Trace Adkins Defines Tennessee’s Civil War Sesquicentennial

Tennessee’s Sesquicentennial Commission held its inaugural Signature Event on November 12 around the theme, “The Coming of the Civil War” in Chattanooga.  According to Governor Phil Bredesen. “This inaugural event, which begins the five-year recognition from 2011-2015, will create conversation, stir interest, and help people develop a greater appreciation for history and acknowledge the role this war played in the lives of all Americans.”  Historian, Sam David Elliott, gave the keynote address on the coming of the war and I suspect that he covered much of the ground found in the latest academic scholarship.

Interestingly, the commission also invited Country Music singer, Trace Adkins, to offer a few words.

I don’t know if I have a problem with inviting a singer to offer a few brief remarks about the coming of the war, but I do wonder how the organizers hope to reconcile Adkins’s personal view with what Elliott discussed and with the scholarly consensus on this topic.  Perhaps these opposing views don’t need to be accepted, but I suspect that the applause at the end of Adkins’s remarks suggests that most of the people left with his thoughts in mind as opposed to Elliott’s.

Actually, now that I think about it I do hope that the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission doesn’t choose to invite Williamsburg’s Bruce Hornsby or Charlottesville’s Dave Matthews to the next Signature Conference to discuss Confederate war strategy.

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52 comments… add one
  • Henry Camp Dec 20, 2014 @ 17:57

    I understand there is aDVD of this event. Where can it be seen or bought?

  • Joyce Rash Jun 16, 2011 @ 10:16

    Please pass this to Mr. Levin. I apologize for my haste in commenting. I just felt that the discussion of why who spoke took away the discussion. I am, by no means, an expert. I do have a great interest in the Civil War, particularly in Virginia. I just told a colleague I had put my foot in my mouth. I have no right to comment in that fashion.

    Again, I apologize.

  • Joyce Rash Jun 16, 2011 @ 10:09

    Sir; I apologize. I do enjoy the comments made about the war, I spoke in haste. I meant, to me, the problems of who spoke took away from the discussion. Discussion is important. I told a colleague that I had just put my foot in my mouth. I had no right to speak in this manner.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 16, 2011 @ 10:10

      No problem.

  • Joyce Rash Jun 16, 2011 @ 9:56

    NITPICK! NITPICK! NITPICK!!! 150 years later and you are STILL fighting that blasted war. Mr. Elliott was invited and he spoke. Mr. Atkins was invited and he spoke. Fine! Discuss the speech of each. Voice all opinions of each. But for goodness sake, it is over and discussing why who was invited and for what reason is moot at this point. Do you not think?

    • Kevin Levin Jun 16, 2011 @ 9:58

      I am sorry if you find my reflections about how we continue to commemorate the Civil War to be so troubling. Thanks for the comment.

  • Barry Sowell Jun 10, 2011 @ 8:32

    I was there that day in November. Trace Adkins was the only person who spoke the truth that day. When he speaks of teaching our children the truth, I am the one you hear say “Amen”.

  • Rob Dec 31, 2010 @ 19:40

    For those who talk about “states rights” other than the right to own slaves such as tarrifs and taxes, I would appreciate some primary sources. When I hear my Neo-confederate relatives make that statement, they have no clue of our history. Are there any real issues that caused people to vote for disunion other than the ground issue of states right to make laws proclaiming personal ownership of slaves? Being an East Tennessean, our side of the state voted 82% in Feb. 1861 and 72% in June 1861 to stay in the Union!. Even after the state voted to secede, 29 East Tennessee representatives met twice to secede from the state and form a new state. The right to secede, which the Govenor proclaimed as a “right” was then denied the East Tennessee counties! SO the right to seceed only applied to only those who wanted secession from the Union! I just read Isham Harris (Gov. of Tennessee that called for convention to vote for disunion) and the Mississippi declaration of secession and they both overwhelmingly stated that it was the states right to allow slavery as a way of life that is the issue causing secession. Not trying to rehash the emotions but I really want to know if there are primary sources for this argument.

  • Mike Mitchell Nov 30, 2010 @ 19:49

    Well, I was there and I thought it was an interesting story. Before we cut all the forests down and wrote books and now created a “cloud” full of facts and chatter history was related from one generation to the next by word of mouth. Now the facts may have been distorted, but they were still mighty fine stories with more flavor than most textbooks.

