Born in 1796, James Gettys McGready Ramsey was a man of broad talents who left a permanent imprint on Tennessee. He was a physician, public servant, religious leader, banker, railroad advocate, and tireless scholar of early Tennessee history. A states-rights Democrat, he enthusiastically supported secession in 1861 and later served the Confederacy as a treasury agent and field surgeon. But East Tennessee was deeply divided over the war, and many in his native Knoxville vilified Ramsey for his secessionist stance. He fled Tennessee in 1863, living in virtual exile in Georgia and North Carolina before returning to Knoxville in 1872.
Written in the 1870s and originally published by the Tennessee Historical Commission in 1954, Ramsey’s autobiography focuses mainly on the home front during the war years. Although Ramsey left Knoxville before Union troops arrived, his wife and daughters remained there for some time, reporting to him on life under the occupation. After the war, Ramsey remained largely unreconstructed politically. Still devoted to his state, he continued his work with the East Tennessee Historical Society, which he had founded in 1834, and served as president of the Tennessee Historical Society from 1874 until his death in 1884.
The book includes selected letters from both before and after the Civil War. These shed light on several aspects of Tennessee history, including the coming of the railroad (a project in which Ramsey was instrumental), as well as on Ramsey’s personal conviction that slavery was a beneficial institution that lay at the heart of the secession crisis.
The Editor: William B. Hesseltine (1902-1963) was a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin. His books included The Rise and Fall of Third Parties, Civil War Prisons, and Ulysses S. Grant, Politician.
Robert Tracy McKenzie is associate professor of history at the University of Washington. He is author of One South or Many?: Plantation Belt and Upcountry in Civil War-Era Tennessee.