moving forward instead of glorifying their own past. The dedication of the 1927 Battle of Nashville peace monument was held on Armistice Day, a World War I holiday. But on that November day in 1927, Dr. Hunt asserted the American Legion soldiers from World War I and the aging Confederate veterans seemed united. 

“Basically the way the Legion saw it, and the way the older Confederate veterans saw it as a, here are kind of the old guys passing the baton to the new guys.  It’s important for them to understand that the World War I veterans are now the people that are representing America in the new world,” he said.

So ten years after America’s entry into World War I, Tennessee veterans seemed content with recognizing a united country more so than their Confederate heritage. One-hundred years later, that transition is still a work in progress. 

Visit the State Museum website if you’d like to learn more about “The Yanks are Coming” exhibit.