  • Duke Pearson Nov 30, 2010 @ 17:54

    States rights…I think that the cart is getting put in front of the horse here. The reasons for secession of the several states were varied, as you know. The issue of slavery was much stronger in some than in others. slavery, tariffs, political clout, manifest destiny all took a piece of the action here. i’m in a discussion group with Sam, and we’ve beaten this horse way past it’s death. But, the best answer that we came up with was that secession was extra legal, in the sense that if you look at the 10th amendment, there is no clause either allowing or prohibiting secession of states from the union. Now, the winning side called it a rebellion…was it, in fact that? I’m not so sure. And, a note here…Trace Atkins is a life member of the SCV. Their point of view is muddled to say the least.

    • Barry Sowell Jun 10, 2011 @ 8:36

      wat do mean by muddled

  • Bob Nov 23, 2010 @ 19:02

    The more that people who have a public face/voice are involved the better. To make the CW and history in general relevant, we have to get the stories out to people who would be turned off by most of us “history dorks”. I think in areas where these people are creating fake history, then they should be restricted. But I dont see that as the case with Adkins. He has a viewpoint, and he is allowed to have the viewpoint…despite what yours, mine or others may be. His heart and spirit are in the right place…We have to make all this relevant to the general public and the more help we get …the better

    • Kevin Levin Nov 24, 2010 @ 1:54

      I agree with you that the more voices included the better and I agree that Adkins has a viewpoint, but that wasn’t the point of my post.

  • Nat Turner's Son Nov 23, 2010 @ 10:55

    Yep Ole Trace played Football at LA TECH. He was a good DE for Tech. It was fun to see Trace of the Video.

  • Michael Lynch Nov 22, 2010 @ 15:00

    Is Adkins still slated to play Forrest in the Cleburne movie? Last I heard, he had signed on, at least according to the film website.

    Michael Lynch

    • Kevin Levin Nov 22, 2010 @ 15:03

      I forgot all about that. Let’s just hope the commission doesn’t endorse the movie. 🙂

    • Barry Sowell Jun 10, 2011 @ 8:39

      wat movie would that be

  • Richard Williams Nov 22, 2010 @ 14:40

    States rights is being argued in federal court in 2010 and will be argued into the foreseeable future. The underlying issues do not involve slavery – well, not chattel slavery anyway. I understand that in 1861, states rights certainly involved slavery to many Southerners, though not all. But it also involved the other issues as well – taxes, tariffs, etc. I realize these points have been argued ad nauseum everywhere, including the blogosphere, but since it’s been broached, just thought I’d attempt to make the point. I’m sure I won’t change any minds here. Thanks for allowing me to have some input.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 22, 2010 @ 14:43

      Yes, you apparently understand that, but Adkins doesn’t and my guess is that a lot of people walked out of the room repeating what he learned from his granddaddy. So much for taking advantage of an opportunity to educate the general public. I would hate to leave it to the entertainment industry.

      • Dan Wright Nov 22, 2010 @ 15:48

        I don’t want to get my history from Adkins. And I doubt that I would want to go to a concert headlined by Elliott.
        But I get the star power. And I’ll bet we’re in for more of it during the sesquicentennial.

  • Richard Williams Nov 22, 2010 @ 14:17

    Kevin – again, I’m not getting that same read from his comments. But the comments regarding the states rights issue not “settled” by the war – apart from the secession argument, are valid. If they weren’t, the rather common and ongoing practice of states suing the feds would be routinely dismissed without merit. That’s not the case. So that specific point in his comments does in fact accurately reflect the historical record.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 22, 2010 @ 14:27

      The subject of the event was the coming of the war, which is what the thrust of the post is focused on. His comment that you can somehow divorce states rights from slavery does not reflect the historical record. The issue of the reach of the balance of power between the states and the federal government goes back to 1787 and not simply to the Civil War. To say that the legacy of the Civil War is to be understood simply in terms of states rights is simply to place the war within a long timeline of events – the Civil War being the bloodiest. Americans north and south were equally concerned about states rights up to and after the Civil War. The issue at hand for most Americans in 1860-61 was the constitutional question of secession. For white southerners in the Deep South states rights was utilized as a means to protect the institution of slavery after hoping that a more powerful and intrusive federal government failed.

    • Brooks D. Simpson Nov 22, 2010 @ 14:34

      Richard — Unfortunately for Mr. Atkins, the Civil War was not fought over the issue of state rights. That issue did not divide North and South. People on each side made recourse to the concept of state rights (and federalism) before, during, and after the war. So the war wasn’t fought to “settle” that issue. That Atkins doesn’t understand that is evident from his comments, which reflect a popular misunderstanding of the war, its origins, and its outcome.

      • Kevin Levin Nov 22, 2010 @ 14:44

        All one needs to do is go back to the early 1850s to see who is arguing the states rights position. Northern states were the ones issuing states rights positions in response to the Fugitive Slave Act while southerners were hoping to utilize the power of the federal government to round up their escaped slaves.

    • Bailey Nov 22, 2010 @ 20:06

      States rights (besides succession) aren’t settled, it is a work in progress like much of the Constitution. Since Lawrence v. Texas some are begin to have a concept that states rights do not equal the right for a state to be a “tyrant” over an individual. As societies change concepts of government change as well.

      • Kevin Levin Nov 23, 2010 @ 1:49

        First, it’s secession and not succession.

  • Michael Lynch Nov 22, 2010 @ 13:29

    I’ve read that some German barbarians refused to cut their hair until they could drive the Romans out of their homeland. Seems like I read an anecdote somewhere about Confederate vets letting their beards grow and refusing to cut them until the Confederacy was recognized, but I’m not sure it’s true. Sounds like the stuff of folklore of me.


    • Kevin Levin Nov 22, 2010 @ 13:32

      Perhaps Adkins wrote a song about it and that’s where you heard about it. 🙂

  • Corey Meyer Nov 22, 2010 @ 12:59

    Maybe I missed something, but who are those dedicated ex-confederates who did not cut their hair? Does anyone know who he is refering to?

    • Kevin Levin Nov 22, 2010 @ 13:03

      I have no idea, but perhaps someone can enlighten us.

  • Richard Williams Nov 22, 2010 @ 12:57

    Kevin – It’s generally understood that the 10th amendment is referring to the federal govt’s limits and the the rights (powers) of the states – not secession. There are a number of these cases working their way through the courts now regarding this very issue – one which originated here in Virginia. Your take away from Adkins’ brief commentary was much different than mine. I’ve watched it several times now and I just don’t get the same impression. I think you’re reading way too much into Adkins’ comments. He was there for star power and to appeal to a broader audience. Silly? Perhaps, but effective marketing to draw attention to the event.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 22, 2010 @ 13:06


      Thanks for the follow-up. I am well aware of the relevant court cases, but my interest is primarily with his claim that secession can somehow be distinguished from slavery. He acknowledges the governor’s remarks and then goes on to make a claim that is simply not reflective of the historical record. I am simply wondering how those comments fit into the broader goals of the commission, which I assume intends to highlight programs that bring reputable history to the general public. Finally, it’s interesting that the Virginia commission has not felt the need to bring in popular entertainers to attract a crowd and so far it looks like you don’t need one.

  • Willie Pegram Nov 22, 2010 @ 12:23

    I do not think Adkins should have the same weight as Elliott. And I think Adkins was selected because of his relationship with the CWPT.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 22, 2010 @ 12:30


      What does this have to do with battlefield preservation? Actually, he would be perfect if that was the topic at hand. Is there any difference between inviting Adkins to share his thoughts on secession and some random guy off the street? Thanks for playing along.

      • Willie Pegram Nov 22, 2010 @ 13:19

        My point with the CWPT is that he has prior experience with the Civil War. It is possible that n the mind of the organizers (its all conjecture) experience with the CWPT justifies his participation in this Commission.

        Now I’m not saying that this possible justification for his participation is valid. I’m just offering a possible explanation on why Adkins was selected to speak.

        • Kevin Levin Nov 22, 2010 @ 13:20

          You may be right.

  • Richard Williams Nov 22, 2010 @ 12:15

    Kevin – I believe Adkins states that he “agreed” with the governor that the specific issue of secession was settled by the war – at least that’s the way I took his remarks. What he said about states rights, though, is essentially true. That the issue of states rights (in regards to the 10th amendment’s limits on the federal government) was not settled by the war. This is evidenced by the federal courts’ current docket. The issues surrounding the 10th amendment – “states rights” – are still being argued in court. There are numerous states which have recently filed suit against the feds. So though Adkins is perhaps not as articulate as a polished academic like Professor Elliott, his point about states rights is essentially correct. Of course, the Prof probably can’t play a guitar as well as Mr. Adkins either.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 22, 2010 @ 12:25

      Hi Richard,

      Nice to hear from you. I don’t believe that Adkins was referring to the 10th Amendment and as far as I am aware that amendment doesn’t mention the right of secession. Whether the federal government has overstepped its bounds is bread and butter politics, but I don’t hear too many people in the mainstream suggesting that secession is a right or even an answer to perceived problems. My problem with Adkins is that like many others he attempts to draw a distinction between states rights and slavery and that is something that was not done by white southerners on the eve of the war. The problem isn’t with his articulation but with the fundamental point itself. It doesn’t reflect the historical record. Thanks for the comment.

    • Margaret D. Blough Nov 22, 2010 @ 23:24

      Mr. Williams-Aside from the fact that you avoid the question of what rights did the rebel states want to exercise, you also do not deal with the fact that the slave states were cheerfully willing to use the power of the federal government when they controlled it, even it meant acting against the interests of free states. What action of the federal government against a southern state occurred before 1861? Yet federal troops were used to recover a fugitive slave in Boston. The biggest uproar over the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was its provisions to force residents of free states to assist in slave catching or suffer penalties and its provisions that denied the courts and other institutions of free states any voice in determining whether someone accused of being a runaway slave WAS, in fact, a runaway slave. Finally, at the time the Civil War broke out, the case of Lemmon v. NY was about to go to the US Supreme Court attacking the ability of a free state to exclude by law slaveholders from bringing their slaves into its borders and if they did so, the state courts would grant writs of habeas corpus freeing any slaves who were brought into the state. Although the original slaveholder remained the named plaintiff, the Commonwealth of Virginia was the actual appellant. After Dred Scott, free states were fearful that the next Supreme Court decision would used the Privileges and Immunities Clause and/or the Commerce Clause to declare that slaveowner had a constitutional right to bring slaves into a free state in either sojourn or transit without risking the slaves being freed. There being no limit to “sojourn”, Massachusetts, for instance, a state that had been a free state since 1783, based on its Supreme Judicial Court’s interpretation of its Constitution would, if the Civil War had not intervened and rendered the case moot, find itself forced to allow out-of-state slaveholders to bring slavery back, even it its own citizens could not.

  • Brooks D. Simpson Nov 22, 2010 @ 12:01

    First, while Sam Davis Elliot’s a historian, he’s not an academic. See:

    Second, I have no idea what he said, so I wouldn’t presume anything.

    Third, as for Trace Atkins’s remarks, I don’t think it’s a question of allowing non-academics or non-historians to be a part of such presentations. I appreciate that Mr. Atkins credits his source of history and his understanding of the causes of the war as gained from his grandfather. As for the war being one over state rights, well, what was at issue when we speak of state rights?

    Should we simply give Trace a pass because we think he doesn’t know better? That would be academic snobbery. It would be condescending. When the man takes the podium and believes he has something to say, he’s got to be willing to subject himself to the same scrutiny directed at every other speaker. If he can’t stand that heat, then sit down.

    Just remember, sometimes when we ask someone to chip in their $0.02, we should remember that it just might be worth only two pennies.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 22, 2010 @ 12:28


      You are right in pointing out that I don’t have Elliott’s text from which to draw conclusions, but I have read some of his published work, including his biography of Isham G. Harris (LSU Press). In regard to Adkins I am simply wondering why he was invited and how do his remarks fit within the framework that the commission is working with.

      • Brooks D. Simpson Nov 22, 2010 @ 14:43

        Star power. However, if folks don’t think Atkins has political positions and preferences, they’re kidding themselves. I don’t blame Atkins for expressing what he believes (although I don’t see what’s wrong with offering a critical assessment of those beliefs); but this is not much different from enlisting certain stars on the casino issue in Gettysburg. Maybe the commission knew that Atkins would offer some red meat for some people in their audience while others dwelled on other themes. If the commission was ignorant about Atkins’s beliefs, shame on the commission.

        We can see how others welcomed the remarks:

        and their context:

      • Sam Davis Elliott Nov 23, 2010 @ 5:09

        Kevin, I did not hear Mr. Adkins’ comments, it was a two day event and I was there only for the second day. While I am the chairman of the Tennessee Historical Commission, I am not a member of the Sesquicentennial Commission, but I expect that Dr. Simpson is right as it relates to star power.

        As anyone who has studied the primary sources knows, the rights the southern states sought to defend by means of secession and the creation of a new government related to the economic and social system that was slavery. The talks on the morning of the second day covered various aspects of pre-war Tennessee, but the remaining speakers, who were, unlike me, academics, certainly did not offer any opinions on states rights being distinct from slavery. As you correctly surmised, my talk was based upon the secession process in Tennessee as outlined in my Harris book, and offered no distinction between “states rights” and slavery. Both my talk, and to some extent that of Dr. Paul Bergeron, explored the process of how Unionist feeling in Tennessee was of a conditional nature in 1861, and how the perception of “coercion” by the North was used by the secessionists to take Tennessee out of the Union. Incidentally, Tennessee did not “secede” per se, but instead exercised its right of revolution and declared independence. That is an interesting story in and of itself.

        • Kevin Levin Nov 23, 2010 @ 5:12

          Hi Sam,

          Nice to hear from you and I trust that all is well. I really appreciate you taking the time to add this to the discussion. As you rightly note, the history of Tennessee on the eve of the Civil War is more complex than anything Adkins learned from his granddaddy. Congratulations on your Harris biography. It’s a first-rate study and I highly recommend it.

          • Sam Davis Elliott Nov 23, 2010 @ 6:39

            Thanks for the kind words relative to the Harris book.

            While I’m not as up on the Sesquicentennial “wave” as you are, I believe Tennessee is taking a much broader approach than it did with the Centennial, which was pretty much a celebration of Tennessee’s role in the Confederacy. In our program, Dr. Lovett spoke of the pre-war black experience, Dr. Bucy of women. Of course, the undercurrent of the whole program is to foster history-based tourism in the state, but I think the consensus on the Commission is that the focus won’t just be on what the Confederate army did or did not do, which, of course, is very appropriate.

            • Kevin Levin Nov 23, 2010 @ 6:42

              I think you are absolutely right re: the focus of Tennessee’s Sesquicentennial Commission. The fact that they asked you, Art Bergeron and others to speak is evidence of such a stance. However, this leaves me wondering what role Adkins played in this opening event. No doubt, you and Brooks may be right that they were looking for that star appeal, but did they think at all about how we he might say would fit into the agenda that you’ve sketched out.

              • Corey Meyer Nov 23, 2010 @ 8:50

                I agree with the “star power” pull of Trace Adkins and I equate it to the pull Tom Hanks has on the WWII community when dealing with D-Day and the 101st Airborne. I can understand Mr. Hanks’ connection but not Mr. Adkins unless he is there due to his connection with the CWPT. I could also understand it if he was from Tenn., but it seems he was born in Louisiana.

        • Brooks D. Simpson Nov 23, 2010 @ 9:51

          One of the saving graces of some historians is that they are not academics. In fact, I tend to like lawyers who write history: Eric and Gordon Rhea come to mind. At times being an academic gets in the way of my being a historian.

  • Willie Pegram Nov 22, 2010 @ 11:12

    I don’t want to insult anyone, but this post reeks of academic snobbery. Just because one does not hold a Master’s Degree (or higher) on the Civil War does not make their view-point any less acceptable. You commend the efforts that many 150th Commissions are making to not repeat the mistakes of the Centennial celebration; excluding a particular view-point. You seem to be committing this mistake in this post. Just because Atkins, or Hornsby, or Matthews lack a degree does not make their view-point unacceptable for inclusion. One of the reasons that the Civil War is so interesting/meaningful in this country is that it means different things for different people. The interesting job for the 150th is to mesh all of these view-points together.

    By keeping the Commissions exclusively academic, I think a distinct voice is lost. As a trained historian myself, I believe that the emphasis should be placed on the “New Social History” of the Civil War but it should not be the only voice. If so a repeat of the Enola Gay culture wars from the 1990 will probably be replayed, setting our field back years.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 22, 2010 @ 11:17

      Thanks for the input. I tend to agree with the thrust of your comment. First, I don’t consider myself to be an academic in so far that I don’t earn a living writing academic history. I am first and foremost a high school history teacher. I also don’t want the sesquicentennial to be confined to academic voices. They occupy one place along the spectrum of relevant voices. That said, I still have to wonder why Adkins was invited and how his voice fits into this program. Are we to give his view of secession the same weight as Elliott’s?

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